Posts Tagged ‘socialization’

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

The Hurried Child: How Socialization Happens

Dear Reader,

If you are a homeschooler, you are probably sick of the “S” word  (if you are not, that word is “socialization”). Often used as a weapon by mothers-in-law and doubting friends, it is a slippery little word with so many possible meanings that it becomes hard to defend oneself against the “they won’t be socialized” accusation.

But it turns out there are actual scholarly definitions of socialization and theories about how it happens, or fails to. I recently picked up an older book, The Hurried Child by David Elkind, Ph.D (Cambridge, MA; Da Capo Press, 2007; 3rd edition). Elkind is a professor of child psychology who originally wrote this volume in the 1980s to argue that America’s children were being hurried into growing up too fast to their detriment. Even the revised revised volume I have is somewhat dated, but there is still some meat here which is worth considering.

Elkind does not start from the same place I would. There is no evidence he is a Christian; his view of human nature seems to be entirely physical, ignoring any spiritual element. He relies heavily on thinkers that I would consider suspect: Rousseau, Freud, and Piaget among them. And his idea of the child vis-a-vis the adult is not mine.

Yet a lot of the scholarship here supports and adds to some of the ideas about education which we have been discussing. A small example: I have argued, along with Charlotte Mason and others, for a broad education that does not allow the child to specialize too early. Elkind provides arguments from his clinical experience to back this up:

“Premature structuring is most often seen in children who have been trained from an early age in one or another sport or performing art. What often happens is that the child becomes so specialized so early that other parts of his personality are somewhat undeveloped.” (pp. 198-99)

Some other ideas Elkind presents with which I would agree:

  • Multi-age groupings of children are beneficial (p. 69).
  • Standardization in education is detrimental (p. 50).
  • Sex ed in the classroom does not work (p. 65).
  • Children confronted with tasks for which they are not ready blame themselves for failure and develop a “learned helplessness” (pp. 57, 131). [We also saw this idea in The Making and Unmaking of a Dullard; see this post.]

There were also a number of ideas I got from this book which I had not considered previosuly but which make a lot of sense:

  •  The motivation for learning to read is primarily social (p. 38).
  • A certain amount of repression is a good thing. Kids need to learn the rules, for instance the rule of romantic relationships, before they learn to break them. Thus movies and the like with adult themes do damage to kids. They see the breaking before they learn the rules (pp. 95f).
  • Grammar and algebra are best taught after age 11 or so. Both these subjects require is to think about thinking. Until that time kids are not ready to learn them (pp. 132f). [I need to think more about this one; I have generally resisted delineating stages in education.]

The biggest topic which made me think here is the one that seems to be uniquely Elkind’s theory. It is about how kids are socialized. He does not offer one clear definition but Elkind’s working definition of socialization seems to be that it is how children learn to live within a society (p.142).  Much to my pleasure, he places the primary locus of this teaching squarely within the family. After reviewing a few models of how socilization happens, Elkind presents his own which incorporates the others but is broader. His theory is that parents and children interact through a multi-faceted social contract. This contract has three axes which might be called the achievement-support axis, the responsibility-freedom axis, and the loyalty-commitment axis. Over time on each of these there will be change and renegotiation. Parents initially control the whole contract and set it terms but over time children are given more say in the contract (p. 147). When parents break the contract, or ar perceived to do so, children have problems. It is important to note as well that the elements of this contract are often implicit; they are not laid out or communicated verbally but are nonetheless understood on a number of levels (p. 155).

The responsibility-freedom axis is perhaps the easier to understand. The child is given more freedom over time in proportion to the responsibility he is able to take. This axis of the contract in particular prepares the child to be a responsible member of society. He learns that there is a trade-off between freedom and responsibility (p. 148).

I am a little looser on my understanding of the acheivement-support axis (pp. 149ff). Elkind argues that parents need to give their children support for their achievements (such as going to recitals and sporting events)  while also acknowledging that the child should not be made to feel that his success is for the parent’s gratification — which is all well and good. It does not seem to be as much of a trade-off, however, as the child’s achievement is not for the parent’s benefit and is certainly not something he owes the parent.

The loyalty-commitment axis is particularly interesting.  It says that parents expect a certain amount of loyalty and give their commitment (pp. 152ff). I think Christian parenting books especially are prone to identifying the responsibility-freedom axis accurately but to omitting the other axes. I haven’t thought of all the implications of this yet but I wonder if and how our strategies would change if we took this definition of social contracting between parent and child and applied it in a Christian context.

For Elkind the contract between parent and child is the primary means of socialization but it is not by itself sufficient. The parent-child relationship is a hierarchical one. The child also needs relationships with peers, those on his own level, with whom he has more equal contracts which also require much more negotiation (p. 155). And as he grows, he will also likely be the parent to a child. Elkind argues that he cannot learn the parent side of a contract directly from his parent (p. 155).

