As I was thinking about homeschooling and socialization recently, I realized something in my experiences that at first seemed contradictory. You see, when I first started college I found frightening something as simple as walking through crowded hallways or sidewalks between class. However, I had never found walking through the crowded foyer in my parents’ megachurch frightening in the least, even though most of those individuals were also strangers (that’s generally how it is in a megachurch – you known only a small percentage of the total attendees). And so I asked myself why this was, and that’s when I remembered something else.
There was one place in that megachurch that I actively avoided. I hated going through that area, and if I had to for some reason, my heart rate would go up and I would move through as quickly as possible, keeping my head down and my eyes on the ground. What area was that? Simply this: The hallway outside the large high school youth group room. That hallway was always filled with high school kids, and while they were like me evangelicals, they were predominantly public schooled. I was, quite literally, afraid of them.
I think I need to pause here to say two things. First, I should clarify that all of my friends growing up were also homeschooled. Obviously, different homeschoolers have different experiences, but this was mine. I had lots of friends and was in lots of groups and clubs – but all with other homeschoolers. I was well socialized within homeschooled circles, but was completely unsocialized outside of these circles.
Second, when you’re a child or teen there is a huge difference between peers and adults. I was totally comfortable around all of the adults at my parents’ evangelical megachurch, but I was profoundly uncomfortable around the (non-homeschool) teens there. I grew up hearing that the whole “being comfortable around adults but not around peers” thing was not a sign of maturity, but that’s nonsense. It’s actually a sign of a problem. When you’re a child, interactions with adults are fairly formalized. I knew that if I talked to an adult, I would be praised for how mature and intelligent I sounded. But I could not for the life of me figure out how to carry on a conversation with one of those teens in the youth group area.
With that out of the way, let me contrast two situations. First, there was a time I had to go to a local public high school to take an exam. We’re talking sheer, visceral terror. I wrote about this experience here:
I was seventeen. I had to go to a public high school to take a test. I was the only homeschooled student there. My mother dropped me off and I had to find my way to the proper room on my own. Fear. Dread. A sense of panic. The teens who surrounded me looked so different, so foreign, so worldly. What if one of them said something to me? What if a teacher asked what I was doing? Fear. Dread. Every muscle in my body was aching to run straight out of the building and hide until my mom returned to pick me up, but I forced myself to keep walking. It was like walking through jello, my limbs felt so heavy.
I managed to find the correct room and sat at my assigned table with my eyes on my paper. I didn’t score very well on that test, perhaps because of the fear that continued flowing through my body. Interestingly, leading up to that day it was going into a public high school that I was afraid of, not the test. When the test was over my mother came back to pick me up. As she walked through the halls with me she was obviously totally comfortable with the situation – curious, even, about the posters on the walls and interested in scouting out new teaching strategies. All I wanted was to get OUT. I would have run if I could have, as my body urged me to do. Instead, I stayed focused on getting to the door as fast as I could, pulling my mom along with me and carefully avoiding eye contact with the teens who surrounded me.
There was only one place I regularly came in contact with public schooled students, and that was AWANA (Bible club). The high school group was small (ten was a big turnout) and a majority of the students were homeschooled. I stuck right with the other homeschooled students, and we had nothing to do with the public schooled ones (nor they with us). The public schooled kids sitting across the room would talk about dating or pop singers, and we conservative Christian homeschooled kids literally had no context to understand what they were saying. So we didn’t try. The class was literally split across the room, and it was like two opposing foreign cultures. Sometimes we even had weird little turf wars as we each sought to claim the group as ours and mark the other as intruding. To this day I’m kind of curious what the adult leaders thought of the experience.
Given all this, it’s really no wonder college was such a shock for me. I was completely comfortable around the people I’d been socialized with – other homeschoolers – but public schooled students had always been completely foreign to me, so foreign that I found the idea of being surrounded by public schooled students terrifying. There were times in college when I would meet another person who had been homeschooled, and when that happened it was literally like meeting a compatriot in a foreign country. I felt completely at ease with those individuals in a way I did not with my peers who had been public schooled.
I think what it comes down to is this: I was well socialized in homeschool circles, but not socialized beyond them. I was completely familiar and comfortable with other homeschooled students, but public schooled students were completely foreign and therefore frightening. They were unpredictable because I didn’t know what made them tick. I didn’t know their language, their habits, their customs. To some extent, the reason that I do so much better now is because I have been living among people who were public schooled (i.e. in mainstream society) long enough to learn their customs. It’s like moving to a foreign country: at first everything is completely foreign and often unintelligible, but over time you learn the culture and begin to fit in.
I think about this when I watch my daughter Sally. She never had to learn to navigate mainstream culture – it’s completely natural to her. I think what I feel watching her is often similar to what someone raising children in a foreign country must feel as they watch their children naturally and effortlessly picks up the customs and habits that continue to feel strange and foreign to them. She never had to learn these things the way I’ve had to learn them.
In the end, I think the take away is what I told a friend who is a prospective homeschool mom: If you homeschool your children and want to minimize socialization issues, make sure to socialize them with public schooled students. Seriously. If you only socialize them with other homeschoolers, they will only know how to socialize with other homeschoolers. This isn’t rocket science. If you want your kids to be able to navigate mainstream society without it feeling foreign or lost, you have to not remove them from mainstream society. And also, if your kids feel more at ease socializing with adults than with their peers, that’s not a sign of maturity. It’s a sign that there’s a problem.