Saturday, October 29, 2005

The S-Word

Whenever a new acquaintance discovers that you homeschool, don't you cringe or stiffen just a little bit in anticipation of the question: What about socialization? Now more frequently asked with genuine interest (perhaps your interlocutor is considering homeschooling), occasionally with genuine concern for your children's wellbeing, irritatingly often with the air of "Here's why what you're doing is so wrong."

My favorite incident was the pediatrician who grilled me incessantly on why homeschooled kids couldn't be getting enough you-know-what, and she could never homeschool because (as she mentioned several times) her own child was so very social and friendly. Never mind the obnoxious implication that my own children must be introverted antisocial hermits; at the time of the interrogation, I was a captive audience in a hospital bed, having just had a c-section, trying to get an hours-old infant to latch on properly, and really not feeling up to the full-court defense being called for. Maybe she figured she only had a limited time to make sure I didn't repeat my awful educational mistake with this new child.

Volumes have been written on the s-word. Robert Reich, he of the mandatory two-week reeducation camps for homeschooled kids, is all about the s-word; he just has a fancy name ("ethical servility") and a theory that would permit government intrusion into the most private matters of personal belief and childrearing. But boiled down, it's just "they can't really be socialized, can they?"

No volumes here; just a few scattered thoughts that have occured to me over the years.

Invincible Ignorance

First, the odd phenomenon I like to call "invincible ignorance." An opponent of homeschooling tells you homeschooling is a bad idea because the children aren't socialized; kids have to be around other people. You answer with the usual raft of counter-examples; the zillion group activities your children are involved in, their close friends from the neighborhood or at church or in your hs'ing support group; their many friends and acquaintances of different ages whom they never would have met in an age-segregated school setting; their volunteer activities; the studies showing, on every conceivable measure, that homeschooled kids are at least as "socialized" as school kids. You thoroughly deconstruct the fantasy of the homeschooled kid slaving over textbooks at the kitchen table and gazing out the window at the happy busful of kids going off to school.

Your friendly foe nods throughout; sure, that's all probably true. "I still don't think," she says, when you've exhausted your ammo, "that it's good for kids to be so isolated. They need socialization."

Growing Up Weird

Here's another you've heard. "Kids need to be socialized or they grow up weird. My cousin's sister-in-law homeschools, and her kids are really messed up." The Argument from Weirdness shows up more and more often as homeschooling becomes more common. Okay, maybe our kids are a little weird. But let's remember that homeschoolers are self-selected for weirdness. This city, whose unofficial motto on a thousand bumper stickers is a clarion call for Weirdness, not coincidentally is renowned for its large and diverse homeschooling population.

Remember all the kids in your class who were weird? Some of them were weird and popular. Most of them were weird and weren't, and if you have a soul at all you felt sorry for them in school. So surely it will be a relief to think that a lot of them are being homeschooled now. The geeky brain who was bored all the time, the slow kid who never seemed to catch on, the fat kid who was withdrawn and wrote poetry a lot, the kid from a religious family who had to be excused from sex ed and from science class during the chapter on evolution and from P.E. when square dancing was being taught. Orthe kid with some medical condition or disability, not like the ubiquitous normal-looking "kid in a wheelchair" who shows up on every other page of modern textbooks to show that we never never discriminate, but was autistic or had psychological problems or was a burn victim. Remember how they were treated by the kids, and sometimes by the exasperated teacher?

Anyone whose first thought is "those are the kids who need to be in school getting socialized the most!" has forgotten what it's like to be a kid. Let's ask ourselves: did those same kids, in high school after a decade of "socialization," really seem much happier, better adjusted, and more popular?

At its best, the Argument from Weirdness forgets that kids and families that don't fit the mold are more likely to homeschool, so the strangeness of homeschooled kids isn't necessarily a result of not being in school. At its worst, it's a version of the "cut down the tall poppies" attitude that excuses inhumanity in the name of "making a man out of the lad" (a hundred yeas ago) or Mainstreaming to Promote Equity in Diversity (in today's ideologispeak).

