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)