Friday, July 25, 2014

The Ultimate Unschooling Socialization Post

I've talked about the socialization of unschoolers a fair bit. It's kind of something I've been forced to address, seeing as how every single school free learner is very familiar with the oh so frequent concern "But what about socialization?!?"

So this is my attempt at having a go-to post to share with people whenever they pull out some variant on that tired old query. Consider it in the same series as my posts about the actual risk of unschooling, and how unschooling is not some newfangled idea.

I saw a comment today on a shared post of mine that I think hits every single socialization "concern." So I've drawn a list from that comment to start, then just continued compiling complaints about un/homeschoolers and our supposed complete lack of socialization that I've seen and heard before, to hopefully put these misconceptions to rest once and for all (yeah, right)! These are the supposed social benefits gained in schools that those outside of schools sadly miss out on, and my rebuttal of the missing-out-on part.

Learning how to deal with bullies and "mean girls" 

I'd like to share something I wrote recently in response to this question.
No, I have never met a bully. I’ve never met anyone I didn’t like. I have lived my entire life surrounded by wonderful people, flowers, cupcakes and unicorns.
Please excuse the snark, but I let myself be snarky just to make a point about how strange these type of questions seem to me. 
Of course I’ve had to deal with bullies, people who are nasty, people who hurt or seek to hurt myself or others. I’ve dealt with way more people than I’d like who have a strong sense of entitlement. I’ve known and know plenty of people who I really don’t like. 
That’s the nature of life. School doesn’t have a monopoly on unpleasant people (unfortunately. That might make things more pleasant for unschoolers, at least during school hours). Another term for what some of us choose to call unschooling is life learning, and that’s a perfect description of how we seek to learn. Life is full of challenging people and situations. As people, we can’t help but have to deal with them, no matter our education. 
That said, I think being able to leave situations or groups that feel abusive/toxic is really important, and that with unschooling, children and teens are granted the freedom to do just that.
To expand on that last part, no one should ever have to put up with abusive and cruel behaviour from others. Ever. Not as a "lesson," not to "toughen them up," not because "they were asking for it..." And lest you think the former two statements are vastly different from the last one, I think they're all a part of a pattern of excusing violent and abusive behaviour. Everyone, no matter their age, should have the right to live a life free of abuse and abusive people.

As I wrote a while back:
[U]ltimately, difficult things are impossible to entirely (or sometimes even mostly) avoid. Your friend groups will have fights and issues, you'll have to support your friend who's going through something really rough, relationships will end, you'll run into abusive people, and sometimes you'll feel that you have to deal with an environment that feels really toxic. 
But what unschooling can do is let you avoid some of the worst situations and some of the unnecessary ones. It gives children and teens a lot of the same freedom adults have, to quit a job with an abusive boss or stop going to that quilting class where people keep talking behind other peoples' backs.

I think that children and teens, when given that freedom, can't help but be at least a bit healthier, happier, and better equipped to deal with difficulties in more intentional ways.

Dealing with other students who didn't share the same beliefs, work ethic, habits, etc.

The world is full of people who aren't like you. In fact, the world contains much more diversity of people, considering that schools are:
  1. Age segregated
  2. Contain students only from that schools district, which means that as often as not, the student body will be fairly homogeneous in terms of socio-economic level, race, and even religion.
That's true of where you live, as well, so it might not be different outside of school, besides the age-segregation part, but it certainly won't be worse. While there might be some negative stereotypes of the extremely conservative far-right Christian school-at-homers who wish to keep their children away from everyone who doesn't think exactly like them, that's not the reality for any unschoolers I've ever met (when it comes to homeschoolers, sometimes that view is accurate, though more frequently it's not). Unschoolers are out in the world doing things and meeting people, which means you're going to come across quite a few people who don't share your beliefs, work ethics, and habits. That's just a part of living life, and a good part, usually!

Not being "socially awkward"

Here I'd like to reach back to an older post, once again, this time talking specifically of the myth of "social awkwardness" among school-free learners:
Like any other skill set, social skills differ greatly from person to person, regardless of their schooling (or lack thereof). For some people social interaction is extremely easy: they find knowing what to say and when to say it, how to behave around different people, to be second nature. Others have to work hard at it: to make a conscious effort to learn what is socially normal and then work to be that if they want to. How easily those skills come, despite what a ridiculously large amount of anti-homeschoolers have to say, does not make a person any better or worse a person for it. It's simply yet another thing that varies vastly between individuals.
It's also not a skill set that comes easier to schooled people than unschooled ones. I've met unschoolers who have great social ease and competence, and schooled people about whom I'd say the same. And I've met unschoolers who do not have as easy a time socially, as well as schooled people with not as great social skills. The majority of people I've met fall somewhere in between, no matter their education.

