Education and Schooling #11: Unschooling, Schooling and Socialisation

Sport in childhood. Association football, show...

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If you had a six-year-old child, and institutional schooling had never existed, how would you go about preparing them for adult life?

In the next few posts on unschooling, I want to tease out a few different issues and discuss them separately. Today it’s the different social experiences schooled and unschooled (or homeschooled) kids have.

Children need to get along with other people. ‘What about socialisation?’ is the most-often asked question about homeschooling and unschooling, and certainly came up here in the (dozens of!) comments on our first unschooling post (which is, yes, quite a while ago now).

So if schools had never existed, what would we think was the best way of teaching social skills like confidence, kindness, sharing, getting along with different people, negotiation, conflict resolution and forging friendship, to our theoretical six-year-old?

How about finding twenty other six-year-olds and putting them in a room together for six hours a day for a year. Then another year. And another ten. Let’s have just one adult, maybe two, involved with their social relationships for those six hours a day, while also teaching other things like maths and handwriting.

This artificial environment may be efficient, but it isn’t reflective of the rest of life. It is more homogenous and provides less adult interaction than normal life (think about an office picnic with twenty families as a contrasting social situation).

As one unschooling mother writes:

But my son was six, in a class of six year olds. I had a hard time believing that other six year olds were the best people to help him develop his social skills. From what I have seen, most six year olds—while very lovely in all kinds of ways– are still a little shaky in the social skills department, prone to occasional tantrums and frequent lapses of tact.

It seemed to me that spending huge amounts of time segregated with other six year olds wasn’t natural or necessary or even likely to be particularly helpful in the development of social abilities.

Whatever advantages school has, ‘socialisation’ isn’t actually one of them. We think it is because we all went through it, and that’s where we learned to compromise, cooperate and cope with difference – vital social skills, certainly.

But many of us also learned to bully, to be bullied, to figure out we weren’t okay as we were and needed to pretend to be different to be accepted. Many of us learned that coolness and popularity were more important than sticking up for what’s right. Many of us felt helpless and trapped and learned that how we felt about our lives wasn’t important to the adults around us.

Thirteen-year-old unschooler Skylar wrote this in a letter to the editor recently:

Many people look down on unschoolers because they think we are not exposed to things and are not “socialized.” For those of you who believe that, I say to you this; If by not being “socialized” I am not getting bullied, teased, introduced to drugs, or just forced to conform, then I don’t care! If it’s important to you that your kids learn how to “deal with bullies” then I feel sad for your children. We do not learn how to deal with bullies in school but instead learn to shrivel up inside and resent anyone who mentions that we are short or have freckles.

[Read the whole letter here.]

John Holt, unschooling guru, puts it more starkly in his 2003 book, Teach Your Own:

If there were no other reason for wanting to keep kids out of school, the social life would be reason enough. In all but a very few of the schools I have taught in, visited, or know anything about, the social life of the children is mean-spirited, competitive, exclusive, status-seeking, snobbish, full of talk about who went to whose birthday party and got what Christmas presents who got how many Valentine cards and who is talking to so-and-so and who is not.

He’s being a bit harsh on both kids and schools, but I imagine we all recognise what he’s talking about.

How do we usually ensure two- and three-year-olds are ‘socialised’ before school is even an option? Their parents and other trusted adults teach and model things like ‘We are kind to our friends’ and how to say sorry. We watch as they learn and practise these things, and we give them more independence (we let them play outside or in another room with other kids; later, they can go to the movies without adults) the more they show they know how to be kind and responsible. We explicitly teach them to interact with all kinds of people, to say thank you to the supermarket checkout operator, to answer the phone confidently, to ask their friend’s dad for a glass of water, to share toys (however grudgingly!) with older and younger visiting children.

Parents are clearly vital for the ‘socialisation’ of young children. Perhaps they are also more important for the socialisation of older children than we give them credit for.

What I’m trying to do first here is clear the decks. People ask homeschoolers and unschoolers ‘but what about socialisation?’ in shocked tones. I think that question is relevant for all of us, whether our kids are in formal schooling or not.

Here’s what I’ve figured out only as I’ve written this post. Parents have more to do with good socialisation than peers.

Being dropped into a group of peers gives a kid the opportunity to practise their social skills, but other children are not the best teachers of the content of the skills we want our kids to learn. Am I right? You can’t figure out how well-adjusted adults ought to behave by how a group of six-year-olds naturally acts when left alone.

See also Lord of the Flies.

Image from poster of the 1990 film adaptaion of William Golding’s Lord of the Flies

So what are we supposed to be doing to help our kids become, well, nice people?

