A few days ago, C, J, and I were at the library. C found a boy who wanted to play, and the two of them immersed in some building toys, and chattered--happily and nonstop. I ended up talking with the boy's mother, and once I outed myself as a homeschooler (seriously, why do people ask my child's grade level instead of his age? They're essentially trying to get an expectation of his maturity and development, right?), she started in with the predictable comments and questions. Including The Question. "What about socialization?"
I gave my best beauty-pageant smile and a benign canned half-answer which I hoped would stall that direction of our discussion. Because it's not an easy question. It doesn't have an easy answer. And given the fact that she was most likely yet another in a long chain of single serving friends, trying to really get to the nitty-gritty truth of the issue really wasn't worth my emotional investment or her time.
But it is important. To me.
Many homeschooling parents tend to develop a knee-jerk reaction to that question. It's fraught with all sorts of loaded assumptions, and--hackles raised--we frequently feel driven to defend ourselves and our children. It's a challenge. It presumes that socialization is something that happens in school, and that without that construct, it is difficult to achieve. It implies that we may not be equipped to provide our children with the necessary exposure to mature successfully in a key area. It suggests that we might be doing them a disservice by not putting them through the same experiences that mainstream students go through.
What do people actually mean when they ask that, though? I've been mulling this over and at the moment I would venture to put forth a few basic possibilities. Please, if you have other thoughts--comment! I'm sure this is not the end of my meditation on the subject. ;)
1. Socialization means socializing.
That is, getting out of the house (homeschooling = homebound, right? *snark*) and having casual fun with other people. This is the facepalm of all assumed meanings because of the irony. Had I been quicker on my feet (or bitchier in my mood), I might have pointed to my child playing with her child in a public place and raised an eyebrow. Seriously? Look. We're outside our house. Interacting with people. Amazing!
2. Socialization means having age-appropriate social skills.
This one is killing me. A few weeks ago, I saw a socialization checklist on Pinterest and the fact that a woman I follow had posted it on her homeschooling board kind of made me cringe. Now that I'm finally blogging about it, however, I can't seem to locate it. It's interesting to note that the first three pages (I didn't read beyond that) of Google results when you search "socialization checklist" are all related to dog training. Let me repeat that. Dog. Training. The elusive child list was, if memory serves, not all that different.
Oh wait, I found it. Yay Internets.
Generally, the checklist for an elementary-aged child includes such concerns as: Does he make eye contact? Does he take turns? Does he follow directions? How does he handle conflict?
Yeah...we homeschoolers don't bother with any of that nonsense. Our kids don't know how to share, play fairly, express their emotions, concentrate, or listen. Because not only do we, as parents, not nurture this type of emotional growth and development, but it also does not happen naturally as a matter of daily interaction with other human beings. < /sarcasm >
Guess what? My children have siblings. And parents. And cousins. And neighbors. And they talk to waitresses and librarians and docents. I could go on and on. Yes. My kids know how to share. Yes. I am helping them to learn which volume level of speech is appropriate for which setting. No. They are not going to act bizarrely around your kids, because they do not exist in a vacuum. It is really damn hard to be a human without--along the way--picking up on how to behave in acceptable ways around other humans.
Furthermore, it is offensive that anyone would flat-out challenge someone to provide assurance that their kids are well-mannered, which is what that assumption boils down to. It's as though the meat-grinder of forced association in a controlled environment is the only way to produce a person who gets along well with others.
3. Socialization means building relationships with a set of consistent friends.
Ah. There's the rub.
I'm at a stage of my life where I have a very small circle of close, confidant-worthy Friends and little time, energy, or interest in cultivating new relationships. I am just too darn busy and distracted to invest the necessary effort toward keeping up a casual friendship. Once I had children, my childless friends in particular fell away from my life, and I'm okay with that. I don't dislike those people, and a part of me had a period of acknowledging loss, but I've gotten past it. I don't have it in me to go to clubs or concerts or drop everything for therapeutic shopping, or take a weekend bicycle trip. That's not part of my paradigm anymore. I forget birthdays, I forget to make phone calls, heck--most of the time I forget to even check for messages, let alone follow up on them. I'm just not a good friend right now. But I am a terrific single-serving friend. I can find one glimmer of shared experience with any random mother at the playground or pool or museum and for the duration of our kids playing in the same area, we are BFFs. I've occasionally laughed with these women about this phenomenon...how we'll instantly bond, overshare intimately, and then never see each other again and be totally fine with it.
But is that enough for my kids? I don't think so. And it's becoming more of an issue. Especially for C, who desperately wants Friends.
The easy answer for most homeschooling families is to point to their childrens' other "tribes": Sunday school, scouting organizations, sports teams, co-ops, neighborhoods.
We are not a churchgoing family. My kids are not in scouts. Our attempts to forge "outside of practice" friendships with teammates have yet to yield fruit. And we live on a heavy-traffic road, and the few kids who live in safe walking range [through yards] just haven't clicked with my kids, and vice versa.
Sigh. What's a mother to do?
At this point, I am actively encouraging them to join activities. C was disappointed to not gain any Friends through the art classes that he took last year. He'd like to join a soccer clinic that starts next week, and is excited to meet new kids. Here's hoping. T is still "taking a break" from fencing and has no interest in a new activity.
What *has* been a balm to us lately is that I found a local homeschool group that fits my needs. It is not an educational co-op (difficult when approaches differ) but a social group, with a wide range of ages and backgrounds. The parents seem committed to mutual respect and the kids are just thrilled to play.
When I brought up my concern about forming consistent friendships a few months ago, one of the mothers said, "Why do you think THIS exists?" Finally, a group of regular, familiar faces. After years of my kids meeting single-serving people on the playground and then never seeing them again, we have a touchstone. So far, we are one of the newer sets of faces, and our summer got so crazy that we haven't attended a get-together in a while, but I hope to get back into it soon. I hope to give my kids the opportunity to turn some friends into Friends.
So, all defensiveness aside, if THAT is what some people are curious about when they throw out the S word...yes, it can be an issue if there is no built-in situation where the kids are regularly exposed to the same companions. But just like I seek out educational activities, I also seek out social activities for my children. Like all of homeschooling--like all of parenting--it can be an effort. But it isn't impossible.