Beyond that, should someone's worth, the respect they're shown, really depend entirely on that one thing? I think people should be judged on a much wider range of skills, experiences, and competencies, without all the emphasis on "but are they socially awkward" and shame heaped on those deemed (by some) to be socially incompetent. It's also important to note that it seems disturbingly frequent for people who are neuro-divergent/neuro-atypical, have learning disabilities, mental illnesses, or other disabilities to be stuck with the label of "socially awkward." Maybe think about having more compassion for others and more flexibility in the way you interact with different people.

Having friends 

Have you only ever made friends with people you've met in school? If so, that seems like a sadly limited pool of people to befriend. I'd hope instead that you made friends from school, yes, but also dance class or martial arts, sports teams or a hiking group, by meeting friends of friends or going to a camp, by meeting people who live locally and by meeting people when you're visiting somewhere on vacation... Unschoolers make friends through all these ways, too, just minus the school part and possibly plus homeschool coops or groups or conferences. The world is a big place, and it's full of people. School is hardly the only place to meet them.

That said, making friends can be hard, no matter your education. In my teens I was often lonely, felt out of place in groups of people, felt like no one understood me. My sister on the other hand, also unschooled, made friends wherever she went and was always right in the thick of things. Sounds kind of like the difference between different kids in school, no? The teenage years are often hard, and when you throw in social groups that often feel toxic, struggles with mental illness (I have some anxiety issues), introversion, and a differing world view from many people, it doesn't matter what your education looks like, making good friends will probably feel difficult. There are lonely kids in school and out.

I'm happy to say that as an older teen and now adult, I made quite a few friends, including several close ones. It's all about finding the types of groups where you feel at home, the types of people you feel you can really connect with. I wrote more about this subject in the post The Socialization Question Hits Adulthood: Unschooled Identity and Fitting In.

Having a chance to be in team sports

Believe me when I say I'm not exactly into team sports. Yet even with that, I managed to be on a bowling team (yeah, I know, that's stretching the definition of "team sports") and an ultimate Frisbee team. Being out of school is no impediment to being part of team sports, if you so wish.

Learning to respect authority

When people bring up this one, I kind of just want to tell them that I think we're coming from such wildly different perspectives that I'm just not sure how to even go about addressing it. 

I don't believe in "respecting authority," I believe in not being an asshole. To me those are very different things. The first means doing what you're told. The second means basing your actions on your morals and values, and treating other people with respect; it means being polite and kind unless someone's behavior necessitates a less kind and less polite response; not breaking other people's stuff.; not talking over people, and making space for quieter people to be heard; learning to be aware of the social privileges we each carry that subtly effect how we're treated and how we learn to treat others, and seeking to break down those inequalities through our words and actions... Basically, a whole bunch of things that neatly fit under "don't be an asshole." Or, if you prefer, "trying to be a good person."

Respecting authority, on the other hand, means doing what you're told, regardless of whether what you're being told to do is in line with your values or even basic human decency. It means letting someone else's views of what you should be doing supersede your own feelings about what's best and healthiest for you (or your children). This taking away of peoples' power and choice starts when children are small, and continues on up through schooling, in everything from having to ask to go to the bathroom; having to learn (or at least memorize) things that have no relevance in your life and may even be negative about people like you or your family (I'm thinking of anti-queer and racist comments by teachers, policies in school dress that disproportionately target people of a specific race, and/or women and/or queer youth); having to listen to teachers who might be bullies themselves; and just having incredibly few choices in how you live your day to day life.

I don't think respect for authority is a good thing to be teaching children at all.

Having a shared experience

Never have I heard adults who have gone to different school go "haha, remember what it was like sitting in class/hanging out in the hallways/eating in the cafeteria?" I mean, if you went to the same school as someone else, the two of you might reminisce about specific people or classes or events. But otherwise? Just the act of going to school doesn't provide that much common ground. What you do hear people reminisce about is the music they listened to in their teens, or the movies they watched on a loop as a child, or that ridiculous meme from a few years ago. When it comes to age peers especially, shared culture creates shared experience. You know what else provides shared experiences? Plain old human existence, with all it's difficulties and joys. You can laugh over the annoying habits that your separate family members share, or talk about the struggles of being a young adult in the current economic climate. You can share similar experiences because of a cultural or ethnic identity, sexual orientation, political views, or geographic locations. 

There are a whole bunch of things that can provide common ground with others, and I'd say school is pretty low on that list.

