What about socialization?

If you’ve ever ventured anywhere near homeschooling, you’ve probably encountered someone asking the classic and dreaded question, what about socialization? This question is always asked by newcomers to homeschooling. Veteran homeschoolers are more likely to ask things like, How do you balance the needs of multiple kids with very different interests and personalities? or How are we out of snacks ALREADY? I JUST bought those.

I don’t qualify as a veteran homeschooler yet, but the socialization aspects of education are some of the biggest reasons we have thus far opted out of traditional schooling.

What is socialization?

The dictionary defines socialization as “the activity of mixing socially with others.”

The research is clear that humans need plenty of interactions with friends and acquaintances for optimal health and wellbeing. In the happiest places on earth, people spend six hours each day socializing face to face. One of the things I love most about our alternative education path is that our kids have the ability to experience this kind of wellbeing. They get to be with friends, collaborate on projects of their own invention, get messy together, build consensus, navigate conflict, and just be kids.

If you’ve ever seen a group of 8 year olds deciding on the rules of a new game, you know they are learning negotiation skills that cannot be taught from a textbook. In my experience, kids naturally socialize and play when you bring them together. If our schools are going to bring out the best in our kids, they need to celebrate our social nature, not squash it. But I believe they are missing the mark right now.

“You’re not here to socialize”

Anyone who has attended a traditional school within the past few decades is familiar with the phrase, you’re not here to socialize. I can’t blame them. Teachers have an incredibly difficult job. Most of them are working hard to help kids learn new skills, but they are stuck under a model of high-stakes testing. The testing requirements often leave teachers stuck cracking down on “socializing” to focus on “learning” — a prioritization that may have worked in 1850, but is less appropriate as a way to prepare for life and the workforce today. The National Education Association highlights the need to teach 21st century skills in schools, summarized by the four Cs:

  • Critical thinking
  • Collaboration
  • Communication
  • Creativity

Unfortunately, schools today often continue to emphasize correct answers over critical thinking, competition over collaboration, and compliance over creativity.

As Sir Ken Robinson points out in an interview with Educational Leadership Magazine, “The greatest scientific breakthroughs have almost always come from some form of fierce collaboration among people with common interests but with very different ways of thinking.” In other words, human ingenuity rarely happens in isolation, or with people who are exactly like you.

Learning to socialize with people of different ages, genders, cultural backgrounds, and brain patterns is more important than ever. Does this happen best in classrooms segregated by single-year age groups, and often by ability? I don’t think it does. I think it works best in mixed-age, mixed-gender, mixed-neurotype groups, which is exactly how I see kid spending their time as homeschoolers, unschoolers, and alternative schoolers.

A second definition of socialization

Socialization is also defined as “the process of learning to behave in a way that is acceptable to society.” This one requires digging a bit deeper than the first definition. What does to mean to act in a way that is acceptable to society?

The messages that we often get as children, and then carry on into adulthood, are to avoid rocking the boat. Follow instructions. Don’t question things. Don’t upset people. Go along with the rest of the group. Try to be normal. Hide your true feelings. Don’t question authority figures.

These are not the messages I want my children to be socialized into accepting. When they believe it’s the right thing to do, I want them know how to make waves and rock the boat. I want them to know there is a place for following instructions and a place for shredding those instructions and lighting them on fire. I want them to be kind and respectful, but I don’t want them tiptoeing through life worrying about upsetting people. I want them to learn how to be part of a group, but know when it’s time to break ties with a group that isn’t healthy for them. I don’t want them to keep quiet about their true feelings. When it matters, I want them to learn how to communicate their feelings productively. I don’t want them to hide their authentic selves in favor of a watered down version of who they are for the sake of being normal. I want them to learn how to express their true feelings to their future partners, friends, and collaborators. I certainly don’t want them to follow authority figures unquestioningly.

If being “socialized” means acting in a way that is always deemed acceptable to society, we will bow out. I’m not raising kids with the primary goal of teaching them how to sit down and be quiet. I’d rather raise children who know how to stand up and speak out.

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