If we’ve heard it once, we’ve heard it a thousand times—that age-old question asked of every homeschooler by every homeschool skeptic: “What about socialization?”
Whether asked by genuinely concerned and well-meaning relatives or posed by our most ardent critics, the question has become so routine that many homescholers are able to answer it without a moment’s thought. But for years, we’ve been answering this question the wrong way.
“Well,” the standard answer goes, “our kids go to soccer practice once a week, our youngest daughter takes music lessons, our son is in 4-H and Boy Scouts, the oldest two are part of the church youth group, and they all have lots of friends around the neighborhood. They get plenty of socialization.”
Question answered, critic silenced. We feel good. Vindicated. “You can’t get us with that question,” we think to ourselves. “Just look at all the socialization my kids get!”
However good it may feel to give this answer, it amounts to little more than an “Oh yeah?” response. “What do you mean my kids don’t get enough socialization? Just look at everything they’re involved in!”
Is this the best answer we can give? And is it possible we’re compromising our own values and allowing the world’s thinking to become our own?
Meeting the Critics on their Own Ground
As homeschoolers, we’ve encountered many criticisms and attacks over the years. Many of us want to be able to justify our choice of lifestyle to the naysayers. We want to face them on their own turf and show them we can measure up.
But there’s a problem. If we get too caught up in trying to prove to our critics—or perhaps even to ourselves—that homeschooling measures up to some preconceived notions about life and education, we’re in danger of living our lives according to the standards of the world. As we measure our success by their yardstick, we’ll be in danger of falling for all the misguided beliefs and actions of those around us. We need to be careful about being too eager to meet our critics on their ground. We need to be cautious about letting them define the debate.
Answering the socialization question with nothing more than a list of activities our children are involved in risks forcing us to live by the world’s standards so we can justify our lifestyle to the world. After all, if we aren’t involved in enough activities, we lose our entire answer to the most common question about homeschooling. And we can’t let that happen! Thus, we adopt the world’s standards and definitions, surrendering ours without so much as a word.
Ultimately, if we’re giving in to pressure (consciously or unconsciously) to pursue numerous activities and opportunities simply to satisfy those who would criticize our lifestyle—or perhaps to appease our own society-induced fears and insecurities—then we may be falling prey to a dangerous fallacy that we should be challenging rather than following.
More to a Question than Meets the Eye
At this point, we need to understand something fundamental about the nature of questions. It’s a simple truth, but it can revolutionize how we respond. Every question, however simple it may be, has a set of underlying assumptions that motivate that question.
This is one reason why questions can be so powerful and even deceitful. We can be led astray in our thinking by a question which sounds reasonable but which has a subtly incorrect assumption behind it.
Every question is motivated by our understanding of the world and the issues we deal with. People who approach life from a different perspective from our own will probably be asking different questions than we do, or will at least have different reasons for asking them.
To illustrate this idea of underlying assumptions, let’s take a simple example. Imagine you’re in another town visiting a friend. You’ve never been to this community before, and your friend takes you to lunch at her favorite local restaurant. As you’re looking over the menu, you narrow your selection down to a couple of options. You turn to your friend and ask, “Which option is tastier, A or B?”
What is the underlying assumption behind that question? Simply that you believe that both options have a certain degree of tastiness or desirability—that you would probably enjoy either selection. If you fully believed that you would find either option repulsive to your tastes, you wouldn’t ask the question.
Now, at this point, your friend can respond in one of two ways. She can either agree that one or both is tasty and point you to the one she believes you would enjoy the most, or she can challenge your assumption and say, “Neither of those options is very good. Let me point you to something better.”
The assumptions behind some questions are easier to spot than others, but I would go so far as to say that every single question you can imagine has one or more underlying assumptions. Some are deep, others are more superficial. Some are universally acknowledged, others are more personal. Some are rooted in faith, some are rooted in personal history, background, and experience. Some are very objective, others highly subjective. They can take many forms, but ultimately we can’t escape it: questions come prepackaged with underlying assumptions.
Identifying the assumptions behind a question can be critical in giving the right answer. For example, if you agree with the underlying assumption behind a question, you can answer the question exactly as it is asked. However, if there’s another question that has underlying assumptions that aren’t true—that betray a worldview or set of beliefs contrary to your own—then you can’t even answer the question, and if you do, you’ll be implying that you believe each and every one of the incorrect assumptions behind the question. We can grant the validity of the underlying beliefs without even thinking about it.
