Thursday, January 28, 2016

The "S" Word- Socialization!

Homeschoolers loathe being asked about socialization.  Yes, I know why this question is annoying. We're always being told that American public schools face serious academic challenges. But most people seem to take it for granted that public school socialization is normal and adequate.  It doesn't take much effort to poke holes in that theory. When people ask, "But what are you doing about socialization?", homeschoolers often answer, "What exactly about public school socialization do you like?" This essay presents a pretty straightforward analysis of the subject; this one is a bit more in your face.

The fact is that kids in public school are not there to socialize. They are there to participate in structured lessons and activities. There is virtually no time for kids just to hang out and socialize at school, and homework and extracurricular activities place serious demands on whatever time they have left on evenings and weekends.  But... they do spend all day, five days a week, sitting in classrooms with other kids, all expenses paid.  If this is your idea of socialization, the public schools are tough to beat.

It's easy to see how not being forced to deal daily with bullies, cliques, negative peer pressure that encourages drinking, smoking, sex and drug use, institutionalized sexism, racism, homophobia, xenophobia, police officers armed with guns and tasers patrolling the halls, lockdown drills, curriculum that may be very, very far from ideal for a particular student,  never having their unique interests tapped, etc. can make a homeschool kid's life seem way better by contrast.  But homeschooled kids who don't get to see other kids enough will often ask to to school anyway.

Social skills are crucial skills that kids need to learn before they try to make their way as adults in this world. Social skills alone will account for a good chunk of their earning potential, and more importantly form the bedrock  of their most crucial personal relationships. It's not possible to pick social skills up online. It is a simple fact that the majority of what happens when humans communicate is nonverbal. We unconsciously give and receive subtle social cues from body language and vocal tones. Kids need actual face to face time with other kids when the focus is on each other and not on a lesson or activity to actually experience social skills. Homeschoolers have the advantage of increased time to make this happen. We can give our kids plenty of  unstructured time together, time just to play and tell jokes and goof around and be kids. Time to share secrets and dreams and crazy ideas. Time to really know and respect each other. And we can create real connections between families, where they feel connected not just to kids their own age but their friends' siblings and parents.  Structured activities are ways to meet people that might lead to friendships.  They are just a starting point.

How do you teach social skills?  That may sound like a weird thing to teach, but why not?  If social skills are so vital, why aren't they routinely taught as an academic subject worthy of study?  We often teach our kids structured and unstructured lessons about compassion, ethics, and faith. Social skills do have some overlap with these areas but they are not the same thing.

I picked up lots of books at the library on social skills and conflict resolution, from many perspectives. The most useful one was focused on simple, practical suggestions, How To Start A Conversation And Make Friends  by Don Gabor. I also really loved the old classic,  How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie (available on audiobook, which may be easier to share with kids). I even found a great one just for kids, The Top 100 Social Rules Kids Need to Succeed by Susan Diamond.  This last book is clearly intended for kids who go to school and have Asperger's, which can make it harder  for them to read social cues.  But the vast majority of the rules are quite useful to any kid, and clearly defined with brief, sensible explanations; something I often wish I could do better as a parent.

One of the most interesting things about reading up on social skills is how humbling it is. So much of the information in these books is definitely not intuitive. It is really eye opening to have body language explained.  How many times have I unknowingly sent negative signals? Also, how often have I unwittingly caused conflicts, or used poor strategies for resolving them? How would my life be different today if I had been taught social skills as a child?

Also, social skills are empowering to understand. For example, when I meet new people, I am able to understand if their nonverbal communication is friendly or not, so if I feel unwelcome I can pinpoint why.  I know now that not many people really care about superficial stuff like whether I'm saying things that are charming and witty, or whether I'm wearing the right clothes. It's far more important to project friendliness and good listening skills.  I definitely have more concrete suggestions to give my son when he worries about social situations. And I can strategize about how to deliberately teach social skill lessons, just as I've been working on teaching ethics and manners since my son was tiny.

Here are a few of the tips I picked up. None of this comes easily to me, for sure, but I definitely feel far more comfortable in social situations reflecting on whether I am following these rules instead of worrying about my faults.

