When you watch small children, it is apparent that sociability and friendliness are first of all a product of the child’s innate personality. One toddler may be shy and clingy. Yet his brother, raised in the same way, might be outgoing and eager to meet new people. For more on this aspect of children’s personality, I recommend Paul D Tieger & Barbara Barron-Tieger’s book ‘Nurture by Nature’, or see my article ‘introvert or extravert?‘. Trying to force a clingy child to be sociable before he is ready can cause lasting damage and insecurity. Most parents realise this. However there seems to be a popular viewpoint which suggests that children should be thrown into the company of others in environments such as nursery school, as early as possible, in order to learn to get along with others and to do without the parents.
It is undoubtedly a good idea for a small child to have friends, both of his own age and older. But the idea that a child will suddenly become sociable when put into a group of perhaps twenty other children is frankly ludicrous.
Some children are naturally more sociable than others
Watch any new group of young children together: some will be obvious leaders, some will go and make friends at once, while others will wait on the sidelines or become upset. Those who are already sociable will not become MORE sociable by being in a group, although they will probably enjoy it, and may well make new friends.
However those who are not naturally sociable are likely to feel their shyness reinforced by such a group, and may become less likely to join in the next time. Far better, for such children, to introduce them to others one at a time in their own homes, and then perhaps join in an informal playgroup where mother can stay and give the child added security while he begins to venture out into the world.
Socialising for young children
Some children, by the age of four or five, may be eager to get into a classroom, to find new resources and new adults to give them fresh ideas. For such a child, the early years in a good school may well be an exciting adventure where they could make lots of friends.
Very sociable children might find home education somewhat lonely at times, particularly if they don’t have brothers or sisters, or if there are no other children locally. When looking at what is best for your child, it is very important to consider their personality and preferences socially, as well as academically.
But other children remain shy, uncertain of themselves, perhaps not yet able to communicate clearly with strangers. Such a child would not be helped by having to spend time in a classroom where most of the other children are more talkative and outgoing. He might become labelled as ‘slow’, and begin to see himself as a misfit even at this age. It is ridiculous to suggest that his adult career may be damaged by his not making friends of his own age fifteen years before he is likely to start work!
Helping a shy child to make friends
The best way to help a shy child to make friends is to introduce him to people within your own home, one or two at a time. He may find it easier to relate to adults than to other children at first, particularly if he thinks deeply or is less energetic than others his age.
The idea of having to be friends with people of the same age is artificial, and really only happens in schools. As adults we have to socialise on one level with work colleagues – who are likely to be of all different ages and backgrounds – but we will choose friends based mainly on personality and shared interests. We don’t choose our friends because they were born in the same year as we were!
Socialising for older children educated at home
As a home educated child grows up, he will probably learn to be friendly with those around him – shopkeepers, neighbours, other people he meets. He will see the way you talk to them and the way you relate to different people, and is likely to imitate the way you react. Even if shy and clingy in the toddlers years, most children, if not pressurised to make friends, will gradually become more outgoing and able to carry on a conversation with other people.
Indeed, it’s the shyer, observant child who is more likely to notice appropriate social skills in others and to imitate them. The particularly extraverted child who never stops to think before speaking is actually more likely to offend people unintentionally than one who listens and sits quietly rather than rushing into everything. Being particularly sociable may be a disadvantage when learning to develop social skills!
You may find that your child wants to join group activities based on his interests – sport or music or dancing are popular for both schooled and home educated children, and provide a peer group in a setting with shared goals and interests. If you belong to a church or other religious group, you will probably have activities that your child will join in with naturally.
You might also want to investigate groups such as Cub Scouts/Brownies or Boys/Girls Brigade. As with any group these depend very much on the leaders, so do ensure that you are happy with everything that happens, offer to help if you can, and stay with your child for a few sessions until he is happy.
Group activities for home educators
Home educated children don’t have to join any group activities, but it’s a useful and relaxed way of getting to know some different people. However if your child is reluctant to join in anything like this, it does not mean he will be unable to make friends. You will probably go shopping together: so try to use small shops as well as supermarkets, and chat with the shopkeepers.
You may visit the library, or museums. Again, with home education, you have all the time you want. So you can stop to ask questions and find out about the work that librarians or custodians do. An elderly neighbour might appreciate spending time with a child. You might know someone in hospital whom you could visit. If you take your child to parks or swimming pools, he will come across other children. Unless they are unfriendly, he is likely to begin to want to relate to them. Just make sure you do not pressurise him to do so.
You may also have a local home education support group. Some of these meet for activities together, or to visit places of interest. If you don’t have a local group, or if your group does very little together, you might want to organise one yourself! However make sure that you consider your child’s needs. An extraverted child may want to meet other people and join in group sessions almost daily. However a quiet child who enjoys his own company may be perfectly happy with just one or two friends, and group activities only rarely.
What about socialising in schools?
There are two main aspects of socialising in schools. The first is learning to co-operate with others in class. This might be on a group craft project, or in a classroom debate. It could also be in an orchestra or choir, or team sports. These can indeed help your child to develop useful social skills. In a good school many children may benefit from such activities, either short or long-term.
However your child doesn’t need to be in school to participate in such things. Any group activity, as suggested in the previous section, can help a child to learn the value of co-operation and group effort. You may find that just two or three children playing in the back yard develop their own creative co-operative activities. The added advantage is that they choose what to do themselves, rather than being required to do something suggested by the teacher.
In some schools there is so much emphasis on workbooks and busywork that there is not much time for classroom discussion. Co-operative projects mean little more than two children arguing about whose turn it is to do something. Team sports and musical groups will only appeal to children with some talent in these areas. Those who are excluded may feel rejected.
A child who joins in several after-school activities may gain a good deal in terms of new skills as well as learning to co-operate with others. But those who are not interested in the activities offered – or not inclined to be sociable in the first place – will not gain anything. The value or otherwise of a school-type environment depends as much on a particular child as it does on the teachers and the philosophy of the school in question.
Recesses and lunch-breaks in school
The other aspect of school socialising is the general unstructured play at recess and lunch breaks. This can be a time when children develop friendships and learn about each other. Unfortunately it can also be a time when shy children feel more isolated than ever. Moreover, rough children can torment those who cannot run so fast, or who don’t want to join in particular games..
Take some time to watch any primary school playground at break-time. Even at the best of schools you will see groups of children chatting, others playing in an organised way, and others just wandering around alone. If there is insufficient supervision there may be serious bullying at break-time. At secondary school level this can increase to horrific proportions.
So, while school may provide a good social environment for some children, the reverse is unfortunately true for many. A shy, sensitive child may suffer teasing or bullying, and lose all self-respect. An academic child may be shunned or treated as ‘different’, and learn to quench his ability in order to fit in with the rest of his class. An intelligent child who simply works more slowly than his friends may come to feel himself ‘stupid’ because he is always the last to finish.
Particularly in the teenage years, children become over-eager to be part of a bigger group, which can lead to rebelling against authority and adopting dubious moral behaviour in order not to seem different. Only when they can respect themselves, and relate well to their parents can teenagers truly learn to build friendships based on mutual liking, rather than on trying to be part of the ‘in-crowd’.