Thursday, October 1, 2009

That kind of socialization

Earlier this week, Rod Dreher posted about this homeschooling article in Salon, by Andrew O'Hehir, about their family's experiences as new homeschoolers. The O'Hehirs are politically liberal and don't fit the typical homeschooling stereotype; that said, the most interesting thing to me about both the article and the ensuing discussion at Crunchy Cons is that people are still hung up about homeschooling and socialization. From the Salon piece:

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:

Popular kids;

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.


Charlotte said...

Amen to that.

JMB said...

Well, I think there can be a different angle on the "socialization" thing. I think what non-homeschoolers may mean is this: Will your children judge my children for being in school all day long? As someone who doesn't homeschool, I'm aware of the subtle not too in your face attitude that it is far superior to homeschool your children than to send them to school. Somehow, non homeschooled children are identified as being part of the "bad culture" of the secular world, too much under the influence of "government" schools, too much of followers, social retards who can't talk to adults or deal with younger children. Their parents aren't Catholic enough, or don't love their children enough to be home with them every day. So, I think if someone asks you about socialization, what it really means is: are you going to judge my children based on your own criteria of what education should be? It works both ways.

Anonymous said...

As always, something to think about.

High school years wouldn't be expected to be smooth sailing under any circumstances. I think school systems should provide more educational options for those students not pursuing a college education, such as technical and trade schools.

I don't remember much that the elementary grade school were social sifting years for anyone. I cannot think of anyone treated as social outcasts in the younger years.

Wait, I remember the kids from a family that extremely poor, no running water, always dirty, wore the same clothes every day. They didn't go to our Church, but probably didn't go to any church. We picked on the younger one unmercifully as if he was mentally slow. Hmm, I wonder how they turned out. I wonder if they continued to go to school, to graduate. I wonder why the teachers didn't take them under their wing, or something.

I was one of those kids that couldn't sit still and read a book in class, nor concentrate to study anything with people around. As I recall, attending class was a chance to enjoy hands-on experiences, and a professional show, the more entertaining the lecture the better.

On the other hand, as always an advocate for learning in the home, I still think real learning of facts and sharpening of practice skills occurs in the home, and a majority of socialization occurs in the childgroup situations.

Anonymous said...

I'm with JMB on this one. My children are content and thriving at our parish K-8 school and I am very happy with their education thus far. However, I've also felt judged and criticized by homeschooling moms who, in a not-so-Christian manner, speak poorly about our traditional Catholic school (and they don't even know anything about it, their kids having never attended!)

If homeschooling works for their family, that's great, I support just didn't work out for our family.

j. christian said...

I don't think the socialization question is nearly that sinister. I attended public schools, and whenever I heard about homeschooled kids (who were pretty rare back then), my first question was always, Who are their friends? Believe me, as an elementary school kid, I wasn't thinking about caste systems.

Maybe there's an easy answer to that, such as the one the author provided. Maybe the homeschooled kids have plenty of peer interaction and playtime. But those who don't homeschool don't know that, and don't know how that process works, so it's a genuine question. Anyone who's attended school with peers all day, every day growing up knows that there's something to the fact that school kids interact with these other kids on a daily basis -- it's not just ad hoc or occasional encounters, and so it mimics what most adults face in the working world. That's a valuable life lesson, and although it's certainly possible for homeschooled kids to have those kinds of daily interactions, it's not obvious how it would happen.

Red Cardigan said...

I'm genuinely surprised by many of the reactions here.

If Catholic homeschooling mothers are generally presenting a judgmental, "holier than thou" attitude toward those whose kids are in Catholic school, I've not experienced this myself thus far. Most of my conversations with those whose kids are in Catholic schools have been very different; if there's been any judgmentalism and disrespect, it's not been on my side.

The caste system exists from at least second or third grade on. If you don't believe me, ask a second or third grader if he or she knows who the "popular kids" are, and if he or she is one of them.

What really irks me about even the "Who are their friends?" question is that the questioner is making the assumption that school is all about making friends. For the popular kids, sure. For some of us, though, not so much.

If I meet a person whose child is in public school or Catholic school, and I ask, "Well, but what about socialization? Is your child popular? Does he have any friends, or does he spend the lunch hour alone with a book on the playground?" you will rightly be annoyed with me for asking--but that's what some of you seem to think you have the right to ask homeschoolers.

JMB said...

Erin, I hope you don't get the impression that I am criticizing you in my response. Years ago, I asked a question about homeschooling on Danielle Bean's old blog and you answered so eloquently that I started reading your blog! Anyway, my question was "what does it mean to discern to homeschool?" and, if homeschooling is a vocation, shoudn't the parent actually want to do it joyfully? It seemed to me on the DB blog, so many women were complaining about homeschooling. I remember thinking that if it were something that I really wanted to do, I wouldn't complain about it so much.

Anonymous said...

