Social Issues

socialization isn’t a freaking joke

If you’ve been around homeschooling culture for any length of time, you’re probably familiar with how they tend to make fun of “socialization.” When I was growing up as a homeschooled kid, I had “20 Snappy Comebacks” prepared in case I overheard someone asking “b-but but what about socialization?!” I’d been taught– and was firmly convinced– that when people asked about socialization it sprang from a place of ignorance about homeschooling. When you homeschool, I believed, you’re not just limited to interact with people from your grade level, but with children and adults of all ages. Through church (and, theoretically, co-ops, although I only attended one in 2nd grade), we got all the social interaction we could possibly want.

It’s ironic to me now that while I thought that other people were ignorant if they asked me about socialization (which, honest moment, they never did, probably because of how incredibly isolated I was), the fact of the matter is that most homeschoolers who dismiss socialization as a legitimate question are also being ignorant.

Socialization isn’t just “learning to talk to people like a regular human.” It’s not “having friends.” It’s not “engage in social activities.” Socialization is “the process whereby an individual learns to adjust to a group (or society) and behave in a manner approved by the group (or society).” I’ve talked about my own experience with socialization before, and one thing I can confidently say is that if we’re talking about fundamentalism, then I am socialized extremely well. I know how to walk the walk and talk the talk. I know what the acceptable behaviors and language are. I was taught to be extremely well-suited to that environment.

However, now that I’m not in fundamentalism anymore, I am not well socialized. I struggle understanding what the group parameters are, and one of the biggest struggles I face is that I have no metric whatsoever for analyzing my behavior. Was I polite? No idea. Did I hurt someones’ feelings? Not a clue. Did I do or say something weird or awkward? Can’t say. I’m slowly learning how to operate in casual social settings, but there is always a sliver of me that’s panicking the entire time that I’m going to blow it and expose myself as the weird homeschool kid.

But there’s another aspect to this “socialization” question that I’ve yet to see addressed.

Above I noted that I am extremely well socialized to operate in fundamentalist spaces, so I am intimately familiar with what’s required to achieve that and it bothers me.

Every once in a while, I’ll bump into someone commenting on how “well-behaved your children are!” Sometimes it’s people talking about how polite and happy and well-mannered all the Duggar children appear to be. A few years ago I overheard it at a not-fundamentalist church, and it was directed at a mom in a denim jumper with six kids and– no joke– No Greater Joy sticking out of her diaper bag for some reason. “Well-mannered children” is part and parcel of fundamentalist socialization, and there’s a fairly uniform code for what that means:

  • instant obedience
  • obedience with a “good attitude”
  • joyfulness
  • respectful of elders
  • lack of rebellion (individuation)
  • are faithful, diligent members of the religion

The main problem I have with the above is all those people complimenting fundamentalist parents on “well-mannered” children have no freaking idea what it takes to achieve children who behave like that. Children are supposed to be imaginative and express their identity and be unruly and rambunctious and explore and be curious and filled with wonder and sometimes be grumpy and unhappy and annoying.

The methods used to create children who are always smiling, who always obey instantly, who never go through individuation, who never talk back– they should horrify us because they are nightmarish. In order to achieve this, you have to beat infants. You have to strike your children multiple times a day with a switch or a board or a belt. Age-appropriate exploration must be prevented at all costs– either through things like blanket training or slapping a baby every time they reach for a necklace or your hair. You must subject your infant or toddler to brutal physical punishment every single time they show a disavowed form of curiosity about their environment.

For older children and teenagers, you have to completely disallow any form of individuality. They must agree with everything you teach them. Doubts and questions are forbidden. If they attempt to express their own identity, they must be bullied by other members of the fundamentalist community to immediately stamp it out.

Being socialized as a fundamentalist child means being horribly abused. It means being denied any natural part of growing up. So, yes, fundamentalist homeschool families are socializing their children– socialization, really, is inevitable– it’s just what they’re socializing them to. Fundamentalist homeschoolers are largely incapable of socializing their children to be capable, competent, contributing members of society because socializing them in fundamentalism precludes that.

Remember that next time you hear someone comment how cute and quaint and charming the Duggar family is.

Artwork by David Bliwas
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  • This is really important. Thank you for writing it.

