Mentors, Peers, and Socialization
Many parents setting out to homeschool have a lot of questions about socialization. This is natural and good! The questions you should ask yourself are: What socialization does my child need, and how can I ensure that their social needs are met? Because children, families, and situations are different, there is no one answer to these questions. However, as an organization run by individuals who were homeschooled as children, we have some personal experience in this area and can offer some important general guidance.
- In some cases, children who were stressed, anxious, or bullied at school have blossomed in a homeschool setting, building confidence in themselves and crafting strong relationships with a supportive group of friends. Indeed, children are sometimes homeschooled specifically because public schools were not a good social environment for them.
- In other cases, however, home educators have put their children back in school after failing to find ways to adequately meet their social needs. In addition, some homeschool graduates report that they received only limited social interaction while being homeschooled, leaving them with crippling social anxiety, or unable to fit in with their peers upon reaching adulthood.
While every homeschooling family, every child, and every situation is different, there are some general principles to keep in mind, which we will address below. The most important thing you can do is listen to your child and take their need for peer interaction seriously.
What Is Socialization?
Before we move on to more practical advice, it is important to know what the term “socialization” actually means. The term is often used to refer to two somewhat different things:
First, the term socialization refers to the process through which a child gains the social skills they need to effectively navigate the social norms and behaviors of the broader society. Children who are homeschooled (like all other children) need to build the “social fluency” that will enable them to negotiate a variety of different social situations, develop and maintain strong relationships, and work well with others in varying contexts.
Children who attend school build social fluency, however imperfectly, through their interactions with other students and with authority figures. Children who are homeschooled need a wide range of social interactions to effectively gain these skills outside of schools. When a child has a disagreement with a friend, exchanges heated words, and later makes up with them, that child is learning about setting boundaries and maintaining friendships. Children also need practice navigating various situations with peers they do not know, as well as experience interacting with authority figures in varying situations outside of the home.
Second, the term socialization is used to refer to the formation of values in children. Scholars have long argued that children learn to be tolerant and accepting of differences by interacting with peers from diverse backgrounds. The experience of intermingling with a diverse student body builds valuable skills which play a crucial role in the continuance of our democracy. Some scholars have expressed concern that children who are homeschooled may not be exposed to children from families different from their own, and as a result may not be effectively prepared for life in a diverse democracy.
On this page, we will primarily address the first definition of socialization. However, you should keep the second definition in mind and let it inform your decisions as you homeschool. If you notice that your child’s friend group is particularly homogenous (whether religiously, racially, or economically), you may want to think about branching out or trying new activities in order to ensure that your child has interaction with children who are different from them.
Socialization is a Human Need
While not quite as important as food, water, and shelter, friendship and intimacy are needs, not preferences or privileges. Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, shown below, depicts love and belonging as a basic human need.
Your child needs unscripted access to peers; privacy as they build and maintain friendships; and frequent interaction with friends and other peers. While every child’s needs differ, in general, your child needs access to non-sibling peers, with time and space to interact, multiple times per week (if not daily). Homeschooled children’s contact with peers may take a variety of forms, including co-ops, classes, clubs, children’s programming, and playdates (for more, see here).
What do we mean by “peers”? While children can, and do, befriend children who are significantly older or younger than they are, your child needs access to children in their same general age cohort. Same-age children are at a similar stage in their lives and will be going through similar experiences. As adults, we also tend to form our closest friendships with those in our general age cohort (this expands as we age).
For an example of the consequences that can occur when homeschooled children do not receive adequate interaction with peers, see this blog post.
Your Child Needs Choice in Friendships
Not every person clicks with every other person. This is just as true for children as for adults! You should not assume that having access to 3-4 children in their age cohort will be sufficient for your child to form deep friendships. In order to find 3-4 close friends, your child will probably need access to several dozen peers.
Some homeschooling parents largely limit their child’s friend pool to the children of their own close friends. For example, a parent may befriend another home educator and have their family over frequently. They may expect their children to become friends as well, and assume that this interaction will meet their child’s social needs. In this scenario, however, the parents get to choose their friends — spending time with individuals they get along with and enjoy being with — while their children are expected to become close friends with children they may have little in common with, or who may not be suited to their personalities.
If your child develops a close peer friendship, you should take steps to maintain your child’s friendship, regardless of how you feel about the friend’s parents. For example, if your child clicks with a peer whose parents you do not know well or have much in common with, that should not be a barrier to setting up playdates or enrolling your child in the same activities as their friend. When a child attends school, they can form friendships without depending on their parents for transportation or scheduling; when a child is homeschooled, their ability to make and maintain friendships becomes more dependent on their parents. It is your responsibility to ensure that your actions do not unnecessarily (or unintentionally) disrupt your child’s friendships. It is important for children to be able to choose friends who suit them.
Your Child Needs Mentors
Close family friends can be, and often are, important mentors. However, children should also have access to adults who are not close friends of their parents who can serve as neutral parties for children to turn to for advice and support. This may include extended family, club leaders, tutors, coaches, or friends’ parents.
Different mentors also have different things to offer—one mentor may share your child’s sense of humor while another shares their interests or talents, or shares some aspect of their identity or personality. Similarly, one mentor may give good career advice while another gives good relationship advice. Children need access to a variety of safe adults in order to have good role models who will help them determine what kind of adult they want to grow up to be.
Your child will also benefit from having access to adults in roles like coach or teacher. Your child will interact with a variety of authority figures throughout their life, so they need to gain experience with different leadership and management styles. This will become especially important as your child enters their teens. Children who attend public school interact with a variety of authority figures and role models; your homeschooled child needs this learning opportunity too.
Your Child Is an Individual
You should not assume that the amount of social interaction one child needs is identical to the amount—or type—of social interaction another child needs. In an article reflecting on her own socialization experience, homeschool graduate Sarah Evans wrote that:
“Social interaction has been different for me and each of my siblings. My older brother was satisfied with a small amount of social interaction each week, and so my parents didn’t realize right away how much social interaction I needed. … My younger siblings are also unique in the amount of social interaction they need (and the kind of social interaction—such as sports or art), so I think it’s really important to consider a child’s personality and make sure that they are getting the amount of social interaction that’s right for them. I was very different than my older brother, and I think I would have really thrived in an environment with more social interaction (such as an actual class or a co-op that met several times a week).”
You may already have some idea of what kinds of social interaction your child prefers. For example, do they thrive in large groups, or do they prefer to spend time in more individual pursuits with one or two close friends? Before you start homeschooling, however, you should sit down with your child and ask them how much time they would like to spend with their friends, or in social situations. Work with them to make a plan to meet these needs.
Every few months, give your child space to reflect on what is going well, and what could be better. Make changes based on their feedback and your observations of your child. Make sure your child feels comfortable telling you if they are unhappy. In some cases, home educators can become so wrapped up in their identity as homeschooling parents that their children feel pressure to pretend that everything is going well even when it is not.
Because every child is different, homeschooling will work better for some children than it will for other children. In fact, some children may simply need more social interaction than homeschooling can offer. If that is the case for your child, that is not an indictment of you—or of your homeschooling methods. If you are listening to your child and empowering them to stand up for their needs and to have a say in their education, you have succeeded.
Don’t forget to read the other articles in this series!
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