We homeschool, and so we hear occasionally the concern about the “socialization” of homeschoolers. Homeschool families think this concern is silly, of course, and gladly take the debate every time another news story appears about some rotten event in a public school somewhere in America. Which is every minute or so. But I have to admit I’m an extremist in this debate. The debate seems to be about whether children outside a government imposed group get “enough” socialization, which therefore must be a good thing, which good thing children apparently get from the physical presence of other children. Given that premise, I think it’s a debate about a fiction. There is no such thing as children, collected at random, socializing each other in any good sense. It does not happen.
Oh, children certainly influence each other. But I know very few parents of any persuasion who would actually argue that the influence of 15 children chosen at random in a room all day is a good influence. Few humans would argue that those 15 children, left to themselves, will make each other better. At anything.
Imagine for yourself what you’d put in the set of bad habits. Bad social habits, speech habits, study habits, even as far as all those acts or thoughts you’d call a felony. Let’s label the whole set of behaviors and traits we want in our children ” manners”. It’s a useful, though archaic term. But we understand it means much more than just not eating jello with the salad fork. Manners form the wholistic impression of another person that you have after spending the day with them.
The truth is, most parents, believers and unbelievers of all stripes together, would agree on almost the whole set. Most parents have an instinct for the behaviors they want in children – in the abstract.
But that’s where the commonality ends. In the concrete manners of actual children, there is the widest variation in whatever you’d call admirable or despicable, and the habits and demeanors of the actual children have little correlation with the claimed values of the actual parents.
Any one child, not previously known to you, will have a random distribution of manners (not formally random, but random as far as you can know in advance). Would you consider it useful to lock your child in a room for 8 hours with one other child who you do not know, and whose parents you do not know? This random child will not be evil, of course, and in fact may be assumed for the sake of our logic to be exactly as well-mannered as your own child. Assume that then. Assume that this unknown child is no more good and no more bad than your own child, however you define those values.
But, a quick additional factor: few people would deny what so many have observed; bad influence is easier to imbibe than good. This is a commonplace observation across cultures and centuries, common enough that is has entered the canon of common-sense.
We are more permeable to the bad than the good. Christian anthropology, of course, accounts for this empirical observation with the doctrines of Original Sin and Total Depravity, which I’ll paraphrase: the primal bad lives inside each of us, and without outside help is stronger than our residual good. You don’t have to have accepted Christian dogma to see this. Let’s keep it simple: bad easier, good harder.
We further observe that as we mature, our permeability to unthinking influence reduces. We become choosers, we become more discerning, we grow in courage, we become more sure of our values and less needy for peer approval. (All this, hopefully.) In fact, the very definition of adulthood might be rooted in this passage from unthinking conformity to discriminating moral agent. But we never outgrow the universal ratio: bad easy, good hard.
So your child is in a room with a randomly chosen child who you do not know. What you do know, with mathematical certainty, is that both of them have an inward bent that makes each other’s bad manners more likely to pollinate the other than their good. Bad easy, good hard, at the stage of life when the discriminating powers are at their weakest.
I want to stop at this point and make sure the logic to this point is accepted, or rejected, because it is easy to glide over an uncomfortable truth by fuzzing it out. It is not a speculation that these two children will make each other worse, however you define that word. It is a mathematical certainty. And it grows more certain the more time they spend with each as a closed system, with no counter-acting influences. (We factoring out for our thought experiment all the counter-acting influences, in order to isolate the effect of the children on each other.)
This does not mean that they will have no good influences at all on each other. Of course they will. But that doesn’t help us; we’re concerned about the net affect, the goods minus the bads. Don’t console yourself or deny the line of reasoning by focusing your inner eye on some good influence and letting the bad ones drift to the peripheral vision.
Also, at this point you’ve imagined some actual child of your acquaintance who you think would actually be a good net affect on your own child. Maybe your child has children in her classroom who you know to be a good net effect. And it is easy to just extrapolate from that one connection to them all. But remember: the number of connections between your child and other children are are many, and most or all of them are chosen by people you don’t know for reasons unconnected to the net effect on manners that you would use if you could control all the choices. The good examples do not extrapolate.