And one last thought: what's wrong with weird? If, as in the words of famed educator and Central Texan Peggy Hill, "being different is the most wonderful thing in the whole wide world," why do we Celebrate Diversity of the racial, ethnic, and orientative sort, but panic at the thought of kids growing up with diverse personalities?

E Pluribus Unum

Which brings us to the socialization-as-diversity-training argument. The popular form (which Reich has only refined to its inevitable totalitarian outcome) goes like this: In public school, kids will meet and interact with all sorts of different kinds of kids. Rich and poor, black and white and Asian and Hispanic, of various creeds and national origins, together in the great melting pot. Homeschooled kids don't get to do this, which is a disaster for civic polity.

My thoughts on how likely cultural diversity is to survive when the melting is forced, I've dwelt on before and won't repeat now. Instead let's look at two facts on the ground.

First, public schools aren't actually like that. My own public school experience was in a part of the country sometimes nicknamed "Silicon Gulch," where we were all living in suburbs newly carved from the Central Texas hills so our engineer parents could have an easy drive to work. "Diversity" was a matter of whether your parents worked for Motorola, IBM, or Texas Instruments. The schools were lily-white, with a sprinkling of Indian and Asian kids. In a city one-third Mexican-American and another third African-American, I never met a black or hispanic kid until college. When touring our highly rated local elementary school (in our consideration of options for Offspring #1), the landscape was the same that I remembered growing up: middle-class Anglo with some Asian and Indian. Turns out that our city, a blue speck in a sea of electoral red, is still one of the most segregated places in the country, with a redistricting of the schools a few years ago exacerbating the situation. Jonathan Kozol's recent book extensively examines the horrific de facto segregation of American schools by race and class.

Even where some ideal school with the lauded diversity exists, where did the idea come from that kids would come to respect and celebrate difference, growing up in harmony with others different from themselves? For Pete's sake, the preppies and the goths and the jocks won't even talk to each other. It's been a worry for years that, even when schools were less segregated due to busing, the black and white kids kept to themselves. Kids who might want to "cross the lines" of race, ethnicity, and money are held back by social pressure from the same large groups who are supposed to be "socializing" their age peers.

Second, the whole diversity argument depends on the obviously false assumption that homeschooled kids would by in public schools if not at home. But this is not the case: most would be in private or parochial schools if homeschooling were not an option. The "Christian Soldiers" family of the New York Times article, meant to frighten mainstream America with their cultural isolation and high-octane religiosity, would, if homeschooling were outlawed, be in a small unaccredited Christian school with the other children of their little community. My crunchy-granola John Holtian friends would have their children in one of the several alternative progressive schools. My Catholic friends would be making the diocese miserable with their obtrusive and thoughtfully critical presence in the parochial schools. Unless we're prepared to shut down the private schools, or enforce mandatory state-sponsored diversity on them--which Reich's arguments would seem to require, and which the Supreme Court has decisively nixed--it does no good to blame homeschooling for taking children out of the diverse public schools of our imaginings.

More to come....


Blogger MrsDarwin said...

Marvelous! I'm linking to you.

I have to say that most of the people I've know who've exhibited anti-social behaviors (drug use, teen pregnancy -- I even know one person in prison who was convicted of murder) have been to public school. My homeschooled acquaintance just can't match that record.

2:20 PM  
Blogger The Opinionated Homeschooler said...

Thanks for the link. I've just figured out how to make the links on the sidebar work, so I'll link back to you also if you don't mind.

3:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Socialization" in public school means:
head lice
physical abuse from other kids
emotional abuse from other kids
emotional abuse from teachers and staff
head lice
encouragement to try out various dangerous and self-destuctive behaviors, i.e. sex, drugs, nihilism, etc
head lice

5:17 PM  
Blogger COD said...

Any post that takes a swipe at Reich gets a link from me :)


6:36 PM  
Anonymous Ulrike said...

