I recently came upon a post titled 3 Ways Homeschoolers Socialize Differently than School Kids. Curious, I clicked. I should have known better. Predictably, the post was written by a homeschooling mother who has no idea what it’s like to actually be a homeschooled child. In this post I will respond to the points made by blogger Jennifer Fitz, speaking from my experience as a homeschool alumna.
1. Homeschool kids break their own ice.
I picked up my son from his Confirmation kick-off event, a true microcosm of suburban 9th grade living. We were delayed in departing, and I noticed he was chatting with a boy I’d never met before, who had “Chris” written on his name tag. We got in the car. “So I saw you were chatting with, um, Chris? Is it? Nice kid?”
Usually the boy has a few interesting stories to share about the people he meets. This time he shrugged. “I don’t know. I just started talking to him when you showed up. We were so busy doing ice breakers we didn’t get to actually meet anybody.”
Yeah, homeschool kids don’t get ice breakers. You show up at a new event with people you’ve never met, and your parents leave you to the wolves. “Go find some kids. Or make yourself useful somewhere.”
They always do. It can take as long as five or ten minutes, if it’s a large group event the kids are joining midstream. But my kids never sit in a corner neglected. They are in the habit of introducing themselves, striking up a conversation, and finding something, anything, in common with whomever is tossed their way.
Some children are more extroverted and others are more introverted. What exactly does this have to do with homeschooling? My public schooled daughter walks right up to other kids and introduces herself. My shy homeschooled little sister does not, preferring to hang back much longer until she feels comfortable. Trust me when I say that this isn’t about homeschooling.
2. Homeschool kids spend the bulk of their time with people different from themselves.
Sitting at a lunch table with the same five friends every day, exactly the same age, same academic track, same clubs, and same fashion tastes? Yeah, that never happens in homeschooling. Mixed-age, mixed-neighborhood, mixed-ability social circles are the norm among homeschoolers. Cliqueishness is a no-go, because 1) the parents lose patience with that nonsense fast and 2) on any given day, you might have to be friends with exactly that one person you would have happily excluded if only this were the lunchroom and you had the choice of your favorites.
Growing up, I never, ever had a friend who was not also able bodied, middle class, white, evangelical, and the child of two married heterosexual parents. Heading off to college came as a huge shock because I was suddenly thrown in with people who were completely different from me. But this makes sense, if you think about it. When you are homeschooled your social world is whatever your parents choose to give you. Some homeschooling parents will expose their children to a wide diversity of people, but others will keep their children in a homogenous bubble.
My daughter is only in kindergarten, but already she has been exposed to more different people than I was through high school. There are black and white kids in her class, middle class and poor kids, children with Christian and atheist parents, children with single parents and children with parents who never married, and disabled children. My public schooled daughter is experiencing more different people in kindergarten than I experienced until college.
Jennifer adds this:
From there, it only gets more different: Homeschool kids spend a lot of time with grown-ups. Not just their parents. Not just teachers. (As a kid writing fiction, I could only ever think up “teacher” for a profession for my adult characters, because that was the only profession I was ever exposed to enough to have an idea of what the job entailed.) Homeschool kids spend their formative years going wherever their parents go, doing all the adult chores that grown-ups do. The people who live and work in their community aren’t stage hands for a me-centered teenage drama; they are the community. Homeschool kids get used to having spur-of-the-moment adult conversation with grown-ups of every age, profession, and cultural background.
Actually, socializing with adults is very different from socializing with other children. As a homeschooled child, I never had a problem socializing with adults—I knew they would praise me for how mature and smart I was, how hard working and diligent. Other children, on the other hand? Haha, nope. I got on fine with the other homeschooled children in my social circle, but I was literally afraid of public school children. They were so different from me that I had no idea how to relate to them. They were scary. I had to enter a public high school to take the PSAT, and I was so anxious I was sick that morning—not because of the exam, I wasn’t worried about that in the least, it was the entire idea of being surrounded by public school kids. I couldn’t handle it.
Now I am not saying that every homeschooled child is afraid of public school children, or that this is the natural product of being homeschooled. Absolutely not! But Jennifer makes a mistake in generalizing from how she is socializing her son to how every other parent out there socializes their children. What kind of socialization homeschooled kids get is almost entirely dependent on their parents. Some parents are absolutely crippled by the lack of socialization they have in their homeschooled upbringing while others thrive and develop healthy social skills.
