A Whole New Look at Socialization, Part 4

by Marlene Molewyk

Part 4 of a series
Originally published in Practical Homeschooling magazine
September/October 2010 issue


In the first three parts of this series, we looked at the socialization question—how it's like a set of hoops that we homeschoolers are being asked to jump through, and how the accepted socialization process frequently has negative long-term results. Now, given that homeschooling offers the chance to give our children something better, how should we socialize them? Here are some ideas:


WE FIRST NEED TO DEVELOP THE CHARACTER TRAITS AND RELATIONAL SKILLS THAT WE WANT OUR CHILDREN TO DEVELOP.
How can I possibly train a child to behave in ways that I can't or won't do myself? Not only is that unfair, it is also incredibly hypocritical, and children can smell a hypocrite a mile away. This doesn't mean we have to be perfect, it just means that we must practice what we preach to our children. 

And when we screw up (as we all will), we must make a point to apologize to our children, ask forgiveness for our hypocrisy, then explain that when adults mess up, we don't give up. Instead, we pick ourselves up and keep working at growing in our character, just as we're asking our children to do. 

Modeling these things to our children will help them understand that character growth is an ongoing process, and that it's okay to mess up, as long as you acknowledge you've messed up, make amends as necessary, and keep going


This will also hopefully prevent us from being hypocritical stumbling blocks who cause our children to turn away from God.

In addition to modeling these traits to our children, there are many good resources available that can help us develop various character traits in our children. Some of the resources I would recommend include good fiction and biography read-alouds involving people who demonstrate specific character traits. (Our favorites thus far: A Little Princess, The Hundred Dresses, Tales of the Kingdom, Christian Liberty Academy's Pinocchio's Quest, and books from the Lamplighter publishing company.) 

 These will provide your child with other "role models" who can "show" what it looks like to demonstrate certain character traits amidst the messiness of life. Keepers of the Faith also sells inexpensive and excellent Write It On My Heart character development workbooks that include short stories, poems, Bible verses, and excellent practical application questions.


WE CAN HELP OUR CHILDREN DEVELOP GOOD RELATIONSHIPS WITH EACH OTHER.
As adults, home is where true happiness in life is made or broken. You may have a great job, good friends, and be involved in an abundance of fun activities, but if you're not getting along with your spouse and your children at home, you're ultimately going to end up very unhappy in life.

Furthermore, given the study I cited earlier in this article, the one that found almost fifty percent of American adults' only confidantes are their family members—shouldn't it be important for our kids to learn how to get along with their family members?

Unfortunately, there seems to be little societal emphasis on this—most movies, books, and magazines portray "properly socialized" kids as rude, snotty brats who shun their parents and siblings, viewing them as uncool embarrassments. And yet...


...learning to get along with family members is a social development challenge that is actually more relevant to the complexities of real life than socializing solely with friends who have similar personalities.


Here's why: you can't hide your annoying habits when you're living with someone 24/7. This forces our kids into relational conflicts that, if worked through properly, can be excellent training ground for similar conflicts they will inevitably encounter with future friends, dorm roommates, boyfriends/girlfriends, spouses, and children.

Furthermore, family members often don't have the personalities you'd seek out in friends. Learning to get along with such vastly different personality types in a healthy way—learning how to get real with them, saying what you mean, and setting healthy boundaries—is excellent training for dealing with different personality types in the workforce, in the neighborhood, in church, or wherever our kids end up going.

Again, the key to implementing this in your family is learning to do it yourself first. Do you have healthy relationships with your family of origin? My therapist says that learning to relate with your family of origin in a healthy way spills over into our other relationships, and I'm finding this to be true.

I've been learning to be more honest about who I am and how I feel about things with my family of origin, and to stand up for myself with the pushier ones, especially where homeschooling is concerned! As I'm doing this, I'm finding it easier to do these things in my friendships and my marriage, and this makes it easier to train my children in the same things. When they fight, I'm teaching them to step back and think:

  • What is really going on here?

  • Why are you doing what you're doing (motivation)?

  • How did this make you feel?

  • What did this make you believe about yourself? Is this belief true? What does God say about who you are?

  • How do you think the other child felt?

  • If the other child is being manipulative, how can you stand up for yourself in a firm but gentle way?

  • Is there a boundary that needs to be set?

  • Should you ask for forgiveness or possibly offer it?

  • What character trait is God trying to develop?

  • How do you think God would prefer for you to behave?

  • How will you do things differently the next time something like this happens?

It's been downright frustrating trying to get my kids thinking anywhere along these lines! But when I get frustrated, I remember that I didn't learn to think this way overnight—it took me years of being discipled by an older woman at my church, and a year of counseling with a Christian therapist to truly understand why I react the way I do when I'm provoked, as well as how to respond in healthier, more God-honoring ways. 

