Sunday, March 2, 2008

Homeschool: What About Socialization?

When my oldest son Max was just a baby, we had two sets of next-door neigbhors who homeschooled their children. I couldn't imagine sending my new little one off to school for half of his waking hours. I loved being him with while he was awake, and when he was sleeping, I found myself staring incredulously, in pure, joyous disbelief, at his sweet little face. Yet homeschooling didn't seem quite right for me. Not yet. I figured I would be ready to send my baby to school like everyone else by the time he reached kindergarten age. In the meantime, I often heard parents say, "They learn so many bad words at school," or "My fourth grader has three hours of homework tonight!" or "I'm so frustrated with my child's teacher." Many of these parents felt helpless in their situations.

I couldn't imagine not sending him to school. I was a teacher, and I loved many of my own teachers, and I wanted Max to have memories of his favorite teachers. I thought of my own favorite school memories: bringing treats to school on my birthday, having secret clubs with my friends during recess, taking a field trip with my classmates. And, although I didn't ask my neighbors, I thought, What about socialization? How will Max make friends? I harbored the once-traditional stereotype of homeschoolers as people who stay at home and read their textbooks all day. Fortunately, this mostly-inaccurate picture of homeschoolers is disappearing, in my opinion, even in the years since I had those first conversations with my neighbors about homeschooling. Now, everyone seems to know someone who homeschools, and most people with whom I have discussed homeschooling seem to regard it as a positive educational alternative to traditional schooling.

What social skills do we want our children to learn? I want my children to learn to take turns and share. I want them to learn to give sincere compliments and say please and thank you without reminders. I want them to learn to listen at the proper times and learn to be a polite member of an audience. I want them to learn to make eye contact with people when they are speaking, shake hands, and make proper introductions. I want them to learn about body language and use it appropriately. I want them to develop self-control. I want them to learn ways to make new friends. I want them to empathize with others and help those in need.

Most worthwhile journeys include a learning curve, and I have learned a great deal about homeschooling. I have learned that the social skills I want my children to learn do not need to be learned in a traditional classroom setting. I have learned that the best socialization for kids may not be sticking them in a class with twenty or thirty kids who were born in the same twelve-month time frame, assigned to whichever teacher happened to get their name. Wherever your children learn their social skills, that never-ending process requires gentle nurturing and constant practice. I have learned that the best kind of socialization begins in a loving home, where respect is modeled and practice. As Rachel Gathercole notes in her book, The Well-Adjusted Child: The Social Benefits of Homeschooling, "once upon a time, all children were homeschooled."

I have learned that there are many opportunities for homeschoolers to socialize with people of all ages, in settings that often provide some structure and guidance. During our homeschooling tenure, I have organized an intergenerational playgroup at a nursing home, a Bible study for stay-at-home moms and their children, an annual hayride and wiener roast, and Christmas caroling each December. We attended mixed-age music classes for five years. Max and Mitchell played with other children at monthly La Leche League meetings. They have participated in Sunday School and Vacation Bible School at our church.

Through our field trip club and our own efforts, we have taken tours of three farms, including the historic Kelley Living History Farm in Elk River, a hobby farm, and a thousand-acre Century Farm; the movie theatre; a bakery where bakers grind their own flour each morning; a pet store; the local newspaper facility; a pizza restaurant; an apple orchard and pumpkin patch; a berry-picking farm; and a saltwater aquarium. We have also toured Niagara Cave in Harmony and Mystery Cave in Forestville State Park.

We have visited several museums with friends and family, including the Children's Museum of Chicago, the American Museum of Natural History, the Minneosta Science Museum, the Minnesota Children's Museum, the Children's Museum of La Crosse, the Children's Museum of San Francisco, and the Minneapolis Institute of Art. What perfect experiences for hands-on, real-world learning!

I remember our most recent visit to the Children's Museum, to explore the Curious George exhibit. In the Waterworks area, his favorite part of the museum, Max figured out how to move a ping-pong ball through a maze of clear plastic pipes by manipulating a series of valves to adjust the water flow. Several adults and other children couldn't solve the puzzle, so Max patiently and gently showed them which valves to open or close at just the right time, just like a little teacher. That was a real-world assessment of his social skills, and I feel good about what he is learning as a homeschooler.

My children have participated in community education activities, including gym classes, science classes, art classes, and just-for-fun classes. Max has enjoyed tennis lessons and swimming lessons. With friends, we have taken many trips to area parks and the local Quarry Hill Nature Center, and Oxbow Park and Zollman Zoo in nearby Byron. Often we have so many opportunities to socialize, we have to say "not this time" so we can stay home and do other important kinds of learning!

In Rochester, there are many other opportunities for homeschoolers to socialize that we have not yet explored, activities that help young people learn a new skill and make friends in the community. There are speech classes and teams, an orchestra for homeschoolers, a vocal choir, a handbell choir, a basketball league, a 4-H club, book clubs, and the aforementioned field trip clubs. Some families join together and hire qualified instructors to teach their children art or chess.

Last week, while waiting for our field trip to begin, our group began visiting with a gentleman who worked at the restaurant we were about to tour. He had homeschooled his three daughters for three years and sang the praises of homeschooling. "And then," he told us, "I had to go back to work, and my wife couldn't take it, so she put them in school!" We moms looked at one another, trying to hide our grins, and silently patted ourselves on the back. So far we can "take it," although I think all of us find ourselves saying on the most trying days, "Don't make me send you to school!" That man reminded us that even everyday activities, like going to the store, provide practical and beneficial opportunities for socializing our children.

One of the unexpected benefits of homeschooling is the close relationship that brothers Max and Mitchell share. They are each others' best friend, and if Max were spending eight hours or more each day away from his little brother, neither of them would be able to play games together, read books together, and share meals together the way they do today, experiences that have molded their special friendship. In addition, Max and Mitchell have been able to experience many of those special school memories that I cherished -- the field trips, the birthday celebrations, the little clubs with playmates. They have those moments at places other than school.

I am not sharing our experiences for mere bragging rights. Rather, I hope to educate and inform others what the homeschooling experience is really like for many families today. If you are thinking about homeschooling, perhaps our experiences will help you feel confident in your decision to help your child learn at home ... at least, when you are not out socializing.
The Well-Adjusted Child: The Social Benefits of Homeschooling

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