“WHAT ABOUT SOCIALIZATION?”
It’s a question that homeschooling parents hear time and time again about their children’s social lives. Parents often reduce the question to a joke, with their responses to the question distilled into now-popular memes. In contrast, homeschool alumni have spoken up repeatedly about why socialization is no laughing matter. Reasons range from experiences of “culture shock”, struggling to relate to peers, difficulties with discovering self-identity, failing to learn differentiation, the possibility of increased sibling bullying, to psychological abuse.
But there’s another side to this coin that rarely gets discussed: What about socialization for parents?
Just as children and young adults have emotional and social needs, so too do parents. While we vary on a scale from introvert to extrovert, we are all social creatures to some significant extent. Not getting our emotional and social needs met is called social isolation — and social isolation has real, sometimes devastating, consequences — even for adults. Isolation for children can stifle brain development and lead to behavioral and mental health problems. Isolation for adults is just as serious, leading to health risks comparable “in magnitude to the well-known dangers of smoking cigarettes and obesity” up to and including an increased risk of death.
For adults, such isolation doesn’t have to be pure solitude. According to Erin York Cornwell (Cornell University) and Linda J. Waite (University of Chicago), “social isolation that pose health risks” includes “having a small social network” and “infrequent participation in social activities.” This is particularly important to keep in mind when considering the stereotypical** homeschooling family: a family with two parents (one of which works and one of which stays home all day with the kids), a larger-than-average number of children, and a home where homeschooling is not just an educational choice but an identity. (**”Stereotypical” is stressed here, as obviously there are many homeschooling families that defy this stereotype.)
In this stereotypical family, usually the father goes to work all day long, leaving the mother alone with the larger-than-average number of children. The mother must do everything a non-homeschooling mother does — plus assume all educational responsibilities for the children. Numerous studies have indicated that fathers are not very involved with homeschooling responsibilities, leaving this burden almost entirely to the mother. For certain religious homeschooling mothers, homeschooling also becomes an identity: it correlates to a plethora of other lifestyle choices such as making food from scratch, eschewing modern medicine, sewing one’s own clothes, etc. These lifestyle choices, combined with the identification as homeschooler, often cause increasingly large distance between the family and that family’s relatives and friends (who are not part of the homeschooling identity).
Note, however, that homeschooling as an identity doesn’t just happen to religious homeschoolers. Certain non-religious unschoolers, for example, can make homeschooling just as much of an isolating identity as their religious counterparts. When non-religious unschoolers take radical steps, such as exiting modern society to lead a Walden-like existence in the woods disconnected from friends and family, or disconnecting or “radicalizing” to such a point that their friends and family feel alienated, the end results are the same. Namely, (1) the parents’ spheres of socialization are dramatically reduced, (2) the children’s spheres of socialization are dramatically reduced, and (3) the parents and children become each other’s spheres of socialization in far more significant ways.
Embracing an identity that is different from mainstream culture is, of course, not inherently a problem. Such a choice can actually feel freeing and fulfilling. The problem here is when that choice leads to the reduction of one’s socialization spheres. This is important because it means that the possibilities of who can meet each person’s emotional and social needs decrease. Assuming such families are the typical homeschooling family (with two parental caretakers), each parent now has an increased responsibility to meet the other parent’s emotional and social needs. Similarly, each child now has an increased responsibility to meet its parents’ emotional and social needs. And so on and so forth.
It is undeniably normative, of course, for parents to meet certain emotional and social needs of their children, and for children to meet similar needs for parents. However, the reality is that — prior to the rapid industrialization of the West — families existed in extraordinarily interconnected contexts. Families existed in the stereotypical “village.” Thus the burdens to meet both parents’ and children’s emotional and social needs were spread out among many people beyond the nuclear family. As families become less connected, those burdens were borne by fewer and fewer people. So in cases of homeschooling families completely isolating themselves (whether through religion or some political ideology), the smallest number of people now bear the burdens and those burdens can easily become unbearable.