Dealing with peer pressure

This is another one of these things where I just think you do know that people, including people who might try and pressure you into things, do exist outside of school, right? I've been offered drugs on numerous occasions in my life, and never accepted them as a teen (though I may have as an adult... Shh, don't tell). I want to make it clear that I don't think teens who use drugs are bad people, or that marijuana is a particularly dangerous substance, whether used by teens or adults (my body reacts FAR worse to caffeine, and more strongly to alcohol). I'm just trying to make the point that unschoolers are quite capable of making their own choices in the face of peer pressure, and if anything, I think not being in school could help in dealing with it. It's hard to face people every single day who are pushing you to do something, and not feel strong pressure to do it. If, on the other hand, you don't have to see people regularly who push you to do things you're uncomfortable with, firstly that's just making your life freer of coercive people who don't really care about your wants and needs, and secondly it's just not going to matter as much what those people think or want.

To sum it up? People who think it's okay to try and get others to do things they don't want to do are, sadly, a part of life. But unschooling can provide more space and support for choosing healthier social groups and making better choices.

Waiting in line

I almost hesitate to add this to the list, but when I asked people on my Facebook page to share concerned (or concern-trolling) queries they'd received about unschooling/homeschooling and socialization, more than one person had been asked how their children will learn to stand in line.

I don't know, maybe by parents saying "hey sweetie, we've got to stand at the back of the line because those people got here before us, and it's not nice to push in front of people." Also by waiting in line at the grocery store, waiting in line to check out your books at the library, waiting in line for an amusement park ride, waiting in line to get ice cream...

Getting to go to prom 

So, let me get this straight. You can unschool, and spend your teenage years learning things that fascinate and excite you; spending your time in pursuits that feel meaningful and important; volunteering and working; getting to sleep lots, and slow down when you need to; spending time in social situations you actually like, or at least have decided the benefits outweigh the negatives; and just generally enjoying daily life. Or, you could spend all those years sitting in a classroom, and then go to prom. Why is this even considered close to something that would make someone consider school the better option?

Also, some homeschooling groups organize proms, so unschoolers can get all of the party with none of the school.

My question is, do we really want school's version of socialization?

I read my sister one of the comments that sparked this post, and she burst out in frustration "can't people see that school is literally training you for the work force? People say things like 'school isn't really about academics, it's about social aspects. I learned to work with people with poorer work ethics than me, to deal with people who are cruel to me... now that's what I do in my life!' wow, good job, you learned to settle for shit."

Ivan Illich said much the same thing, if with very different wording, when he observed that:
School prepares for the alienating institutionalization of life by teaching the need to be taught. Once this lesson is learned, people lose their incentive to grow in independence; they no longer find relatedness attractive, and close themselves off to the surprises which life offers when it is not predetermined by institutional definition. And school directly or indirectly employs a major portion of the population. School either keeps people for life or makes sure that they will fit into some institution.
My conclusion? Unschoolers generally do plenty of socializing--though with the positive ability to make choices about how much or little time spent alone or with others feels best to them--and many of the concerns others express about the socialization of children outside of school are completely unfounded. However, I also think it's important to challenge the mindset that takes school as a given, as the norm and standard all other methods should be judged off of. Is the purpose of the socialization received in school really something we want for children and teens (ever heard of the hidden curriculum)? It's commonly accepted that schools are failing even at their stated goals, so why should people outside of school be attempting to emulate them in any way? Doesn't it make more sense to make choices based on the wants and needs of the parents, family, communities, and especially the learners themselves, not on how schools would go about doing things?

I'd rather unschoolers didn't "get socialized," and instead just learned to interact with a range of people in the real world, to be kind and polite, yet also to stand up for themselves and others, to follow rules and guidelines that make sense and do good, and question those that seem useless or harmful.

Finally, I'd like to end with some words by Wendy Priesnitz:
Life for children in school is public. They have virtually no time or space to which adults can be denied access. Children who find psychological privacy by daydreaming are labeled as inattentive or disinterested. On the other hand, life for unschooled children - even ones without siblings - is a mixture of personal and shared time, which allows them to get to know themselves, at the same time as they learn to value, yet be discriminating about, the time spent with others. 
My observation of thousands of home educated children over the past 35 years suggests that another factor outweighs any kind of peer or sibling interaction in its influence on social development. Feelings of security and self confidence are created in children who have the freedom to venture into sophisticated social situations at their own speed. This positive self concept is nurtured by warm, loving interaction with parents who respect their children. As the main ingredients in a child's social development, these even outweigh the contribution of continued social contact in creating a child who functions well in society.


  1. You are a wonderful human being!

  2. I am pretty much *dying* in glee with thanks for you, what you write, how you write, WOW. THANK YOU! I've been passionate about self-directed/life learning for 20+ years having written my own degree/major in college, and now I have a 6 year old who we do zero school with, she just LIVES and learns ALL the time. Yet I can't f*ing write all the time about this, and it is therefore MASSIVELY helpful to find your work! Truly. Big. Thanks. Hope we meet in person someday.