  • Beroli

    Thank you for this. Of course the fiercest advocates of religious homeschooling, those who dedicate much of their time to going on about how brilliant homeschooled students are, suddenly want those who went through it to shut up when they talk about the problems with it.

  • David Waldock

    This isn’t true merely of homeschooled kids, but all kids living in fundamentalist households. I can’t like this enough.

    • I agree. I was raised fundamentalist but before homeschooling became popular.

  • Catherine Cavanaugh Martin

    I homeschooled my kids, but we aren’t and weren’t fundamentalists. My daughter is doing reasonably well in college and my son (the extrovert) is thriving in high school. As you know, some homeschoolers do “socialization” well. (I have chronic migraines, so I made my kids take one class at the local public school from middle school through high school. And my son has been in public school for his junior and senior years.)

    So many of us as parents want a “method” to raise good kids. And there are books out there that guarantee it. One of the advantages of not having kids till I was 28 and being an MD is that I saw lots of other families and read a lot about pediatrics and child rearing. I got to see what harsh parenting does to kids. But, it turns out that reasonable parenting turns out kids that are often well-behaved in public. The reason is that the kids trust the parents. When the parents ask them to do something the kids expect that there’s a reason there because that’s been their experience. My husband and I didn’t worry about taking our kids out in public unless we knew that they were tired/hungry/otherwise cranky because they were generally obedient.

    Having trusting kids has the other advantage that when you yell at them not to run into the street, they won’t run into the street. They will quite often ask why, but they’ll stop first. None of this is 100%. One of the homeschooling moms in our area came into our yarn shop and her 6 or 7 year old son was just into everything. Mom never raised her voice, but was gently moving his hands off the yarn. It’s clear that this kids has ADHD, but Mom had a plan worked out to deal with him in public.

    Well, this has gone quite long. Good post. Yes, fundamentalist homeschool has real problems that parents and communities should be aware of. And well-behaved children shouldn’t be our goal. Children who love Jesus and love people should be our goal. And they aren’t going to be perfect. Because their parents certainly aren’t!

    • I really like your comment, and I believe that trusting kids are healthier than kids trained in ‘you better do what your told and don’t ask me why’.

    • Oh my gosh. This my be my favorite comment on the internet. You have just helped me describe why my kids are the way they are. I loved this post and Samantha makes excellent points for that culture, but you’re totally right too. People ask me that all the time and I have no idea what to tell them because we rarely discipline them – they rarely even get grounded. And we let them argue with each other, etc…my answer is usually ‘5 kids imposes it’s own discipline. If you’re mean, 4 people won’t play with you, so you stop being mean’, lol.

      “They will quite often ask why, but they’ll stop first.” – THIS. All.The.Time. And a lot of the times I won’t have a good reason why, so then we’re both like, oh I guess you can do that, ha!

    • Terahlyanwe

      If I had been raised and homeschooled as you describe I don’t think I would recognize the person I would have been.
      And I’d definitely be a lot better adjusted as an individual.
      Fundamentalist homeschooling sucks.

  • Kathleen Margaret Schwab

    This “your kids are so well behaved” thing needs to go. One of the major reasons I see for what people call bad behavior is that the child is reacting to stress. Sometimes the stress is too many demands from the environment, and sometimes it is things like parents treating each other poorly. Believe me, kids know, and they mimic that behavior. The other day I saw a 3 year old having an absolute tantrum on his mom at the bank, and he kept yelling things like “You’re stupid!” “Get away from me!” Where do you think he heard that? That is a dramatic example, but I think it is repeated in many behaviors of children. They can be mirrors of the adults around them – mirrors we don’t always like.
    Another thing is that behavior is not so simple as good and bad. We recently took in a 16 year old whose mom died over the summer. She left and didn’t contact us for 3 nights at one point, and we filed a missing person’s report. Why did she run away from a nice calm home? She got emotionally overwhelmed. She slept in her car because being here in our home with our same age daughter brought home to her that she never had a safe family, and now with both parents dead she never will. Is that bad behavior? The feelings are normal, and they overwhelmed her. This is how life goes. I had these same feelings myself in my young adult years, and I know how powerful they are.

    • J.B.