If kids are home/unschooled, parents clearly need to have an eye to their social relationships and encounters. There are plenty of ways unschoolers can be exposed to different people, and mainstream kid culture, for better and worse.

Unschooling doesn’t mean kids don’t take classes, just that they choose what classes, if any, they take. They might do Scouts, ballet, choir, team sport or drama with bunches of other kids. They might go on camps with hordes of kids. They might just have lots of cousins or neighbours or be at church with a bunch of kids their age. It certainly takes some careful thinking for them and their parents to make sure they are exposed to enough difference and difficulty to learn and grow, but it doesn’t need to be unpleasant or disempowering, as school is for some kids.

If kids are in school, it seems to me that parents still have to keep a close eye on how their experience of ‘socialisation’ is going. Formal education will take care of a few things almost automatically. Kids will learn a measure of independence just by going along, and they’ll be exposed to a bunch of different kinds of people straight away. Even in a relatively homogenous school there will be people from different family structures, extraverts and introverts, kids good at art and kids good at maths. That’s great, as a place to practise getting along with different people.

If the biggest social risk of unschooling is that kids will be sheltered or their social circles too small, the biggest risks for kids in school seem to me to be that in a desire or felt necessity to fit in with the crowd, a child will change how they are or seem and/or do things they know aren’t right or kind. Kids who don’t fit in risk being bullied or excluded and sensing that their uniqueness – their self, in fact – is not valued or valuable.

It seems to me that the best tools for parenting kids in formal schooling (or out of it) are strong, and frequently-articulated family values of kindness, bravery and the value of individuality. Just as we teach and model apologising, sharing and asking for the potatoes, we need to explicitly practise standing up for the underdog, facing the wrath of a snarky mob with aplomb, and polite disagreement. Glennon Doyle Melton famously starts each school year with a pep talk along these lines. Everyone with a kid in school should read it, I reckon.

Of course, I don’t have a child of school age, so what do I know!? Tell me. This is such a big, important question for all parents, no matter what kind of schooling approach we have. And non-parents who have been children once (yes, that’s all of y’all) will have plenty to contribute too.

So some specific questions for you to get the conversational ball rolling:

1. What social skills do you actually want your/all children to learn?
2. What things about your own childhood social life inform your opinions these days? Whether you were schooled or unschooled and whether you loved or hated it, what can we learn from your experience?
3. What are the great advantages of schooling and unschooling when it comes to practising social skills?
4. Do you have tips on how to build social skills in children?

And you are warmly invited to join us at the Sacraparental Facebook page for daily links, encouragement and resources, and/or follow me on Twitter and Pinterest. I have a Pinterest board on Unschooling, too.

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2 comments on “Education and Schooling #11: Unschooling, Schooling and Socialisation”

  1. andrew Reply

    interesting article. I hadn’t though through all the brutalities of school in discounting home schooling. How to be polite with people who think your worldview is weird / bigoted / backward, and how to engage with them is something kids might learn at school, although it is probably more akin to throwing a kid into a pool as a way of learning to swim rather than training in the shallows before venturing into the deep pool.

    that’s probably why we’ll lean towards christian schools of some flavour. not that it will catechise or provide ultimate instruction, but that it would be a place where a christian worldview is at least notionally tolerated if not actually celebrated.

    i would like my kids to learn how to interact with and respond to people who they disagree with, and to be able to disagree in a winsome way. they might have to learn that from their mum, as i tend towards the blunt. i was the protestant jerk kid in our religious education classes at a catholic high school. i could have disagreed nicer.

  2. anon Reply

    I’ve been an unschooler for the last seven years, although my older ones now attend school. I think having siblings for them to interact with helps. We’ve done regular activities specifically for homeschoolers, like swimming lessons and shared activity sessions, and also community activities like Scouts, St John, gymnastics, soccer, and music lessons. We also go to a church with lots of kids and do play dates.
    So that all sounds nice, doesn’t it. Now throw in a marriage break-up and a kid with behavioural/relational issues, and it gets a bit more complicated. I often despair at the way my kids treat each other and my lack of influence over it – that’s mostly because of the oldest, and he’s (finally) getting professional help. It’s also why I sent him to school but he hasn’t been any better at interacting with people there.
    What I’d like them to learn socially is mostly empathy and assertiveness, but I think at the heart of it is the need for them to have a deep knowledge that they’re OK and that they’re loved. It can be easier to give them that foundation in a home context provided that the home relationships are healthy – they seem to learn so much more from imitation than by direct instruction. But I think it’s certainly possible to give them that when they attend school too. For Christmas last year I made them each some wall art with their full names and the words “You are wise. You are kind. You are brave. You are important. You are loved.” They like me to read it to them when I tuck them in. I don’t know if it helps but it’s what I want them to believe about themselves.

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