On Socialization (again)

January 28, 2014 in Education

With friends

It’s a topic that comes up from time to time.

People wonder how in the world kids can possibly be “properly” socialized without school. Or without several hours a day of peer group interaction. Or without structured child culture built around them like a giant playpen.

People who’ve actually met our kids don’t ask a second time if they’re “okay” socially. Occasionally, however, someone will get brave enough to wonder aloud what I “do with them all day every day.” This makes me laugh, but it annoys my kids. It bothers them because, of course, the obvious answer is that *I* do not need to “do” anything with them all day every day. They are going about their own lives, pursuing their own interests, shouldering their own responsibilities. We work, we play, we project, we study, we explore, we adventure, we discuss together, all day every day, but this is their life, unfolding in real time, not some holding pattern I’ve got them in until they’re old enough to be out of my hair.

The thing that I find most offensive about these socialization discussions is that they take place around the child, but rarely do they include the child, or even honor the child in the process.

Socialization is not something that we do to a child, it is something a child does for himself, with the comfortable support of the community. His first socialization is with his parents, then siblings if he has any, then extended family, friends and concentric circles of community outwards from there. We provide interaction, we provide support, the child herself chooses to interact, or not, grows from the results of those interactions, adjusts course, tries again, and begins to learn to balance the needs of others against her own.

I would submit that if a child doesn’t move through those circles smoothly, with appropriate connection and support then she’ll always struggle to balance the outer rings. Learning to function in community is predicated on knowing how to function in one’s family relationships, and yet all of this emphasis is put on kids being socialized properly by being outside of their primary relationships for the bulk of their waking hours. Does that make sense to you?

There is another element of socialization that is totally ignored: the art of being alone, of learning that we, by ourselves, are enough, of becoming comfortable in our own skins, confident in our own abilities. I’ll admit that this is a harder thing to provide in a bigger family, like ours. A kid like Ezra who has never, organically, been alone, has to work at it more. It’s something we help him cultivate by not over structuring his days. I can’t tell you if it’s working yet, I might not know until he’s 25.

Instead of going around the block (aaaahhhhgain) demonstrating that home schooled kids are not at a social deficiency at the end of the day, today I’d like to give you a peek behind the curtain regarding what I “do with them all day” and an idea of what real-world socialization looks like, right now, today, in our family.

First, you should know that my kids order their own days.

They get up when they get up. They school when they school. They get their chores done first thing (a long standing pattern in our family.) They are free, all four of them, to order their own days. I don’t know any other way to teach responsible life patterns than to let them do their best and course correct when it gets messy. Sometimes it gets messy. I don’t “insist” that they do any particular thing at any particular time, but I do insist that it all gets done. We aim for two sides of the same coin where any project is concerned, toilet cleaning to advanced algebra: diligence and a cheerful attitude.

Gabriel appeared at breakfast with his conversation with Rachael in one hand and a tea cup in the other. He talks to five of six friends off and on through the day every day. They share life, even when they don’t share space. He was out the door to feed his “pregnant girlfriends” (the three cows he’s babysitting) and I’ve seen him perhaps six times since then. He’s working, cleaning up, schooling, and playing with his brothers a bit in between. He informed me at lunch that at seven tonight he’s got a call with Dylan, who is in Hawaii at the moment, to play some games and be boys. I got a note from Mrs. Wood mentioning how much she’d enjoyed chatting with him last night on their way home from a teen group, commenting on how much fun he was. Gabe and I have gone back and forth via email about the editorial work he’s doing on his paper about Moby Dick.

Elisha is cramming to get his school work done for the day because he and Ez are hoping very much for some hang time with their buddy Stevie, who is in Prague, before it gets too late over there. Ez, who was up and through his work by ten this morning, has spent his day creating art projects, and chatting with me about his new friend Connor, who is apparently a bit different than the other kids. They’re both wondering how long until Aunt Robin gets here for tea, and wondering if she’ll be bringing her dogs for the visit. Ez gave us a dissertation on his history reading for the day and then asked a bunch of questions about the history of music book that he’s working on.