Maybe you don’t find any of this to be true in real life. Maybe you find that your child comes back home to you after time at school with better manners (however you define them) than when school is out. Let’s stipulate that what you think is true, is true. Since I’m making essentially a statistical argument here, your experience is only meaningful if more parents than not share it. If you are in the minority, and if parents can’t control whether or not they will have your experience, then they must make the assumption that they will not.
Most parents do not, in fact, find their children made better by time spent with other children, and you’ll hear them admit in casual conversations where the topic is one other than education choices.
It’s the mindless assumption – that random will turn out good – that I object to. You’re a good parent; would you leave your 7 year old child in a room with a television set for hours and let him choose what to watch? Of course you don’t, and I’m not talking about our pornography-soaked airwaves here; you wouldn’t have let him choose his own influences if you were parenting him in the Ozzie and Harriet years of the 1950’s. In every other area of your young child’s sensorium, you move the data from random to filtered as carefully as you can. You understand that good parenting means that you bring into your child’s life good influences and filter out bad ones, until he has the maturity to choose for himself.
Why, then, in this one area, do you reason that a random collection of influences is likely to net out good? It is counter-intuitive.
You’ll notice I’ve left out of this whole discussion what influences might come from teachers or other adults at your school- they’re irrelevant, since you could presumably bring adult influences into your child’s life from a variety of (My son’s teachers, in the two years he spent at public school, were good teachers and good people so far as we could know.)
The first step in my equation, then, is this: the average child, coupled with another average child, and all other factors held steady, will degrade in manners, however the average parent defines manners.
If this is true, then the second step is easy and devastating: the process grows exponentially as you add children at random to the group.
If this entire argument has left you cold, then approach it in a laboratory setting. In a roomful of those who extol “socialization”, do this little thought-experiment (don’t tell them what it is about):
1. Ask them to write down 3 traits they like about themselves, and the people who, in each case, they most learned that trait from.
2. Ask them to write down a moment in their lives when they started down a path they now regard as a wrong path. Then, ask them to name the one person who was most influencing them at that point in their lives.
If they are sufficiently unaware of your agenda as to not bias the answers, the overwhelming majority (perhaps all) of the answers to #1 will NOT be friends from school, and the overwhelming majority (perhaps all) of #2’s answers WILL be friends from school.
Case closed. THEY don’t believe the “socialization” in public schools is positive. It is simply a religious dogma they have required themselves to believe.
Or maybe you doubt the validity of that laboratory. Use yourself, your total experience at school, as an experiment of one, and ask yourself what social formation did you get at school that has been determinative for your adult life?
“To work in teams.” I deny that public school teaches children to work in teams better than they would if they were raised by wolves. This is simply not demonstrated. If this is true, then the children who come out of public schools would be more team-oriented than others…has anybody, anywhere, claimed to have actually observed this?
“To tolerate differences.” Honestly? Was it your experience in school that you learned from the other children around you to tolerate differences? This is a confusion of two things: you do see and experience more different types of people at a school of hundreds of kids, but you don’t learn to tolerate them. The first is simple numbers, the second is a personal virtue. The first is of little value, in and of itself — the second is valuable, and comes from parents. The truth is, children are notoriously intolerant of differences. In crowds, they are positively fascist.
“To negotiate.” This is an argument that has come late, at least in my hearing, and is frankly the oddest. Children learn to “negotiate” by being around a wider variety of children? I negotiate for a living; I’ve never seen this learning process in any children, nor have I observed the skill especially in the those parents who value it. I suspect it is another fiction.
I am not arguing that all parents should homeschool (not all should), nor that public school is bad (of course they aren’t), nor that all children are made worse by public school (not all are.) And most parents simply can’t school at home because they need both incomes. They should not feel guilty about that. I’m not even saying that public school is terrible for children. It isn’t. I’m just trying to get past a fiction so that parents of all kinds can have a slightly more honest conversation.
I’m simply arguing that the term socialization, which means, in most speakers’ mouths something like “a process wherein children make each other better” – does not exist. Children, by definition, do not make each other better as a net effect. There is no debate, then, about how to make up for the socialization the child misses by being at home.
Missing it, for us, is the point.