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What is Socialization and What Kind Do We Want For Our Kids?

What Is Socialization and What Kind Do We Want For Our Kids?
By Wendy Priesnitz

What do we mean when we use the term “socialization” as it relates to schooled and life learning kids? And what kind of socialization do we really want for our kids?

I thought that we’d long ago lost the concern about home-educated kids and socialization. But in the past two weeks, I’ve been asked about how kids who learn outside the school system “get socialized,” had a reporter knowingly tell me that home-educated kids become “overly dependent” upon the parent who stays at home with them, and read too many blog comments suggesting our kids will turn into ill-functioning dolts without exposure to school.

Whenever I am asked a question about unschooling socialization, I ask some questions about schooling socialization in return. (Unless I’m subjected to a know-it-all rant, when I just walk away.) Using questioning to point out that school isn’t often what it’s cracked up to be – and that the school experiment is, in fact, failing – is a useful way of turning the conversation around and encouraging people to think outside their boxes. I ask about things like this:

  • What does socialization really mean, and what does it mean to be well socialized?
  • How much social interaction do children actually require?
  • What is the quality of the socialization at school compared to what is available out of school?
  • In school, is a free verbal exchange allowed among the students, or is the emphasis on preserving the quiet?
  • Do shared group learning experiences and discussions regularly take place in school, or is it more efficient for the teacher to talk and the students to listen?
  • Is there at least as much cooperation as competition?
  • Do young people interact across class, gender, and racial lines, or do cliques and bullying predominate?
  • Do speaking skills get as much attention as listening skills?
  • How does regimentation encourage creative thinking?
  • Does compulsion help or hinder an understanding of democracy?
  • How does standardization contribute to self-esteem?
  • Does school’s systemic lack of trust in children hinder the development of self-confidence?
  • How do people become self-regulating without practice?
  • Does mandated volunteerism create involved, compassionate citizens or resentment?

Okay, so some of the questions present my bias! But there’s lots of research to support that bias…and also strong suggestions that parents, teachers, and school administrators are in denial about the negative socialization that happens in schools. And, yes, all those questions relate to socialization, which is much more than knowing how to relate to others without fighting. I think my questions are also good ones for life learning parents to ask ourselves.

School Socialization

According to environmental psychologist Maxine Wolfe, the problem involves both the physical surroundings of the typical school setting and entrenched ways of adults relating to children. In her paper entitled Institutional Settings and Children’s Lives: An Historical, Developmental and Environmental Perspective on Educational Facilities (presented at the Edusystems 2000 International Congress on Educational Facilities), she describes her twenty-year study of the use of space and educational practices in a variety of schools with different educational philosophies. She writes,

“Daily life in schools is an unvarying series of events taking place in an endless repetition of similar spaces, built into an unvarying time schedule, all defined by some outside power. The overriding goals of these settings take precedence over children as people...Very little time or space belongs to the child…Spontaneity is viewed as impulsivity, as disruptive to ongoing plans and as expendable in light of more important educational goals...Life for children in school is public. They have virtually no time or space to which adults can be denied access...Privacy is so antithetical to the institutional goals of order, control, and enforced sociability, that children’s attempts to seek out privacy are defined as their problem...Children who find psychological privacy by daydreaming are labeled as inattentive or disinterested....”

Unschool Socialization

In contrast, life learning situations are much more active and positive, and allow for a balance of public and private times. And, not being segregated into age ghettos, kids spend time with older and younger children, as well as a variety of adults within the family and out in the community. Developmental and social psychologist Dr. Urie Bronfenbrenner of Cornell University wrote in his book Two Worlds Of Childhood, U.S. and U.S.S.R. that young children can greatly benefit from the modeling and reinforcement that results from relationships with older children, but laments the lack of such opportunities in the education systems of the western world.

One of the socialization-related comments I hear the most is that kids should be pushed out of the nest early so they can learn to fly on their own. You may also have been told to cut the metaphorical umbilical cord or apron strings, to let your child go out into the world and toughen up...without you, the parent.

I don’t know where this unfortunate idea comes from other than parental convenience and the economic benefits of the childcare/education industry. In reality, feelings of security and self-confidence are best developed when children have the freedom to venture into sophisticated social situations at their own speed.