      I like your point in the second paragraph, but as to your first- my kid has definitely said things like go away and I hate you-not because we say it to her, but because of neurology. Fight or flight is a powerful beast and a few minutes in a bank does not tell you the whole story.

  • Elin

    My daughter is generally well-behaved and someone meeting her for 1-2 hours might very well believe she obeys every single time (she so doesn’t). I just saying that there are children who are like this despite never having been beaten and or oppressed. I have tried to help her act in a good way in as many situations as possible through exposure, preparation and instruction but not by using any force. She is not perfect at all but I sure can see why someone could think she is. Old ladies often stop and tell me/her that she is well-behaved and “brought up properly”.

  • Samantha, you did an excellent job on this article; but of course–you lived it. Thank you so much for this article and others.

  • nelson_keener

    The sarcastic, snarky responses show how insecure and defensive these folks can be. It demonstrates no respect for the other person let alone that it is void of the spirit of Jesus. Then they wonder why the secular press and gays don’t like them.

    For 14 years I worked for an institution where the daily routine included church, school, work and socialization were solely within the confines of a most myopic community.

    When I took a new job with a more diverse nonprofit and moved to a metropolitan suburb both our son and daughter enrolled in public school and community programs. I soon discovered that I did not have a clue about how to carry a conversation with another parent on the sideline. And if they were Catholic, well…..

    • wanderer

      Yes I read the 20 snarky responses and thought “wow, so you’re just an asshole.” And it also left me wondering if those people really do understand socialization. Because most of those responses make it seem like they think being around siblings or being in the presence of other people (at a restaurant or store) is the same thing as knowing how to function in your peer group.
      That blog did nothing to help the cause of homeschooling in my opinion.

  • Aram

    A very good post. My mother was always being complimented on how well-behaved we were. Mmhmm…

  • Trevel

    I was home schooled and poorly socialized, although I’m more likely to point the blame for that at the high-functioning aspergers than at the home-schooling. I don’t think there was ever a potential life path that would have resulted in my being well socialized. 😉

    Of course, no one has ever told my parents that their children were well behaved. Ever.

    EVER.

    • J.B.

      I know my kid is getting comfortable at school when I start getting emails from the teacher 🙂 The world is just not ready for her I think.

      • Trevel

        I suppose it’s pretty easy to get confused between “well behaved” and “biding their time”. 😉

  • Yeah, when I hear those comments about the Duggars, my reply has always been, “They HAVE to be well-behaved. If they’re not, they get beaten the moment the cameramen leave.”

    Although there has been some discussion about how the advent of ‘fame’ for the Duggars, such as it were, means that the younger children are better-socialized to deal with the outside world than their older siblings, and most likely the physical and overt abuse can’t happen nearly as often.

  • Timothy Swanson

    When I was a homeschooled kid, my main objection to the “what about socialization” question was that it seemed to imply that we were isolated. At the time, I guess I didn’t know homeschoolers who were kept only in fundie circles. My wife was isolated like that in her high school years, although not so much as a kid.

    My own experience was very different. I grew up in a predominantly minority neighborhood. (At least next door to the ghetto, if not quite in it…) We hung out with neighborhood kids all the time. They were in our house, we were in theirs, and that was the way it was. Likewise, we had other socialization opportunities. We were involved in classical music, so we hung out with the rich(er) kids, mostly Jewish and Japanese Americans, and most in a higher social class than we were. And then there was church, which wasn’t a particularly fundie place, so we knew kids from public, private, and home schools.

    I realize now, though, that many didn’t have the life I did, and suffered from lack of exposure to those outside the bubble. There is such a wide variety of home school experience. For my kids (who I homeschool), I make a point of having them around other kids (and adults) from a variety of backgrounds, and certainly don’t try to isolate them. I see the risk of it happening accidentally, and try to prevent it.

    So I do agree with you that socialization is something that should be considered, and should be viewed as a necessary part of raising a child.

    • Trevel

      My parents commented that, when they started homeschooling and meeting with other homeschoolers, people did it for one of two reasons: either because public schools were bad (evil and unchristian), or because public schools were bad (incompetent).