Followed Chris's link here. Well written!

9:37 PM  
Blogger Daryl Cobranchi said...

Since you don't have Trackbacks--

3:06 AM  
Blogger Andrea_R said...

Well done!

6:26 AM  
Blogger sophia said...

Yes, integration does not equal socialization. I recently read in the paper that AISD is valiantly trying to teach social skills/character qualities to students after some of the violence that has occured in some of the schools (like the murder at Reagan). On the surface, it sounds almost laughable. However, as a former AISD teacher in east Austin, I must say that at least they are trying to do something positive and helpful for kids. I'm not sure how effective this "socialization" will be, unfortunately. The principal at one of AISD's high school's goes to my church, when he found out I hs'd, he questioned me a little bit. When he found out I was a former teacher, he said that hsing is the optimal situation for probably most kids if the parent is educated. I was surprised by such a strong statement coming from a public school administrator, but... Anyway,I just laughed and laughed when I read Sharon's description about how she gives a good, lengthy, strong response about all of the activities and relationships her hs child has only to hear, "well, I just think kids need socialization." I've had the same experience many times. So, to address this problem of invincible ignorance, I've heard it takes something like 7 times for a person to hear a new concept before they begin to embrace it. Tell your friend or aquaintance, here is a new Concept: Socialization does not equal going to a school building with other children. Now repeat this 7 times. :)

1:25 PM  
Blogger LYL said...

Classic, Sophia! I think I'll use it.

great post Sharon.


11:53 PM  
Anonymous Yahmdallah said...

Let me say that overall I'm a firm believer in the Robert Palmer school of thought that "It takes every kind of people to make what life's about." Therefore, even though I probably won't homeschool my kids, I do not look askance at folks who do. Even the fundies. I have plenty to look askance at the fundies about as it is.

I support the homeschool movement, even though I will probably never join the club.

The reasons I probably won't homeschool my kids are as follows:

- Children have a different relationship with their parents than they do with their teachers. I wouldn't say it's less respectful, but kids are always pushing boundaries with parents that they wouldn't with a teacher. I think kids even process information they learn from mom and dad differently than they do from a teacher. So, I think kids learn some subjects better from - for lack of a better term - an objective authority. Obviously this is anecdotal; I have no proof of this.

- My ability to adequately teach my child the gamut of what they need to know is probably limited. There's a reason schools have a lot of teachers who specialize in different subjects, and a reason that teachers get the training they do. Yes, there are terrible teachers, but Mr. Bell Curve will tell you that there are a lot of good ones, too. I think we learn from both, but in different amounts, natch. My mother could NEVER have given me the insights into literature, history, science, and psychology my high school teachers did.

- The socialization issue. It's not so much the positive socialization that concerns me, because you can mitigate that with playgroups, sports activities, etc. It's the negative socialization, where you have to deal with bullies, cheats, sneaks, and liars. This is an experience that is hard to provide to a child who's not in the vast throng of humanity (at least the kid portion of it). I think it's important for a kid to learn how to recognize and deal with those situations without mom or dad around. Granted there can be too much of it - we experienced that first hand and had to pull our child out of a class - but a normal amount is very instructive, imnsho, and crucial for seeing these clods coming later in life.

(Yikes, there I said it, didn't I? Well, YOU said you wanted me to post, mang... [SEG])

Still, rock on homeschoolers. I'm looking forward to what changes society might incur when the first generations of homeschoolers hit the market place and such.

12:30 PM  
Blogger sophia said...

