Mrs. GSP: What do you do about socialization?
Me: Oh, we've got a nice support network. They have a circle of friends. They do lots of classes and activities. They go to birthday parties and stuff.
Real answer: My public answer is OK, as far as it goes. But hang on a minute, lady: What do you mean by "socialization"? In a legendary Internet screed called "The Bitter Homeschooler's Wish List," Deborah Markus answers this question by observing, "If you're talking to me and my kids, that means that we do in fact go outside now and then to visit the other human beings on the planet." Ordinary schools tend to socialize children by way of enclosed, age-homogeneous pods, while home schooling tends to socialize children through a wide range of interactions with older kids, younger kids and adults, as well as peers. It's not up to me to decide which is better, and I'm pretty sure both methods have their pros and cons. We like the sound of option B, at least for now. [Link in original--E.M.]
I like the way O'Hehir put that; in fact, though I'm sure someone's come up with this idea before, you could say that homeschoolers believe in "organic" socialization. Certainly it has been my experience as a homeschooling mom that my children are far less shy around adults than I was at their age; they are also as willing as I was to interact with younger children and even babies. In my case, that was true because I was the second oldest of nine and was used to entertaining the littles on occasion; but for my girls, this "age-blindness" does not come from having much younger siblings, but from not being taught to think it weird to speak to or interact with anyone who isn't in their grade level.
The truth is, homeschooled kids are quite well socialized for the most part (sure, there are always a few odd exceptions) in that they interact well in all sorts of social settings with all sorts of people. But the questions about socialization persist, despite years of evidence that homeschooled kids don't, by and large, grow up to be hair-chewing speechless cave-dwellers; quite the contrary, in fact. So why do the questions about socialization still come up so often?
I've come to believe that many non-homeschoolers who ask this question mean a quite different thing by "socialization" than homeschoolers do. What they are really asking is not, "Will your children be able to speak, interact with others, and lead socially-developed lives?" but "How will your children, in the absence of the classroom environment, ever learn their social 'place' and let that knowledge help shape their personality, emotional security or lack thereof, and sense of self-worth?"
Socialization within the school environment, after all, doesn't mean merely teaching children to line up in order, raise their hands to ask a question, or to understand standards of polite civil behavior. What it really means is that cruel and relentless process by which children are supposed to learn to which of the following groups they "belong," and, preferably, to stay in those groups, which are roughly as follows:
Wanna-be's, who try to be popular and sometimes make it;
Smart or talented kids;
Troublemakers/bullies (who may or may not be popular, depending on whether trouble-making/bullying is in style or not);
Geeks/nerds (similar to the smart kids but with less money/less 'coolness');
Freaks or misfits;
Outcasts (who have been kicked out of one or more of the other groups);
Now, not all of these categories exist in every school, and some of them may be combined or a little different; I'm also aware that at the high school level a few less-savory groups may be recognized, but in general this is the sort of thing that goes on. And each child in the class will be sorted and evaluated until he or she has been placed in a category in which he will, barring some drastic change, remain.
The purpose of school socialization is to teach children their place--at least, this is the purpose any school child could tell you about. What the adults think about these things is another matter; the popular kids grow up to have happy memories of school and to worry, quite seriously, that homeschoolers are depriving their children of these experiences, while the outcasts or loners may, without even realizing it, envy the homeschooled child who doesn't have to endure the years of endless social misery he or she dealt with on a daily basis, or to learn the coping mechanisms he or she had to learn just to survive.
This is not to say that these categories are completely absent in the lives of homeschoolers; even in homeschool groups there are popular kids and less popular ones (heck, there are popular moms and moms who sit quietly in the corner wishing someone would say "Hi!" to them, so it's not just the kids). The difference is that homeschooled kids don't, generally, have to deal with these things on a daily basis. They can put the importance of "fitting in" or not into its proper perspective. The peer pressure is usually much weaker; and, most importantly of all, the parents can be aware of what's going on and step in if their child has somehow become a target for the cruelty of other children.
I really think, though, that some adults, even some who were on the wrong end of the school social scale, think that this whole process of sorting each other out, enforcing the boundaries of this arbitrary caste system, and dealing with it for good or ill every day for twelve years is an essential and necessary part of growing up. I think they've convinced themselves, from the roseate view of adulthood, that these sometimes terrible childhood experiences were deeply and gravely necessary. And when they ask a homeschooling family, "But what about socialization?" they hear the answer provided, but don't really understand it, because the kind of socialization they're talking about is one thing most homeschoolers would prefer that their children avoid altogether.