Homeschooling and the Parent-Child Socialization Divide

Lana over at Wide Open Ground has been hitting it out of the park lately with her posts on homeschooling. The most recent two, one by her and one a guest post, both bowled me over, because they put words to things I have long felt but never fully articulated.

In the first, Lana explains that, no matter how hard they might try, first generation homeschool parents can’t actually know what it’s like to be a homeschooled kid. Here is how she explains that:

I am so often amazed at the similarities between homeschooliing and third culture experiences. Here’s another example!

Rachel, who blogs at Djibouti Jones, wrote a post called 15 Things I Want to Tell My Third Culture Kids. The post is a tear jerker (and so, so sweet), but this has got to be one of my all-time favorite parenting quotes.

I don’t know what it is like. I know what it is like to parent a TCK but I don’t know what it is like to be a TCK. I’ve read books and listened to talks and attended seminars but you are forging a path I have not walked. I’ve got your back and I’ve got a box full of Kleenex and an ache in my belly from our shared laughter. I do not know what your particular journey is like but I will hold your hand, fierce, until the very end.

Can I say I wish more first generation homeschool parents would say this?!!

… my mother knew what it was like to be a homeschool parent, but she did not know what its like to be a homeschool kid. She did not know what its like to grow up in a sub-culture her peers were not apart of, nor what its like to enter that culture all her peers had grown up in.

A while back I wrote a post on Potential Drawbacks to Homeschooling. Some people misunderstood this as an attack on homeschooling in general. I have never said that homeschooling is invaluable or not enriching. Far from it, homeschooling is enriching, and I love the fact that I spent more hours of my life running free than in a desk. I said that homeschooling comes with a struggle, a struggle that is not inherently bad but exists. I have said that, like the third culture kid, many homeschoolers are suspended as the foreigner in her own land and often struggle to come to grasp with their place in mainstream culture. Time again, I have tried to convey that first generational homeschool parents don’t know what its like to be the kid in that struggle. My mother has no idea what its like to be the homeschool kid. She grew up mainstream, went to school, and had friends. Then as an adult she was sucked into a sub-culture. Yet Mom continued to have the ability to relate to mainstream culture because she grew up mainstream.

Mom and I just had this conversation tonight. She was talking about church camps she attended when she was a kid. “You guys never wanted to attend church camps,” she said, “it just wasn’t in your personality.” I have no idea whether my personality would have enjoyed camps or not (I never went to one), but I do know that by the time I was in middle school, I had no way of relating to any kids at church because I did not go to school or have any regular activities (other than church) with school kids. And so my life was an enriching adventure, but it was very different than the road others walked.

I wish my mother had been like Rachel. Her post made me cry because that’s what I always wanted my mom to say.

That’s all, really.

I’ve written before about going to a public high school to take the SAT when I was a high school junior. I was terrified, shaking in my boots upset stomach flight or fight terrified. It wasn’t taking the SAT that scared me, it was the other kids. See, I was only socialized with other homeschooling  and as a result, public school kids literally frightened me. We’re talking real, visceral fear. This is really hard to explain if you haven’t experienced it. And that, quite simply, is why my mother responded to my fear the way she did: she laughed at me.

My mother wasn’t trying to be mean when she made fun of my fear of public school kids, but as Lana points out above, she simply could not understand how I felt, or why. She grew up in mainstream culture, so even though she had chosen a different path she still had the ability to relate to and understand it. Because my mother was raising me very intentionally outside of the mainstream, I didn’t have any of that. And for some reason, mom wasn’t able to see that. Like Lana, I wish my mother had been like Rachel, able to say “I don’t know what it’s like” and to really understand what that meant.

Next, let me quote from the guest post that Lana most recently posted, written by a young woman named Sophelia who grew up in a secular unschooling homeschool family, and whose parents minimized, ignored, and dismissed her socialization struggles:

One of the things that happens when you are homeschooled or unschooled is that you are placed in the position of advocate for your parents’ decisions about your education. You hear the homeschooling adults talking about how socialisation is a made-up problem, and you regurgitate the same lines when you are asked, because that is what children do. As my family was particularly high profile and unschooling was particularly unpleasant for me, I frequently found myself in the schizophrenic position of tearfully begging to be sent to school immediately after appearing on a television current affairs program as an example of a homeschooling success story. My ability to engage comfortably and articulately with adults was held up as proof of my well balanced socialisation, even as I went through an excruciatingly lonely and isolated childhood devoid of friends my own age. After leaving home I was driving with my mother one day when I noticed a girl who had been in the same circle of homeschooling families walking down the street with a large group of friends.

