Homeschooling, Socialization, and Me

Homeschooling, Socialization, and Me March 6, 2013

When it comes to homeschooling, the two issues people seem to be most concerned about are academics and socialization. In yesterday’s post I talked about academics, and in today’s post I will address socialization.

I was homeschooled from kindergarten through high school. For that entire period, the kids I interacted with regularly were almost universally the children of my parents’ friends. Because my parents’ friends were, like them, white, middle class, evangelical homeschool parents, my friends were all just like me. Similarly, the homeschool cooperatives I was involved in all required the signing of statements of evangelical Christian faith, meaning that they were limited in involvement to other like-minded homeschoolers. As a result, the entire time I was growing up I didn’t get to know or have regular interaction with anyone who believed or lived differently from me and my family.

But let me back up and start at the beginning. When my mother first started homeschooling, she quickly became involved with other local homeschoolers. During my elementary years, there were field trip groups and play dates at the park. There was a co-op where the mothers chose a topic each semester, divided the kids by age, and found integrative and engaging ways to teach us about American history, or chemistry, or outer space. There were monthly events at the local roller skating rink or put put venue. And we frequently had people over to our house or went over to someone else’s house.

We kids never felt like we lacked for friends. Sometimes the moms would decide they needed a break, and would do a swap—on one day, my mom would watch her kids and a friend’s kids, and the next day her friend would watch all of us. We loved this, as it meant two full days spent with our friends. Sometimes in the summer we kids would jump from one family to another, swapping off at a birthday party or church event. There were times when half of my siblings would be away at friends’ homes, and in there place would be a smattering of friends of various ages from other families. Because most of the homeschool families we knew had large numbers of children—somewhere around four on the lower end and nine on the higher end—my siblings and I could generally find someone our age to play with when getting together with another family. A simple gathering of two families could easily result in ten or fifteen children. And that’s also how we generally got together with people—by family rather than as individuals.

By the time I reached high school things became a bit more regimented. There were fewer park dates and I was expected to spend more time on our regular studies. At that age the various homeschool co-ops and clubs we were involved in became more important, at least in terms of my socialization. In addition to church there was Bible club, but it was really through our homeschool music co-op and our homeschool debate league that I interacted most with other kids my age. Each of these involved spending a large chunk of one a day each week with other homeschooled students and away from my family. Interestingly, both of these required participants to sign evangelical statements of faith, making the implicit explicit—it wasn’t simply an accident that the other young people I interacted with regularly all shared my parents religious (and political) beliefs.

When I left for college, I didn’t expect to have any socialization problems. After all, I’d grown up with lots of friends. I’d been involved in co-ops and debate club. I had no problem being in groups or interacting with other people individually. Why would college be any different? What I didn’t realize was that feeling comfortable around and being able to easily interact with other people just like me did not mean I would feel comfortable with or easily interact with people who were not just like me. While college was no problem at all when it came to academics, it was socially extremely difficult for me.

I’ll quote myself to explain. First there’s this:

I had no idea how to interact with people who were different from me. I had no idea how to take criticism. I had no idea how to interact with those around me. I had no idea how to handle myself around large groups of people, or how to act in the ordinary social situations that come up at a large school. I had no idea how to handle someone not liking me. I had no idea how to function in a diverse society. I was incredibly awkward and felt extremely lost, and I cried more than you want to know.

And then there’s also this:

The things the girls I met in college talked about, I didn’t understand. The things they were excited about, I was ignorant of. I experienced – and still experience – a huge cultural disconnection. I’m not saying I wanted to conform or just be a clone of the girls I met in college, but I would have at least liked to understand what made them tick and to have been able to communicate with them on this level. As it was, I couldn’t. I didn’t understand their culture, I had no common experiences with them, I had no basis for communication or identification. I was an outsider looking in.

As I explain in the post these quotes come from, socialization is not just about being able to carry on a conversation. It’s also about being able to interact with people who are different from you and may not necessarily like you, and about learning cultural norms and developing shared values and traditions. I was extremely well socialized for evangelical homeschool circles, but not well socialized beyond that. I had no problem feeling comfortable around and understanding other evangelical homeschoolers, but lots of problems feeling comfortable around and understanding those outside of that. Further, I was missing essentially all of the cultural knowledge and shared backround the other college students around me had. It has taken me years to adjust to mainstream society, and I think in some ways I will always feel a little bit like a foreigner.

I have come to realize that the majority of my socialization struggles stemmed not from being homeschooled but from the fact that my parents raised me in a conservative homeschool bubble. In fact, the bubble was such that we didn’t even associate with the non-homeschooled kids at the evangelical megachurch my family attended, to the extent that my similarly homeschooled friends and I found those teens foreign and even frightening. Now, there are plenty of homeschoolers who exist outside of that bubble, and avoid creating bubbles of their own. There are plenty homeschool parents who don’t use homeschooling as an excuse to exercise complete control over their children’s social lives, and there are plenty homeschooled children who grow up with public school friends, interacting with mainstream society rather than being withdrawn from it. I can’t say that these homeschoolers will never face any socialization issues whatsoever, but I can definitely say that they won’t face the same socialization struggles that I did. Those who grow up in the bubble but never actually leave may never face the same struggles I did either.

While being homeschooled does not automatically mean being raised in a bubble, it should be noted that it is the existence of homeschooling that enables the creation of the bubble. Without homeschooling, I would have been exposed to differing viewpoints and a greater diversity of individuals. Interestingly, it is for this reason that homeschooling is currently banned in Germany. This is from a European Court of Human Rights ruling on Germany’s effective ban on homeschooling:

In the present case, the Court notes that the German authorities and courts have carefully reasoned their decisions and mainly stressed the fact that not only the acquisition of knowledge but also integration into and first experiences of society are important goals in primary-school education. The German courts found that those objectives could not be met to the same extent by home education, even if it allowed children to acquire the same standard of knowledge as provided by primary-school education. The Court considers that this presumption is not erroneous and falls within the Contracting States’ margin of appreciation in setting up and interpreting rules for their education systems. The Federal Constitutional Court stressed the general interest of society in avoiding the emergence of parallel societies based on separate philosophical convictions and the importance of integrating minorities into society.

But we do not live in Germany, and our culture is not the same as German culture. Our values are different and we place a greater emphasis on individualism. We have long been a country that is friendly and open to the development of parallel societies—in theory if not always in practice. This naturally becomes a sticking point when children are involved, as children to not choose to be born Amish, or FLDS, or what have you. But children grow up to be adults, and that is when they can make their own life choices and choose their own beliefs. So long as children’s ability to an “open future” is not impeded by the way they are raised, we recognize people’s right to be different that exceeds that recognized in many other countries and cultures.

What is the take away here? Simply that being homeschooled by parents who sought to shelter me from other influences and viewpoints by restricting my social environment to others who shared their same beliefs meant that I struggled with socialization problems when I went away to college and entered mainstream culture. I’m not suggesting that parents should be prevented from raising their children the way my parents raised me. One consequence of freedom is that sometimes people do things that we may not like. That’s just how things are. Instead, all I can do is share my story and encourage others who walk the same path and face the same struggles I have.

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