By Leo Babauta
One of the first questions anyone has when we talk to them about unschooling (or homeschooling in general) is "How do they learn to socialize?" It was definitely one of our first questions.
This is a good question, and the honest answer is that while there are lots of good ways, I don't have the perfect solution here. It's also not as big a deal as most people might imagine.
But let's talk about some of the assumptions that most people make when they ask about socializing:
- School is seen as an excellent way to learn to socialize, but in reality, the majority of humans have only been using this very artificial socialization system for about 150 years or so. It existed in limited forms in antiquity, but most people weren't going to school in 1800. Before that, we learned to socialize at home (with parents, siblings, grandparents and extended families) and in the village (with other kids but also other adults who looked out for you).
- There's no reason we have to learn to socialize with a bunch of people our own age. Again, this wasn't the case just 200 years ago, and people learned to socialize just fine. Same-age socialization is artificial and doesn't happen in the real world once school is over.
- School socialization can be a positive experience, but it isn't always. There's bullying, for example, and pressures to conform. Recently kids have been committing suicide because of being teased and bullied at school about being gay. I'm not gay, but I did get bullied in school and often felt like I didn't fit in. Sometimes the pressure to fit in was terrifying.
Now, I'm not saying school is the worst way to learn to socialize, but we should have a discussion about this with open eyes, acknowledging that every method has its pros and cons.
One more point that's important to make: You don't need to learn all social skills as a kid. For example, I was pretty shy as a teen-ager. I had friends, but I wasn't good at making new friends, and was often uncomfortable in many social situations. I learned after high school, on my own, because I wanted to be better at it. It wasn't that hard to learn. There's no mandate that says you have to learn everything important by age 18.
So how can unschoolers/homeschoolers learn to socialize? It's not hard, though of course there may be more work involved that simply sending your child off to school and letting the school deal with it.
Here are some ways unschoolers can learn to socialize:
- Kids learn to socialize primarily from their parents, and this has pretty much always been true. They learn by watching and imitating. So just interacting with parents is a great way to learn to socialize.
- Kids learn from watching their parents socialize with others. So parents should do that in front of them -- take the kids to meet with friends, or have people over often.
- Kids learn from socializing with their siblings. We have a huge advantage, with six kids (four of them in the house during the week).
- They learn from their extended family members too -- socializing with grandparents and uncles and cousins.
- They can learn from interacting with other adults. An example is if the student is interested in marine biology, could she work with a real marine biologist and learn from her? She'd be learning to socialize by doing that. A boy interested in art can work alongside an adult artist. Someone else could mow lawns and deal with adults through this business.
- There are sports teams and workshops and classes where kids/teens can socialize with others around their age.
- Homeschooling associations exist in many areas -- you can get together with other homeschooling families and go on field trips, etc.
- Students can start businesses at a fairly young age, which means they'd interact with others.
- Join a band.
- Go to conferences related to the student's interest.
- Meet other kids & parents at playgrounds and parks, and make friends. Go on play dates.
- Find others your age online and make online friends, and then either become the modern versions of pen pals, or meet in person (with parents' supervision -- never meet an online stranger alone).
- Become an intern.
The guiding principles for me are: put kids in real-world situations, put them in a variety of social situations, give them a good example, talk to them about appropriate behaviors, don't put pressure on them to be good at it, and realize that each kid is going to be different.