I agree with the Robert Palmer philosophy. I wish more people did. I have neighbors who seem personally insulted that I don't send my kids to the blue ribbon, exemplary school that is right behind my house. They ask "why". Am I trying to keep my kids from the "bad" kids there? "No", I say, "My kids are probably just as "bad" as any of the other kids there. I just enjoy teaching my kids and learning along with them. I also like the fact that we all have lots of time together to work on our bad behavior together." Somehow they never believe it, and continue to ask me the same question, "why" in a mystified way. My experience is that you are very right that there are certain things that much more difficult for parent to teach than outsider. So, I farm my kids out for those things or for things that I feel that I am at about a Pre-K level. :) It's nice to pick and choose. Anyway, raising children is difficult whether you send them to public or private school or homeschool. So, I appreciate your attitude. I am totally supportive of my friends who make other choices as well. I am thrilled to have the choice to homeschool. Here is an example of what I find great about the parent/child teaching relationship: I was reading Greek Mythology to my boys outside on the patio. One of the stories just cracked me up. The boys began laughing uproariously, too. My daughter, who was inside the house, could hear us. She wanted to know what was so funny...what was she missing? It was great to be enjoying learning something new as a family, so much. That's not to say that non-hs families can't do the same, though.:) I just don't think I would have the energy or motivation to do this if I thought someone else was teaching my children. BTW, not to be too cantankerous...for the person who is so concerned with head lice, three people in my daughter's best friend's co-op got head lice. So, head lice homeschoolers, too. :)

9:56 AM  
Blogger The Opinionated Homeschooler said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

2:17 PM  
Blogger The Opinionated Homeschooler said...

(Sorry about the deleted post. Catastrophic spelling failure.)


Those are reasonable points. I would say to be careful when thinking about the issue of expertise not to confuse the level of expertise required for high school education with that required for elementary education (most homeschoolers are teaching elementary age children).

Like Sophia says, it's common to "farm out" subjects at the high school level--Offspring #1 has non-parental tutors for German, computer programming, and chess. Literature and composition, mathematics, and philosophy are subjects that Eudoxus and I are better qualified to teach than the vast majority of high school teachers.

And after that, frankly, we have to let her learn other subjects out of books or from software, or someday from sitting in on a college class. Mostly we hope that the advantages of direct tutoring by experts in the above subjects will compensate educationally for possibly getting less than optimum instruction in others.

But for elementary age, when most homeschooling takes place, the SAT scores of those who enter elementary education as a profession assure us that the average SAT taker (and thus the average college grad) is better off teaching her own child. Yes, there's lots of very intelligent people, well-educated people teaching elementary school; but the statistics show them to be increasingly rare. And at that level, it's not a matter of having subject expertise; it's a matter of having a decent, well-rounded education and being reasonably bright. In my experience, many of the older teachers (the ones starting to retire), who went into the field when smart women tended to go into teaching, are great; but way too many of the younger ones horrify me with their general ignorance.

I still cringe to think of the language arts teacher who couldn't conceive of a non-alphabetic written language (she insisted such a thing was impossible, as you couldn't sound out a word you didn't know), or the math teacher who was bewildered by the fact that you couldn't divide by zero. Such encounters helped solidify our decision to homeschool (which we're doing for primarily academic reasons).

I don't know what to say about the dealing with bullying, etc. issues. #1 was bullied pretty badly for an extended time in a homeschool class, and I'm still shaken to think that I was the last mom to know about it. It's not an experience I'm happy to have her repeat again; maybe she learned something from it, but I'd like to think public schools are correct in their efforts to put a stop to bullying. Liars, cheats, and the like she has met aplenty. Plus with homeschoolers you get far more experience with gossipers than you would otherwise....

Your very best point is the teacher/parent issue. It can be really hard to wear two hats, when the relationship of mom/child is so different from that of teacher/student. I still don't think we've got this one down perfectly; I end up doing a kind of Jekyll/Hyde thing where I'm one person between 9 and 4 and another the rest of the time.

2:36 PM  
Blogger The Opinionated Homeschooler said...


I hear you about the lice! I remember a few years back when Fifth Disease (aka "Slapped Cheek Syndrome") was infecting the entire AAH homeschool population. The kids just had mild reactions and the red "slapmark" on the cheeks--I got some hard questioning from one lady at church about that!--but the adults had wretched all-body aches and much misery.