You cannot look at one homeschooled child and predict another’s experience, because the only thing different homeschooling families have in common is that the parents are in sole control of their children’s academic and social development.
3. Homeschool kids form deep, lasting relationships with the people they treasure most.
A reality of homeschool life is that you might have certain very dear friends you only see a few times a year. Of all the many friendly-acquaintances you gather everywhere you go, a few really resonate. They’re ones who understand you. They’re the ones you could spend hours talking to, and when you pick back up again six months later, it’s like you just saw each other yesterday.
School friendships are a little bit like this, in that you socialize all year with whomever is at hand, but very few of those friendships carry forward once you’re no longer in the same class or club. It’s easy to imagine at school you’ve got a real friendship going, when really those friends will drop you as soon as they find something better.
The homeschooling difference is that there’s never any illusion that you’ve got five best friends sitting next to you at lunch each day. You have to be intentional about cultivating your friendships, and you’ve got the mental space to do it in. When you find that one good friend, you make an effort to stay in touch. You learn to use whatever resources you have at hand to arrange a way to get together more often. Sometimes you discover that the friendly acquaintance was only ever just that, or the friendship wanes as your values and interests diverge later in life. But it’s not uncommon for homeschoolers to have multiple deep, lasting relationships that endure for years despite distance and long separation.
Does Jennifer have any idea how hard it was to be 16 and only see one of my closest friends four or six times a year? It wasn’t even that they lived far away, it was just that we weren’t in any of the same activities and we were completely dependent on our parents for transport. Jennifer thinks this is some sort of positive benefit of homeschooling? Does she have any idea how hard it was to go on stating that this person was one of my best friends even as I had no clue what was going on in her life because I hadn’t seen her in months? I just can’t here. Jennifer may look at the five best friends she had at lunch in middle school as only temporary friends, but at least she actually had friends she saw regularly. I didn’t.
Jennifer seems to be applying “absence makes the heart grow stronger” to children’s friendships. It does not work like that.
It’s absolutely true that out of a large group of people you will only resonate with a few. The problem was that, as a homeschool kid, I didn’t have a large group of people to draw from. I had to take whatever I got. Now yes, I had some good, solid friendships. I had to, because if I didn’t I would have had no one. But there were also times I hung on to a friendship with someone who didn’t really fit because, well, they were the only option I had. I read one study that said that homeschooled children have fewer friends than their peers, but that they value the ones they have more. Well duh, I thought.
So what if my public schooled daughter has five best friends sitting by her at lunch who will move on and change and grow different and branch off in different directions as they grow? At least she sees them more often than once every three months. And you know what? My friends from childhood grew and changed too, as did I. Being homeschooled didn’t magically make all of my friendships last forever.
If I had to come up with a list of how homeschoolers actually socialize differently than school kids, what would I include on the list?
1. They more dependent on their parents. While children who attend school see other children daily as a matter of course, homeschooled children only see other children as a result of involvement in various activities or making plans to get together with another family. These things rest solely in the hands of the parents.
2. Keeping up friendships takes more effort. I cannot even begin to count the number of times my siblings and I begged to have a friend over or to become involved in an activity so that we would see a friend. Public school children may be able to fall into friendships, but we didn’t have that option.
3. They can’t afford to be as picky. Mostly, I was friends with the children of my parents’ friends. After all, if our parents weren’t friends it was unlikely we would see each other often enough to have anything you could give the label “friendship.” In other cases, homeschooled children are forced to turn to the internet to find friends.
“What about socialization?” Homeschooled parents have been asked this question over and over again for decades. I understand finding it annoying to get this question so many times, but it’s a good question, and one homeschooling parents should take seriously. I’m really tired of reading blog posts by homeschooling parents arguing that homeschooled children are actually better than public schooled children. Trust me, I heard this growing up, too! Hearing this didn’t make me any less afraid of public schooled children, and it didn’t magic me more friends.
Look, if you are a homeschooling parent, your children’s socialization is up to you. If you do your job right, your children will have a large pool to draw their friends from, have close friends they see regularly, and be comfortable around a wide range of different people. But this is not guaranteed. It’s something you have to work for.
As a final note, I am aware that not all children who attend school simply fall into friendships, and that there are children who attend public school and are still profoundly lonely. I don’t think parents of children who attend school should assume they don’t need to pay attention to their children’s social needs. All I’m saying is that when parents homeschool, they take their children’s social needs solely into their hands, and that’s not a responsibility they should take lightly.