      There were vast differences between the two approaches; one tries to give their children a LIMITED education (nothing that isn’t God-approved, where your pastor plays the role of God); the other, a BETTER education with a limited class size and the ability to explore at ones own pace and interest. It bothers me somewhat that the two approaches are lumped together as “homeschooling” when they’re worlds apart.

  • PercyDovetonsils

    Is there a difference between socialization and “teaching them to fit in to something that ‘just ain’t fittin’?'”

  • Terahlyanwe

    “Being socialized as a fundamentalist child means being horribly abused. It means being denied any natural part of growing up.”

    Everything about this. I was so proud as a child and teenager to tell anyone who asked about socialization that I was perfectly well socialized – see how articulate and comfortable I am when talking to you and I’m only EIGHT!/ten/twelve/etc. The truth is, we’re good at debating and talking to adults and absolutely crap at relating to any normal person our own age. I often (usually) find that I have more in common with the folks who grew up during the Great Depression than I do with my fellow millennials.

    As an adult, I now recognize that my entire childhood was being trained (read: abused & brainwashed) into behaving like an adult at all times with none of the benefits of being one.

    As an aside, I find it amusing/baffling to see that you’re still religious. 5/6 of my siblings and I are now agnostic or atheist after escaping from fundamentalism, and I’m just as bemused by my sibling in seminary.
    Granted, I also don’t understand how anyone can be religious and believe in science simultaneously. This amusement/bafflement/curiosity is at least 20% of why I read (lurk on) your blog.

    • I suppose I don’t see religion and science as having much overlap.

  • Jackalope

    I know this is coming late, but the best thing I got from (hearing about) fundamentalist ways of raising kids is this knowledge. When I was younger (and had spent very little time around kids, as will immediately become obvious), I thought that perfect, smiling, well-behaved kids were something to strive for. Then I learned how you GET kids like that, and I was horrified. Now when I’m with one of my nieces or nephews (or other small kids I love), I appreciate when they’re well-behaved and smiling, but I ALSO appreciate them when they’re whiny or fussy or acting out. Not that I enjoy being around them when they’re like that, but I know they’re learning to deal with frustration and anger in healthy ways, and learning that they’re loved even on days when they aren’t their best. I even remember being a bit happy (after the fact) when a kid that I get along with super well and babysit for had a melt-down around me, since it was a sign that he felt comfortable with me around.

    (And for what it’s worth, most of the kids/teens I’m of close acquaintance with are great, but we all have our moments….)

  • Eileen

    My gosh, yes! It’s still so hard to communicate with anyone who isn’t either an authority figure or someone I see as a younger sibling.

  • Margot Isbert

    Unfortunately Fundamentalists aren’t the only ones who share the uniform code of behavior for “socialization”. It is also part of many classrooms in the the public school system. One must agree with the group, speak the same language as the group, think the same thoughts as the group or one can experience marginalization. Often times in any group or organization independent thought is not always welcome. Built into the definition of socialization there is the rejection of that which does not fit in. This does not mean the one who does not fit in is inherently broken and invaluable. Either that person changes their ways with the hope of fitting in or looks for a better fit. Better yet the group makes room for that person with their differences. Socialization isn’t all bad or all good. It just depends on the nature of those who define it.

  • SirThinkALot

    Eh, I’m still not sold on the idea that forcing hundreds of kids who have nothing in common(besides happening to live in an arbitrary geographic location) together for the bulk of their waking hours is the best way to teach them social cues. I mean maybe it works for kids who are naturally extroverted and happen to have popular interests. But for those kids who need the most help with socialization the most, its not only unhelpful, but detrimental.

    I went to public school, but Growing up I was a ‘nerd’ back when that word was still an insult(and had some actual meaning). I was the kid who was reading fantasy novels and didnt care about sports. It didnt help that I am naturally inclined to be introverted, and was always nervous and awkward meeting and talking to new people. As a result I was mocked and bullied in elementary school, and shunned in high school. It wasnt until after school, that I began to really learn social cues(and I still have a hard time), when I was able to have more control over when and how I interacted with people. And was able to seek out people I share interests with.

    I dont know if homeschooling is the answer. But ideally children should learn to socialize at times and places set specifically for that, maybe that share common interests. Which is not really possible when they must spend nearly all their waking hours at school(plus homework).