Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Thoughts on Homeschooling: The Socialization Question

Image credit:  Flickr

I’ve been thankful to have received very little negative feedback overall in response to our decision to homeschool at this point in our lives.  The most common, subtle concern I hear, though, usually goes something like this:

Person:  “So, are you involved in a group or co-op?”
Me:  “Yes, we meet weekly with a group of other homeschooling families.”
Person (visibly relieved):  “Oh, good!  I mean, for socialization.”

Aaaaaaand there it is.  The ‘S’ word.  One of the most famous arguments toward keeping children in a conventional school setting.  In fact, it’s an issue I had heard raised so often before we had ever considered homeschooling, that when we were agonizing like crazy people over in the process of making the decision I spent quite a lot of time fretting over whether I would be depriving my children of adequate socialization by having them at home.  And I’ve many times encountered a version of this statement from other mothers:  “I would be interested in homeschooling , but my son/daughter is so social!  I feel like I would be stifling him/her by keeping him/her away from a classroom setting.” 

Like most homeschooling parents who have wrestled with the socialization question, my initial anxieties have now given way to suppressed smiles when I sense a hinted concern from a relative, or look back at my own worries.  I now view the whole subject as a well-meaning myth with some real values underneath.  Here’s what I mean:

The socialization myth assumes that the conventional school setting is the way to ensure healthy social development.  However, even putting aside the historical norm of children who did not spend seven hours a day within the modern school model – children who were apparently, by this argument, all social misfits – the present-day evidence is proving that this assumption is unfounded.  Even a quick search turns up several studies showing that homeschooled children are just as socially confident and well-adjusted as their peers – or even more so.  But beyond the research, the frequent interaction I have with teens and young adults who were schooled at home (and are some of the most delightful, creative, polite, confident people I know), assures me that my kids aren’t missing a crucial component of their development. 

The socialization myth assumes that a whole lot of awesome socialization is happening at school.   Something that surprised me a lot during Maya’s two years in public school (during which I spent quite a bit of time volunteering in the classroom) was how little time the kids actually had to interact during the school day.  Examples:
  • Assigned seats on the bus
  • A noise-level rule system (Level 0 is silence, Level 1 is whisper, etc.) that found the kids at the silence and/or whispering level a lot.  A lot. 
  • Such a short lunch period that Maya had to consciously not talk with her friends in order to have adequate time to eat.
  • Far less recess time than what I had as a kid in school.

It’s not that I have a problem with these things, necessarily (other than the lunch thing, which drove me nuts).  And I’m not saying that there was a total lack of social time at school or that playtime is all that makes up the idea of “socialization”, but it was surprising to me when I’d spend a day with Maya at school just how little time she actually spent in playful, or even “regular” interaction with her peers, compared to what I’d assumed.  (Necessary disclaimer:  Teachers, you are awesome and are not the problem!)

But as I said, the socialization conversation has some real values at its heart, and we are actively trying to work out these values with our kids.

There is great value in children learning to play and talk and interact in a healthy way with their peers.  That’s why our kids spend time with friends in different situations several times a week – something actually made easier with our homeschooling schedule.

There is great value in children spending time at work in a group setting – learning to take turns, share information, work as a team, etc.  That’s why we love our weekly homeschool group and value our kids’ time in their Sunday school classes.  They have a lot of fun and build good skills by learning in a small group setting.

There is great value in extra-curricular activities, where children can learn special skills under the instruction of other adults and explore areas of strength and interest alongside other kids.  That’s why we love Maya’s dance lessons with a group of 11 other girls her age, her piano lessons, her scouting troop.  We love Noah’s interactive group music class and his city soccer league.  We love our growing involvement in 4-H clubs and our mornings and story/craft time at the library.  And honestly, we love these things even more now that our school day takes up less time and we aren’t fighting the after-school, after-homework fatigue that sometime took some of the enjoyment out of other activities.

There is value in children learning to interact well with people of all ages, with diverse backgrounds, in different settings.  That’s why I (mostly) like that my kids are with me during the day as we run errands and spend time out and about.  They have opportunities to chat with checkout clerks and store greeters, ask questions, help out, and play with their toddler cousins.  They are learning real-world social skills that I hope will serve them well in their teens and into adulthood. 

So that’s the long version of how I would answer the socialization concern (the short answer being a head-nod and “Mmmmhmmm.”).  I would never say that homeschooling always provides better social interaction than conventional school, because I don’t believe that.  I think involved parents who encourage social values make the biggest difference, regardless of school situation.   I do believe that where I once feared homeschooling might be a hindrance to socialization, I now see it as a great opportunity.  The bottom line is that we are around people a lot – learning, playing, working, serving – and our decision to homeschool has, for us, only been a benefit to building relationships and engaging our society.  

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