  • When you are putting yourself in uncharted water, think "What's realistically the worst thing that can happen?" Nothing ventured, nothing gained.  If you worry, like I do, about your faults, consider that no one is perfect and what we all need are people who accept us the way we are. 
  • Remember names.  This is super hard for me and for many people, but it matters.  So I try to do my best and to forgive people who don't remember mine.  When you are introduced, try to think of an association that will help you remember, even if it's totally silly.  If I'm introduced to a bunch of people at once, I try to discreetly write their names down. I think the likelihood that someone will think I'm weird for writing names down, vs. the likelihood they'll be disappointed that I've completely  forgotten their name the next time I see them, probably justifies this.
  • Making eye contact, smiling, keeping your arms in an open position instead of crossed over your body, leaning forward instead of leaning back, and nodding are all ways to convey interest and friendliness.
  • Leaning over a cell phone or a novel does not invite conversation. Those little phones are a huge temptation. If you are really hoping to make new friends, consider whether you can leave your phone in the car.
  • Listening projects friendliness much more than talking.  When someone is talking, try to give them your full attention instead of thinking about what you are going to say next. 
  • Be mindful of how often you complain. I've met people who made me aware that most of what they had to say was actually a complaint, and I've caught myself whining too much on bad days. We are all drawn to people who are more positive.
  • Try to offer sincere compliments.  How often to we think positive things about others but neglect to tell them?
  • Make an effort to introduce people, especially if they are meeting many new people at once.  Don't neglect to introduce kids to each other. Tell your kids that their efforts to make new kids feel welcome are invaluable.
  • When you do meet new people that you like, make a point of keeping in touch, specifically by inviting them to hang out again in person. It doesn't count just to "friend" them on Facebook. Maybe you'll impress everyone with how many "friends" you have,  but what matters is when you make an effort to actually see them.
  • If you meet anyone who actually says, "we really don't like to leave the house much", or "my kids mostly prefer just to stay home and play video games to hanging out with friends", don't waste your time. They're unlikely to become your bosom friends if it requires changing their entire lifestyle.  
  • If you invite someone to spend time with your family and they decline because "my kids really don't feel like it",  this is rude.  Imagine if you asked an adult friend to get together and they said, "Nah, I don't feel like it." One should never let others think their company isn't enjoyed, or the pleasure of their company is far less important than the novelty of the activity. 
  • Try not to tell people about all the playdates and birthday parties you were invited to that they were excluded from, or post pictures online that they will see.  People don't like people who make them feel left out.
  • Make time regularly for the people you value most.  This can be very hard with our busy lives. And busyness itself has become practically a status symbol.  A study I read about concluded that women who don't see friends in person about once a month don't tend to rate those friendships as close. Consider if that rings true to you.
  • People feel closer to people who confide in them. You will not want to spill all your secrets to anyone the day you meet, but if you never feel comfortable enough to share confidences with others, they won't share them with you.
  • People also feel closer to people whose homes they've visited.  We have a tiny house that gets cluttered easily, and I hate to be embarrassed.  After reading this, I began to prioritize doing whatever needs to be done to keep things tidy so that I feel more comfortable with guests.  I think of it now as self-care. Flylady and Flylady for Homeschoolers is a resource for tips that many people find helpful. And of course you should remind yourself that no one worthwhile expects perfection. 
  • Conflicts are rarely about the surface issue and usually about a perceived lack of empathy and respect.  The vast majority of the time, the person offering offense does not have bad intentions. This is so hard to keep in mind but it's very true. You can resolve conflicts with less difficulty if you make it clear that you do not think the other person has bad motives,  that you want to listen, and that you are willing to offer empathy and respect. 
  • Our dearest friends like us for what are truly our best qualities, the things we love about ourselves, and vice versa.  The friend who likes you best because you are loyal, kind and intelligent (and you feel the same about them) offers a far more valuable friendship than the one who likes you best because you are good at thinking up fun things to do,  while you value them for their excellent shopping tips. 
  • Pay attention to how you feel after spending time with others.  If you part from someone feeling energized, peaceful, joyful, understood.. these friends are solid gold!  (Don't forget to let them know.)  If you feel drained, put down, confused...consider if your life would be better without them.  How your children feel after spending time with theirs is just as vital.
One issue that books on social skills and conflict resolution don't address for the most part is where to draw the line.  They are focused on practical suggestions for creating positive relationships, and understanding that other people almost never have bad intentions. They do not deal with the question of when to say enough is enough.

For example, there are times when you're the newcomer and no one is making much of an effort to include you. That's hard, especially when you see it happening to your kids.  Good social skills can often demonstrate quickly that you are friendly and approachable, and people will respond in kind. It may be easier just to turn and walk away, but the benefits of being included make the effort worthwhile.

But sometimes you just need to walk away.  And you have to know how to tell when it's practical to do that.  Sometimes it's clearly in your best interest to work on having the best possible relationship with a difficult person, to make a supreme effort to understand where they are coming from and offer them empathy and respect.  Other times, it's clearly in your best interest not to have such people in your life.  Young kids often don't have much choice about who they spend their time with. An adult may be able to find another job to escape a bullying boss, but kids often spend many years of their lives sharing a classroom with a bully.  Homeschoolers have much more flexibility, and it's our responsibility as parents to help them make healthy choices.

I realized I've had perhaps the greatest difficulty in my life with the "bystanders". They're like the kids in the schoolyard who stand around and watch as the bully gets in your face. You reason that they really haven't done anything to you themselves, and maybe they've even been nice.  But at the same time they make it clear they won't be speaking up for you when someone decides to make you their target, and won't do anything to help resolve a conflict. Kids often lack the maturity to diplomatically stick up for friends, but this quality is something we need to expect from our friends and from ourselves and model effectively.

We should also be careful about how we use the word "introvert". When I see "introvert" defined as a person who enjoys socializing as much as anyone can, but does need time alone to recharge, that's perfectly understandable. Some people realistically need more "me" time than others to relax and collect their thoughts. But more and more, people are using "introvert" to mean someone who has social anxiety, often feels or behaves antisocially as a result, and wants that to be okay. 

I say, don't dish it out if you can't take it! We all have social anxiety.  A fear of rejection is human. When someone acts as if having to talk to me or my friends is possibly more unpleasant than eating glass,  it hurts.  I am skeptical of the idea that it's doing kids any favors to encourage them to think of themselves as "introverts" if it means teaching them to avoid social anxiety at all costs, because mastering social skills is a fundamental life skill. But kids shouldn't have to figure everything out for themselves.

I can't possibly recall the millions of times I told myself as a kid that it was fine to behave rudely to other kids because I was "shy" and "introverted", refusing sometimes to even acknowledge their presence.  How different would my life have been if I'd not internalized being an introvert as part of my identity and understood how I was treating others? The truth is that I was so petrified of rejection that I wanted to take control of the situation and dish out the rejection first.  This strategy did no one any good. Some good lessons in social skills would have made a huge difference in my life.  I hope I'll be able to learn from my own mistakes and pass on what I've learned to my son.

Do you teach social skills?  If so, do you have specific resources you'd recommend?  Please share! 

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