My MIL, a retired second-grade teacher (and may I pause to say, in reference to the above post, *very* bright and educated; if all the teachers were like her, we probably would have picked public school), told me it was common in elementary schools. But none of us had any immunity to it.

Where kids are, bugs and germs will be, too.

2:46 PM  
Anonymous Willow Firesong said...

I find that one of the (few) benefits of homeschooling in our situation (the whole family suffers from severe "Environmental Illness", such as Multiple Chemical Sensitivity and related conditions) is that most of the people I talk to about our situation can't actually think of any solution to educating our daughter *other* than homeschooling -- so we get more support for the idea than we otherwise might.

It also helps that we are living out in "the middle of a rural Australian nowhere", as I often describe it; there is a longer tradition of homeschooling and related educational techniques (including "the school of the airwaves", a radio-based educational system which pre-dated the World Wide Web) here in Australia, simply due to the distances involved.

But, ironically enough, the "socialization issue" is the very concern most prevalent in our minds, as homeschooling parents in a very isolating situation. Because of the same health concerns that drive us to homeschool (not that we wouldn't have otherwise, mind you, these just took away all of the other choices...), we can't participate in any of the group activities you mention as providing the socialization that your own family receives.

Despite this, I can't help thinking that our daughter is, in many ways, better socialized than she would have been as an unusual child in an educational system that caters to the lowest common denominator. Not only is her intellect stimulated by her education, which is tailored to her interests, but she is able to interact with people who take a genuine interest in her, rather than seeing her as yet another body and mind to be processed through a system. And, she is growing up in an environment where (like her primate ancestors) she has strong parent-child bonding, and (like her contemporaries) has easy access to a world of other minds undefined by the bodies in which they live, no farther away than the nearest of our household's several computers.

It is true that she won't be suited for "cog-in-the-system" jobs when she grows up, but she wouldn't have been, anyway -- not as a 3rd generation documented genius. She is growing up expecting her mental activities to be suited to her interests -- but she is also exposed to the example of her own parents building contracting businesses around their own diverse interests and occupational capacities, so she has a concrete understanding of how to make her way in the world without having to depart from the type of intellectual environment to which she has become accustomed.

Between our "back to the earth" mode of daily life, and our "if you learn it, jobs will come" way of gaining employment, I would say that our daughter is much more strongly "grounded" in the basics of life than most children of the mass-produced educational system whom it has been my displeasure to know over the years (and the few who have been pleasant exceptions to that norm).

As such, she approaches other people as individuals, examines them to see whether she finds their standards sensible enough to consider their opinions valuable, and discards them as irrelevant if they are not -- so she is not as easily hurt by bullies (including adults who might otherwise cause her distress due to their dismissal of our household and our way of life, without bothering to examine the scientific foundations upon which it is built) and "tall poppy syndrome" (a problem which is absolutely *rife* in Australia) as she would be if she were forced to accept people as authority figures without regard for their ability to demonstrate knowledge or wisdom.

Considering our situation, and the importance of her ability to continue in this lifestyle without rebelling against it during her teen years, or immediately after leaving home as a young adult, I think I'd rather have a child whose idea of socialization included checking people out to see whether they meet *her* standards, before she worries about whether or not she meets *theirs*, rather than a child who had been forced to deal with a situation and assortment of people for which she is simply not suited, by virtue of her genes (or any other factor, for that matter).

One final point -- the existing public school systems effectively corral a bunch of people who all have the same level of "theory of mind" all in one place; so, apart from the teacher, the child is surrounded by people no more capable of understanding their emotions and responding appropriately, or offering them guidance, than are they themselves.

In a homeschooling situation like ours, with the intensive parent-child context that is present, the child has guidance to help them understand those child-child interactions which they *DO* have; we focus on "Transactional Analysis", and have, since she was tiny (thank you Dr. Freed, for giving us "TA for Tots"!), so when our daughter was bullied by the neighbour child, she knew how to set boundaries, and when to enforce them, though she needed (and RECEIVED) guidance in order to understand HOW to enforce her rights and personal space.