“Did Eliza end up getting sent to school?” I asked.

“Yes, in the end they did send her to school. How did you know?”

“She wouldn’t have a big group of friends like that otherwise” I replied. My mother looked at me in horror.

“Come ON, you know better than that!”

“Yes,” I said, “I know.”

I was the one who lived the reality behind the media spin. I was the one who experienced it firsthand. Neither of my parents had been homeschooled, yet they assumed that they knew what it was like. They had no idea. Their refusal even now to acknowledge my experiences is in some ways worse than the experiences themselves. I know that they did what they honestly believed to be the best for me, and that they were motivated by love for me. Even though I think they made the wrong choices, I can live with that. What I can’t forgive them for is continually denying the reality of my experience, and of minimising or dismissing the pain I experienced and continue to experience as a result of my lack of socialisation.

You don’t have to go far to find blogs by homeschool alumni detailing their struggles and regrets regarding socialisation. Many were homeschooled in a religious context, but that doesn’t mean that all of their experiences are a direct result of religion and that secular homeschoolers are immune. Homeschooling parents often comment on these blogs saying things like “your parents just didn’t do it properly” or something similar. The thing is, I guarantee you that all of the parents of these homeschool alumni genuinely believed that their children were being well socialised. Of course, some homeschooled children have a great experience and some schooled children have a bad one. However, it is frustrating for me when homeschoolers assume that all homeschooled children have a good experience and all schooled children have a negative one. Socialisation is incredibly important and needs to be addressed thoughtfully by all parents, homeschooling and schooling. As someone who struggles with the aftermath of poor socialisation it is upsetting to hear advice that is dismissive or seems to be saying “just don’t worry about it, it isn’t a big deal”. It is a really big deal. Again, let me say that my parents were convinced that I was well socialised.

[read the rest]

Once again we see homeschool parents ignoring the actual experiences of their children, dismissing and minimizing rather than listening.

There’s something else here to highlight, though. Like many—most?—homeschooled children, I grew up surrounded by homeschool propaganda—and by that I mean I was surrounded by people who argued that homeschooling was the perfect panacea for all the world’s ills, and that there were no drawbacks or potential problems, and that the idea that socialization might be something even a few homeschoolers might struggle with was laughably ridiculous. Like the author of this post, I uncritically regurgitated this, even when it didn’t fit my lived experience.

The homeschooling propaganda I grew up on was so strong that it took years after leaving my parents’ conservative religious beliefs for me to actually be able to begin looking at homeschooling critically, without the rose tinted glasses. And when I finally looked at it critically, I realized that it was complicated. There is much potential good in homeschooling, but there are also many potential pitfalls and plenty of drawbacks. It’s not black and white. This is something I wish more homeschooling parents could realize, but I think that many of them, like my parents, feel too defensive about their choice to homeschool to admit that there could be any potential problems whosoever. And their kids grow up hearing, over and over, about how perfect and ideal and without flaw homeschooling is, and conclude that if they are having negative experiences the problem must be them.

I plan to send my children to public school, but I’m most certainly not laughing off the criticisms I hear people make about public school—especially when those criticisms come from people who attended public school. I will readily admit that public schooling isn’t perfect, and I’m aware that my kids will likely at some point face issues with bullying, or peer pressure, or bad teachers—and I’m sure that’s just the start. The fact that I think public school is right for my family and my kids does not mean I have to believe public schools are flawless or perfect! Why should it? Rather, as I raise my children and send them to public school I plan to work to offset any potential disadvantages of public schooling, and to help my children deal with them as they come up. Ignoring criticism of the educational option I’ve chosen for my children, and arguing that this option perfect and has no drawbacks, would be incorrect, unhealthy, and dogmatic—and also a disservice to my children. So why is it that so many homeschooling parents do just that?

