The Socialization Question

Dear Reader,

Since reading The Hurried Child by David Elkind, I have been thinking more about socialization (see also this previous post on Elkind’s book and this one on why we even expect schools to socialize children). If you have even considered homeschooling, you have probably had this word thrown at you. The first thing I always recommend when someone asks the dreaded question “What about socialization?” is to ask them what they mean by that term.

Socialization means different things to different people. I’d like to suggest that there are three main categories. Socialization can mean simply social time, i.e. time spent with peers. It can refer to specific habits and practices which people are expected to learn and use. I am thinking here of things like standing in line, saying please and thank you, and more subtle social skills like how to participate in a group discussion. Lastly, socialization can refer to one’s ability to be relational — to form,  build, and negotiate relationships. Let’s look at each of these in turn.

For some socialization just means time to socialize. It is spending time with peers. It is hard to deny that most school kids get way more time with their peers, but I would like to suggest that when discussing what is best for a given child that we consider the following:

  • Quantity is not the same as quality. Many school kids have to be told not to socialize in the middle of class. Homeschooled kids may have less overall time (probably do) but their interactions tend to come in contexts in which they are allowed and even expected to chat and play.
  • The need for social time varies, both among individuals and over one’s lifetime. My own very unscientific observation is that little kids really don’t need much social time with people other than family. The drive for social time at this age often comes from the parent’s need and expectations, not the child’s. Middle age kids (maybe 7-11) seem to need a bit more and teens are even more peer-focused. But there are also individual variations. I have one child who just sick of being around people very quickly. (She is quite happy in quarantine right now.) Again, parents need to distinguish between their own needs and that of their child. If your child is happy, you don’t necessarily need to push for more (though there may be separate issues when there are developmental concerns). In a family, even with just one parent and one child, there may also need to be some compromise here. Until you can leave a child home alone (or let them drive to a friend’s house alone), the more social may need to do with a bit less and the less social to get out a bit more than they like.
  • How much social time happens naturally as a part of your family life? If you have 9 kids, odds are your 8-year-old already has someone to play with. If you have an only child, you may need to make more effort to find him playmates once in a while.
  • We don’t always want what is good for us. Another very unscientific observation: the teens who seem to crave a lot of time with peers are also those who are most insecure and most easily influenced and led. Of course, in these days of social media, homeschooled kids are not protected from this kind of social mania just because they stay within their own four walls.
  • Which leads us to — not all social time is good social time. Peer pressure is a thing. The time your child spends with other kids may either a) make him unhappy or b) make him happy but teach him things you don’t want him to learn.
  • Peer social time is not the only option. Peers are good. I am not suggesting we isolate our children from other kids their age, but homeschoolers are more likely to get social time with people not born within 12 months of them.
  • Don’t underestimate the value of a little loneliness and boredom. Being forced to be on our own sometimes helps us become who we are (and perhaps a little less of just who we want our peers to think we are).

The second kind of socialization is the learning of skills. What the important skills are could be a big discussion  but here again are some points to consider:

  • Some skills can be learned, and perhaps learned better, in real world contexts. Homeschooled kids below a certain age have to go places with their parents. Places like the grocery store and the bank. Here they will learn valuable real-life skills like waiting in line. And they will do so in real world contexts.
  • Not all school kids are well-socialized. I have watched the socialized school kids in tennis camp with my kids. They are awful at waiting in line. Just sayin’.
  • Some skills are harder to learn at home. In this category I would put things like participating in group discussions. This doesn’t need to be a deal breaker, however. Being aware of the gaps, of what your homeschooled kid might be missing out on, lets you know what you might need to seek out or work on.
  • Some skills are better not learned. Oddly one of the big ones you hear is “how will your kids learn to deal with bullies if they don’t go to school?” Personally, I would rather my kid not have to deal with a bully. Not that there aren’t bullies in the adult world but knowing what is normal and acceptable behavior is hugely important. Thinking that bullying is normal and regular is not good IMO. My oldest said one of the hardest things when he went to college was dealing with all the drama his peers were wrapped up in all the time. It was new to him. But I would rather he is able to see the drama for what it is and know that human relationships don’t have to be that way.
  • On a related note, there are good skills and bad skills one can learn. Both are available on the playground.

Lastly, we come to what is probably the most important kind of socialization: Being able to build and maintain relationships. Here I would refer you again to Elkind’s The Hurried Child. He lays out his theory of how parents socialize their children which boils down to: we relate to one another through social contracts. The parent-child one is multifaceted and subtle. It is about freedom and responsibility but also about trust and loyalty. Elkind argues that this primary relationship is unequal and that kids need peer relationships too because they are equal and require a different kind of negotiation. I think he goes a little far on this point but essentially what he says makes sense. But it also means that it is in these close, long-term relationships that we really build relationship skills. My dad was a grouch at home but he was always very friendly and chatty with grocery store check-out ladies. My mom said it was because there was no depth there. You chat for two minutes once a week and nothing more is asked of you. It is the long-term relationships in our lives that challenge and stretch us. Elkind implies that a young child going from home to school to daycare is hurried and suffers for it emotionally. He has too many relationships to juggle and they don’t come with the loyalty and trust that the parent-child relationship does. I would argue that the homeschool environment is much better for being able to build these long-term relationship skills that are really the most essential type of socialization. The relationships a child has may be fewer but they have depth.

So the next time your mother-in-law says the S-word to you, ask her what kind of socialization she means and hopefully you will have some arguments to show her that homeschooled children are not inherently disadvantaged in this area.

Nebby

One response to this post.

  1. […] his book The Hurried Child which I was quite pleasantly surprised to like (see this post and this one). More recently I picked up his Power of Play (Da Capo Press, 2007) in which he tackles issues of […]

    Reply

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