Is Homeschooling Anti-Social?

Social life is the bane and boon of homeschooling. It's a great frustration and a great reward, depending on how you look at it.

Accusations fly freely about how homeschooling socially isolates students from the outside world. Homeschooling, it is thought, alienates students from their peer groups, condemning them to a life of social awkwardness complete with religious fundamentalism, goofy shoes, and bad haircuts. Meanwhile, homeschool advocates contest this claim as a myth and counter that the social scene, and social teachings, at local schools are so toxic their fumes could fuel the entire homeschool movement. Indeed, it's not hard to find alarming social stats on school culture concerning drinking, drugs, sex and violence.

Setting aside accusations, it is safe to say that conventional schooling and homeschooling both offer their own respective advantages in preparing young people for the social demands of the adult world. A good K-12 education helps make that social goal possible. Countless young people fare just fine in conventional schools and homeschools alike. So we are probably not dealing with a simple "either/or" decision as concerns the social scene at conventional schools versus homeschools. There are pros and cons for both. We know it is possible to make it through the K-12 years and come out socially well-adjusted, whether through public, private, or homeschooling. But we also know that socialization is a challenging and encompassing part of a child's formative years, and some strategies work better than others.

How then does homeschooling fare in the area of socialization? Is there any truth to the accusation that homeschooling harms children socially? And conversely, does homeschooling offer any great gains in steering youngsters through the perils of peer pressure? Somewhere in between the worst isolation on one end or the worst peer pressure on the other end, there seems to be a happy medium. Our primary interest is to determine whether or not homeschooling offers a real opportunity to achieve that happy medium. Hereafter, I will make the case that homeschooling, while no "miracle drug", is still a promising solution to many of the social problems common to traditional schools. This argument proceeds from the premise that the "social isolation objection" is largely exaggerated, even it does have enough merit to keep homeschool parents alert to the pressing social needs of their students. Homeschooling, just like conventional schooling, can be done poorly or done well. All options carry their own respective challenges for socializing students into adulthood. But homeschooling can no longer be dismissed—as it was 30 years ago—over the "isolation objection."

Unraveling the "Myth" Of Antisocial Homeschoolers

It has been said that homeschooling tends to isolate students so badly that they are largely unable to have normal, healthy, social relations. If this accusation is true, it impacts a significant chunk of the K-12 population.

There are about 58 million K-12 students in America. Of these students roughly 1.8 million will be homeschooled, 5.4 million will attend private school, and 50.4 million will attend public school. Homeschools make up about 3.4% of the student population—up from 2.2% in just ten years. At this rate, homeschool are growing faster than public schools. Meanwhile private school attendance is declining.

Whatever social trends are flowing from the homeschool movement, we can expect them to steadily increase in the foreseeable future. While homeschooling is still, clearly, the smallest enrollment option among these three, it's steady growth in a relatively short time suggest it's a force to be reckoned with. And if this isolation objection is true, then we have reason to believe it will become a bigger problem as homeschooling grows.

These numbers however are recent. Once upon a time, homeschooling was so rare and so strange that pretty much the only homeschoolers were, themselves, rare and strange. The isolation objection may have been a fair estimation back then. Before the onset of the modern homeschool movement (late 1970's early 1980's) most states had lots of restrictions pressing families into public or private school, even though homeschooling—in some sense—was still technically legal in every state. In other words, the legal room for a robust brand of homeschooling just wasn't there. Early homeschool pioneers had to either dodge or creatively interpret educational law to make room for homeschool education. In these early years, homeschooling wasn't popular, wasn't cool, and was pretty hard to do—without breaking the law.

It's not surprising that in these early years of the (modern) homeschooling movement, schooling was often done subversively by pioneering educators (ex., John Holt and others), paranoid families, and religious fundamentalists. Among these homeschool families, a fair share of educational pioneers foresaw the promising opportunities of homeschooling, and utilized it to great effect—without any negative ties (paranoia, fundamentalism, cultism, etc.). For exceptional students, or exceptional families, homeschooling was an option wherever the traditional school options just couldn't cut it. Homeschooling was well suited to full-time athletes, traveling artists (i.e., child actors, or performers), itinerant career families, missionaries, learning disabled or gifted students. The needs presented by these situations can easily exceed the resources of local schools. And homeschooling enabled them to have an education they could not have had otherwise.

