Can they learn everything at home?

Published June 26, 2005

Homeschool parents know the question before it's asked:

What about socialization?

What happens to kids untested by the conventional classroom? How do they learn to share, cope with cliques, deal with bullies, experience people from different races and cultures?

Responds Elaine Nichols: "What kind of socialization do they get in school? My kids got nothing but negative socialization that tore them apart."

Her son got slammed into lockers. Her elementary school-aged daughter got sexually harassed. Her teenage daughter got discouraged about the things she loved the most - her art and her writing.

Homeschooling doesn't automatically turn a child into a social misfit. Many opportunities are available for children to interact with others - park days, co-op classes, book groups, organized field trips, public school classes, sports, extracurriculars.

Homeschool student Leja Apple fit in so well at her middle school that some of her classmates didn't even realize until their eighth-grade year that she only attended the school part-time. Her homeschooled sister, Andrea, won Florida's Junior Miss competition in 2003 and spent her entire educational career dipping into social settings where she developed relationships with people outside her family.

"Your goal as a parent is to teach your child social competency," said Rosalind Wiseman, author of Queen Bees and Wannabes: Helping Your Daughter Survive Cliques, Gossip, Boyfriends, and Other Realities of Adolescence.

"If you're going to homeschool, you have to seek out ways that your child is interacting with different kinds of people - not just the people who you think are just the right people."

Studies have shown that homeschoolers fare as well or better socially than their non-homeschooled peers. In 1992, University of Florida doctoral student Larry Shyers compared the social development test scores of 70 homeschooled 8- to- 10-year-olds with 70 private and public school students the same age. His findings suggested that homeschooled students had fewer behavioral problems and tended to model themselves more after parents than after peers.

Other studies reached similar conclusions. But critics remain.

Jeff Howard, a psychology professor at Eckerd College, said that to develop self-identity, children need challenge and interaction in the world. Typically, the more activities kids have involving adults, the better their behavior. The test of smart socialization, he said, is what decisions children make when they interact with others away from parents.

"I've seen homeschooling done really well," he said. Many homeschoolers are self-driven and take full responsibility for their own education. But Howard said the flip side is that homeschooled kids can emerge from the experience a little wobbly when they're on their own.

Wiseman recommends that parents think hard about their motivations for considering homeschooling. "Sit down quietly away from everybody . . . and say "What is it that I want to protect my child from?'

"If I want to protect my child from the overall culture, which is what some parents want, my gut about that is . . . they're going to be one of those families that sits in the kitchen and doesn't interact with a lot of other people."