Mirror, mirror on the wall, what’s the most common homeschooling criticism of them all? What about socialization? Hands down.
I’ve heard it over and over again, I’ve read about it over and over again, I’ve addressed it over and over again, but sometimes I have to wonder: Is socialization overrated? Dictionary.com defines it as “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.” Appropriate to his or her social position? Ouch.
Wikipedia says “Socialization essentially represents the whole process of learning throughout the life course and is a central influence on the behavior, beliefs, and actions of adults as well as of children.” Grown-ups, too? Adults, when was the last time someone asked what you were doing to properly socialize yourself?
Most agree that socialization involves an understanding of societal norms, but in our modern, diverse, global world, norms can be disparate and ever-changing. We emphasized to our kids that people are different. Just as some kids go to school and some don’t, people’s likes, dislikes, religious and philosophical beliefs, clothing choices, and habits vary. The underlying value in that message is one of respect for differences, and that gets at something important, because I think one of the dangers of our obsession with properly “socializing” kids is that it can end up encouraging intolerance.
Wait, introverts are a problem? Speaking as the mom, friend, and family member of plenty of introverts, I take issue with that. Why the heck do we think we should force an introvert to be “social”? Fellow extroverts, what if society said we were not normal and tried to force us to spend more time alone than we wanted to? Ridiculous, right?
The fact is, for shy, introspective, sensitive, introverted kids, school can be hell. They’re not learning to socialize, they’re learning to cope. I babysit for two awesome homeschooled girls who love to stay home. There, they feel happy and safe and free to relax, read, write, draw, and play as they choose. They go to park day once a week, occasional classes in areas of interest, and sometimes playdates. With their parents they run errands, visit extended family, and do fun stuff like go to concerts and plays and nature walks and vacations. I’ve known countless homeschooled kids just like them that make one thing perfectly clear–socialization does not necessitate being with a group of your peers every day of your childhood, and spending lots of time at home does not amount to isolation.
The stereotype of the weird, awkward, unsocialized homeschooler is one that, like all stereotypes, can be funny on the surface but is deeply offensive. At its core is the implication that there’s something wrong with being a homeschooler, and at a deeper level, something wrong with being different. That hurts kids, even at its most benign. A few autumns ago I attended a UU Church to hear a friend deliver a lay sermon. During the children’s portion of the service, the minister spoke to the assembled kids, asking how their return to school was going. She specifically addressed the children who attended public school, then the children who attended private school, but completely ignored the two members of the church who were homeschoolers. This kind of invisibility is the most mild consequence of perpetuating negative stereotypes about kids who don’t attend school or present as “different” in other ways. Others are more hurtful.
My daughter and I have been watching “Stranger Things,” a show whose child protagonists are misfits. These weirdos like unpopular stuff like science, and get bullied at school on a regular basis. One has an older sister who, in order to go out with a popular boy and gain entry to the in-crowd, must veer from her goody-goody, straight-A persona to drink beer, have sex, and stand by while her boyfriend humiliates another kid and destroys his beloved camera. What causes her to go in that direction is a complicated mix of factors. There’s the fact that she can–she’s pretty, and being popular is a powerful draw. It’s also beginning to dawn on her that following the rules of society by excelling in school, landing a “good” job, and finding an economically suitable marriage–i.e. becoming well socialized–might not exactly feed her soul.
When we watch “Stranger Things” we root for the misfits, not because they’re well socialized and “normal,” but because they’re distinctive. They have passionate interests they pursue with zeal. They ask questions instead of accepting things at face value. They stick up for each other. They love their families and friends. They’re genuinely nice people who want to do what’s right. They’re courageous and they don’t give up. They’re tolerant of others who are different, which is why they help Eleven, the ultimate weirdo. Being our true selves helps us become more tolerant of others, and tolerance breeds kindness. So please, let’s stop talking about socialization and instead focus on inclusion and acceptance of all kids.