Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Socialization for Unschooling Introverts

Socialization.
One of the "big ones" in the list of questions that people ask about unschooling.

Actually, often they don't ask. They assume.

Seeing school, with its associated age-sorting and grouping of kids into fairly homogenous groups for several hours per day, every week day, for most of the year, and for twelve to thirteen years of their lives, as not just normal, but expected, people see ANYTHING ELSE as abnormal to the point of dangerous or deficient.

If they don't go to school, then how will they ever fit in and be just like all the other kids?

I'll leave the question of whether they want to or should "be just like all the other kids" for a separate post for now, and address the first part: how will they "fit in"?
This often comes with questions like "How will they ever find friends?" and "Won't they be ostracized for being different?" and "How will you keep them from becoming "social misfits?"

The question about finding friends often amuses me, because typically, it is asked by someone we are socializing with at that very moment. By friends. They rarely seem to see the irony.

The question about being treated poorly for being different… have you been in schools lately? Or out in the world? That is an issue that happens in MANY places, and having a child who is not in school is the least of my concerns about it. At the very least, while kids in schools are forming cliques and "in groups" and an "us vs them" mentality in so many ways: their friends vs not-their-friends, the people in a certain academic class vs people not in that class, people in their grade vs the other grades, students vs teachers, one school vs another school, etc, we can be actively questioning and modeling accepting and valuing the differences between people and groups of people. This one is SO not an issue.

The one I really want to focus on is the question about homeschooled kids being "social misfits."

There is an image floating around out there of what a homeschooler "looks like."
In the homeschooling world, there is an image of what unschooling, and by extension, unschoolers, "look like."

In the non-homeschooling world, that image of "homeschooler" is typically something like this: very religious, sheltered, controlled, never leaves the house, sits at a table doing school work all by themselves. It is both a lonely image, and one of a kid who is growing up totally missing out on "normal experiences" and especially missing cultural references. It is hard for people to imagine this person being SAFE out in the "real world," let alone fitting in, being liked, or having any clue whatsoever "how the real world works" or how to behave in a social group.

Fortunately, for the most part, although I'm sure it happens, this situation is not at all what most homeschooler's lives are like. Even those who want to do school-at-home and who do things like online classes, correspondence courses, and independent study, will typically form and participate in groups of homeschoolers. This is much easier these days, both because of the internet making it easier to find people and communicate with them and make plans, and because there are a lot more homeschoolers now. It is pretty popular now for areas to put together some sort of homeschooling "co-op" and offer group classes and other activities.

In the homeschooling world, and in the eyes and mind of any non-homeschooler who first hears of it, the image of unschoolers is something like this: wild, uncontrolled, disrespectful, unorganized, self-centered, lazy, does nothing but watch TV, play videogames, and eat junk food all day long. With that image, it's no wonder people worry!!

As with the other image- and pretty much any image anyone has of any group of people of which they are not a part- it is nowhere near the reality. It comes from people's fears of "losing control" and a lack of understanding of the dynamics of a family that prioritizes trust and cooperation over arbitrary cultural "norms" or parental authority.

Most of the time, when homeschoolers or unschoolers are asked the socialization question, they either don't know what to say, or, if they are one of the people who has considered this very question, and looked for a way to deal with it, they may point out some of what I've just said, or they may engage the asker in a discussion about the differences between "socializing" (functioning in groups) and "socialization" (the transfer and assimilation of cultural norms). Homeschoolers typically have many opportunities for the first, and are specifically uninterested in the second, at least as far as school-based cultural norms are concerned.

Somewhere in that conversation, the person who originally asked will either lose interest (often because they weren't really interested to start with) or both people will, or the conversation will naturally move on to something else. Occasionally, an interested person might find some of their fears relieved simply by there BEING a thought-out answer. 

But even this doesn't really address the underlying issue.
I'm not sure I've ever seen anyone address it, really. A little, around the edges, once in a while.

The reason it doesn't often get addressed is because it is a little uncomfortable. Most discussion of the topic on public forums is focused on reassuring the new and questioning that everything will be okay, they don't need to worry about it, it will work itself out, and all those naysayers are mistaken.

But.
What if you DO have a kid who is socially awkward? Who would be, in school, very much a "misfit"?
A kid who doesn't want to go join those homeschooling social groups.
Doesn't care for group activities in general.
A kid who is not confident, outgoing, interested, and one who is unlikely to go out and question, explore, discover, all those things you may be hoping they will be passionate about?
A kid who really DOES want to stay home all the time?
Who isn't comfortable talking to other people very much?

What then?