Hannah hit the ground running. She’s been interacting with potential work contacts and colleagues: the editor of a magazine that I don’t know, Lainie, who she plots unschooling projects with, Susan, for whom she does editorial work, and Lynn, who she interned with two years ago and is hoping will take her on for a second round. She’s also chatted away with her best buddy in Germany and probably with Jessie too, a day never goes by without my kids talking to Jessie. She’s my age. Hannah appeared at lunch for a philosophical conversation on living an authentic life and to call Ez, “Honey,” as she pointed out something obvious in her big sister way. She’s disappeared back into her chick-cave for the afternoon, intent on making some actual money before dinner time.

Today is our first week back at art lessons via Skype. Caroline is in the USA somewhere now, but she has taught our kids from three continents while we’ve been on two different ones. She’s a fantastic art teacher, but she’s an even better friend to my kids. I appreciate her patient instruction and the genuine interest she takes in the kids.

They’re taking music lessons, and participating in a gym day each week as well with a group of forty or so kids between five and eighteen, but that’s not happening today.

In the middle of the day a truck arrived and we found ourselves with two Puerto Rican men scratching their heads over the dimensions of a drier the landlords were having delivered vs. the door frame. Hannah whipped into sight to ask, “You guys speakin’ Spanish? Where ya from?” The conversation quickly got complicated.

And then Gabe got a text. His friend Jonathan, announcing that they were going to a movie and they were leaving that instant. In a whirlwind of jackets and boots my entire tribe left, leaving me standing there with bewildered looking Puerto Ricans and a confused art teacher. They left her hanging in the excitement of a last minute outing with friends. I apologized profusely for that, it will not happen again.

So let’s do the math, on today’s socialization, shall we?

Kids in their own age group interacted with (not including each other, which does, by the way, count)  Approximately 15-20 (not sure how many kids went to the movie, but at least 6 besides mine)

Adults who are friends interacted with: 4 or 5

Adults who are colleagues interacted with: 3 or 4

Strangers with whom a connection was made: 2

Number of different countries interacted with: at least 5 on 3 continents

Languages spoken: at least 2

Does that seem socially diverse enough to you?

Here’s the kicker, folks: I did none of that “for” them.

They did every bit of that for themselves. I’m not “socializing” my kids by controlling every aspect of their environment and experience between bells, or any other narrow margins. I’m expecting them to socialize themselves and make use of the wide variety of experiences and knowledge groups that they find at their disposal in our community, and beyond it, as it occurs to them to expand their circles. I support them in that effort. I help them reach out when they need me to. I provide a safe place to come back and think, process, grow and move forward in their self development, but I don’t “worry” about their socialization, I don’t structure it for them in artificial ways. Instead, we’ve taken the approach of opening wide our door, welcoming as much of the world as we can get under our mobile roof and inviting those individuals to be who they are and share what they know. We trust our kids to form those relationships for themselves and we carefully support them in their self development in their own ways. I don’t want to become a crutch for my children. I don’t want them to “need” me. I want them to find their own feet in the world and move confidently in the direction of their dreams.

I’m not anti-public school, but I don’t think it’s for every child. I do think that it’s a mistake to assume that proper, healthy socialization takes place within artificial constructs. I do think it’s a mistake to think that carefully constructed moral campaigns within a classroom setting are somehow going to do a better job at handing kids the tools to manage the realities of relationships than encouraging them to form a variety of outside the box relationships.

I’m not anti-homeschooling either (obviously) but I don’t think it’s for every child either. I do think it’s a mistake to homeschool your kids to shelter them or keep them from some aspect of the real world. I do think it’s a mistake to treat home like an enclave or a clam shell that is inward focused to the exclusion of the rest of the world. I think it’s a mistake to assume that if we just get all of the external constructs “right” that our kids will come out “perfect.” Life is messier than that, and both can be narrow minded extremes. Children are individuals, their educations and “socialization” should be as well.

So, let’s talk about this, shall we? What constitutes healthy socialization and how do we make that happen with our kids?