If the homeschooling movement today is going to mature, homeschooling parents need to be willing and able to listen to their children, including those who are now adults, and willing and able to give a fair hearing to criticism of homeschooling. If they are willing and able to do those things, they can then make an effort to avoid the pitfalls that accompany homeschooling, and minimize the drawbacks. Otherwise, you can expect to read more posts by people like Lana and Sophelia.

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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.

  • swimr1

    I was not homeschooled (and had no real desire to homeschool because I loved my public school experience). My husband and I did discuss homeschooling when our first child was nearing school age, though. My husband did worry that public school might not be challenging enough, so we discussed the issue.

    When I asked my mom what she thought about school choice, she had a good insight. She said that, in her view, our kids had the potential to do well whichever way we went. And that parental involvement is the key – not whether kids are schooled at a public school or at home. So, we ended up choosing public school – and I have been very involved in our public school, from volunteering as homeroom parent, writing helper and PTO Board positions. I know my kids’ teachers and keep lines of communication with them respectful, friendly and open. My kids have thrived at public school (I have one at high school, one in middle school and one still in elementary). I often think that was wise advice from my mom. Involvement is the key. Parents have a lot to contribute to making their public schools great…

  • The_L

    This also rings true to me as an accelerated kid in private Christian schools. I never had classmates my own age, so I didn’t make any real friends. When I was in high school, and realized that for the first time I had classmates who were not conservative Christians, I was terrified. I’d heard so many horror stories that I was convinced I was in very real danger.

    “And their kids grow up hearing, over and over, about how perfect and ideal and without flaw homeschooling is, and conclude that if they are having negative experiences the problem must be them.”

    Oh yes. My brother wasn’t accelerated. He was charismatic and had tons of friends. And I was deeply jealous, and confused. If I was so smart, why couldn’t I figure out how to get other people to like me? How come my brother, who wasn’t super-gifted, made friends so easily and was so likeable? Was I just broken? What was wrong with me?

    • BonnieLB

      I also went to a private Christian school and heard all the horror stories and dire warnings. The reality I found when I started public school was very different than what I was taught to expect. Some issues (bullying) were no better in the private school. (Actually worse, because it was a small homogenized group with long memories and a rigid pecking order.) And other things were simply untrue or wildly exaggerated – the public school teachers did NOT spend their time trying to destroy my faith. My public school classmates were not performing Satanic rites at their parties. I began to realize that my private school *needed* to convince us of how evil public schools were; it was basically marketing (whether they thought of it that way or not). They needed to convince parents that their tuition money was well spent, and to keep paying it.

      One thing I’m realizing here is that homeschooling kind of has that same thing going on. The parents (at least some) need to convince themselves and others that they’re doing the right (and necessary) thing, and it can lead to a warped characterization of school. And then the kids are raised with this. Interesting.

      It’s something I’ve noticed from my mom, who really really wanted me to homeschool. (Partly because of bad experiences she and I and some of my siblings had at school.) one thing that I noticed is that she tended to collect any horror story happening at any public school, and conflate them all as “terrible things that happen at public schools.” When in reality, the only public school that matters in our decision is the one our kids go to. Like, elementary schools that don’t have recess — that’s terrible, but not true at our school, so it’s not a reason to homeschool our kids.

      I wonder too, how much of that is a result of one parent trying to convince the other of how important it is to homeschool. Usually to my limited experience, the mom, who wants to convince her husband to be on board with homeschooling, and in the process portrays public school as worse than it is, and homeschooling as more idyllic than it is.

      • ako

        one thing that I noticed is that she tended to collect any horror story happening at any public school, and conflate them all as “terrible things that happen at public schools.”

        I was reading an article about stupid disciplinary overreactions at public schools, and I noticed a similar tendency (not so much in the article or in the comments. One school makes the stupid decision to call the police over kids making finger-gun gestures, another treats teenage girls carrying Tylenol in their backpack like they’re on drugs, another goes after some kids for coloring an angry-looking picture, and you get comments making it sound like all public schools will call the police on kids for any of those things.