Interaction with loving parents (or other primary caregivers) who respect children is one of the main ingredients in a child’s social development, far outweighing the contribution of plentiful social contact in helping a child to function well in society. Like all the other things children learn through living, they will find their own level of comfort with exploring the world, and their own balance between public and private time.

In contrast to this, Bronfenbrenner cites research which found that regimented school attendance has a devastatingly negative effect on self-worth. The researchers apparently discovered that eighty percent of students entering school feel good about themselves; by grade five, only twenty percent have retained that positive self-worth; by the time they are seniors in high school, only five percent still have positive self-worth. In his own work, he tied that lack of self-esteem resulting from early institutionalization to increased peer dependency.

Ironically, learning to withstand peer pressure, as well as many other negative aspects of life, is one of the arguments people make in favor of early institutionalization!

Many years ago, one school superintendent asked me: “How will your girls ever learn to cope with peer pressure, time limits, restrictions, and frustrations if you remove them from these pervasive aspects of daily living?” There are two answers to this rather sad commentary on life. First of all, schools do not have a monopoly on pressure, time limits, and frustration. Life learners live in the real world, which can supply its own share of ups and downs. Secondly, if adult life is really so bad, perhaps the best preparation for it is a positive childhood. If our children do, indeed, have a life of frustration and restrictions ahead of them, maybe a non-frustrating upbringing will prepare them to be patient adults. The superintendent was really suggesting that a bad experience is a good preparation for another bad experience. As John Holt once put it, that line of thinking means that since adults experience a lot of headaches, we should put our children’s heads in vices each day so they can prepare for what it feels like to be an adult.

But Wait a Minute!

The school superintendent was right in that socialization is the process by which we humans acquire the skills necessary to be functioning members of adult society. Unfortunately, modern society’s status quo, unfortunately, involves war, rape, fundamentalist hatred, cut-throat competition, corporate greed, misogyny, apathy, adultism, racism, classism, materialism, selfishness....

I’m not satisfied with that, and you probably aren’t either. In fact, when my daughters were born, I realized that I wanted them to live in a very different world…and that, along with every other individual on the planet, I had the power to help create a different world, and to help them do the same. So one of the main reasons my husband and I decided that our kids would grow up without the influence of school was the fear that they would be socialized into the ways of the mainstream culture, rather than allowed to develop the tools to change it.

Of course, many educational reformers believe that I’m wrong there, that public schooling is the best way to fix and improve things. School is supposed to be the place where a decade or two studying and interacting with those of diverse races and classes prepares us for the duties and privileges of adult citizenship, and fosters social competence and maturity. But, as I’ve written many times before, including in my book Challenging Assumptions in Education, that is simply is not the reality.

Democracy is mere theory unless one is living it. And a child attending school on a compulsory basis, with or without any say about what is to be studied and when, is really not experiencing democracy. Nor are children in most schools provided with the equal opportunity educators think they are. In fact, there is a growing body of research indicating that the system perpetuates the status quo: With a few notable exceptions, children who enter the system poor end up poor, with many dropping out along the way.

So, realizing that socialization – as the term is used by sociologists, anthropologists, politicians, and educationalists, refers to the process of inheriting societal norms, customs, and ideologies – I question whether or not socialization is even necessary. It might provide our children with the skills and habits necessary for participating within their own society – or maybe not, since society is evolving pretty quickly these days. What it doesn’t do very well is provide them with the tools to improve society…or even themselves.

My life learning daughters both eventually tried high school. They did well academically, but didn’t particularly fit in, largely because they thought of adults as equals, and didn’t know their “place.” They were appalled at the lack of respect for young people, at the manipulation and the power plays. They were surprised at the injustices they observed, which others shrugged off or didn’t even notice. Speaking out and challenging things they thought were wrong elicited many sideways looks. While they were able to compete with their peers, they often wondered why competition played such an important role in education, which they viewed as a personal pursuit.

So when I’m asked about socialization and self-directed learning, I ask back: Are you comfortable with a future run by square pegs designed to fit into square holes, or by creative, robust thinkers who envision a more humane, just, democratic social reality?

Wendy Priesnitz is Life Learning Magazine’s founder and editor. She is also the author of thirteen books, three of which are about life learning; and the mother of two adult daughters who learned without school in the 1970s and '80s. She tries to be an agent of change.

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