Let’s take another simple example. Suppose your four-year-old were to ask you, “Why is grass purple?” Would you launch into a detailed scientific explanation of why grass is the color that it is? Certainly not. But why? Because if you did, you would be confirming in your son’s mind his inaccurate belief that grass is indeed purple. You would need to first challenge his assumption—tell him that grass is green, not purple—and then, if he was still interested, you could tell him why grass is green. But to simply answer the question exactly as he asked it, without clarification, would be to give tacit agreement to his misguided belief about the world around him.
This may be a simple example, but it illustrates the point. Questions have underlying assumptions, and if those assumptions are incorrect, we dare not simply answer the question.
What does all of this have to do with the old socialization issue? Simply this: when people ask us “What about socialization?” they also are holding a set of underlying assumptions. When we answer the question exactly as it is asked by providing a laundry list of all our kids’ activities, we’ve granted the validity of each and every one of our questioners’ underlying assumptions—assumptions that we might not actually agree with if we only gave the matter a few moments of thought.
When this happens, we’ve allowed our critics to define the debate according to their worldview instead of challenging it with our own. And worse, we’ve perhaps given ground in our own minds to the world’s ways of thinking.
Same Question, Different Words
To illustrate what I’m talking about, let’s phrase both the question and our typical answer in slightly different terms. Let’s strip away all the social tact and diplomacy we tend to use and get down to the essentials of what is being asked.
Instead of simply asking the very familiar question, “What about socialization?” imagine your critic phrased the question this way: “It’s important for children to have prolonged periods of peer-based, age-segregated socialization, but since you homeschool your children, they don’t receive as much of that socialization as they need.”
Too often, we answer with the equivalent of something like this: “You don’t need to worry about that because my kids do get plenty of peer-based, age-segregated socialization, because they’re involved in activities A, B, C, D, and E.”
The question is rarely phrased so bluntly, and so we miss, overlook, or ignore the underlying assumptions. But when we fail to challenge those assumptions and simply give the list of activities, we do in fact grant the truth of the assumptions. And in turn, we may be unconciously conforming our lives to those assumptions without even realizing it.
What are the Assumptions?
Perhaps at this point it would be useful to take a look at exactly what assumptions are behind the simple question, “What about socialization?”
The first assumption is clear by the fact that the question is being asked in the first place. The questioner is assuming that institutional schools provide good socialization while homeschooling fails to do so. If they didn’t believe this, they wouldn’t ask the question.
This leads us to the second assumption, namely, that the style of socialization found in institutional schools is positive. Again, if this weren’t believed to be essentially true, there wouldn’t be a need to question.
Third, since school-style socialization consists primarily of large doses of age-segregated activity, this is the type of socialization our critics are assuming to be beneficial.
Fourth, we see the assumption that proper socialization cannot take place without these large doses of age-segregated activities. By implication, other forms of socialization are deemed unsuitable to produce well-socialized children.
Have our critics thought all of this through? Maybe, maybe not. It ultimately doesn’t matter. They may not have thought through their worldview in all its detail, but these assumptions are still fundamental to the question, whether they could verbalize them all or not. These are the assumptions that create the motivating worldview for the question.
Without seeking to beleaguer the point, I would observe again that these are the assumptions, the worldview, we give agreement to when we answer the question with nothing more than a list of activities our kids are involved in.
But do we really agree with these underlying beliefs? If you’re homeschooling, you probably don’t. Yet too often we behave as if we do. If we’re pursuing activities simply to answer the critics, or to calm our own society-created fears about socialization, then we may be living in a way that is inconsistent with what we really believe.
We need to develop our own systematic worldview and live it out regardless of what our critics might think. Our priorities should be different from the world around us, and we shouldn’t be afraid to act on them.
Challenging the Assumptions
Rather than merely answering the socialization question exactly as it’s asked, we can challenge the underlying assumptions—both to our critics and in our own thinking. How?
First, a good question to ask is, “What exactly is socialization?” When we refer to socialization, what do we really mean by that term? Further, what is the purpose of socialization? Is it an end in itself, or is it a means to an end?
If you look up the word socialize on Dictionary.com, you’ll find this definition: “To make social; make fit for life in companionship with others.” You’ll also find this definition: “To behave in a friendly or sociable manner.” And you’ll also see this: “To prepare for life in society.”
Taking this definition, we can see that socialization for children is simply the means by which they learn to interact with others in an appropriate, friendly, considerate manner. It’s helping them become the kind of people that make friendly neighbors and good citizens. It’s helping them learn how to have solid, healthy relationships.
Up to this point, we and our critics would probably be more or less in agreement on these basic definitions.