  • Red

    It is true that no method of schooling is perfect. I know someone who experienced public school, private school, and homeschooling…though private school was his favorite, he still admits that all 3 methods had advantages and drawbacks. It’s not black-and-white.

    Sometimes, the “best” method depends on the kid. When I was little, I was a nervous, anxious kid. Having to go to public school every day taught me how to step out of my comfort zone and be independent, even though what I WANTED to do was cling to mom’s pant leg every minute of the day :) To this day, I believe that if I’d been homeschooled, my anxious personality would have never developed beyond being a dependent homebody. Now, I know PLENTY of people who were homeschooled, and this did not happen to them. But for me *personally*? It probably would have. My parents were wise in their choice to keep me in public school.

    That’s just to say, no one can say what’s the “right” way and the “wrong” way for every family, or even every kid within a given family.

  • Julia

    This is exactly my experience. The part about going to the SATs, the part about parents laughing your struggle off because they simply don’t get it, the part about parents saying it wasn’t in your “personality” to attend social things– all this stuff is exactly like my experience. I’ve been in college for a few years now, and I am still VERY maladjusted and isolated socially. It’s always so weird to find other people who could possibly understand all of this, especially when you spend so much time feeling completely alone.

  • Anyhoo

    Try being homeschooled AND a TCK.

    • Lana

      Were you both? I’ve thought of this, too, though I’ve noticed that the homeschoolers overseas are quite different– homeschooling for necessity rather than religious conviction or any kind of conviction at all.

      • Anyhoo

        Yes, I was. And yes, many of the homeschoolers overseas homeschool out of necessity/limited choices, but that wasn’t the case for my parents, who were strong ideological homeschoolers for years before ever going overseas. So for me it was kind of a double whammy. But going overseas was a life saver in my case–it broadened my world and mitigated some of the social crippling caused by homeschooling. It also gave me an excuse for not understanding anything my peers were talking about when I started college back in the states. It was early in the homeschooling movement when many people still weren’t very familiar with homeschooling (or had never met anyone college age who had homeschooled), and so it was a lot easier to attribute my cluelessness and awkwardness to being a TCK (even though that terminology wasn’t being used yet) than it was to having been homeschooled.

        (I feel I should say that I am a regular reader/sometime commenter on this blog using a different name for privacy purposes)

  • JBH

    I have experience, as a parent, with public schools, private schools, and homeschooling. It’s easy for me to see why homeschoolers take criticism so personally – as a homeschooling parent, you are responsible for everything. It’s hard feeling completely responsible for it all. I definitely felt that if homeschooling failed in anyway, I personally was a failure. When public school didn’t work out for us, I felt it was a mistake, but I didn’t feel like a failure. If homeschooling had gone badly, I would have. (For us, it was a bridge between public school and finding the right private school, and it was really enjoyable.)

    Another thought I had reading this is that no matter what your own educational background as a parent is, you really can’t use that to know how your child’s setting is working for them. My child is not me, and she reacts differently to situations than I do. So no, I don’t know from experience what it’s like to be homeschooled, but I also don’t think my experience in public school has much relevance to how my daughter experienced it.

  • Joy @ Joy in this Journey

    I was homeschooled from 3rd grade through high school, then attended a private Christian (Baptist) college. I have done ok with socializing, but you are SO right about the similarity between TCK and homeschooling. My knowledge of pop culture begins in 1990, when I began sneak-listening to pop-40 radio. I picked up bits and pieces that way, until I reached college and was able to more fully immerse. My husband gets great amusement out of my lack of pop culture knowledge, and when I can make an appropriate Saturday Night Live reference, it makes my day.

    But that’s not really what I wanted to say here.

    I have four children, three living. We are sending all of them to public school and trying to guide them and teach them critical thinking about their culture from inside of it, not from outside. I find myself in the same position as my parents, just inverted. Now I’m the parent who has no idea what my children are experiencing. My oldest is in 4th grade now, and he’s starting to have social challenges with classmates. I don’t really know how to help him because I never went to public school. I don’t know how the dynamics are in class and in the hallway. I would have this challenge anyway since I’m a girl and had no brothers, but am raising sons, but still. I appreciate these thoughts because I don’t think I’ve said to my kids that I don’t know what it’s like. I’ve said it to my husband often, who fortunately DID go to public school, but not to my kids. I will be sure to do that.