How many of you would like to raise your hand and share that this is a concern for you?
How many would like to raise your hand and share that you have been told that for THIS kid, one who REALLY DOES have social anxiety, you REALLY SHOULD send them to school where they can learn "social skills" because otherwise, they aren't EVER going to be able to get along with people?
And how many of you would rather do almost anything in the world OTHER THAN "raise your hand" and publicly ask or question or say much of anything, in any situation, because YOU ARE THE SAME WAY?

What if…
you are an introvert.
And your child is an introvert.
And really, the both of you would rather this whole question about socialization GO AWAY.

For those of you who are introverts, I have to wonder… did school help you learn to "be social"? Did it give you those skills, of comfortably functioning in groups, that people seem to think it will?

While it is the introverts that seem to bring out that demand that they really NEED school, in many people's eyes, it is those very kids who seem to suffer most in schools. I can't count the number of times I've heard an introvert, themselves, push school on a younger one, while simultaneously recalling the MISERY of their own schooling.

Weird.

Social skills are like any other skill.
A person CANNOT learn them before they are ready.
They are UNLIKELY to learn them if they aren't interested in doing so.
And, even more than many other things, pushing is absolutely counter-productive. It produces not only resistance, but often, complete shutdown.

So what do you do, if you are the parent of such a child?

First, understand that protecting your child is not a bad thing.
Giving them time to learn and grow and develop emotionally and mentally, is a GOOD thing.
And without an enforced school schedule, we HAVE THAT TIME.
We have the flexibility to HONOR this difference in a child.
If YOU share this difference, you don't need to worry that the same inequities will be pushed on them the way they may have been on you: your greatest fears of how they will be treated may not apply at all, since they will not be in the same situation.

There is no need to push them into activities they aren't interested in.
It is perfectly okay to approach and enjoy the world in "smaller bites."

It may well be that it is easier and more comfortable- and more productive- for this child to communicate with people from a distance, at a slower pace, and on their own terms.
It is no coincidence that many introverts are more comfortable ONLINE.
Online communication, through email, facebook, mailing lists (yes, they still exist!), discussion forums, etc, is GREAT for those who want to consider what they say, be careful in their phrasing, and have the ability to slow it down or stop it if it is too overwhelming. At the same time, it allows for some very deep discussion and connection with other people. Often, with other people who are deep thinkers, who aren't interested in idle chit chat or social niceties, and who choose to communicate at all when they have something to say, rather than because they are expected to "be social." Introverts use the internet in very different ways than do many extroverts, and that is one of the very best things about it.

Online social rules and cues are different.
For many people, often those considered to be "on the spectrum," who have difficulty deciphering social cues in real time, this is a huge gift.
There is no worry about interrupting a conversation, or "trying to get a word in edgewise."
In face-to-face communication, introverts are often totally overrun by the more "conversationally gifted." By those who WANT to argue.
Online, they can WALK AWAY, without being considered rude.
They can make rude people GO AWAY. Being able to "unfriend" or "block" someone who pushes stuff on you that you don't need or want in your life is helpful for some, and vital for others.
They can experiment with different levels of participation and activity, without having anyone in their face.


For kids (and then adults) who aren't interested in big group things, who aren't the "life of the party," who don't prioritize social activities per se, and who are more comfortable with a slower pace of interaction, help them find opportunities for THAT, rather than trying to make them into someone they aren't. Let them do as much as they want- and stop when they need to. You may be surprised, later, when they are older, and when they are more able, when they start incrementally finding social activities that suit them. When they do, piece by piece, start being more comfortable in public situations.

It may not happen when they are 5 or 6, or even 15 or 16, but maybe, later, on their own schedule and in their own way.
Does it mean that sometimes, social requirements are difficult? Yes. We work through them, or find alternatives.
Is this any more difficult than any other challenges that people have in their lives? No, not really.

I have one of those kids. :-)
It is a delight to see him blossom in his own time.
His entire journey has been SO different from that of his more social siblings.
I doubt he will ever be a person with a large group of friends and acquaintances, going out to party.
He is much more likely to have fewer, more considered, relationships. To keep to himself much of the time. To more carefully choose what aspects of himself he wants to share with anyone else. To have less active involvement in groups of people he does not know.
But who knows? Things change.
Remember the bit, way up top, about valuing differences?
That.

1 comment:

  1. This is a great article. I have a teen daughter that is just like this - very socially awkward. She even tells me she avoids eye contact when she sees people she knows out in public. She has a few close friends. But she is dealing with her social anxiety in her own way and does things like handing out water bottles in downtown Cincinnati to complete strangers as part of a week of service. Currently she just got a speaking role in a play at a community theater. She knows her comfort zone and I guess that is what we as parents need to understand. Just like John Holt said - trust your children. Keep the communication lines open, I present opportunities and my children tell me if they are interested or not. If they see something interesting they let me know. In my opinion that is a key point in unschooling, interest driven activities.

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