Homeschooling, the family, and agents of socialization

I attended an academic talk on homeschooling not too long ago, and one of the speakers asked this:

For the homeschooled student, when does the family stop being the primary agent of socialization?

He went on to explain that for most children, school becomes a primary agent of socialization alongside the family. This does not happen for homeschoolers, though, who generally continue to go where their family goes, see who their family sees, and be where their family is. The family continues to be the primary agent of socialization. And that’s an important point.

I recently read a very interesting book on youth culture in the 1920s that speaks to this issue. In her The Damned and the Beautiful, historian Paula Fass argued that in the twentieth century family life became increasingly based on affection and adult life became increasingly based on performance. Before, in small towns and farming communities, family life and adult life overlapped. Children began working early in families that were focused on survival, and when they grew up they would likely be working in the family business or on the family farm.

As Fass points out, industrialization and urbanization brought a strict differentiation between family life and adult life. Family life was based on affection while adult life was based on performance. Fass argues that youth culture, largely created by the increase in compulsory education, stepped in to form a much-needed step between the two.

Youth culture provided youth with affirmation but also demanded performance. Peers still offered affection, but it was no longer as unconditional as the affection found in family. By combining some aspects of the affection of the family and some aspects of performance-based adult life, youth culture helped children transition from affirmation-based family life to performance-based adult life.

As I read Fass’s book, I couldn’t help but thinking about homeschooling. Unless there is a huge emphasis placed on allowing the child to develop an independent peer culture, and in my case there was not, this middle step that Fass describes never takes place. Homeschooled children like myself shift straight from a family life based on affection to an adult life based on performance. This transition can be grinding and abrupt, and it can be a difficult one to make.

And so, when the speaker at the scholarly talk asked with some concern when the family stops being the primary agent of socialization for the homeschooled student, I had to nod in agreement. This doesn’t necessarily mean that no one should homeschool, but rather that this is something homeschoolers need to be aware of and think about. And to be honest, this is part of why I plan to send my daughter to public school.

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About Libby Anne

Libby Anne grew up in a large evangelical homeschool family highly involved in the Christian Right. College turned her world upside down, and she is today an atheist, a feminist, and a progressive. She blogs about leaving religion, her experience with the Christian Patriarchy and Quiverfull movements, the detrimental effects of the "purity culture," the contradictions of conservative politics, and the importance of feminism.

  • Rilian

    Homeschooling doesn’t have anything to do with the family remaining the only source of socialization or whatever that said. That’s like saying atheism means being a nihilist or something. SOME atheists feel that way, but not all, and it’s certainly not an integral part of atheism.

    • MadGastronomer

      Except, of course, that it does, in that it takes an enormous amount of work to get a kid that much outside socialization while homeschooling, and the parents have to actually want to do that, which a lot of them don’t. Libby Anne isn’t saying that all homeschool kids get no socialization other than in the home, but there certainly is a strong correlation between getting little to no socialization outside the home and being homeschooled; furthermore, we can actually point to the causative factor in that correlation: parents who do not make sure their kids get enough outside socialization. It’s really very simple.

      • Stevarious

        That’s like saying that ‘being religious has nothing to do with going to church, because plenty of people are religious and never go to church.’ The two might not necessarily be directly related, but you have to admit that a lot more religious folk go to church, and that a lot of homeschooled children rarely socialize outside of the house for six-eight hours a day 5 days a week.

      • Rilian

        I went to disgusting government school when I was a kid, but that’s not where I “socialized”. I played outside during the hours I wasn’t being held prisoner. Do other people not play outside? If the parents are keeping their kids inside and not letting them find friends, that’s a completely separate issue from home-schooling. I.E. it absolutely does not take a lot of effort for parents to allow their kids the freedom to make their own friends. Unless you live in a terribly dangerous neighborhood or something, but if that’s the case, then you shouldn’t have brought a kid into that.

      • Rilian

        Stevarious, what makes you think socializing outside of the house 40 hours a week is even a good thing? Especially as it’s done in school, which is overwhelmingly the “sit down and shut up” type of “socializing”, i.e. not really socializing at all. “We’re not here to socialize.” Didn’t they say that when you were in school? They did when I was, all the freaking time.

      • MadGastronomer

        Socialization is not the same thing as socializing. Socialization is the training of someone to take part in society, teaching manners and mores and so forth. Most of it is done implicitly through interaction with peers and with other members of society. Socializing is engaging in social activities.

  • Jeremy

    I know we disagree about this one, but here’s my two cents: yes, the transition to performance-based adulthood can be a rough one. The question is whether easing that transition is worth the painful experience of public school. Public school is not painful for everyone, but it is painful for many and can be especially so if the parents are not attentive enough to notice when something is a problem. Think, for instance, of the experiences of gay children bullied in public school — wouldn’t they have preferred being homeschooled to having to deal with that?

    One can argue that kids will have to deal with similar bullying when they’re adults, and that public school is a good training for life in that respect, but I’d disagree. Public school meanness is a unique and brutal aspect of our culture; it’s not replicated in adult life except in extreme cases. My experience of being homeschooled was that the transition was difficult, but not impossible; I’d much prefer it to having to make that transition at six years old around a bunch of non-empathetic six-year-olds.