Moving deeper, we can ask a second question: why is peer-based, age-segregated socialization beneficial for children? And if we decide that it is beneficial in some quantity, why is it needed in the megadoses provided by institutional schooling?”
We can pursue it further: could it not be argued that school-style socialization is actually false socialization, given that schools create an environment that will seldom—if ever—be replicated in life beyond the classroom? After all, when else in life are you compartmentalized with a group of age-segregated peers? Certainly not in the workplace or community.
Additionally, if this form of socialization is so beneficial, why is society not more uniformly considerate and genial? After all, the vast majority of people in our country have gone through this model of socialization as they grew up. Do we see a society filled with wonderful, healthy relationships, or do we see a culture coming face to face with the reality that we have almost lost the idea of what healthy relationships look like? With half of marriages ending in divorce, rampant rebellion among teens, estranged relatives, and young people serially hooking up, shacking up, and breaking up, can we say that the worldly way of socialization has worked? Are we better for having universally followed this model?
Could it be that the socialization found in institutional schools breeds selfishness and a me-first attitude that carries over into adulthood? Could it be that the children who push and shove for their chance at the playground or the drinking fountain—pushing and shoving because being polite and waiting your turn rarely pays off—are the ones who will continue to push and shove their way through life, putting themselves first and others last, because that’s the way they’ve learned to get ahead? Could it be that, in the insufficiently supervised, child-dominated world of institutional schooling, poor social behaviors—selfishness, bullying, intimidation—are rewarded more materially than proper social behavior?
How can we expect children—who are inherently selfish due to their sin nature and inherently unwise because of their age and inexperience—to form proper social attitudes under these circumstances?
When we place children in social situations, they’re going to learn to think, act, and respond to the influences around them in certain ways. If they were already wise and mature, they might be able to navigate the waters more productively. But children aren’t born wise and mature—they have to be trained and nurtured until they gain wisdom and maturity. So when we place them in these situations, we’re leaving them to their own devices. Some will discover that aggression will get them what they want. Others will discover that by simply keeping out of the way, they can avoid confrontation. Others will resort to excessive silliness or other antics to get attention. In any one of these scenarios, we have children trying to figure out how to respond to the world around them based on their fears, insecurities, or selfish desires rather than being guided and assisted by a wise and mature adult who can help them respond to the world in a healthier manner.
Everything we’ve talked about thus far has to do with what I would call the structural weaknesses of the classroom model—that is, problems that are largely inherent to the very nature of the system. These are general problems, common to the classroom model. We haven’t even touched on the issue of negative influences brought by specific young people in any given school—problems such as drugs, violence, off-color language, dirty jokes, boys or girls pursuing others with immoral intent, and the constant pressure to conform to the newest fads, however destructive or bizarre they may be.
Is all of this part of good socialization? True, our children will encounter evil in the world, and they should understand how to resist it. But is exposing them to it—often unsupervised and in high dosages—really the best way to prepare them?
As we begin challenging assumptions about socialization, we can think through and define our own convictions.
We’ve allowed the critics to define the socialization debate for too long. But as long as we continue accepting their assumptions about socialization and simply answering their questions on their own grounds, taking their worldview as our own, we’ll never be able to redefine the socialization debate. We need to start at the foundation and start building upward. We can do that by challenging the underlying assumptions and helping people see an alternative viewpoint.
Mapping Out a New Path
Too often, we find ourselves intimidated by the world—we feel compelled to measure ourselves by their standards rather than following our own. In the area of socialization, we can so easily fall for the world’s lies and believe that our kids need certain types of socialization in order to somehow turn out “normal.” (And who, we might ask, gets to define that?)
Instead of following the world, we need to follow our own convictions regardless of how others might feel about them. We have to determine what God is leading our families to do. We need to map out a path that follows God and honors His Word.
Now, let me be clear about something. My goal is not to give any family an exact prescription for how to handle socialization. I’m also not saying that all peer-based socialization is wrong or unbiblical. My goal is to give you some things to think and pray about as you intentionally work out your own family’s philosophy on socialization.
As a broad philosophical foundation, I would submit to you that if the purpose of socialization is to teach our children how to be well-rounded adults who know how to appropriately interact with others and experience healthy relationships, there are more effective ways to accomplish this goal than what society in general tends to believe. In other words, there are better approaches to socialization than the intensely age-segregated, peer-based model we typically see. Again, I’m not saying that all such socialization is wrong or destructive. What I am saying is that we should move beyond the paradigm that suggests that massive amounts of this type of socialization are normal and beneficial.
