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.
Homeschool Socialization 101
Your child needs interaction with peers.
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 to be able to choose friends.
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 access to mentors and supportive adults.
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 has their own individual social needs.
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.
Keeping Your Child Safe
It may be tempting to feel that homeschooling your child will keep them safe from outside harm, whether that is sexual abuse, harassment, or bullying. However, children who are homeschooled can and do experience sexual abuse at the hands of relatives, close family friends, or others, and may be bullied or ostracized by children in their circles.
Sexual Abuse Prevention
Public schools cover sexual abuse prevention in their social and emotional learning programs, and require teachers and other staff to have background checks. Schools, teachers and other staff can also serve as a protective factor for children who experience harm outside of school. While these safeguards are not foolproof, children who are homeschooled frequently lack access to these basic standards. In order to provide your child with at least the same level of safety they would experience in a school, you should use resources like the Kidpower Book for Caring Adults to educate yourself about potential hazards, warning signs, and risk factors.
You should ensure that your child receives instruction in abuse prevention. While the content varies by age, this typically starts by helping a child learn to recognize inappropriate touching. Your child needs to know that their body belongs to them, that they can say “no” to contact that makes them uncomfortable, and that the adults (and children) around them should respect that. By equipping your child to recognize inappropriate behavior in adults — and ensuring that they know how to get help if they need it — you will be helping prepare them to advocate for themselves not only now, but also in the future.
You can also read our How to Become an Expert on Child Safety, which covers what you can do to educate yourself, and How to Make Your Homeschool Community Safe, which includes information on what homeschool groups and co-ops can do to protect children. (Note: these resources coming soon.)
In addition to providing instruction in abuse prevention, public schools today typically also cover bullying prevention. Some parents begin homeschooling because their child was bullied by other children in school, and may assume that homeschooling their child will take care of the problem. However, while homeschooling can offer some children a respite from social persecution and an opportunity to build their confidence, children who are homeschooled can also experience bullying. You should ensure that your child receives instruction in bullying prevention (you might start by looking into the programs mentioned here). Your child needs to know that it is not okay for other children to treat them badly, and that they can stand up for themselves or draw boundaries.
Bullying can happen in homeschool groups and co-ops, as well as in other classes and extracurriculars your child participates in. Bullying can also happen within friend groups, or within groups you think are friends. Remember, homeschooled children are sometimes expected to befriend children they have the nearest proximity to, such as the children of their parents’ close friends. Homeschooling parents sometimes miss signs of bullying because they assume that their children will get along, or that homeschooling is a bullying-free zone.
In some cases, children may bully their siblings. While disagreements between siblings are expected and normal, this should not be their dominant interaction. Homeschooling can lead to the creation of strong, long-lasting sibling relationships, but this does not happen automatically. In some cases homeschooling can put stress on sibling bonds. Children who attend school have their own separate social spheres and time away from each other; this is often not the case for children who are homeschooled. If your children’s interaction with each other becomes primarily negative, they may need more time away from each other, or more of their own, separate pursuits. Teach your children to respect their siblings’ boundaries.
Avoiding Common Pitfalls
CRHE is founded and run by individuals who were homeschooled as children. In addition, we maintain a large alumni network and have had heard stories from hundreds of additional homeschool graduates. We have identified several pitfalls homeschooling parents can fall into may can lead to negative social outcomes for their children. The good news is that you can take steps now to avoid these pitfalls with your own children!
Your child should interact with peers who are not homeschooled.
Homeschool graduates whose childhood socialization was limited to other homeschooled children frequently report having a difficult time fitting in with non-homeschooled peers in college or in the workplace. They report experiencing social anxiety, feeling culturally out of place, and being unable to relate to their public or private schooled peers. In order to avoid this problem, you should make sure that your child has interaction with children who attend public or private schools, and makes friends among these children.
Fostering interaction with peers who attend public or private school does not have to be complicated. Your child may befriend children in your neighborhood who attend public or private school, or children they meet through a community athletics program or other extracurricular. If your child attended school before being homeschooled, they will likely keep many of the friends they made there. Clubs at your local library or after-school STEM programs held at local community centers are other avenues for bringing your child into contact with children who attend school.
If your child states that they do not understand children who attend public school, or makes disparaging remarks about these children, you should take concerted steps to ensure that they are able to forge friendships and understand peers across educational options. Make sure that you never communicate to your child that being homeschooled makes them better than other children, as this could create a sense of otherness or an adversarial mentality. Home educators may unintentionally encourage their children to look down on children who attend school by making disparaging remarks about public schools or about the behavior of public school children they encounter on field trips or in other contexts. Try to avoid making such comments in your child’s hearing, as this may negatively affect their ability to build connections with peers or to attend school in the future.
Some parents homeschool because they believe children who attend school become too peer-dependent, or because they feel public schools are characterized by a culture of status seeking or bullying that is harmful to children. While these home educators may choose to model or encourage different social patterns in their children from what they experienced at school, all parents who homeschool should remember that the vast majority of individuals their child will interact with in college, in the workplace, and in their communities as adults will be graduates of public schools. Your child needs to be able to communicate with and build relationships with individuals different from themselves, including peers who receive other forms of schooling. This is part of building social fluency.
Interaction with adults is different from interaction with peers.
In some cases, home educators may believe a child is well socialized based on the child’s ability to communicate effectively and appropriately with adults. However, a child’s ability to interact with authority figures says little about their ability to interact with peers. Homeschool graduates who report being praised by authority figures as especially “mature” frequently also report being unable to relate to their peers, or experiencing devastating social anxiety. In fact, in some cases children who are uncomfortable interacting with peers may gravitate toward adults, creating the impression that they are mature when they are actually socially underdeveloped.
Some homeschool advocates claim that it is more important for children to learn to interact with adults than with other children, because when they are adults, they will be interacting with adults, and not children. This claim is not only wrong but also profoundly harmful. There is a fundamental difference between an individual’s relationship with an authority figure, and an individual’s relationship with a peer. A child’s ability to interact with an adult, as a child, communicates little about their future ability to interact with an adult, as adult equals.
Interaction with adults is important: it will help prepare children to relate to professors, employers, and other authority figures when they are grown. However, interaction with adults will not prepare children to relate to other adults as peers when they are grown. The adults your child will need to interact with most frequently as an adult will be their peers. Interaction with adults cannot and should not replace your child’s need for interaction with peers — i.e. children in their age cohort. If your child gravitates toward interaction with adults and away from interaction with peers, this may actually be a sign of a problem.
The most important thing you can do for your child is listen to their needs, concerns, and wants. Do not brush off your child’s desire for time with friends. If your child expresses a preference for a specific friend or activity, indulge them. The best homeschooling is child-centered, responsive, and active, not dismissive, prescriptive, or centered on adult preferences.
Note: To learn about what academic research has found regarding homeschooling and socialization, see What the Research Says on Socialization.