In the book Child Abuse & Neglect: Cross-Cultural Perspectives (edited by Jill E. Korbin), there is an essay by Whittier College anthropologist Emelie A. Olson entitled “Socioeconomic and Psycho-Cultural Contexts of Child Abuse and Neglect in Turkey.” Olson examines child-rearing practices and understandings of child maltreatment in modern-day Turkey. Olson points out that what Americans consider “classic” child abuse — “the highly punitive, extremely exacting, and overly controlling behaviors by parents which lead to mistreatment” (96) — appear rarely. In fact, Olson says, “A review of the Turkish Journal of Pediatrics from 1958 to the present yielded no references to the possibility of classic child abuse” (97). This doesn’t mean there was no child abuse. It just means that child abuse took different forms — namely, it did not take the form of parents taking their anger out on their children. One reason for this, Olson finds out, is that famous “it takes a village” concept:
“The traditional Turkish social structure…tends to provide more tangible assistance to the parents of small children. In contrast with the relative social isolation of many American mothers, Turkish mothers are likely to share the rearing of their small children… [Also,] the presence of other people at nearly all times can help prevent child abuse in other ways. Outsiders can fend off an explosive building of stress by sharing in the responsibility for discipline… The constant presence of other people can provide a buffer for the child…They can bail out the overwrought parent, which [is] an important preventative of abuse” (106-7).
Interestingly, this traditional Turkish social structure has become threatened by modernization. This modernization has led to the “village” feeling disappearing, and nuclear families becoming isolated from extended family. Olson then makes the following observation:
“[There is] another result of the increased [modernization in Turkey]: children are valued more for ‘primary group ties, affection, and love’ and less for security in old age and utilitarian values. Ironically, as children become relatively more important as sources of love, support, and companionship to parents cut off from their family and neighborhood networks, it is possible that the parents’ unmet emotional needs may lead to increasingly high expectations and unrealistic demands on their small children and thus to more classic child abuse.”
In other words, when families isolate themselves from larger communities, they are increasing the emotional and social responsibilities of their own members — something those members are not necessarily capable of (nor should they be capable of) handling. When the needs do not get met, it creates an overflow of chaos and stress — the very same chaos and stress that directly causes child abuse, including physical abuse and sibling abuse.
This should be a wake-up call to homeschooling parents and communities to think about how they can better foster social interaction not just for children, but for parents: How can we create opportunities for parents to get breaks from their children? What sorts of support systems can be instituted to reduce stress levels and increase community-building? How can we change the way we talk about socialization so that it is seen as serious? How can we change the way we talk about socialization so that it is seen as positive and healing as well?
And then take actual steps to increase parental socialization! Even small steps go a long way. For example, if you do a Bible study by yourself, maybe do a Bible study with some other parents. Plan 1 time each week where your spouse can get together with friends and 1 time each week where your spouse gets some alone time to journal. Let your spouse join a softball league. Get your family connected with a homeschool co-op so that you and other parents can share teaching responsibilities and thus lighten the load. When you know another family is going through a stressful time, offer to cook them dinner and/or watch their kids. In short, bear each other’s burdens as a community.
At HARO, our goal is to make homeschooling better for future generations by “renewing and transforming homeschooling from within.” One part of achieving that goal is to make homeschooling a safer, more nurturing environment for students. And one step necessary to that end is to encourage homeschooling parents to take better care of not just their children, but also themselves. Self-care for parents means happier and healthier parents. And happier and healthier parents means a safer, more nurturing environment for students.
We encourage all homeschooling parents, therefore, to seek out communities and support networks that can meet not just their children’s emotional and social needs, but also their own. Find your “village” that can surround you with love and support.
By taking care of yourself, you are taking care of your children, too.
Author: R.L. Stollar
R.L. Stollar is the Executive Director of Homeschool Alumni Reaching Out.