Today, there remains a "fringe" element among modern homeschoolers—including fundamentalists, and socially awkward students. Critics on the outside of the homeschool movement however would be sorely mistaken if they believed these accusations of hyper-fundamentalism, or social isolation, are an accurate representation of the homeschool movement today. Times change. Moreover, as every teacher knows, there are plenty of socially awkward students in traditional schools who are currently struggling (and failing) under the unwieldy burden of bullies and peer pressure at their local schools. Dropping unprepared children into the social pool of traditional school doesn't always teach them to swim. Sometimes it drowns them.

Moreover, there are cult-like and fundamentalist private schools as well.

The point here is not to swell the gossip columns or mud sling, but rather to show how accusations against homeschooling aren't unique to homeschooling. We are not deliberating between competing utopias, but rather real-world options with real-world risks. Meanwhile, public schools have had their fair share of questionable social teachings.

These examples don't prove that public or private school are awash in fundamentalist floods, or are collectively poisonous to young persons, but they are a reminder that we should not generalize too lightly. The same slander launched at homeschooling could be leveled at public or private school too. No solution is foolproof, and no school absolves parents of the privilege and responsibility of parenting their children wisely.

Returning to homeschooling, accusations of fundamentalism and isolation may have worked as a general critique in the past, but they aren't unique to homeschool and they may not even accurately apply to homeschooling in broad terms. Homeschooling has gelled into a major education alternative, serving almost 2 million students yearly, complete with homeschool networks and meetups, hybrid school options (part home school part traditional school), and a wide array of social options in the community to get kids out of the house and socializing with other kids. Not to mention, kids can now interact directly with world cultures through social media and video chats and pen pal programs.

Socialized into what?

In private and public schooling, social interaction is unavoidable. Students have to learn social dynamics. But homeschooling is different. Students can graduate homeschool without ever really facing bullies, cliques, and the thick adolescent smog of middle or high school hallways. In missing those things, they can also miss the humor, the fashion, the lingo and the typical culture of kids their own age. Homeschools can still address these social needs, but they don't have the school halls to help them do it. They have to create ways to socialize. Those who didn't grow up in homeschool may not realize there are other, perhaps better, ways to socialize young people. That's one source of misunderstanding.

Another source of misunderstanding lurks in the very concept of socializing. The concept of "socialization" is not simply a matter of "fitting in" with school peers. It's a matter of enculturating into one's environment. If one's peers are caught up in drugs, pornography, or just bad attitudes, then students shouldn't be "fitting in" with them. That community is a poor aim for socialization. Harvard Psychologist Robert Epstein explains that socialization is "a process by which we learn to be part of a community." He continues:

So the question is, what community do we want our young people to learn to be part of? . . . We want them to learn to join the community that they'll be part of their whole lives. We want them to learn to become adults. Right now, they learn everything they know from each other—that's absurd, especially since teens in our society are controlled almost entirely by the frivolous media and fashion industries. If you look through most of human history or you look at many cultures today, you find that teens spend most of their time learning to become adults. Here, they spend most of their time trying to break away from adults.

Epstein has a point, and it serves as powerful leverage against naysayers. Even if homeschoolers are kept from assimilating into peer groups, that can be a good thing if they are socialized instead towards other communities like young adulthood, family, college, and the working world. Notice, Epstein is not recommending social isolation. Students can still interact with peers in different settings, but he's keenly aware of the dangers involved when students, in peer-only settings, enculturate into the immature, inexperienced, adolescent expectations of their classmates.

Yet Epstein could be read too strictly here. Perhaps this "family socialization" is overbearing. Perhaps "homeschooling" is code language for heavy-handed parents who don't trust their kids. Families need to be able to release their children, to some extent, to experience the world and interact with people of other cultures and grow into interpersonal and global awareness. Schools can do that, but what about parents and siblings?

True, good conventional schools can foster lots of vivid interactions with different cultures, cultivating global awareness, and a wider sort of "socialization" than couldn't normally be had in one's backyard. But good homeschools aren't trapped in the backyard. Homeschools can do all that cross-cultural interaction too, especially when parents utilize homeschool networks, share personal resources and activities between neighbors and homeschool families, utilize community resources like the local theater, music lessons and orchestra, recreation leagues, historic landmarks, art clubs, athletic centers, playgrounds, hiking trails, parks, museums, churches, and libraries.

Moreover, homeschool families can often work in a hybrid model, coordinating with local public schools, private schools, or community colleges in order to access things like science labs, advanced placement courses, and athletics. And of course, there are countless opportunities for active homeschoolers to engage in regular meaningful social interactions with peers, as well as with elders and youngers, across different cultures and affinity groups. Homeschool students could be active in community meetups, in church youth groups, in local charities, reading children's stories to toddlers at the local library, participating in robotics clubs, chess clubs, photography clubs, hiking clubs and adventure groups, volunteering at the nursing home, helping out at a soup kitchen, etc. etc.