If it has taken me this long to get there, then expecting my children to learn conflict resolution quickly is completely unrealistic! So when I get frustrated, I remind myself to just keep working at it with my kids, and eventually they'll learn, just as I did.


WE CAN HELP OUR CHILDREN DEVELOP THEIR CONVERSATION SKILLS
For many kids (including some of mine), conversational skills aren't natural and don't instantly materialize when they're thrown in a crowd of kids. In fact, crowds of kids can often impede the development of good conversational skills. But the good news is...


...these skills can actually be taught and practiced, and I am living proof that this is doable.

As a child, I was horribly awkward and had zero conversational skills, due to lack of parental training combined with years of being picked on and rejected at school. In short, I was the product of socialization as we know it. 

One summer when I was fourteen years old, my sister Madeline came home from college. As far as I can tell, Madeline seems to be one of those people who has a natural ability to make conversation with others. She saw that I was socially struggling and asked, "Hey, do you know how to make conversation with other kids? Because I can teach you how, if you're interested."

Boy, was I interested! So that summer, she taught me one skill at a time. Examples of such skills included: how to strike up a conversation, how to make small talk, and asking people about themselves (people love to talk about themselves). 

In addition, Madeline took me under her wing and invited me to hang out with her and her friends. They were all four years older than me, and I felt safe practicing my newly-learned skills with them, because they treated me kindly, with the respect and acceptance that were completely lacking among my peer group at school. And when kids feel safe, they're more willing to try new things!

As I gradually developed conversational skills, I was able to make a few friends at school. After college, I worked in broadcast journalism and corporate public relations, both of which are highly people-oriented fields involving lots of required socialization on the job. Not bad for someone who previously had a complete inability to make conversation! But note—I learned these skills outside of, and in spite of my socialization experience at school.



WE CAN CREATE SOCIAL OPPORTUNITIES WHERE OUR KIDS CAN APPLY THE SKILLS THEY'RE LEARNING AT HOME
I have found that the best way for this to happen is in a small group of kids, or by arranging playdates. Being in a group of any kind demonstrates why this works best—the more people you add to a group, the more superficial the conversation becomes, and the greater the potential for conformity and groupthink. Take people away from the group, and the conversation tends to go deeper, while getting more vulnerable and honest. 

As a homeschooler, setting up playdates takes some effort, because it involves me needing to socialize with mothers of potential playmates. This does take time, but it has been worthwhile—my circle of close friends has expanded as a result of my children's playdates! 

The other nice thing is that I still exert a great deal of influence over my children's friends. Why is this important? In his book Making Life Work, Bill Hybels explains that we spend more time considering our options for doctors, accountants, and even tennis pros than we do on the friends with whom we spend time. 

But the friends you spend time with are very important, because the person you are today is directly related to the people you've spent time with and the books you've read in the past five years. Conversely, the person you'll be in five years will be directly related to the people and books you're spending time with today. Apply this to your kids, and you'll see the value in proactively setting up playdates with kids who will be a good influence on your children, and vice versa.

Even if the kids don't care much for each other at first, repeated exposure can eventually change this. This happened with my oldest son, who had frequent playdates with another child he didn't really play well with. About two years after they began playing together, they began to really enjoy each other's company, and eventually, they became best friends. Which was great, because the mother of this boy became one of my closest confidantes in life as well.

One final point in this section: 


If there are no potential prospects for your child to befriend, pray for God to send your child a good friend or two! 


I've done this for myself as well as my kids, and God has answered my prayers every time, and in really neat ways. I also recommend that you proactively seek out a homeschool group. 

As a mother of five, I know exactly how overwhelming it can feel to juggle a homeschool group into your busy schedule. But it is truly worth the investment in time and energy, especially if you meet another family or two with similar values, whose children really get along with your children. In addition, being around other homeschooling parents who understand your fears, insecurities, and triumphs as a homeschool parent is also worth its weight in gold!


WE CAN CHOOSE TO NOT FREAK OUT WHEN OUR KIDS GO THROUGH A SEASON OF LONELINESS
Despite our best efforts, our kids sometimes go through seasons of isolation or loneliness, and we need to realize that this is okay. One of my seminary professors, J. Robert Clinton, says in his book The Making of a Leader that God often puts people into seasons of isolation because he wants us to spend time with him, getting to know him better, and allowing him to shine a light on character traits that require some sanctification.

Applying this concept to our children: one of my children recently complained that even though she has friends, she wants a best friend. I asked why she wants a best friend, and it turns out she wasn't sure why—she actually wanted one because she kept reading about girls with best friends in various American Girl Doll books, and reading about the concept made her feel lonely.

