Socialisation, the dreaded ‘S’ word (part 1)

As soon as I mention home education to other adults, I seem to be asked how we coped with ‘socialisation’. People ask me how my children managed to get along with people from different backgrounds, and how we thought they would fit into society as adults, if they hadn’t been through the ups and downs of school life.

But what exactly is meant by socialisation?

Being sociable

On the whole, people are social creatures. While some like to be with others for significant amounts of the time, and others prefer just one or two friends and need frequent time to themselves, we all do need other people for companionship. At root level, being sociable is part of our nature. We don’t have to teach our children to be hungry or even to be mobile, because such things will – sooner or later – come naturally to them. If we allow children to develop in their own way, not forcing anything on them before they are ready, they will begin to relate to other people.

Clearly children do need to meet people in order to be sociable, but home educators don’t tend to be isolated from the community! If you live in a remote area, you may need to make extra effort to spend time outside the home, or to invite people to stay, but this is likely to be for your benefit as well as that of your children. But a child is just as likely – if not more so – to be sociable with one or two people he meets at home than with a class of 30 children who just happen to be the same age as him but who may share few of his interests, if any.

Social skills

Social skills include culturally appropriate manners, knowing how to greet different people, and joining in conversations. They’re the ways we learn to relate to people, in order to build relationships and to be able to communicate and spend time enjoying company. Children primarily learn their social skills and cultural expectations from their parents and those they see around them, so the most important thing you can do is to model the kind of behaviour you would like to see in your children.

It is crucial, if you are going to travel, that you explain to your children that how your family behaves is something you have chosen, not a moral issue. There are probably no inherent rules as such about social skills, since these vary so much across different cultures. In some it is appropriate to eat with fingers, for instance, others require chopsticks, or knives and forks. You may expect your children to use cutlery because it is generally appropriate in the places you visit, but it is not ‘rude’ or ‘uncivilized’ to eat in other ways in other settings. Part of our social skills must be learning to adapt when necessary, to make other people comfortable.

Home education and socialising

Home educated children are likely to meet a wide variety of people during the week, and may well find it interesting to see how, even within one neighbourhood, there are many different ways of behaving. If you are comfortable with your own social skills, it is easier to discuss those of other cultures, and to adapt when appropriate.

Social skills are important so that you put other people at ease, and while some broad skills are culturally expected, many will vary even from family to family within the same culture group. Children at primary schools may well develop other social skills – such as knowing when it is inappropriate to ask questions, or learning to when open doors for teachers – but unfortunately in many schools they also learn negative skills, such as how to pass notes without being seen, or how to bully those who are weaker.

Socialisation or behaviour modification?

Somehow, those who query the social question in home educators see it as something more than simply being sociable and acquiring appropriate social skills. My dictionary defines socialisation (or socialization) as: ‘the modification from infancy of an individual’s behaviour to conform with the demands of social life.’

In a sense this is like a stronger version of ‘learning to acquire social skills’. But, rather than learning through imitation and, perhaps, gentle reminders, ‘socialisation’ suggests deliberate behaviour modification. While parents may sometimes do something of this sort (for instance by reminding a child to eat with his mouth closed, or to stop interrupting when friends are visiting) it is done at home in an atmosphere of love, with explanations and also with modelling of the expected behaviour by the parents.

The idea of sending a child to school – however good and friendly it might be – to learn to have his behaviour modified suggests firstly that parents have little influence, and secondly that the all children should behave in the same way, all the time.

Conforming to society’s expectations?

The idea, moreover, of expecting our children to conform to the demands of social life, suggests that they should be made to suppress their natural desires – and even beliefs – and conform to the majority. As Christians, our family believes it is wrong to conform to much of what goes on in the world; as home educators we are by definition non-conformist, since the majority of families send their children to school!

In my view, it is far better to raise children who understand the reasons for social expectations and skills, and who are able to query things they disagree with. Mature children can easily understand the difference between moral issues and social or cultural issues.

So when someone asks you, ‘How do you deal with the problem of socialisation?’ try finding out exactly what they mean by the word.

Sometimes people seem to assume that home educated children are ‘hot-housed’ at home in isolation, rarely going out into the community. Or they imagine the caricature of a ten-year-old Einstein, who might get along fine with college professors but is unable to communicate in the everyday language of children. We need to explain to our families and friends that we don’t see our children as superior to others, and we certainly don’t keep them deliberately away from other people.

Sometimes school-children and home educated children have difficulty communicating because their interests are so different – those who do not go to school are frequently not caught up in pop and teen culture, and may not know the current crazes. But it is not necessary to collect Pokemon cards as a child, or pay a fortune for designer clothes to ensure a good social life as an adult!

Continued in: The S-word (part 2) – Socialising and how it works at different stages in a child’s life

Further reading:

peer socialisation or peer pressure?
Attention deficit or highly spirited?
Are all teenagers horrible?