Guest Post by Sophelia
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.
Something like Girl Scouts would have made all the difference in my childhood. I spent a lot of time with other homeschooled kids, which really doesn’t help, and attended ballet and violin lessons and sang in a choir. Although these activities involved being in a room with other children my age, none of them involved working together in groups, unsupervised interactions or long-term relationships with a consistent group of the same kids. So while my parents would point to all my activities as evidence of my socialisation, in fact I was just lonely and awkward in a crowded room instead of an empty one. It’s about quality not quantity (which is one reason that going to school doesn’t necessarily mean a child is being well socialised). If I had a falling out with another homeschooled child, I just never spoke to them again. I never had the experience of fighting with someone and then making up. It is such fundamental life skill, but unless you are together with someone regularly irrespective of your desires, it’s difficult to learn.
Homeschoolers often point to a child’s comfort speaking to “people of all ages” as a sign of successful “real-world” socialisation. I can say from personal experience that a child who confidently and comfortably interacts with adults is not necessarily well socialised. My own experience suggests the opposite. I was intellectually and academically advanced years ahead of my emotional and social development. At eight years old I was more comfortable discussing the minutiae of the reformation with a professor I bumped into at the university library (where I spent a lot of time) than I was playing with the girl my own age next door. I was an adult mind in a child’s body, and I saw the same thing in many of the other homeschooled kids I spent time with. We could discuss philosophy with each other all day long, but we didn’t know how to talk to ‘normal’ children. It was more than not feeling comfortable; it was like we came from another country and although we had studied their language the reality was disconcertingly different from our textbooks. Naturally, schooled children spend a lot of time talking about school and would just nod and smile, having no idea what “BTN” or whatever even was.
An articulate, self-confident child who converses easily with adults is not necessarily well socialised! And the belief that they are will make it all the harder for that child to cope with the problems they face when they do eventually try to participate in a group their own age. When parents constantly dismiss concerns about socialisation, children internalise it as true. Then if they have trouble relating to peers or interacting socially, they may blame themselves: “I know was well socialised, so it must be something inherently wrong with me. I’m unlikeable, I say the wrong things, I’m clumsy…” I felt this way, and many of my homeschooled peers also went through periods of great depression when they began attending university and couldn’t cope socially.
All parents need to be conscious of their child’s socialisation and proactive in making sure they are getting what they need. Socialisation is not only a concern for homeschoolers! Personality makes a huge difference. The elder of my brothers was a dreamy, lost-in-thought and decidedly strange child. He would have been miserable being forced into large groups in a school setting and would certainly have been bullied and tormented. He needed space and quiet to develop before he was ready to be around a lot of people, and home education was exactly right for him. For my older sister and myself, it was isolating, depressing and we fantasised about going to school. I am not trying to say that homeschooling and good socialisation are mutually exclusive. Depending on the child, the family, and the attention paid to socialisation homeschooling may be the best possible option. However, it upsets me to hear parents today giving the same throw away lines my own parents used about socialisation being a non-issue for homeschoolers and that a child who is comfortable interacting with adults is a paragon of socialisation.
Sophelia was homeschooled in Australia in a prominent homeschool family. She blogs at Sophelia’s Adventures in Japan about teaching, adopting, dog-wrangling and being vegetarian in Japan, with a side of martial arts a pop-culture geekiness.