    Admittedly, there are lots of grown people who loved public school and wouldn’t have traded those experiences for the world. I think my preference would be to leave it up to my kids whether they went to public school or homeschool (or charter school or private school). That’s not going to happen, because my fiancee doesn’t want to homeschool and it doesn’t work unless both parents support it. But that would be my preference if it were up to me.

    • kagerato

      Bullying can and does happen at home. When it does, it’s often much worse than being bullied at school because there is nowhere to run and no one to turn to. In short: you can change your school, but you can’t change your family.

      Authoritarian attitudes cause bullying and violence in just about every context and segment of society. Addressing it requires actually approaching the causes in the open. You can run away from it, but that only helps you, not anyone else. Bullies will find another target until someone is brave enough to stand up to them and respond appropriately.

      • AnotherOne

        I agree, kagerato. I know people who experienced intense bullying in school settings, and the emotional fallout from that seems relatively similar to my own emotional fallout from being bullied in a homeschooling situation. Cruelty exists wherever humans do, and it is concentrated in environments where there aren’t checks to ensure that vulnerable people aren’t treated badly. Some schools/classes have particularly cruel dynamics, and some families have particularly cruel dynamics.

        Jeremy, I wouldn’t characterize six year olds as “non-empathetic”. My daughter is in first grade at a middle of the road urban public school, and her experience has been quite positive. I’d say most of the kids are pretty empathetic, and the environment isn’t perfect, but she’s flourishing. She’s had run-ins with kids who weren’t nice to her, but we’ve helped her work through those situations, and as a result she’s more resilient and confident, and more adept socially. We’ll see how things go when she’s older; you’re right that types of bullying occur in some schools, particularly at the junior high level, that would never be tolerated in adult circles. But I know lots of junior highers and highschoolers who are navigating their school experience quite well, and they are turning into fine adults, much better equipped to handle adulthood than I was by my homeschooled upbringing.

        In my experience, people who were homeschooled tend to have views of public school that are way too black and white. Either they see it as the ideal opposite of their own negative experience with homeschooling, a place where kids flourish socially and academically, or they see them as places of cruelty, bullying, peer pressure, and sub-par education. In reality, public schools are enormously varied, and kids’ experiences in them are determined by innumerable factors both at school and at home.

  • Clarissa

    A brilliant and courageous post. Thank you for writing it!

  • Paula G V aka Yukimi

    I was bullied at school to the point of getting sick from the stress and I still think public school is better than homeschooling, it’s just my opinion.

    • Rilian


      • Paula G V aka Yukimi

        Because I still appreciate that I got exposed to many types of people (many more than my family could have exposed me), because I prefer college educated in their subjects with years of experience in it people to teach me and my kids, because as horrible as my experience was, it’s not like that for everybody, because it taught me how to learn the intrincancies of social behaviour and forced me to learn to deal with unpleasant people, because in a pool of so many people it was easier for me to find friends who accepted me and had similar interests (something pretty difficult in a small city like mine where you usually don’t get 30 kids together on a playground or anywhere…), because I think sheltering your kids (not that all homeschoolers do this but it’s easier to do in that environment) isn’t healthy , because it deprives the family one salary from either the dad or the mom (I repeat that these are MY personal reasons and opinion), because I still don’t understand why people see age-segregated classes as something bad, because parents aren’t always was best for the children and a combination of parents (who can male the children change schools if needed (I never changed schools or was helped about my bullying for example)) plus teachers (who can for example detect abuse or neglect, …) is the best team, because parents can actually be very bad for kids having all the love of the wordl for the kid and I see it everyday at the hospital (for example parents who deny their child is deaf and postpone the child’s coclear implant for years delaying the kid’s mental development because they can0t admit their kid isn’t normal and that’s just last week’s example…), because I don’t want to do it but if I wanted to do it everybody would think my kids are freaks (more than they’ll probably will already be if they are anything like me and my boyfriend) and even if it’s a stupid reason with light weight it just crossed my mind, because even if unschooling as a concept sound mildly appealing, the lack of regulations causes me unease, because I agree with Libby Anne in what she is said about socialization in this post and in the others before that, because I also plan to send my kid to summer camps, because if it scares people that the kid spend 5-6h30′ hours in school, it simply looks normal to me and it’s the contrary that seems weird to me, in general because after having read a lot about and by homeschoolers and having had a crappy experience in school and highschool, public school still sounds better and I probably can’t point it out all the reasons, more so because it’s 7:30 AM and I haven’t gone to sleep today so all this is pure rambling and if it doesn’t make sense I apologise XP

  • estraven

    My daughter is homeschooling her kids and belongs to a group of homeschoolers that is far more diverse than I, or she, ever experienced in public schools. My granddaughter is now of middle school age, and her peers are very important to her. I think my daughter may not have expected her daughter to go through all the drama and angst of middle school, but it’s happening just the same! Except without the bullying, peer pressure to conform to certain behaviors and appearances, and, as my granddaughter would say, “silliness.” (She’s 12 going on 30.) There are the usual crushes, the devastation of losing a friend who moves or whatever, and all that, yet she is free to be who she is to an extent neither I nor my kids ever experienced in public school. I’m not convinced that public school is a great agent of socialization. Maybe some schools are, but not in my experience or my kids’.