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socialization

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
Social Issues

an average homeschooler: graduate school

courtyard

I’ve talked a bit before about some of my experiences at Liberty. Overall, because I was in the MA English program, my experience there was a good step forward for me. I wasn’t living on campus so I didn’t have to do things like shell out ten bucks for falling asleep in chapel and I could ignore controversies like “what do you mean we can break the rules on just Valentine’s Day?!” (something about being able to hug people for longer than 3 seconds? Kiss? I don’t really remember).

I was also encouraged to do things like practice deconstructionism on Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and I did a post-structuralist analysis of Edgar Allan Poe’s Eureka. Academically, the program was rigorous and challenging. I can’t speak for anything else about Liberty, but the MA English program was good for me. Actually being able to take a class called “Advanced Literary Criticism” when my only exposure to literary theory was that it was entirely philosophically bankrupt was amazing. Sitting in on an undergrad grammar class where the professor talked about grammar in a global context and saw English as one language among many instead of it being presented as subtly better (it’s the language of Shakespeare! Milton! The Bible!) was incredible.

Being at Liberty forced me to grow in a lot of ways.

One of the more dramatic ways was actually existing in a semi-pluralistic environment for the first time in my life. I was in class discussions with Catholics, Protestants of all stripes, an agnostic theist, an intense Neo-Reformer, socialists, feminists, conservatives … of course, we were still at a Christian university so it wasn’t as diverse as it could have been, but it was still way more diverse than anything I’d heretofore experienced.

And it was hard.

I can’t really explain how hard it was. During my first semester, many of the encounters I had with my new peers were downright humiliating. Thinking about those incidents still makes me physically ill. Some of the things I did earned me a huge amount of animosity from a lot of the people I had to work with. I created problems for myself with some of these relationships that lasted for the entire time I was there. Even my boss noticed and commented on it– although she phrased it “I’ve noticed you’ve had problems making friends.” That was also during the conversation where I came within an inch of getting fired because of the difficulties I had adapting to a place that assumed being a gigantic ass isn’t ok.

I was still at a pretty conservative Christian college, but all of a sudden I was drowning after being thrown into the deep end of the pool, and it was time to sink or swim. My first year in graduate school was probably one of the hardest times in my life– and that includes that whole time I was in an abusive relationship. I’m not exaggerating: adjusting to being at Liberty University, one of the most conservative places in America, was so difficult for me– emotionally, psychologically– that I can only really describe it in terms of trauma. I have the same trigger-type reactions to thinking about some of my experiences during my first year there that I do when I run into something that reminds me of my abuser.

Part of that is undoubtedly my experience growing up in a fundamentalist cult. I have no problems placing most the blame for these problems on growing up holding a mentality where I was right and everyone who doesn’t exactly agree with everything I believe is going to hell. Thinking things like that are going to cause problems for you when you actually meet someone who disagrees with you.

However, many of the problems that I had at Liberty can be directly attributed to the fact that I was a conservative homeschooler. Three of my professors pointed this out to me, actually– usually in conversations centered on what it means to be a college student and what is appropriate and expected. I was so oblivious to many of the problems I was giving my professors that they had to pull a 23-year-old adult into their office for a chat.

Many of the skills that seem to come naturally to many (not all) of my publicly-educated peers were so far outside of my grasp I didn’t even understand these skills existed.Things like work/life balance, how to prioritize work, how to do an appropriate amount of work … I also had to have conversations with several professors where they taught me some of these things– some had to be quite blunt and warn me that I was going to kill myself if I kept going how I had been.

I spent hours upon hours in my professor’s offices over those two years because I had to play catch-up all the time. My literary theory professor was incredibly gracious and met with me as much as I needed because he lovingly understood where I was coming from and that I needed that time and attention. My education professor responded to a ridiculous number of e-mails asking him for help for two years because I didn’t understand what it was like to be a student. My post-modernism professor was extraordinarily patient with me because it took me months to wrap my head around what post-modernism was (thank you, A Beka and Bob Jones, for nothing). People who weren’t ever my professors gave me permission to attend their classes because I didn’t have any concept of basic things like grammar.

Eventually I did figure some things out. I consider my grad school experience a success- mostly. I still cringe at the lot of stupid and idiotic things I did and said while I was there. I still flinch at some of the memories. I still hurt because of some of the things that happened. I wish I didn’t have to struggle so mightily in every class, that I wasn’t handicapped by my borderline pathetic education (although, by grad school that was just as much my college experience as it was homeschooling).

Talking about these experiences is complicated, because not everything, obviously, can be chalked up to “welp, I was homeschooled”– and that hasn’t been the argument I’ve been trying to make. However, being homeschooled the way I was (and the way that many children still are) gave me certain weaknesses that I’ve tried to expose here, by telling my story. Like all stories, mine is messy, and nuanced, and there isn’t any one thing to point fingers at. However, homeschooling was a part of my experience. It is one of the reasons why adulthood is still a struggle for me.

My conservative religious homeschooling experience was not entirely awful, and hopefully that’s been apparent all through this series. But, if homeschooling hadn’t been a part of my fundamentalist experience, I can’t imagine how different my life would have been. If I’d had friends who were different than me. If I’d read great books written by women. If I’d had teachers who could have encouraged and developed my passion for science. If I’d heard of ideas from the people that believed in them instead of just the straw man versions.

I can’t help thinking it would have been better.