Overall I think there is a lot in this theory that fits well with Christian theology, and particularly with reformed covenant theology. Covenant theology says that God relates to us through a covenant which is essentially a contract. That we would also relate to our children in this way makes sense to me. For Elkind the parent-child contract does not actually teach the child how to be the dominant party in an unequal contract. I would argue that our contracts are actually mutli-tiered. We parents do our parenting as agents of God. We do so by divine, delegated authority. Thus even as we are authorities to our children, we are under authority to our God. Our children learn from us both how to be in authority and how to be under authority (if we are doing it well).

Elkind does not draw the lines he might between this theory of social contracts and our educational system He does at times say that requiring young children to move from daycare to school and back to daycare hurries them by forcing them to make more transitions than they are capable of but he does not go much farther than this. I would argue that every relationship is in some sense a contract. Asking young children to make too many contracts, particularly unequal ones in which they have little or no say, is dangerous ground. These kinds of contracts are in some sense in loco parentis. That is, because of the young are of the child, they mimic the parent-child contract, They can’t help but do so. Yet they offer some of the axes — responsibility-freedom and achievement-support — without offering all of them. Loyalty-commitment in particular is left out. And while I agree with Elkind that is is good and necessary for children to have peer relationships that require them to make equal contracts, I also wonder if throwing them into situations in which they are around 10 or 20 or more peers for long hours requires them to do too much negotiating. The deepest, most regular relationship, like those with siblings, are often the hardest to negotiate but can also be the most rewarding. Perhaps we were not meant to make so many “contracts” at a young age.

If you are a regular reader, you know that I am fairly pro-homeschooling. I understand, however, that this is not always a possible or even the ideal choice. I have concerns about how this social contract theory plays out when young children in particular are placed in the typical public school environment. But that does not mean that these problems cannot be overcome. If we are aware of the hazards, I think we can prepare our children for the many relationships they will have to negotiate. The main way to do this (that I can think of) is simply to be involved, to be aware of the relationships one’s child has, especially the unqueal ones which put the child in the subordinate position  and to make sure they are good relationships. And to always make the child aware that the parent is still involved and will have the commitment to them that they require.

As for that socialization argument that your mother-in-law badgers you with — Elkind’s theory provides is with some pretty good answers. If to be socialized is to learn to live in society, then the family is the first and primary society in which to learn this skill. Though it is a smaller classroom, it is an intense one and in it a parent can do more to ensure that the lessons learned are the right ones. It is a question of quality versus quantity. Better a few good relationships which involve all the axes the child needs than a large number which are yet only partial contracts.

Nebby

 

Social Atmosphere

Dear Reader,

In my series going through Charlotte Mason’s original books, I have come to part three of book five, Formation of Character. There is quite a lot I underlined in this part so I may take  a few posts to go through it.

The first section addresses some issue of socialization. This is a hot-button word for us homeschoolers. Miss Mason was not, in this part at least, writing to those educating their own children but rather she is giving advice on choosing a school for one’s children.

Here is what she says:

Parents may think, when they send their children to school, that the masters and mistresses and the studies are the points to be considered; that the children go to learn, i.e. to learn out of the books . . . How far this is true depends on another factor, sometimes left out of count, namely, the ‘All the boys’ and ‘All the girls’ of schoolboy and schoolgirl phrase.” (p.118)

In other words, the atmosphere of the school matters as much as the teachers and the curriculum. Children will learn from each other so one must take into account what Charlotte calls the “public opinion” of the school.

She seems to acknowledge that while in the family the parents are in charge, some one else will be in charge in school. And that is not necessarily the teacher. There will be a social hierarchy of some kind. And the child entering this new environment must find his or her own place in the social system:

“Now, we see why it is that the child finds himself in a new and very stimulating element when he goes to school. For the first time he has to find his footing among his equals.” (p.119)

This need not be a bad thing. I think Charlotte considers that it is a good developmental stage to go through. But I also think that most of us in modern American society are at a disadvantage because for the most part we cannot choose our children’s school. Some have enough money for private schools. Some districts may have more school choice than others. But largely, we can have no say in our  child’s school and certainly no control over its social environment. Which is one reason many of us homeschool. I do think Charlotte would agree that there can be bad as well as good socialization and that we need to steer our children clear of the former.

I also wonder though if we should be seeking opportunities for our children to have a social environment of their own also, some sort of setting in which the interactions are healthy but in which they occur largely without adult control. My children have this to some extent both at church and at the local homeschool park days we go to. In both these settings there is a core group of children who are usually there and they will all play together (or divide into smaller groups) and somehow decide on elaborate games to play.

What do you think? Do homeschoolers need to consciously seek out these sorts of social experiences? Or will they be okay without them?

Nebby