    • Libby Anne

      I’ve thought about this too, Joy! It’s something I know I’ll have to deal with in the future.

      • AnotherOne

        Yes, that’s definitely another thorny aspect of being homeschooled–it can make it hard to relate to your kids’ life and experiences.

  • scott f

    Wow! As a product of public schools sending my kids to public schools, I still found this a great discussion. (I had to look up Third Culture Kid). I have known a plenty of Public/Private/Christian/Home school families and there does seem to be a certain amount of self-justification on all sides although it seems more intense as you move further from the herd.

    When I read the definition of TCK, I realized that my own, adopted, children would face many of these challenges – racially, culturally, etc. I only hope that our decision to live in a very diverse community (economically as well as ethnically) with good but diverse schools will allow them to find a way to bridge the differences that divide us all. Of course, I am just guessing. I can’t know how they are experiencing all this. Who knew that parenting would be so hard?! ;)

  • Carys Birch

    Bonnie, bullying was much worse at the private Christian school I attended for exactly that reason. And if you somehow got into the out group… Tough luck! You can’t find new friends because there is nobody else! I spent several miserable years before I was brave enough to face the supposed horrors of public school… And what I found was that it was MUCH more socially welcoming for people who didn’t fit the perfect teenager mold.

    Forgive my ignorance, what’s a third culture kid? I’m not aware of the term.

    • Ashton

      I was a TCK. It’s when someone from any country grows up living abroad. People like us are well traveled, often speak a foreign language or two, and usually connect better with other tck’s no matter what culture that tck is from. Living abroad can be for any reason, but often happens when parents are in military, government, international business, mission work, or aid work.

      There are benefits and drawbacks, but I find that due to the moving around I constantly feel restless. I have a much broader picture of the world than most people and this makes it harder to connect especially with small town Americans. I have a hard time answering when people ask where I’m from. I can keep up a conversation about a cost benefit analysis of AIDS interventions, but I don’t have much of a clue about what was going on in the U.S. in the 90′s.

      There is so much more I could say about being a TCK, but I don’t know where I’d stop. I’ve wondered before why I appreciate Libby Anne’s post about homeschool culture, but now I get it. It’s being on the outside and looking in. I wasn’t just a TCK, I grew up Seventh-day Adventist. In addition to being raised abroad, I spent nearly all of my schooling at Adventist schools. I really liked what one homeschooled person said here before about how her parents lost the ability to re-evaluate whether homeschool was still working. This is how it is with Adventist schools. They are seen as the only option but at the same time are quite limited. But you wouldn’t want your kids to grow up thinking that not being Adventist is okay, now would you? So SDA schools are seen as the only possibility.

  • Alice

    @Carys: Third-culture kid is a kid whose family is from one culture but the culture they primarily grow up in is a different culture(s). For instance, an American missionary family in South Africa, an American military family in Germany, or a first-generation immigrant family in the U.S. The kids often feel like they don’t fully belong to either culture, hence the name. I didn’t know the term until I went to a Christian college with many TCK’s.

  • Sophelia

    Hi, and thanks for sharing :) I just wanted to clarify that my family was not secular. We spent a lot of time with secular homeschoolers, so I occasionally talk about friends who had a secular homeschooling experience, but mine was not.

  • Conuly

    You know, its said that one side effect of growing up with an alcoholic parent is a difficulty distinguishing between what is normal and what is not. You know your childhood as a whole was not normal and certainly not ideal, but that doesn’t mean you can correctly identify which aspects of life are normal, nor which life problems are the result of alcoholism in the family instead of being something that happens to many people.

    I wouldn’t know about that, but I know both from personal experience and observing many conversations on this subject that growing up autistic similarly makes it hard to tell the difference between normal difficulties, anxieties, and so on and ones caused by autism. (That can operate in reverse as well. Many adults who are recently diagnosed or not diagnosed at all are used to attributing every difficulty to anything BUT autism. Bad handwriting and an inability to tie your shoes or zip your coat? Well, lefties are awkward, everybody knows that! Nobody understands what you say? Crooked teeth! Can’t recognize classmates you’ve had for years and can literally get lost simply by turning around? Smart people so often don’t pay attention! Especially if they read! I forget what excuse was given for the fact that I had no friends, no matter what situation I was put in, but I’m sure it was a doozy. Or maybe we all simply ignored that one.)