Children in the public schools simply cannot receive that guidance, because they do not get that much one-on-one time with an adult who understands these issues, and has the mental and verbal toolkit to explain them. They don't even get such time with a child over their age, or a younger one who might spur them to articulate these ideas in order to try to explain them.

*That* is abnormal; it is outside of the scope of our evolved standards, which allow truly normal human development. We imprint on role models precisely because we evolved to model our behaviour after members of our community who have a better grasp of the basics of life than we do, at any given age -- not in order to "be like Mike", or any other sports or movie star.

So while non-homeschooled kids may accumulate a larger body of data on interpersonal relations, (comparitively speaking, at least) they have almost no adult guidance on interpretation (much less protection at the time of the interaction, to avoid "Lord of the Flies"-style interactions), and are trying to do that interpretation with nothing more than a child's toolkit of experience and knowledge (theirs, or that of their friends).

No wonder kids don't ask adults for guidance about sex and relationships, when they reach that age... ...they are used to turning to their (age-peer) friends (who are just as confused and lost as they are) for guidance on any issue they do not yet understand. There IS no foundation of intergenerational closeness, which would accustom a child or young person to expect that guidance, when they so desperately need it.

So, despite modern research, most kids know little more about sex than in the era before herpes (much less AIDS) became a serious danger -- and now they are forming "friends-with-benefits relationships" because they don't even understand what a real relationship should be like/about. After all, when would they have learned that? When would they have had a chance to see it? If they're not at school, or with their friends, or sleeping, or doing homework, more likely than not, they're barely interacting with parents who are depending upon their school to teach their child everything that they *truly* need to know as they grow up.

At the time when the kids are facing the greatest challenges and dangers of their developmental life (puberty) there is almost *NO* interchange/interaction between the average school-educated child and their parents. I honestly can't imagine how anyone could expect any other outcome than the one which has resulted from this.

Had our daughter been a public-school-educated child, as my husband was, and as I was (part of the time, at least), her reaction to that bullying neighbour child (at age 6-7) would most likely have been "T___'s mean, and I hate her" -- "Why?" -- "Because she hates me, so she's mean to me"... ...not "T___'s mommy never teaches her kids how to be nice to each other, and she wants people to play with, but she doesn't know how to treat them, so she bullies them the way her brothers and sisters bully her" -- which was, nearly word-for-word, her response.

It took years for us to acquire that understanding; if we can help our daughter to skip those painful years of figuring it out on her own, I think that's all to the better.

Already, at 9, she talks to us easily and openly about sexual relationships, accepting climax as a scientific curiosity, abiding by the (few) boundaries we draw setting aside some topics as "not child-suitable" (all relating to abnormal/abusive behaviour, or things which aren't really meaningful/relevant before one reaches the point where those bits work) -- and wonder of wonders, she likes to see her parents kiss, because it makes her feel like all's right with the world! When's the last time you knew a kid who felt that way?

Most kids are constantly forced to bond with strangers on no basis other than proximity at school -- I'd rather that a child get to understand what makes a real relationship, and how one works.

So, now she gets child-child time with the neighbour kids, not "forced to be next to them, working independently", but actually *interacting* with them, when she's with them -- and although they're a mix of a few years older and several years younger than she is, she can actually interact with them and enjoy that time, in a way that most of the kids I knew couldn't do, if they were outside of the "cookie-cutter" mold that was expected in the public school system.

Homeschooling may "select for weirdness", but I think that it's just as true that weirdness selects for homeschooling, because the farther out of the norm one's life becomes, the less possible it is to integrate oneself into a societal model which has no place for one's family or way of life.

And in the end, we have to remember that the "mass-produced education" to which Western nations have become accustomed is NOT the norm for human history or culture; it is a demographic blip against a much broader tapestry of experience, and a child who has lived outside of that blip is better equipped to understand and relate to the rest of human existence, IMHO.

1:40 PM  

Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home