You get the point.

Homeschooling offers the freedom for students to engage more deeply and in more kinds of community than they typically could have done in the confines of conventional public and private schools. To be fair, it's not abundantly clear that students need to interact deeply with dozens of radically different cultures or participate in a wide range of captivating social activities. Perhaps they do well to learn just one or two cultures deeply, and let the "diversity" training come later. In many cases, local schools are doing a fine job at this already. But, it is good to know that if particular students clamor after that sort of variety, then a good creative homeschool can offer it.

Homeschool With Caution

Can we set the "anti-social" accusation aside now? Can we conclude that this is a myth to be tossed in the dustbin of history?

For the most part, yes, we can conclude that that "anti-social accusation" is largely a myth. It is not, however, entirely a myth. The Coalition for Responsible Home Education (CRHE) has some grave warnings here. In a CRHE article titled, "Homeschooling and Educational Neglect," several horror stories surface about young people raised in homeschool settings who barely learned to read, were socially damaged, and in some cases were victimized by religious abuse. Just because a family chooses to homeschool, there is no guarantee that those students will be well-equipped for adulthood when they graduate. Homeschooling does not, by itself, guarantee successful students. Where families are deeply flawed and where communities exert dangerous influences on families, homeschooling can magnify those flaws. With cult groups and religious extremists, for example, homeschooling can be used to conceal abuse, truancy, parental neglect, child-labor violations, and a host of other problems.

We do well to recognize that we can't rightly lay the blame on homeschooling. Homeschooling isn't abusing children. The real culprit is the abusive parents, indifferent elders, and dysfunctional social settings. Homeschooling in those cases becomes a cover-up, an excuse for miseducating and harming children. For example, one cult group, led by Warren Jeffs practiced homeschooling in the course of rearing child brides for polygamous marriage. It's safe to say those young people were not being socialized well.

One might respond that homeschool laws enable those abuses. If it weren't for naïve homeschool laws, those abusers and cultists would have the Department of Social Services banging down their door, and pulling children out of these toxic situations. Or so the objection goes. This response, however, isn't realistic. Allegedly, homeschoolers in the 70s and 80's were able to keep the government at a distance by designating their homeschool as a "private school." It was a name change and nothing more. Homeschool groups—healthy or harmful alike—could do the same thing if they wanted too. It's relatively easy to skirt the law here.

Even if we were to overturn every homeschool-friendly law, there's no promise that this would prevent certain abuses. Indeed, it could make things worse since students can likewise be abused by peers, administrators, or teachers at their local schools. Students who homeschool to avoid bullying, or a spiteful teacher, or a cruel coach would merely be returning to the battlefield.

There is no utopian option. Each school setting presents its own social risks. So it's not at all clear that traditional schooling schooling fares any better than homeschooling when it comes to socialization.

Socialization and Parental Authority

In light of the Warren Jeffs of the world, we are left with a very difficult question. How free should parents be to steer the education of their children? In answering this question, we can admit that some parents are pretty bad. Whether they mean well or not, they aren't raising their children well at all. If those parents are allowed free reign to steer their children's education, then they can do some serious damage. We can't assume that all parents are loving, decent, and well-meaning. So how free should bad parents be to steer their children's education?

Judicially speaking, there is a breaking point where parents can be deemed unfit to raise their children and that includes raising them in faulty forms of homeschool. Parents are normally allowed a wide latitude in raising their children as they see fit. After all, those parents, more than anyone else, stand to gain or lose depending on how well their children grow up. Parents have to answer for their children while they are minors, and those parents can be legally responsible if the child behaves unlawfully. But in some cases, where parents have demonstrated gross negligence, ineptitude, criminality, or abuse, they can lose custody of their children.

Fortunately, there are a host of child protective services at the state and federal level to ensure that criminally negligent or abusive parents can be punished for their misbehavior. Indeed, the suspect mentioned earlier, Warren Jeffs, was convicted of two counts of child sexual assault and is currently serving a jail sentence of life in prison plus 20 years.

Broadly speaking, U.S. courts have upheld this strong sense of parental authority. Parents (as well as legal guardians) have tremendous authority to steer the education of their children, including their socialization, religious or non-religious training, ethics, politics, worldview and so on. They have this authority provided they are not doing anything that would otherwise be illegal (such as neglect or abuse). The state does have the legal right to demand that all young people be educated, yet this in no way contradicts the parents' right to direct their child's education, including the process of their socialization.