    It seems likely that the same principle applies in many situations that are out of the norm. It certainly isn’t only homeschooled students who find they cannot relate to any pop culture touchstones their peers can. It isn’t even only “homeschooled kids, others deliberately isolated, and autistics and other similarly disabled people”. And it’s not just homeschooled kids who are potentially “badly socialized”. The difference is that when homeschooled kids complain about their bad socialization, they want to send their kids to school. And when kids who weren’t homeschooled complain about it, they want to pull their kids FROM school. The older I get, the more I see that it is chancy to try to identify the source of your problems. It seems you’re as likely to be wrong as right.

  • Noelle

    I would think this applies to any situation where a child has a significantly different experience growing up compared to his parents. My son has autism. I can tell you what it’s like to be his mom, but I can’t tell you what it’s like to be him. I do believe his ASD comes from my side of the family. I recognize the characteristics in myself and my other family members. I have difficulty expressing myself verbally, unless it’s a subject I’m very familiar with. Then I can get way more technical than anyone cares about. But given a written platform and some time to compose my thoughts, I can wrestle through just about anything in writing. Except philosophy and theology, uck. I don’t like the feel of the side of my hand on paper. It makes my skin feel all weird and crawly. There are other things too, so I almost understand him. But I can’t completely really. And yet, because he is young and has difficulty explaining his world so far, I have to be his advocate. Sometimes the advocate needs a reminder to shut up and listen to who they’re advocating for.

  • Chii-chan

    It is rare to read such thoughtful comments on the internet, thank you everyone for treating people’s different choices with so much respect. I was also unfamiliar with the term TCK, but as the homeducated child of immegrants I can relate to it 100% ! I was a late, a very late bloomer and I know that the mainstream school system, public or private, would have destroyed me. Home education was the right choice for me, but it was not done well. I can absolutely relate to the comments on child blame. My parents gave up on teaching me if I wasn’t interested or refused to learn because I had gotten it into my head I didn’t like the subject or the book. They never tried to find out what was behind my behaviour or try different approaches. Today I am a well educated and experienced young professional, so they must have done something right along the way, but still catch myself feelings ashamed and blaming myself for the huge gabs in my education. I still think things like “I would be able to do maths if I hasn’t been such a subborn child.” It’s crazy, but even though the negative impact of domestic problems (and they were very much there) on learning has been well documented, I still blame myself. I do not see standing outside of all cultures and belonging to none as a particular disadvantage, it makes life lonely, but it allows for critical thinking in a way that is rarely possible from the ‘inside’. So what will I do with my kids? Having worked in the school system I am tending against standard schooling and lean more towards schools which provide alternative learning models. But if it is a choice between a state school and home education I will send my kids to a state school. Why? Because I don’t want my children to have to prove themselves everyday. The sad truth is that if you go to a ‘normal’ school no one blinks an eye if you’re just average, or even struggling in some of your subjects. If you are home educated you have to be perfect, you have to be better than the best kid at school all the time and no child needs that growing up. My children will go to school for the socialisation, the subjects I, or my partner cannot teach and to take the pressure off, the rest of their education will happen at home, at their sports and music clubs and through thoughful socialisation with a range of people from different backgrounds

  • Alasandra Alawine

    You also have to understand that your experiences as a homeschooled child are not at all like what all homeschoolers experience. Even when I was homeschooling my two boys they belonged to Recreational Sports Teams (mixture of public schooled and homeschooled kids), Cub and Boy Scouts (again a mixture of public schooled and homeschooled kids) and other community events. They certainly were not afraid of public school kids and neither were the other homeschooled children we interacted with. And they certainly fit in. But then we were homeschooling for academic reasons and not religious, I suppose that does make a difference. My children read all the books watched all the TV shows, movies, and listened to all the music that was popular with their peers and were not sheltered from the world at large.