As every family whose kids don’t attend a traditional school knows, the most common question people ask (aside from possibly “but what about Algebra”) is “what about socialization”.
I’ve talked about this before; we all know that it is a myth that homeschoolers lack the ability to interact with people outside their own home, and that in fact most homeschooled kids are far more at ease with people of all ages than are their schooled counterparts because they do not spend their days segregated from the world, associating only with kids their own age.
Despite this, families new to unschooling are often anxious about providing their kids enough social activities and about making sure their kids have a group of friends they see on a regular basis. It’s understandable, since most of us grew up going to school and in school you have a peer group thrust upon you; probably one or two of the 30 or so kids with whom you spend your time will become your friends. You will see them every day, even if it is in the controlled school setting. As unschoolers we must actively seek people out, at least in the beginning, and that is daunting for many families.
Let me take a moment to distinguish between aspects of this issue: finding other kids with whom your child can spend time, and finding a group with whom you can leave your kid in order to have some time to yourself. You see, school provides 8 hours of ‘time alone’ for parents and conditions them to believe this is necessary. School also perpetuates the myth that children need to be constantly supervised and/or among their peers virtually every waking hour of the day. So our social paradigm dictates that if our kids are not in school, they still need to be with friends every day – if not all day, then at least for a good portion of it – and if they are with us, we need to be solely focused on them, setting everything else aside.
This established social paradigm is one of the most difficult to shift, even among families who choose unschooling. (Usually this is only a problem at the outset, however.)
The truth is, parents do not need hours on end of alone time in order to get something done, and kids don’t need to be constantly entertained in order to be socially adept.
When I meet with prospective unschooling families, I’ll talk to them about the rhythm of the family. Every family will find their own, and it might take some time, especially if your kids have been in school and you are all used to the established paradigm. What I mean by rhythm is the ability to spend time in the same home – often in the same room – without always feeling the need to be directly interacting. Mom or Dad might be cooking or answering email or whatever, while the kids are doing their thing. It becomes like a beautiful dance – sometimes the dancers move in tandem or partner with each other, but then they move apart for their solo; it all happens on the same stage with the same music playing behind them. Compulsory schooling destroys the natural rhythm of a family by keeping members apart – dancing on entirely different stages to completely different music – and then insisting that when they are together, the parents be the extension of the school, monitoring homework and “screen time” and bedtime. And then of course they have to throw in some enriching “quality time” activities to prove they are good parents.
“But”, I can hear some parents asking, “Tell us what that means! How much time do I really need to spend with my kids, and what if they don’t want to do things on their own? Shouldn’t I be finding friends for them to play with when I can’t play with them?”
Sandra Dodd wrote a great piece once in which she drew a graph of sorts that outlined how much time parents should spend with their kids. As she said, it was not scientific but I have found it to be pretty accurate (in fact I probably spend less direct time with my kids than her graph specifies, because they are so involved with their own things).
As for finding other kids with whom your kids can spend time… Yes, friends are important, but it doesn’t need to be friends all day every day. In fact, a very important and almost universally overlooked aspect of being socially adept is the ability to spend time alone; to entertain yourself. For some kids, like my son, this comes easily. For others, like my daughter, it is something that takes practice. When she was younger, my daughter would complain loudly if no friends were around and I was busy with something in which she had no interest. Rather than drop what I was doing, I would explain that the task at hand would take me ‘x’ amount of time and after that we could play a game or go out or whatever. Usually she would stomp around for a few minutes, and then go off and find something to do by herself. Now, though she probably still prefers hanging out with her friends, she also enjoys her time alone and has even been heard to say “I don’t want to see anyone today. I just want some time to myself.” In my strong opinion, we do our kids a huge disservice if we provide constant, 24/7 entertainment so that they never experience time alone in all its quiet, sometimes boring, imagination inducing, calming wonder.
So, in a nutshell?
It’s ok if your kid doesn’t have friends on hand all day every day. They might be annoyed by this, or love it. They might be bored or fall asleep. They might create something great or read or play a video game. It’s all good.
It’s ok if you take some time to yourself, even if your kids are in the house. Eventually this will become commonplace, and no big deal. (Please refer to Sandra’s illustration – I’m not talking about when the kids are infants, although even then, they tend to nap during the day, so….)
It won’t be perfect ever, but it will continue to improve as your kids grow and you all find your rhythm.
Throw out the prevailing social paradigm. You and your kids will be the better for it.