Homeschool advocate John Holt explains:

The courts have affirmed, in decisions too numerous to cite, that under the police powers delegated to them that several states have a right to demand that all children be educated, and to that end, to write and enforce compulsory school attendance laws [i.e., children must attend school]. But the U.S. Supreme court has also held, first in Pierce v. Society of Sisters, and later in Farrington v. Tokushige, that while the state may demand that all children be educated, it may not demand that they be educated in the same way, and that, on the contrary, parents have a constitutionally protected right to get for their children an education which is in accord with their own principles and beliefs. The state, in other words, may not have a monopoly in education, either of schools or of methods. The parents have a right to choice, not just in minor details but in matters of significance. Subsequent decisions in state courts, in Illinois, New Jersey, Massachusetts, and Iowa, among others, have held that this right of parents to control the education of their children includes the right to teach them themselves. In at least one state the courts have held that the burden of proof is not on such parents to show that they are capable of teaching their children, but on the state to show that they are not capable of doing so. (John Holt and Pat Farenga, Teach Your Own, 2d ed. [Perseus, 2003], 216-17).

Holt and Farenga's Teach Your Own is thirteen years old now. The homeschool movement has only grown stronger since then. Over the years of the modern homeschool movement, these parental rights have deepened their legal fortifications and expanded their scope so there's little question anymore about whether parents have the presumptive right to steer their children's education (and socialization) as they see fit. When parental rights are properly understood, the question shifts in focus. The prior question was, "How free should parents be to steer the education of their children?" When we factor that question across the legal reality that parents already have the right to raise their children as they see fit, the question becomes, "What right does the state or school system have to infringe on the parent's right to steer their child's education including their socialization?"

States can require that children receive some manner of education as demonstrated by attendance records, and in some cases, sending student updates to the state board of education. But, generally speaking, the parents are the higher authority in their children's education and socialization.

Children have a legal claim on basic human rights and civil rights. In some cases, these rights entitle them, the state, and child protective services to take action against malicious parents. But parents also have basic rights. They are entitled to wide latitude in determining their child's social education. Schools have an array of legal entitlements guaranteed by law, but these just don't seem to be as fundamental as the human and civil rights of families in their homestead.

There's a tension between the child's need for healthy socialization and the parent's right to direct their social development. In some cases, parents may choose to send their children to a socially well-adjusted public school or private school. That's a fine option. But wherever that option falters—where local schools are stumbling over budget cuts, gang activity, teacher's strikes, binge drinking, bullies and violence, or drug culture—homeschooling offers an important alternative so young people can still grow within a healthy social setting away from local schools. In other cases, the local schools are doing just fine, but the parents in question happen to be highly invested, education-savvy, and capable of doing a better job with their children than they believe professional educators could do. For these reasons, homeschooling remains a viable social option for educating young people.

So, Is Homeschooling Anti-Social?

We come again to the original question from the start of the article: "Is Homeschooling anti-social?" The definitive answer is, maybe.

An equally important question is whether public schooling or private schooling is antisocial. There again, the answer is, maybe.

Homeschooling has all the potential to elevate students above their local school peers in terms of global awareness, multicultural exposure, healthy peer relations, smart social habits, mental health, interpersonal skill, confidence and communication. Homeschoolers are often the brightest most eager communicators in new settings, with elders, peers and youngers alike. Homeschool does however require a lot from parents, and if parents aren't emotionally, physically, or psychologically prepared for the investment required for homeschooling, then all those gains can be eclipsed.

Generally speaking, homeschooling empowers invested parents to ensure that their children learn the values cherished in that household. Those values may be religious, academic, civic, vocational, familial, environmental, and so on. Homeschool parents can make sure that none of their preferred virtues are left off the list. Wherever peer culture seems to be steering kids off a cliff, homeschool families can teach their kids repelling instead.

Public and private schools vary widely in kind and quality. The worst examples can make even mediocre homeschools look spectacular by comparison. And the best examples can rival the best homeschools. Yet each setting offers its own strengths and weaknesses. No parent should lightly decide such weighty matters as a child's education. Where public schools and private schools once ruled, homeschooling has made such an impressive entrance it must be included in the conversation.

It's no longer fair to assume that homeschool condemns kids to solitary confinement. Quite the opposite is true, homeschooling is proving to be, for many a family, the perfect solution to the social ills that permeate our schools.