First, socialization should be a concern of every parent, whether their children are in public school or homeschool. However, the concerns a parent may have in either case, are very different, and I would argue that neither option automatically "solves" the problem of socialization.
What type of socialization are we talking about?
My doctor suggested that socialization was something that many homeschool families struggle with, if they didn't make specific plans to ensure their kids were exposed to a variety of people and situations. I would argue that the exact same thing applies to public school kids. If you aren't interacting with people of all ages both in groups and one on one, on a regular basis, supervised and relatively unsupervised, this "socialization" may not happen.
So how do parents socialize their kids? A few parents that have kindergartners who have just started public school are already concerned about bullying and how to teach their child to handle the stress of dealing with a new environment. In this case, you need to first ensure that your child is protected. Not that they will never have to deal with a bully, but no child should ever fear for their safety in Kindergarten. Get that problem solved first. Next, teach your child how to respond to another child who is being mean. For kids at a young age, this generally involves supervised playdates with children you know your child doesn't get along with. Starting at about age 5-7, kids will begin to model what you've shown them, but before that, they need to hear it, and see it, from their parents.
Also, kids need time to play. When we were on our field trip last Thursday, at the airport Observation Park, many of the young boys had brought trucks, cars, and airplanes. They all shared beautifully, although there were a few issues from time to time, but the parents were there to explain and help their children deal with their emotions. For example, one kid didn't want to give up his helicopter because it was his lovey and he slept with it and carried it everywhere. Another kid didn't want to give back the toy that didn't belong to him when it was time for them to go. These are things we need to show and help young kids learn (empathy for the child who want to retain his "lovey" and the hard lesson of giving back something that has been generously shared). I would argue that these lessons are much harder to supervise and model appropriately in a classroom of 20-30 kids even with a teacher and teacher assistant.
Kids also need relatively unsupervised play, so that they can figure things out for themselves. I do my best to only step in when my child is in danger. Otherwise, if another kid wants to yell at him because he's not playing the way they wanted him too, or laughs at him when he's being silly, or just let them run around and play chase. These are lessons they need to learn too. When an argument starts, my son has a tendency not to know whether the person is truly mad, or just kidding, because he has no sense of smell (this means he doesn't understand the facial expressions of distaste or "smells bad" and it has to be explained to him). This will take him a little extra time and experience, so I may try to put him in situations where he can be around someone who truly doesn't like him and attempt to explain it to him later.
Kids also need to be exposed to those who are "different" than they are. Public school can be a good idea for this in regards to demographics, but age is a factor that many public school students don't understand. For example, kindergartners need to learn that big kids have different games and interests and may not want to play with them. Big kids, even teenagers, need to learn how to adapt their playing with little kids around. These are things that are very hard for some kids to learn when they are always in same-age groups.
A few tips for public school parents:
- If your school doesn't already offer it, look into a reading buddies or similar program. If you have an older child, they can meet with a younger child, and younger children meet with older kids to read to them.
- Make time for playdates, park days, and field trips outside of school. If you have too many after school "organized" activities and homework, cut something out of your schedule to add this very important unorganized small group and free play. You don't have to do sleepovers or anything else that might put your child's safety at risk, but you do need to go out of your comfort zone and befriend the kids in class that are harder to get along with. Your kid doesn't need to like them, but he does need to learn to get along.
- Teach your child how to handle a bully or a kid who dislikes them. These are conversations every parent needs to have if their children are in a group environment in school, daycare, camp, or even on a sports team. Keep your conversations positive and age-appropriate.
- Teach your child how to empathize with another child. If they tell a story about something that happened at school, don't automatically take their side. Ask what the other child (or teacher) may have been thinking or feeling in that situation and to get them to see the other side of things.
- Take your child with you when you run errands, wait in line, get gas, go inside (an age-appropriate) restaurant to eat. So many times, in our busy life, kids that go to daycare and school never see the inside of a restaurant, bank, or grocery store. Everything is bought online, transacted at the ATM, or ordered at a drive-thru. Kids need to see people in different jobs. Pull them out of school, drive by a construction site, take your kids to visit your work. It's important that kids see all the variety of people and jobs in the world and don't think that what they purchase, buy, eat, or use comes out of thin air. They also need to see people of all different ages and personalities and learn to interact with them. These are important "constructs" that kids need to learn, and are an essential part of "socialization" that is generally missing from public school.
A few tips for parents of homeschoolers:
- Consider joining a co-op, field trip group, or form a close group of friends that also homeschool. Get out of the house several times a week, or every afternoon. Kids need to be outside, playing independently and with each other, as much as they need to be inside learning. Make sure that they have friends of all ages and aren't just relying on their siblings for socialization.
- Take your children with you when you run errands. Homeschool is great because it can be done anywhere. Pack up the books and take a car ride to the bank, grocery store, or restaurant. Have your kids do the grocery shopping if they are old enough, give each one a piece of your list and let them go all the way through the process, including paying for the food, if they are old enough.
- Consider volunteering with your children. There are many volunteer programs for kids of various ages, you don't have to wait for high school.
- As much as possible, especially with younger children, meet them where they are and encourage them to take a step up socially. Don't force them to do something they don't want to, but if they have a question for a stranger, let them go up and talk to them and ask their question. The idea of stranger danger is a good one to discuss at home, but it's also important for them to learn that, if they are with their parent, or in a safe place, it is okay to talk to someone they may not know.
- Let them "do for themselves" as much as possible. I've noticed lately that I can tend to be a bit of a "coddler" with my oldest. My youngest is at the "do it yourself" stage, and also still a bit of a momma's boy. But I think that my oldest can do much more than he's willing to do. The more independent and confident they can be at home, the more independent and confident they will be outside of home (school).
Let's stop using socialization as a reason or defense of one education method or another and start using it as a talking point to help all of the parents around us teach their kids appropriate behavior.
To sum up: keep it simple, age appropriate, and diverse. Let your kids be kids, and give them the tools they need to succeed in life. And if anyone ever pressures you to change schooling methods because of "socialization" remind them how different the "real world" is from the world of being a kid, and ask what THEY are doing to socialize their kid. Not in a mean way, but just in a parent to parent way. Because it's something we all need to be doing, especially in today's technologically oriented society.