Today we have invited homeschool alumni Rachel Coleman (CRHE’s Executive Director) and Sarah Evans (currently a student at IUPUI in Indianapolis) to sit down and reflect on their social activities and friendships as homeschooled children and teens. In this discussion, moderated by CRHE, Rachel and Sarah will speak from their own experiences and offer words of advice to both homeschooling parents and homeschooled children. Because “socialization” can refer both to social interaction and to learning the social norms and customs of one’s culture, we will be using the term “social interaction” throughout this discussion.
CRHE: Can you tell us about what sort of social interaction you had with people outside of your family while growing up homeschooled?
RACHEL: We were involved in various homeschooling co-ops over the years, made a lot of friends there. These tended to be either weekly or twice a month. There were other activities as well. At one point there was a monthly homeschool roller skating event at a local roller skating rink, and sometimes there were science exhibitions. We also saw our friends regularly at church and Bible club, and sometimes our church children’s choir would have an additional rehearsal during the week. We also had music lessons, sometimes took dance class, and occasionally had tutors.
SARAH: Up until middle school, and even a little after, I would say I had social activities three to five times a week. Before my family moved to Indiana, we lived closer to town, and it was very easy to see friends regularly and become involved in numerous activities. It was also easier for my parents because me and my siblings didn’t have such diversified/specific interests yet. My siblings and I were in a co-op and did Bible club and other church activities. We also took piano lessons and swimming lessons. In late middle school and high school my social interaction declined, in part because my family lived further out from town. In order to save money on gas we would try to combine our social activities into one long day (Latin class, piano lessons, and sport activities for instance). Some social activities that I did, such as speech and debate, were only every other week in high school—so even though I was involved, there were times when I wouldn’t have to leave the house for two days at a time. Since my family mainly did social activities with other homeschoolers, this greatly limited my social interaction in high school.
CRHE: Were the high school years different?
RACHEL: While the type of social interaction I had changed in some ways once I was a teen, the overall level of interaction I had didn’t decline. As a teen, I saw people outside of my family almost every day, including other teens. On Sundays was church, and my parents usually had people over for a big Sunday dinner afterwards. On Monday mornings was our music co-op and Monday evenings was debate club. On Tuesdays I offered Latin classes for other homeschooled children in the community, so parents and kids of all ages were in and out all day. Wednesday night was Bible club, and Thursday night often meant children’s choir practice at our church for the younger kids, an activity I assisted with. Every other Friday night was our Bible study group, which meant another chance to see our friends. Saturdays were typically family work days at home.
SARAH: My high school experience was the most difficult time for me to get social interaction. I took a lot of online classes because there weren’t many homeschoolers in the area in my grade to form a co-op with. There also weren’t many options for sports. While my older brother had excelled in speech in debate (the main social activity for homeschooled teens in my area), it was not something I was passionate about or made many friends through. So there just weren’t a lot of options in my area for interaction with other homeschoolers, which is mainly the only group of people I considered interacting with. This became really problematic for me, but interestingly, my other siblings always had plenty of kids in their own age group.
CRHE: How did your parents’ personalities affect how often you had social interaction outside of the family?
RACHEL: My mother was very extroverted, and she loved throwing a party. My dad was an introvert, but he loved having a family or two over after church just to talk and fellowship. My parents Bible study group was always at our house, and it was a rare Sunday when we didn’t have people over for lunch. My mother was also quick to throw a party, and events like Memorial Day and Fourth of July were huge extravaganzas. My parents were well connected into both our church and the local homeschool community. They had a large social circle, and people were always stopping by the house to pick something up or drop something off or just chat. In fact, some days my mom complained good-naturedly about how many people came by, asking how she was supposed to make sure we got our schoolwork done with everyone going in or out.
