One of the most common questions homeschool graduates and homeschooled children face is that of socialization. In order to address this question, it is important to first understand what is meant by the term “socialization.” Socialization refers to social interaction but it also refers to understanding and learning to navigate a society’s social norms and rules of behavior. Most scholars view peer interaction, which generally centers on the school, as a critical component of this kind of socialization. However, many homeschool parents and leaders argue that the socialization children receive in school is unnatural and actually harmful, and that socialization is best gained through life experiences that center around the family, and should include interactions with those in a variety of age groups.
We know from both research and anecdotal data that homeschooled children can be well socialized, both in terms of learning the social norms of society and in terms of social interaction. Many homeschooled children have large social networks and active social calendars. These homeschoolers are involved in field trips, play dates, ballet or gymnastic classes, group sports, music lessons, homeschool co-ops, and even community college courses or dual enrollment courses in the local public schools, and generally integrate into the university or workplace without a hitch. However, not all homeschooled children are involved in such a wide array of social activities and some do not receive the level of socialization they need. These homeschooled children crave a greater degree of social interaction, and for some their opportunities for social interaction are so limited that they develop social phobias or experience extreme social awkwardness. These homeschoolers may be involved in only a few social activities, and the level of social interaction these activities provide may not be adequate for their personal and social development.
How is it that homeschooling offers opportunities for healthy social development and interaction for some children but not for others? Because, quite simply, every homeschool family—and every homeschooled child—is different. What is true for one homeschooling family may be false for another. In other words, the fact that a given homeschooled child is thriving socially and is involved in numerous activities says nothing about the experience of a homeschooled child living down the road, who may only have a few limited social outlets. Children who are homeschooled because they were bullied in school may find homeschooling an extremely positive social experience, while children who are homeschooled by parents who carefully control and limit their social lives and activities may find homeschooling socially crippling. Similarly, even with the same number of activities and social outlets, an introverted child may find homeschooling a perfect social experience while an extroverted child may feel lonely and stunted.
Researcher Brian Ray found that the homeschooled children in a 1997 study he conducted were involved in an average of 5.2 activities each week, including field trips, Sunday school, Bible club, group sports, music classes, volunteer work, and more. However, Ray also found that a full 13% of homeschoolers in his sample did not play with people outside of their families, suggesting that at least some homeschooled children are more socially isolated than homeschool advocates may like to admit. While Ray’s study relied on volunteer participants rather than a random sample and the social opportunities available to homeschooled students have only increased in the last two decades, his findings suggest that it would be wrong to assume that every homeschooled child is involved in a large number of social activities outside of the home.
Over the past three decades, studies of homeschooled students conducted using researcher observation, various surveys designed to measure social skills, and interviews with homeschool graduates have almost universally found that homeschooled students score either as well as or better than their conventionally schooled peers in a range of social measures. However, these studies have major limitations. First, there are sampling issues. Many of these studies use extremely small sample sizes and all use volunteer participants who are likely not representative of the homeschooling population as a whole. Second, most studies rely on parents’ and students’ self reporting, and the pressure homeschoolers often feel to “prove” that socialization is not a problem may affect the results. As researcher Milton Gaither has pointed out, “across several studies homeschooling parents consistently rate their children higher than do parents of conventionally schooled children, though the children themselves don’t rate themselves much differently at all.” Finally, many of these studies have been conducted by homeschool advocates, which may bias the results.
Further, these studies actually include a fair amount of nuance. They have consistently found that homeschooled students have fewer friends and a significantly lower amount of social interaction with peers. Many researchers, especially homeschool advocates, have interpreted these results positively, arguing that homeschooled students are less peer-dependent and therefore more socially mature. However, homeschooled students in some studies have reported loneliness and a greater degree of social isolation. Further, one study of homeschooled teens and homeschool graduates found that those who had fewer social opportunities while being homeschooled expressed a less favorable attitude toward their homeschool experiences than did those who had a greater number of social opportunities, suggesting that the degree of social interaction available to homeschooled children is vitally important to the quality of their homeschool experience (Sekkes, 2004).
We have only one survey of homeschool graduates that uses a randomly selected sample, and that is the Cardus Education Survey (2011). This survey, which compared and contrasted the educational experiences of adults aged 24 to 39 who grew up in religious homes, found that homeschool graduates were significantly more likely to report “lack of clarity of goals and sense of direction” and “feelings of helplessness in dealing with life’s problems” than conventionally schooled graduates. These findings back up anecdotal reports by some homeschool graduates of childhood and teenage depression, loneliness, social phobias, and a sense of cultural alienation. While the Cardus participants were randomly selected, it looked only at young adults who were raised in religious homes, and it would therefore be unwise to generalize its findings to homeschooling writ large. Further, the Cardus study focuses on the experiences of homeschool graduates who are now adults, meaning that its findings may apply more to homeschooling ten or twenty years ago than to homeschooling today. Still, the Cardus study suggests that there may be more to the story than the more positive findings of many studies of socialization conducted over the past thirty years.
In the end, we know that homeschooled children can be well socialized in terms of both peer interaction and learning cultural norms. Many homeschooled children are involved in a wide range of activities outside of the home and maintain active social calendars. However, we also know that homeschooled children are not always well socialized. Ensuring that homeschooled children have adequate social interaction can be a lot of work for homeschooling parents, and not all do it well. Some homeschooled children are lonely and crave a greater degree of social interaction. Others may not experience loneliness but may be socially awkward when placed in certain social situations because they have never learned how to act around their peers. Finally, homeschooled children who grow up in certain homeschooling subcultures may socialize widely but only in a homogenous group, and may experience a feeling of cultural alienation when they graduate and move into the wider world. In other words, socialization can be done well in a homeschooling context, but it is something that takes time, attention, and planning.
Gaither, Milton, “Homeschooling and Socialization Revisited,” International Center for Home Education Research Reviews, July 19, 2013. Read here.
Kelly, Anita E., “Pioneers on the Home Front: An Exploratory Study of Early Homeschoolers in Hawai’i” (Ph.D. diss., University of Hawai’i, 2008), pp. 25-32. Read online.
Kunzman, Robert, and Milton Gaither, “Homeschooling: A Comprehensive Survey of the Research,” Other Education: The Journal of Educational Alternatives, 2 (no. 1, 2013), pp. 19—23. Read online.
Medlin, Richard G., “Homeschooling and the Question of Socialization Revisited,” in Peabody Journal of Education 88, no. 3 (2013): 284—297.
Ray, Brian, “Home Schooling Achievement” (HSLDA, 2001). Read online.