Licensed to Socialize
My first clue that I had made a miscalculation came as we entered the front door and saw giant bins marked with the names of local schools and the word, “lunches.”
“Hmm,” I thought, “there must be some school groups here today. I guess it won’t be as empty as I’d thought.”
It turned out to be just as crowded as on the weekends, only this time, instead of being crowded with families, it was only children, everywhere. Of course, there were a few teachers and volunteer parents, but they were milling around, trying to watch everyone, and therefore not really watching anyone very carefully.
It was chaotic, and several of the children were rather aggressive. We tried to visit the climb-in ambulance, but my two-year-old was nearly knocked down by a couple of gleeful, oblivious, big boys jumping out of it. Everywhere we went, children were running around, some of them getting right into whatever we were doing with seemingly no concept of waiting their turn, others abandoning whatever they were doing and wandering off the minute we approached, looking a little shell-shocked and beaten up. I got the impression that maybe they didn’t realize that I had every intention of making my children wait their turn.
We spent ages waiting in “line” (or perhaps “blob” is a better word) for a favorite experiment, and as we waited, I watched the interactions. First of all, the child who was using it (over, and over, and over) seemed completely unaware of how long she was taking or of how many children were waiting for a turn. Second, hoards of other children kept sidling up, trying to join in when it wasn’t their turn. They were greeted with shoves and dirty looks, which seemed to me to have a touch of pitiful desperation. My children were getting bored standing and waiting, but I explained to them that we had to wait for all the children who had gotten there ahead of us to try the experiment, and that then it would be our turn.
That’s when my daughter asked a profound question, “How do you know that’s how it works?” How do I know? How do I know that that is the way polite society functions? Where was I socialized to understand “first come first served,” “wait your turn,” etc.? And, for that matter, what is the best way to learn these things?
Many people assume that by constant interaction with lots of peers, children will pick up on the nuances of life, like not knocking down toddlers, and not cutting in “blob.” This is all part of the important skill of getting along with people, of being well “socialized,” but as I watched the mobs of kids bouncing around, vying for chances at the exhibits, and getting very little guidance about how to actually treat one another, I started thinking about another kind of social interaction: driving.
Just as we have social rules about not knocking into people, waiting your turn, staying in line, etc. for everyday life, we also have socially agreed upon rules for those exact things when it comes to driving. But with driving, we have a significantly different approach to learning those rules. I began to wonder what the roads would be like if we expected new drivers to learn to behave on the road the same way we seem to expect children to learn how to behave in school groups.
What if we put a whole bunch of people who’ve never driven before in cars in a big parking lot, and just let them drive? Would they eventually figure out how to behave at a four-way stop or how to merge with traffic? Or would we have exactly what I saw at the museum, a few aggressive, gleeful drivers, knocking into others, a few oblivious people doing their own thing, not noticing the effect it had on the others, and maybe a few self-preservationists, hiding off in the corners, feeling nervous, and not really getting anywhere?
You don’t learn things as complex as the rules of the road or the rules of etiquette by bumbling around with other people who also don’t know what to do. You learn by having someone with you telling you, “OK, this is what we do in this situation,” someone like the licensed adult who’s supposed to be sitting next to you when you have your learner’s permit.
When I got my permit, my dad took me to a nearly deserted parking lot, and sat beside me talking me through my first jerky attempts. Later, we moved on to driving on back roads with very few other drivers and Dad beside me all the time. Pretty soon, I was driving everywhere, but always with my mom or dad right next to me, coaching, until at last, I passed a test, and then I was off and driving on my own.
Doesn’t it make a lot more sense to approach socialization the same way: starting small with constant supervision and coaching, gradually adding more and more interactions, but keeping children right with their “licensed adult” parents, until they truly know how to behave? This is Dicipleship Parenting applied to socialization, and it makes the whole question of how children can be socialized without classroom time seem a lot less logical.
Of, course, you don’t become well socialized simply by being homeschooled. Just as you can’t learn to drive if you never get in the driver’s seat, children will never be socially savvy if they’re never around other people. The key is the coaching. Our children need lots of chances to interact with others, but slowly, step by step, back roads before interstates, and always with help.
The museum is a very different place on Saturdays. It’s crowded, but you never have to wait very long for an experiment because the socially adept parents see you standing there and help their children take a short turn, “so the other kids can try, too.” Rowdy children are corralled, collisions apologized for, and polite conversation skills practiced. “Say goodbye to the little girl. We’re going up to the next floor now.” “Say, ‘thank you.’ That boy just got down so you could have a turn.” This is the kind of socialization that’s going to help our children get places in life. And it’s virtually impossible to give it to them in a classroom environment.
As we walked away from the museum after our school group experience, my daughter said to me, “Why didn’t all those kids have their parents with them?” I couldn’t have asked a better question myself.