Homeschooling / Parenting / Unschooling

Are Kids Just Mean?

We arrive at the creek and my children run squealing towards their friends to give them a big hug, having not seen them since last week.

They spend the entire day playing, never ready to go home. Moving from one game to another, splitting off into smaller groups and hopping about from group to group depending on what interests them in the moment, coming together for a big group game, grabbing snacks on the run because they don’t want to stop playing.

Watching them always makes me reflect on how different their experience is to that of children in school.

“Most children in school are at least as afraid of the mockery and contempt of their peer group as they are of the teacher.” -John Holt

How very true that quote is. And how incredibly sad. The thought that so many children spend their days afraid to be themselves, trying to fit in and losing who they really are. Any differences or quirks quickly squashed. Self-esteem trampled.

We all experienced it. We know it’s true, even as we try to convince ourselves it’s ‘different‘ these days. A quick google will show you that we have increasing levels of bullying and that students are more stressed than ever.

This is damaging. There is no question about it. Alarmingly though, people will defend this! They’ll say kids need to experience bullying. They need to learn to get along with others and this is the way. It’s a ‘rite of passage’, it’s ‘normal’. They tell us that ‘kids are just mean’ and we have to learn to deal with it.

Are there any other circumstances where we would use this reasoning? Would you tell someone with an abusive partner that this will make them stronger? That they’ll be more resilient? That they’re learning to deal with adversity? That partners are just mean?

No.

And it’s not ok for children either. What’s more, it’s highly offensive! No, children are not just mean. Their behaviour is the result of confining them in a toxic environment day in and day out.

The school version of ‘socialization’ is in no way ‘normal’, even if it is common, and the options are not as black and white as dealing with it, or having no friends at all.

So, let me talk about the alternative. Because a lot of people are still under the impression that without school children will simply be unsocialized.

Contrary to popular belief, homeschoolers aren’t locked up in their homes every day, crowded around the kitchen table. We live in the real world. As home educating parents, it is our responsibility to seek out friendships for our children, and that means we are able to create communities where healthy socialisation occurs. No, that’s not sheltering children. It’s honouring their right to have the support they need and to be safe.

So, what does socialisation look like without school?

Children learn social skills with the support of adults

The best person to learn a skill from is someone who has already learned it, right? It makes no sense to put a bunch of 4 or 5 year olds together with only one adult to support them. It is just not possible for that adult to be able to pay attention to all the social interactions between children, to pick up on potential issues before they escalate, and to give each child the support they need.

While homeschooled children have plenty of opportunities to play with friends, they are most often accompanied by a parent. When we go out to meet up with our group there are plenty of adults around to help with any problems. This means that things are less likely to go unnoticed. Children who are having a hard time have parents close by to mediate disagreements and provide comfort. Children absolutely need this kind of support when they are young, in order to learn appropriate social skills.

Children are free to be themselves

When I was in school, my experience was the same as everyone else, I wanted to fit in. You had to fit in. To stand out was an invitation to be bullied. Everyone knew it. You changed yourself to be whoever you had to be in order to feel safe, and all the time had the fear in the back of your mind of doing something ‘wrong’ and being excluded, laughed at, or worse. That is not what I wanted for my children. I wanted them to continue to be themselves and hoped that homeschooling could provide an environment that encouraged that.

It did. My oldest child is now 11 and it is such a joy to watch her and her sisters. They show up as 100% themselves every day. They don’t worry about what others might think of them, about being judged, how they look, about fitting in. They expect to be respected and valued for who they are, because that has been their experience. The consequence of that is that they are incredibly confident, they have no real worries, they make friends easily, they truly know themselves, and they always expect the best from others. Their friends appear to feel the same. Each child is unique, and no one sees that as a bad thing.

I expect many will find this hard to believe. We tend to think the experiences of children at school are characteristic of childhood rather than the environment. Homeschool parents know that’s not the case.

You can choose NOT to be friends with someone

No one is saying that homeschooled children are magical beings, ha! And simply taking a child out of school is not a guarantee. Obviously parenting and other circumstances have an impact. Sometimes you will come across people you just don’t gel with. Sometimes you will come across people who are not respectful of others and not willing to work on it. If that happens at school, you’re stuck with that child in your class for at least a year. Outside of school you can choose not only who to surround yourself with, but who not to.

Yes it’s important to learn to get on with a variety of different people, to work through issues, and to put differences aside. But do you know what’s also important? The right to say enough is enough and remove yourself from unhealthy situations. There are some things you don’t have to put up with. Homeschooled families have the right to make that choice.

Difference is celebrated

I remember one of the most stressful days at school was free dress day. We all worried over what we would wear. Was it ‘cool’ enough? What would people say? Now I look at my children with their friends and I can’t help but smile. They come dressed as themselves. Sometimes there are some very interesting looks, and nobody gets picked on for it. No one looks twice. Everyone has different interests, talents, and preferences, and that is never an issue. It’s something that the other kids are interested in, rather than critical of.

You can find the right amount of socialization for your family

Some families like to be out of the house every day, seeing lots of different people! For others, once a week is enough and they enjoy a slower pace of life.

Children at school spend most of their day, five days a week, surrounded by many other children. That’s a lot! For me, that’s overwhelming. I need more down time than that! No wonder children are tired and stressed. This doesn’t help them in being able to to relate to each other well.

Homeschooling means you get to work out what’s best for your family, and meet everyone’s needs. Our family likes to spend two whole days out a week with our unschooling group. The kids play all day. Any more than that is too much, any less is not enough. That’s what works for us and we have the ability to organise our life to make that happen!

Socialising with people of all ages

Restricting children to socialising with only other children who were born in the same year as them is extremely limiting. That’s not how we were designed to learn.

“One of the oddest—and in my view most harmful—aspects our treatment of children today is our penchant for segregating them into separate groups by age. We do that not only in schools, but increasingly in out-of-school settings as well. In doing so, we deprive children of a valuable component of their natural means of self-education.” -Peter Gray

When children of different ages play together, younger children have the opportunity to learn from older children, and older children get experience acting as mentors and guides. There is so much value in that! Children learn to value and show kindness to people of all ages.

No cliques or hierarchy

Everyone is equal. There are no people who are more important than others.

Sure, children become closer with some friends than others, and sometimes a group of children will get together to do something they have in common. But this is never done in a malicious or exclusionary way. No one is purposely left out, and there is no fighting over who is friends with who.

Disagreements and resolutions

Of course homeschooled children still have arguments and disagreements. That’s normal! But what they also have is the opportunity to resolve them. Too often at school when children fight they are simply separated and punished. That doesn’t teach children how to deal with conflict and move on from it. In a homeschooling group parents are there to help mediate, problem solve, and work through conflicts. Punishment is unnecessary and counterproductive. In this environment children have many opportunities to practice their conflict resolution skills.

Children who are supported to develop their social skills by caring adults, in healthy environments, will likely do so very well! They are often kind, considerate, accepting, and confident. Children aren’t naturally ‘mean’, and it’s extremely unfair to place them in an environment that fosters negative qualities and then blame them for it.

The problem isn’t children, it’s school. We have completely lost sight of what children are really like to the point where people deem this highly concerning type of ‘socialization’ as normal. It’s very difficult to make positive changes when you don’t see a problem. But this is a problem. Children thrive in environments outside of school. Learn from that. Choose it if you can, with no fear of what they are missing. Things can be so different.

Children are not naturally mean. They are a reflecting their environment.

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