The Homeschool Decision Part 2: What About Socialization?

One mom's homeschooling journey, from her initial decision to the experience in hindsight

If you haven’t homeschooled or known someone who has, it’s typical to imagine a child at the kitchen table all day with a parent, bent over an open book, with no other kids around. This is a common stereotype that leads people to assume homeschooled kids are socially awkward and that their parents are holding them back from positive social interactions. 

As word got out that we would be homeschooling, the responses were mixed, but among the skeptics, socialization was the biggest concern. They worried that my daughter would suffer some irreparable social setback, citing such things as not having access to school dances or mixing with other kids in the lunchroom.

So what is the truth about the social life and skills of homeschooled kids, and teens in particular? Do they have friends? Are they lonely? And why so much concern about it?

The friendly American

Americans are known for their friendliness. Foreigners often comment that Americans smile all the time and seem to know a lot of people. You might say we’re almost obsessed with the idea of having friends and “being liked.” Accordingly, critics of homeschooling usually cite social skills as the key to success in life, and schools as the place where socialization occurs. No wonder there is concern about families who opt out of traditional schools.

What is meant by “socialization?” I suspect that few homeschool critics are really talking about courtesy, respect and other graces that grease the wheels of personal interaction. You have only to think about lunchroom food fights and bullying and cliques to see that school is not always a civilizing element.

They are more likely referring to the ability to “get along” with people, which, in the best sense, means being able to work successfully with others and contribute to a group effort. But getting along can also mean falling in step with the crowd, maintaining the status quo and otherwise conforming so as not to make waves — qualities less conducive to growing into an independent thinking adult. Middle schools are places particularly rife with peer pressure; those who defy it are often labeled oddballs.

Social advantages of homeschooling

Without the conformity inherent to traditional school settings, she is free to develop her own authentic, idiosyncratic self, and experiment with her personal style and how she presents herself to the world.

One advantage of starting to homeschool in 6th grade was that my daughter already had friends from her elementary school. Yes, homeschooling requires that she make a conscious effort to maintain those friendships (a valuable skill in itself), but not seeing certain friends every day does not make her friendless or socially inept. In fact, not having “all her eggs in one basket” socially helps buffer her from issues that can arise with shifting friendships. You don’t have to homeschool to get this buffering, but it is one solution.

Not having to navigate the social cliques and the peer pressure that exist in middle school has also been a relief. My daughter has said one of the things she likes most about homeschooling is feeling emotionally supported and “safe” — there is no bullying to deal with. This means less drama day to day, and less distraction from actual learning. Without the conformity inherent to traditional school settings, she is free to develop her own authentic, idiosyncratic self, and experiment with her personal style and how she presents herself to the world. She says she feels accepted by the other homeschool students she has met, noting that as a group they seem to be more comfortable with differences in people and less apt to judge. 

Unexpected benefits

When talking about socialization, rarely is anyone referring to the relationship between students and parents. Thankfully, the relationship between my daughter and I has not only survived, but thrived during homeschooling. Popular culture would have us believe that pushback from teens is inevitable, and that parents should consider themselves lucky if their child doesn’t actively dislike them. I’ll admit that at first I had reservations, but being together day in and day out has actually led to greater closeness and natural ease between us. I am part of my daughter’s daily jokes and observations, and I’m seeing her as a person — not just as my daughter. We still have arguments, but there’s too much to accomplish to harbor grudges and they blow over quickly. 

Homeschooling has also led to strong relationships with the other teachers in her life, teachers who have gotten to know my daughter over the course of three years and come to appreciate her strengths and understand her weaknesses. Students with ADHD can be challenging to work with. It takes time to build rapport and trust; time that often isn’t possible within traditional schools where every semester teachers and students move on to new people. For the first time, my daughter feels truly known by her teachers, and this is inspiring her to do her best.

The bottom line

You don’t need hundreds of friends to be socially healthy; a handful can be enough. Through homeschooling my daughter has met a new set of friends — also homeschoolers — who are refreshingly diverse and a nice complement to her old friends. Her “crowd” has come together from various parts of her life, each friend bringing something different to the mix. 

Homeschooling won’t make or break a child’s social skills and contacts. If a child makes friends easily, she will continue to do so while homeschooling. If she is socially awkward, no amount of “facetime” with other kids will change that, and being in a large school may even exacerbate the problem. Having friends and learning to get along with others is critical, but it isn’t dependent upon being in a traditional school setting.

Read part three of this four-part article: The Three Rs and a Whole Lot More

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