Social Issues

an average homeschooler: college

lyceum

The night before I left for college, I was a gigantic mess. I was all packed, all ready to go, when I about had a meltdown and my mother stayed up with me late that night trying to talk me out of my tree. I was panicking– absolutely positive that college was going to be nightmarish, that I was going to fail every class, and that I would never be able to adjust to a classroom environment.

Turns out, most of that worrying was for nothing. I did well in the general education courses– although I strongly suspect that it was almost entirely due to the fact that the 101 classes at this college used the exact same textbooks as what I’d used for 12th grade, so we were literally going over the same exact material. When all the review questions from the textbook are the same, turns out the tests and quizzes are largely the same, too. Also, because I was at a fundamentalist college, the classroom environment is completely unlike what you’d see at most other colleges. I believe, looking back, that if I’d tried to enroll in a private or state school, I would have floundered. I might have been able to keep my head above water, but it would have been a struggle every day.

At this school, all seats are assigned– from freshman level all the way through graduate courses. I never experienced a class discussion the entire time I was there. Almost every class was lecture-based, with a few exceptions for “lab” classes that were essentially nothing more than homework review. Given that the environment was this structured, rule-following me actually fit in quite well. I didn’t have to guess at anything, or figure anything out. As far as class was concerned, there wasn’t any protocol that wasn’t explicitly stated.

Socially, my experience was . . . interesting. My freshman year, all of the friends I made were fundamentalist homeschoolers (well, one of them attended an ACE church school). However, even though we were all from similar backgrounds, shared similar beliefs, and were all at this college for pretty much the same reason, we discovered that interacting with other people our age independent of adult supervision is freaking difficult. There was constant bickering and in-fighting, and none of us knew anything about conflict resolution, which led to me abandoning them because I couldn’t stand having a relationship like that anymore. I thought these particular people were just “drama-filled,” but it really wasn’t that. They were struggling just as much as I was, and we didn’t know anything about how to form friendships that weren’t inside the homeschool paradigm. There was certainly fun times– there were reasons we tried to be friends– but in the end, it became too difficult to keep ourselves together. We splintered off, and kept touch with each other, but having a relationship failed.

We also didn’t know basic human realities like it’s impossible for some people to be friends, or that basing a relationship on “iron sharpeneth iron” would probably ruin it. There is some interplay happening between fundamentalism and homeschooling– I won’t deny that– but our homeschooling background was a contributing factor in our relationship difficulties; I would argue that being homeschooled exacerbated problems we were already guaranteed to have from our fundamentalist upbringing.

In conservative religious homeschooling (which, like the rest of homeschooling, is certainly not monolithic, but, again, there are over-arching patterns and commonalities), even for homeschoolers involved in co-ops and groups, socialization doesn’t just mean “interacting with people.”  It doesn’t mean “have friends.” In an incredibly basic sense, “socialization” is the process of learning how to act in your culture. If I’m operating inside a fundamentalist religious culture, then I am incredibly well socialized. I know exactly how I’m expected to behave, what role I’m supposed to fill, what “language” to use, and what the societal expectations are. When it comes to interacting with American culture, though . . . I’m lost. And it’s not just that pop culture references fly over my head, that I’ve never seen an episode of The Simpsons and that I’m just now learning about things like hip-hop and Andy Warhol. It’s that I’m still struggling to understand what pluralism means, that Truth is largely  inaccessible, that freedom of religion and freedom from religion are just as important..

I also don’t understand how to behave around my peers. I don’t know what constitutes “dominating a conversation” verses merely participating in it, and what the regular give-and-take of conversation looks like. I, like Sheldon Cooper, have no idea what the social protocol is for many situations. Conflict resolution? No idea. I don’t know how to establish and maintain healthy boundaries.

And, on top of that, I spent almost all of my life interacting with people who agreed with me about everything. I did not have the experience of having a conversation with a real-life person where we disagreed about anything significant until I was 23 years old. I was not exposed to people who had substantively different life experiences, who had different understandings of the Christian religion– let alone anyone who wasn’t a Christian. I didn’t meet an out gay person until I was 21. I still haven’t actually met someone who I knew was an atheist or agnostic in real life. I’ve yet to have a conversation with someone, in person, who doesn’t believe in some form of biblical creation. The most dynamic experience I’ve ever had was having a conversation with someone who is Neo-Reformed. After we joined the church-cult, I didn’t know anyone who wasn’t white, and nearly everyone around me was horrifically racist and Islamaphobic.

That’s what we’re talking about when we say that socialization should be a concern for homeschoolers. It’s not that homeschoolers are completely isolated (which they absolutely can be), it’s that socializing your homeschooler has to be intentional, and it is not easy or automatic. Going to church is not enough. Going to a co-op that’s basically the same environment as church is not enough. You have to go out of your way, parents, to make sure that your children are being exposed to ideas–political, philosophical, religious ideas– that aren’t the ones you believe in. You children need to grow up knowing Democrats if you’re Republican, and vice versa. They need to know someone who isn’t a member of your denomination. They need to understand pluralism from first-hand experience.

Because, the second they’re not a homeschooler anymore, the second that they’re struggling to survive in a world filled with multi-culturalism and reasonable arguments for virtually every idea conceivable, they might not be able to deal with it. They could give up on everything they were taught to believe. For many homeschoolers, that typically means Christianity and conservatism.

For many conservative religious homeschoolers, one of the primary reasons to homeschool is to isolate their children, to make sure that they’re not exposed to ideas that the parents find unhealthy or dangerous. You can’t try to do that and make sure that your children are well-socialized, too. They don’t go together.