Homeschooling, the family, and agents of socialization

Homeschooling, the family, and agents of socialization April 11, 2012

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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