SARAH: My parents always prioritized quality education, and they frequently went out of their way to give us instruction and social activities that enhanced our learning. I would say that social interaction and learning were always tied together (ie. debate was an educational activity and also gave us opportunity to see our friends). They would also seek out classes or tutors, and they were pretty open-minded if we came to them with something we wanted to do. For instance, when I wanted to go to a piano camp or a journalism camp in the summer, they made that happen. My mom was also committed to driving us all to our various activities, even when it was exhausting for her. Although our house was never a social hub, my parents were active and involved in our church, led a Bible study group, and frequently invited families and foreign exchange students over for dinner. A lot of the limitation of my social interaction was the fact that we lived far out from town and my social circle was limited to the people from my parents’ church or the local homeschool community. It’s probably too long to get into here, but I didn’t really interact with the public school students who attended my church until my last year of high school. This was mainly because I (as a result of what I’ll call “homeschool culture”) mistakenly believed they were all shallow hypocrites. My parents never said I couldn’t interact with non-homeschoolers, but it was more of a general assumption/natural action to stay within my own pre-established social circle.
RACHEL: It’s worth noting that parents’ social circles change over time, and that as they change, so does the social interaction available to their children. Many of the families I grew up with have graduated their children and moved on to the next stage in their lives, but because I’m from a large family my parents are still homeschooling my youngest siblings. They’ve had to find new families to associate with with children my youngest siblings’ ages. My parents are currently preparing to move to a new state, and when I think of my siblings adjusting I focus not on hoping that my siblings find new friends in their new schools but rather on hoping that the area has an established homeschool community and that some of the neighbors will have kids my siblings’ ages. And hopefully my parents will seek out additional opportunities for social interaction—church, team sports, various club activities—but you can see how avenues for social interaction change when school is removed from the mix.
CRHE: What role do homeschooled children’s personalities play in the amount of social interaction they need?
RACHEL: Personally, I found the level of social interaction I had growing up sufficient. I always had close friends and rarely felt lonely. But part of the reason I was satisfied with the level of social interaction I had is that I was fairly introverted. I enjoyed having friends, but I preferred a few close friends to a wider circle. This has been different for each of my siblings. One of my sisters had a hard time in high school because she was a very extroverted teen who never got the level of social interaction she needed. In other words, the level of social interaction sufficient for one child may not be sufficient for another child, even in the same family.
SARAH: Social interaction has been different for me and each of my siblings. My older brother was satisfied with a small amount of social interaction each week, and so my parents didn’t realize right away how much social interaction I needed. This ended up being very problematic for me, as I needed much more social interaction than my older brother. My younger siblings are also unique in the amount of social interaction they need (and the kind of social interaction—such as sports or art), so I think it’s really important to consider a child’s personality and make sure that they are getting the amount of social interaction that’s right for them. I was very different than my older brother, and I think I would have really thrived in an environment with more social interaction (such as an actual class or a co-op that met several times a week). Looking back, I think that I would have benefited from a more public school like setting, with options to play team sports or take a math class that was taught in an actual classroom and not online.
RACHEL: There is also an element of chance. One of my brothers had a large number of friends his age that he saw incredibly frequently. It worked out that way because of our parents’ friendships and the activities we were in at the time, and the whole group of friends just really clicked. My extroverted sister had a harder time with that. I think my parents assumed that if they had a family over with a girl my sister’s age, the two of them would play or hangout. But my sister’s interests tended to be different from those of most of the girls in our social circle, so she had a harder time finding friends she really clicked with. This would have been different if she had had a wider social circle to pull from.
CRHE: Both of you went on to attend college. How well did your social interaction as a homeschooled student prepare you for that?
SARAH: Well, I’m still in college, so it’s not a closed book experience! But I will say that my freshman year was rough because there were so many options for activities, and at the same time it was very isolating because it was easy to just be one of the crowd. I wasn’t used to having so many options, and it was almost as if I had to build up social stamina because I could interact with people daily. I wasn’t used to planning activities or trying to organize get togethers with friends, simply because I had never had a ton of practice doing that before. Plus, up until then, I really hadn’t had a lot of choice in who I interacted with (almost always other homeschoolers), so it took me some time to realize that just because I was in a social circle, it didn’t mean I had to stay there if I felt like I didn’t connect with those people.