This led to a long, rich discussion about the purpose of friendships. I encouraged her that I didn't meet my childhood best friend until I was fourteen, and I didn't meet my closest adult friends until I was in my late twenties/early thirties. I also pointed out that her father didn't meet his best friend until he was twenty-five, and that even David and Jonathan in the Bible must have been at least teenagers when they met. 

My daughter looked downright relieved, and asked, "Really?" I then asked her to write down the traits she'd like in a best friend, and when she was done, I asked her to look at her list and check off the traits she regularly demonstrated herself. She grinned and admitted there were several she needed to work on.

I then suggested that we pray together for God to send her a best friend when the time is right, understanding that this person might not come immediately. Perhaps she already knows this friend,or perhaps God might continue to send her good, godly friends who are not best friends. 


In the meantime, I suggested that she start developing the character traits on her list, so that she would be a good friend to the friends she already has, as well as the friends God will send in due time. 


I also suggested that the best place to develop these character traits would be with her siblings—and that perhaps even one of them might end up being her best friend. She went to bed with a smile on her face, and I have noticed a huge change in the way she interacts with her siblings. Loneliness is not always a bad thing!




WE MUST REALIZE THAT IF WE ALLOW OUR KIDS TO BE SOCIALIZED IN THE "ACCEPTABLE" WAY, THEY WILL PROBABLY NEED TO RELEARN SOCIALIZATION AS ADULTS Earlier, I mentioned that I learned how to make conversation and overcome my relational awkwardness during my teen years. But that's only half the story. Here's the other half: although I outwardly overcame the effects of the accepted socialization process, the inward effect on my self-esteem and thought process was devastating. Deep down inside, I was afraid to truly be known—even after I had grown up! 

As an adult, I was still afraid that if people saw who I really was deep down inside, they would reject me. So I continued to hide myself, the way I had been socialized to do during my school years. But this is a lonely way to live, and I found myself craving deeper friendships. 


However, the only way to have a truly deep relationship is to allow others to see who you really are, and this is very hard to do. 


This was actually the hardest part of my socialization experience, because it essentially involved throwing away everything I had learned through school-based socialization, putting an end to social posturing and game playing, and learning how to be comfortable in my own skin. 

Like many adults in society today, I was a social chameleon who had spent many years allowing my environment—my job title, salary, performance reviews, house, appearance, and others' opinions—to define how I felt about myself. I also feared rejection and was a huge people pleaser, unable to articulate my opinions, and unable to stand up for myself. 

It has taken years to identify and work through these issues, which involved figuring out who I originally was, before I was socialized to repress my individuality, then learning to ground myself in my identity as a daughter of God.

Doing this has been enormously freeing, and interestingly enough, has resulted in honest, deep, rich friendships that have more than made up for the lack of friends I experienced earlier in life. God is good! And I intend to pass everything I've learned along to my children, to the best of my abilities, so they can enter adulthood without having to relearn socialization as I did.



THE SOCIALIZATION QUESTION REVISITED 
Let's go back to the original question from the start of this article: "What about socialization?" Today, I refuse to be a hoop jumper, and I instead point out the stupidity of the hoops, by asking the questioner: 

"When you ask how my kids are getting socialized, do you mean how are they learning to be good friends who are thoughtful, loyal, compassionate and respectful to others? Or do you mean getting socialized as in: learning how to obsessively compare themselves with others, learning that their value as a human being is based on the brand of jeans they're wearing, and learning that being physically attractive gives you the right to treat others like they're trash?"

Whenever I say this, the questioner inevitably pauses for a few moments, then slowly says something along the lines of, "Gee, I never looked at it that way, but you know what..." This is often followed by some kind of school-related social horror story from their childhood, regardless of whether they were popular or unpopular. I then rattle off various facts and statistics from this article, and by the time I'm done talking, my questioner is seriously questioning his/her own socialization experience.


FINAL THOUGHTS

Preparing our children to be good friends is tough. Learning to know who God created you to be, learning to be truly comfortable in your own skin, learning to truly get along with others, and learning to consistently demonstrate godly character to the people God places in your life—these are just as hard for adults as they are for a child! 

But if we persevere in developing these things in our own lives and instilling them in our children's lives, we will prepare them to do better in marriage, friendships, parenthood, their vocations, and most importantly, their walks with God. And that's what we're all after, isn't it? 


Marlene Molewyk has homeschooled her five children for the past twelve years. Her career has included work as: a broadcast journalist for the NBC affiliate in Traverse City, Michigan; a production assistant for the Oprah Winfrey Show; and a corporate public relations manager for Ameritech.


Copyright 2010, Home Life, Inc., Fenton, MO, 800-346-6322, www.home-school.com. Originally published in Practical Homeschooling Magazine. Used by permission.



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