Socialisation, the dreaded ‘S’ word

When I mention home education to other adults, they often ask me we coped with ‘socialisation’. People ask how my children managed to get along with people from different backgrounds. They want to know 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 do they mean by socialisation?

Being sociable

On the whole, people are social creatures. Some like to be with others for significant amounts of the time, and others prefer just one or two friends while needing a lot of time to themselves. But we all  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 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. You could invite people to stay, but this is likely to be for your benefit as well as that of your children. A child is just as likely  to be sociable with one or two people he meets at home than at school. There is no inherent benefit to being with a class of 30 children who happen to be the same age but who may share few 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. We need them 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. Thus the most important thing you can do is to model the kind of behaviour you would like to see in your children.

If you are going to travel, 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 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 ‘uncivilised’ 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. They may find it interesting to see how,  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. While some skills are culturally expected, many will vary from family to family within the same culture group. Children at primary schools may develop other social skills, such as knowing when it is inappropriate to ask questions, or when to open doors for teachers. 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?

Those who query the socialisation question in home education see it as more than 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 gentle reminders, ‘socialisation’ suggests deliberate behaviour modification. Of course, parents may sometimes do this themselves. We might remind a child to eat with his mouth closed, or to stop interrupting when friends are visiting. But it is done at home in an atmosphere of love. We give explanations and model the expected behaviour ourselves.

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

Conforming to society’s expectations?

The idea of expecting our children to conform to the demands of social life is also a concern to many. It suggests that they should suppress their natural desires – and even beliefs – if society dictates it. Making other people feel comfortable is one thing. Adopting everyone else’s standards or expectations is another entirely. As Christians, our family believes it is not right 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 are able to query things they disagree with. Then they may understand the reasons for social expectations and skills, and can choose to conform or not. Mature children can easily tell the difference between moral issues and social or cultural issues. Taking a stand on moral issues is important. With cultural issues, we and our children should be more flexible.

Find out what ‘socialisation’ means!

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

Sometimes people assume that home educated children are ‘hot-housed’ at home in isolation. They imagine that they  rarely go out into the community. Or they think of the caricature of a ten-year-old Einstein, who might get along fine with college professors but cannot 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. Neither do we keep them 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 chase Pokemons as a child, or pay a fortune for designer clothes to ensure a good social life as an adult.

Further reading:

Socialising for young children
peer socialisation or peer pressure?
Attention deficit or highly spirited?
Are all teenagers horrible?