RACHEL: The social circle I had growing up was in many ways very homogenous. We interacted with friends from church and other homeschooling families, the vast majority of whom were evangelical Christians. One of the hardest parts of transitioning to college was the sudden shock of interacting with people who were wholly and vastly different from me. That was very new. Another things I struggled with was learning to coexist with people I clashed with or people who were not always kind, something I personally had not really had to do as a homeschooled student. There are a lot of interpersonal skills I had to learn on the fly, as it were. This might have been different if I had participated in sports at our local public school or if I had grown up in a neighborhood full of kids instead of in a rural area. I did ultimately gain some mastery these skills, and I look back fondly on my college experience.
SARAH: I wasn’t as sheltered coming in to college as some homeschoolers, but the amount of apathy nearly all other students had towards school was really shocking to me. Ironically, I was almost better at interacting with professors, since education had been so heavily emphasized in my home (and both of my parents and older brother attended college—so I came in knowing what valuable resources professors can be). But I wasn’t used to just hanging out with people my own age, especially since there had always been such heavy emphasis on “doing hard things.” Because of that, I was probably too studious my freshman year, and I was still figuring out a lot of social things that most kids learn in a high school environment. On the positive side, however, it was easier to stay out of a lot of social drama, or at least, not feel trapped to participate in social structures that weren’t worth my time. I think the homeschooling culture, which largely emphasizes independence, allowed me to feel comfortable being different.
CRHE: What advice would you give current or future homeschool parents?
RACHEL: Please remember that every child is an individual. What works for one child may not work for another. Listen to your children, especially as they move toward their teen years. Ask for their input and incorporate it into your lives and into your homeschool plan. If your child is feeling lonely or would like more friends, find activities, a club or a co-op or a sport, to enroll her in. Don’t assume that having a two or three children your child’s age in your social circle means your child has all he needs to find his best friend. He might really click with one of those children, but he might not. Don’t assume that your child will tell you if she is lonely or wants more social interaction. Your child may see admitting loneliness as admitting defeat, or as suggesting that there is something wrong with homeschooling, or may be afraid you won’t be willing to listen. Take your child’s need for interaction with other children seriously.
SARAH: Social interaction is really important. I remember hearing many homeschool parents laugh at the “socialization” question, but the truth is, it’s not something to laugh about. There was one year in high school, where I became really depressed because I hardly had any friends in my social circle—or I only saw them once a week. While the rest of my siblings all had a large number of friends in the homeschool circle, there weren’t many my age, and my parents overlooked the importance of this. They mistakenly assumed that I was happy only having friends who were four years younger than me or four years older. There is kind of an expectation when homeschool families interact that the parents will be friends and the children will be friends—but just because there were a lot of children around in these families, didn’t mean I connected with any of them. I had several good long distance friends but was incredibly lonely in my immediate circle. So I would say, make sure your child has a group of friends that *they* want and need. Don’t just say, “Look, plenty of people around! You’re getting the kind of social interaction you need!” Pay attention to what your child needs, and also be aware that they might not even know yet that they’re missing something. When I came to college, I realized how much I thrived in a more social environment. I had never experienced this learning environment, so I didn’t even realize that I would have been better with it.
CRHE: What advice would you give current or future homeschooled children and teens?
RACHEL: If you have plenty of friends and activities and are happy with your level of social interaction, that’s awesome! But if you’re lonely, know that this doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with you. Ask your mom or dad if you can add a social activity to your schedule, and think about your interests and how they might translate into ways to meet new people and make new friends.
SARAH: As Rachel said, if you’re happy and content, that’s wonderful! But if you’re not, then it’s not wrong to want different options. Don’t let anyone make you feel stupid or abnormal for wanting more or different social interaction. Also, know that it may be really tough at first to make friends or feel welcome if you branch out to something new. I still cringe when I think about how socially awkward I was when I finally joined a swim team! Even though I was happy having the social activity, it still really rough for me as I was a little alienated and unsure of how to interact with the other high schoolers. Know that it takes time to make friends, and that it takes time to grow in social graces and become more natural at things like small talk. It can be frustrating, and of course with a wider range of social interaction, you’ll experience mean people too. So just be prepared that it may be a steep learning curve, depending on how sheltered you’ve been. But don’t let that stop you from doing things you really want to do!