Friday, October 31, 2008

Socialization or Socializing?

After someone finds out we are homeschooling, often the next question they ask is related in some way to socialization. Rarely is this meant in a negative way. Most often, I find that people are genuinely seeking information. Over the years, I have answered in many different ways. In the early years, I used to feel quite defensive and would have a list of research and facts in favour of homeschooling socialization. Nowdays, I am so confident of the benefits of homeschooling that I welcome the chance to share with others.

Many times, I will ask the person what they mean by socialization. Most people just want to know if your children have any friends their age and if they ever get to see them. Beginning with this concern, I will reassure the person that the answer is a 'yes' on both fronts. This is actually socializing, not socialization. Then, I steer the conversation in the direction of true socialization.

According to one dictionary definition, socialization is: "a continuing process whereby an individual acquires a personal identity and learns the norms, values, behavior, and social skills appropriate to his or her social position." Starting with the idea that socialization is learning the social skills necessary to make my child a functional, thriving and positive contributing member of society, I paint a word picture.

Imagine you want your five-year-old to learn to swim. You check out the available classes in your area and, thoughtfully, choose the best one. You sign up, pay your money and sit back while you and your child eagerly anticipate the first class.

On the big day, you guide your bathing suit clad child to the poolside where you are greeted by ten other five-year-olds, all excited to learn to swim. Shortly, an adult arrives, wearing regular street clothes and introduces herself as the teacher. She points out the pool (the deep end, no less) and tells the kids they can all jump in and start learning to swim. She will be in a nearby office, if anyone needs her. You are a little shocked at this method and ask, "Aren't the children to be given any instruction? Won't you be here to come alongside them while they learn? Won't they drown?" The teacher reassures you that the children should learn to swim from each other. After all, in the real world, she can't be with them all the time.

Now, wouldn't you feel a bit ripped-off? Wouldn't you feel this was a dangerous situation? The other children can't teach your child to swim. They don't know how to swim. They will be fighting for their own lives, not capable of helping someone else. They will be desperately doing anything they can to survive, including putting others in danger.

This word picture is usually self-explanatory (but here's the explanation, anyway). Essentially, when we put children in any large group with little to no direct adult supervision, we are tossing them into the water hoping they learn to swim. Of course, we want our children to know how to deal with difficult social situations without us someday. However, just as with swimming, our children will learn to thrive socially by being released in baby-steps as they show proficiency in the skills they have learned. Swimming lessons begin with very small classes, often parent and child together, adults always plentiful and in close proximity. Skills begin with blowing bubbles, not with high-board diving. When a child masters blowing bubbles, the teacher might hold the child's hands and pull them around the pool, getting them to kick their feet. You get the idea. Starting small, with lots of direct adult supervision, each skill builds on the next, gradually moving in the direction of independent, skillful swimming. Just because we want our children swimming independently one day does not mean that it is at all wise to start this way. Socialization, it turns out functions exactly the same way.

Keeping in mind the swimming analogy above, here is what I think makes homeschool-style socialization safe and effective:
  • Social skills are to be learned a few at at time, not in an overwhelming bunch
  • Each skill is mastered before the learning of a new one begins (baby steps)
  • The level of adult supervision is appropriate (from being constant at first to indirect later)
  • Challenging situations begin small ("He called me, 'stupid'!") and gradually increase to more difficult as the child is capable of handling them
  • Social skills are learned in a safe environment (alongside people who love the child) so they can later be practiced in any situation (ie. the workplace)
The great thing about all of this is that, in a homeschooling situation, these skills can be learned naturally as we live alongside our children. The context of a family is a fantastic place to find out how to live in this world. Life in a family presents all kinds of challenges and opportunities to learn...unless, of course, your family is completely perfect. I am fortunate that mine is not. :)


  1. Hi Christine,

    I'm checking out your blog after seeing a link on another blog announcing "A new CM blog!" Pardon me for commenting on a post from a few months ago.

    I always enjoy reading thoughts about the old socialization question. People are often amazed and complimentary on how comfortable my 5 year old son is with meeting and talking to adults. He initiates often with adults. He is very interested in greeting everyone who comes to our home or to his grandparents' home. He talks to all the restaurant or store employees when we're out. He greets other kids (and their parents) at a playground. What's comical to me is that the same people who are so complimentary of his "social skills" will be concerned that he doesn't spend 5 days a week with 20 other 5-year-olds. In the "real world" who will he most likely be working with --- adults or 5-year-olds? And what work place does anyone know of where you work with all same age peers?

    My son is delighted when he has opportunity to play with other kids, but I am just as delighted (and more) that he is learning how to behave from Mom and Dad. Ideally, he would have siblings to interact with throughout the day, but that hasn't worked out for our family.

    If a child needs to spend time with same age peers to develop those oh so important social skills, must five 8 hour days a week for 13+ years really be necessary for that? Does anyone consider the shock it is when government-schooled kids who have spent 13+ years surrounded by same-age peers get thrust into the real working world and have to deal with people 10, 20 and 30 years older than them?

    As I think back on my 13 years of government school, it seems that they only pushed me more into isolation from others. I immersed myself in my schoolwork and got myself home as soon as I could. Socialization and learning social skills don't automatically happen because you're forced into that setting. Imagine how I could have been spending my time learning and growing (including in social skills!) instead of being in those buildings for 18,000 hours of my life?

    I personally think it is illogical to put someone in a setting of same age peers for all those years and then expect them to function and interact out in the "real world". We have elementary schools in our county that have only two grade levels. You never pass anyone in the hall, unless it's a teacher or janitor, or play on the playground with anyone that is more than a year or two older or younger than you. And I think that the grade levels even have separate playgrounds at these schools!

    I think that often what happens is that you are only comfortable with those your same age, you separate yourself from the adult teachers and usually have no respect for them. And how does this help later to have respect for a boss or older co-workers with whom you now have to work productively as a team?

    So, basically, I think the opposite is true of what most people are concerned about when they bring up socialization. I think the great amount of time with same-age peers is detrimental to functioning productively in the real world.

    Thanks for writing this blog, Christine. I look forward to continuing to read and learn from your experience. We're currently in our 2nd year of official schooling and are following a CM approach and use Ambleside Online as our main curriculum source.

    Kay Pelham

  2. Thanks for your thoughtful comments, Kay. Age-integrated socialization makes complete common sense and, yet, we are conditioned to think that our children are missing out if they are not in an age-segregated situation for large parts of their childhood. I'm really honoured to have you as a reader. Thanks for joining us!!

  3. This is a wonderful post and a new way of explaining the truths that many of us already know.