What the Research Says on Socialization
There is a large body of research focused on whether or not children who are homeschooled are well-socialized. Most of this research finds that being homeschooled does not harm children’s development of social skills, as measured in these studies. In fact, some research finds that homeschooled children score more highly than children who attend school on measurements of socialization.
However, this research has major limitations, and does not reflect the experiences of many homeschool alumni. In their 2020 review of the literature on homeschooling, researchers Robert Kunzman and Milton Gaither noted that studies of homeschooling and socialization have three major limitations:
- Studies typically draw on a volunteer sample of homeschooled students, and as a result likely oversample children whose parents are more engaged;
- Studies typically rely almost entirely on home educators’ and homeschooled children’s self-reports, and not on neutral assessments of children’s social skills;
- Studies typically “treat school attendance as a binary,” and do not take into account whether children attend school part-time or are enrolled in co-ops.
The two widest-reaching studies of homeschool graduates have had very different findings. In 2004, homeschooling parent Brian Ray recruited 5,254 homeschool graduates to participate in a study which he promised would show that homeschooling was effective; perhaps unsurprisingly, his findings were largely positive. In 2014, Homeschool Alumni Reaching Out (HARO) conducted its own survey of 3,702 homeschool graduates; when we analyzed this data for HARO, we found much more mixed results. In the HARO survey, roughly 25% of respondents reported poor or very poor socialization; the quality of socialization respondents reported predicted how prepared they felt for the future. However, even this study is likely limited by whether respondents interpreted socialization to mean only social interaction, or also the development of a greater social fluency.
Only one survey of homeschool graduates has used a randomly selected sample: the Cardus Education Survey (2011). This survey, which compared and contrasted the educational experiences of adults aged 24 to 39 who grew up in religious homes, found that graduates of homeschools were more likely to report “lack of clarity of goals and sense of direction” and “feelings of helplessness in dealing with life’s problems” than conventionally schooled graduates. However, homeschool graduates were also more likely to report that they felt “prepared for relationships.”
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.
Among homeschooling alumni in CRHE’s network, it is rare to meet a homeschool graduate who experienced no struggles with socialization, understood in this way. In some cases, homeschooled children have sufficient interaction with friends to meet their social needs, but are socialized primarily with other children who are also homeschooled; these individuals often go through a painful period of adjustment, learning unfamiliar social norms and cues, when they begin interacting with other peers, whether in college or in the workforce.
The term socialization can also refer to the process by which children learn to be tolerant and accepting of differences in a multicultural society by interacting with peers from diverse backgrounds. For all of these reasons, we advise home educators to ensure that their children make friends and interact with a variety of children, and not just with other children who are homeschooled or who are similar to them. When home educators socialize their children with different children in a variety of contexts, they can help ensure that their children will have the skills they need to succeed as adults.
Limited Research Questions
For all the research on homeschooling and socialization, there has been little to no research on the question that might prove most useful to parents who homeschool: What factors contribute to a homeschooled child being more or less well socialized?
Homeschooling is not a monolith. One homeschooled child may be involved in a soccer club, a homeschool music co-op, and a writing class, and have their friends over regularly besides, while another homeschooled child may have no outside activities and little interaction with friends. Whether the homeschooled children examined in a particular study are more or less well socialized than children who attend public school does not give a conscientious homeschooling parent any helpful information on what practical actions they can take to ensure that their child receives the socialization they need. It would be useful to know, for example, whether children who participate in homeschool co-ops, or public school or community sports leagues, or clubs at their local libraries, report better social outcomes.
Research on the socialization of homeschooled children cannot tell an individual home educator what is best for an individual child, or whether an individual child who is homeschooled will be well socialized. In some cases, home educators later enroll their children in school because they find that they are unable to successfully meet their child’s social needs at home; in other cases, children who were bullied or experienced negative social environments in public school flourish in a homeschool setting.
Research on socialization needs to evolve to ask different questions. Given the individual nature of homeschooling, it is not as helpful to know whether homeschooled children overall perform well on specific academic measures of socialization as it would be to know what factors contribute to positive outcomes and what factors are associated with negative experiences.