There's definitely a caste system early on in gradeschool. I experienced some pretty intense bullying from about third grade through eighth grade. By the time I was ten or eleven, I had no friends in my class. I made friends the way most homeschoolers do--the children of family friends, girl scouts, and some neighborhood children. I was also friendly with younger children and with trusted adults. The worst part of my gradeschool experience was that, with a couple of exceptions, the teachers sided with the bullies every time. I distinctly remember that I once tried to sit apart from my class at lunchtime, just to get some peace, and I spent recess that day learning from my fifth grade teacher that it was my fault that no one liked me--I was being antisocial and unfriendly to the other kids.

I'm just starting to homeschool my oldest child, and while socialization was not my primary reason for doing so, I thank God she won't have to go through what I did.

As for complaining about homeschooling--well, it can be hard. So can sending your kids away from school. I reserve the right to complain about any circumstances I find worthy of complaint, no matter what schooling choice I've made for my kids. Raising children is hard, and takes a lot of sacrifice. Sometimes I can do this joyfully, sometimes I can't. I think the same is true for every mom.

--Elizabeth B.

Red Cardigan said...

JMB, not at all (and I don't mind criticism, anyway.) :) My belief about homeschooling is that it is a call, and like any call is not necessarily for everyone, and that all of us "Catholic schoolers" whether at-home or in diocesan schooling need to work together for the good of all. I dislike hearing that homeschoolers have a "holier than thou" attitude, and I also dislike meeting traditional Catholic schoolers who look down on homeschooling.

My surprise is for those who think that the social structures I outline above don't exist. I recall my own miserable experiences in Catholic schools. Children can be very cruel to those who don't fit in, and in the 70s and 80s coming from a big family marked you as an unwelcome outsider, yes, even in Catholic schools.

So when I get asked about socialization, part of me is giving the standard answer demonstrating that we don't lock ourselves in the house all year, while the other part of me is thinking, "Thank heavens my children aren't being 'socialized' like I was!" Because my "socialization" in Catholic schools involved having enemies in the first grade, being kicked until my shins were bloody and having my hair pulled out in handfuls by a sadistic twit when I was in the 5th grade (and my parents had to put us in a different school at that point), and finding out in high school that most of my classmates dissented from Church teaching about birth control (because they'd already decided a long time ago that Church teaching about fornication was nonsense). And my experience is far from extraordinary.

In any case, JMB, I'm glad to have you for a reader!

JMB said...

Thanks! I'm from a large family too (8 kids, I'm number 2). I went to both Catholic and public schools throughout my life. I enjoyed school - I guess I was one of those popular girls :), I just loved the friends part, not the student part I suppose.

I have a daugther who is pretty yet very socially backwards. The thing is, because she doesn't really "get it", a lot goes over her head. I pray for her every day. I know how mean girls can be. The point I'm making though, is that we can't always superimpose our own version of reality on our children. My daughter is happy going to school and content with her two nice friends. She does her homework and helps around the house. It's fitting that today is the Feast of the Guardian Angel because I have to trust that she will be ok when she's away from home. So far she is.

j. christian said...

I just want to point out that the "Who are their friends?" question was natural to me *as a child.* I can't speak for other adults who ask this question of homeschoolers; I was merely pointing out that -- to me, at least -- it was an automatic response to learning about other kids my age who weren't attending public/parochial schools. Certainly kids think a lot about playtime and friendship, but even adults can have the same question because those things are such a large part of the formative years.

So I don't think what they're really asking is, "How do you sort your kids into the proper clique?" I think they're mostly genuinely wondering, "With whom do your kids play?"

NancyP said...

I was surprised by the commenters on the original Salon piece who seem to believe that parents who don't put their kids into public schools are somehow depriving other children of an opportunity - generally expressed as something like "boosting up" the whole learning experience or "helping the teacher" with peer-to-peer tutoring.

You know, if homeschooling were illegal here, I wouldn't do it. I'm making a choice, same as all parents do, and my husband and I chose to skip the bullying, outdated maps, on-bus torture, teasing, and ostracism we've seen our children's friends endure. The fact that we've been moving every 2-3 years (adding "new kid" syndrome to the mix) has influenced our choice.

Some people seem to believe that my choices drag the whole system down. I believe that our public education system needs an overhaul, one in which behavior we don't tolerate in the workplace is not permitted in schools, and I also believe that my children's presence in any given classroom will not materially affect other students' educational outcomes. Fixing the system is a task for adults, not students.

What is even more interesting is the assumption behind all of these negative remarks...the one that, because I am homeschooling, my children are therefore somehow superior to the average child in public school.

While we're overhauling the public school system (at least in my dreams), let's add in a logic course.

Anonymous said...

I was never really popular in school. On top of it I came from a broken home. Never had any friends - I wanted to spare my children that experience. So, we homeschool.
They are growing up well-rooted in knowing who they are, comfortable in their own skin.

Now our house has become the attraction of the neighborhood - the other day we had about 12 or so kids here: some Mexican neighbors, an African American boy and a smaller girl - the oldest were 11 and the youngest 3 - it was the coolest thing to see and enjoy!

I think the most important thing we can do for our children no matter what the academic setting is, is to create an environment where they can grow deep, deep roots, before they start to grow tall and strong; then the tree will not ever be toppled over when the storm comes.