I would contend that children who find their socialization firstly and primarily in the home or in other family-centered situations, with the guiding instruction of their parents, are more likely to learn lessons in how to have healthy relationships with others than those who are left to figure it out for themselves in a peer-based environment.
We looked earlier at the assumptions behind the socialization question. If those assumptions are largely incorrect (as I believe they are), perhaps we should examine some different viewpoints. I’d like to share five basic truths with you. All five concepts are rooted in scriptural principles, but it’s remarkable to me how routinely each is violated by Christian parents as they follow the world’s model of socialization.
#1: Influence Matters
Each of us is influenced by those we spend our time with. All socialization will tend to lift us up or pull us down, move us in the right direction or move us in the wrong direction. The Bible talks about this when it says that “Evil communications corrupt good manners” (1 Corinthians 15:33) and “A companion of fools shall be destroyed” (Proverbs 13:20). It’s rare to see someone rise above the level of his closest companions—unless, perhaps, those companions are spurring each other on to reach greater heights.
#2: Parents Have a Role
There’s nothing wrong with parents having a highly active role in determining what kind of socialization their children will participate in. Parents need to shelter their children to an appropriate extent. In the book of Proverbs, Solomon gives his son extensive advice about the type of people to avoid. Considering the active, hands-on role the Bible prescribes for parents in the lives of their children, it’s entirely appropriate that parents should be involved in overseeing their children’s relationships and even have the authority to prevent or cut off destructive friendships.
#3: It’s Not Just About Peers
Children should learn to interact with people of a variety of ages. This is real-world socialization as contrasted to the peer-based model found in today’s schools. This is what will best prepare them for later life. This doesn’t mean that your children can’t have friends who are peers, but why not encourage them to break outside of the peer mindset and cultivate relationships with others as well? (Note: Discretion is extremely important, and I’m not suggesting that children should have unsupervised relationships with adults. We all know the dangers posed to children in our world today, and it’s vital for parents to use their discernment to prayerfully determine what is safe and appropriate and what is not.)
#4: Experience Takes Time
Children are inherently unwise, inexperienced, and immature (Proverbs 22:15, Proverbs 29:15 . That’s not their fault; it’s simply the way life works. They need to be nurtured and discipled to the point that they become wise, experienced, and mature. Part of raising children should be helping them learn how to handle new social situations, not simply leaving them to figure it out for themselves.
#5: Character Matters
One of the key purposes of socialization for our children, as we’ve already discussed, is to learn how to interact properly with others. One aspect of this which I believe is often overlooked is the role of godly character. We don’t often hear socialization and character talked about at the same time, and yet, character is vital. Applying character to relationships is essentially the Golden Rule in action—it’s treating others as we would like to be treated. It’s teaching our sons to be gentlemen; teaching all of our children to be respectful, polite, and courteous. We must teach our children how to apply character to their daily interactions with others.
These five concepts are not profound, but if we truly heed and apply them, they will take us on a different path from much of the rest of the world around us. But here’s the bottom line: following a different path is a good thing if we want to arrive at a different destination. If we want to end up where everyone else is heading—if we want our children to turn out like everyone else’s children—then we can follow the same path everyone else is following. But if we want something different, we have to do something different. It’s just that simple.
The Bottom Line
My purpose has not been to deride socialization or suggest that children don’t need any interaction with others—including peers. Indeed, we must make sure our children learn to interact with others in positive ways. That’s why we should seek good socialization that will help us along toward that goal.
The socialization debate probably isn’t going away anytime in the near future. The pressure to conform to the world’s ways will most likely continue. That’s why we need to take a deliberate, intentional approach to this important aspect of life. Relationships matter. They give meaning and depth to life. But we shouldn’t take a light or careless attitude toward socialization. And we shouldn’t allow our socialization philosophy to be defined more by society than by Scripture.
Let’s challenge the world’s assumptions and map out a new path. Let’s stop falling for the socialization deception once and for all.
Jonathan Lewis, 29, is a homeschool graduate, and glad of it! He is one of the founders of Home School Enrichment and enjoys writing and speaking from his perspective as a homeschool graduate. In May 2011, Jonathan and Linnea were married, and had their first baby on May 27th of this year. If you would like to invite Jonathan to speak to your group—or to get in touch with him for any other reason—drop him a note at jonathan@HomeSchoolEnrichment.com.
This article was originally published in the Jul/Aug 2012 issue of Home School Enrichment Magazine. Learn more at www.HomeSchoolEnrichment.com
Publication date: January 23, 2013