This post reviews Rachel Gathercole, The Well-Adjusted Child: The Social Benefits of Homeschooling (Denver: Mapletree Publishing Co., 2007).
Gathercole, a veteran homeschooling mother and widely published homeschooling advocate, here provides book-length coverage of the issue that has vexed homeschoolers more than any other–socialization.
I should note at the outset that this book just barely qualifies as a piece of educational research. It is mostly a first-person narrative, written in an accessible, breezy style rife with quotations of homeschooled parents and children. It’s the sort of book a homeschooling parent might buy for a skeptical friend or relative concerned that homeschooling will wreck the child socially. Gathercole does weave into her anecdote-rich narrative some citations of research on the socialization question, and her book provides an organized list of purported social benefits homeschooling offers. Most of her data however comes from interviews she conducted with some homeschooled children and parents. She does not explain why she chose the interviewees she did, nor is there any discussion of her methods.
Gathercole’s basic thesis is that socialization is actually one of the best reasons to choose homeschooling. In chapter after chapter she portrays homeschooling as the better environment for achieving various social goals. I’ll list and briefly describe her argument for many of these goals:
Peer Relationships–Homeschoolers do relate to large numbers of peers outside their immediate family through church, co-ops, neighborhood play, and activities like scouts, sporting leagues, and so on. School, on the other hand, limits peer contact to the in-betweens like recess and lunch while at the same time fostering dependency on the norms set by peers in terms of dress, musical preference, moral behaviors, etc. Homeschoolers generally have fewer casual peer relationships but stronger friendships with a core of peers.
Independence and Strong Family Relationships–Homeschooling parents do not smother and warp their children into mindless clones of themselves. Instead, homeschooling provides plenty of independence as children are largely self-directed in their learning. At the same time, this learning takes place in an environment where strong parent-child bonds are formed, which “research” shows is good for children’s social development. (Here she cites no studies herself but directs us to a website that reviews a 1992 doctoral dissertation by Larry Shyers). Homeschooling also facilitates strong sibling bonds and helps children avoid the “cycle of detachment” frequently associated with adolescence.
Safety, Adversity, and Bullying–Homeschooling helps protect children from the bullying and brutality found in many schools. When children feel safe they can get on with learning.
Freedom to be a Kid–Whereas schooling must resort to extrinsic rewards and punishments to keep kids subdued for hours at a time at a desk and hence tends to crush the natural love of learning children possess, homeschooling frees children to be who they are: inquisitive, experimental, wide-open to the world. Homeschoolers can skip the busy work and use the extra free time to play, learn, and grow.
Being “Cool”–Gathercole grants that homeschooled kids typically aren’t cool by the standards of mainstream youth culture, but she doubts that this sort of coolness is desirable. In the homeschooling community there is more room for eccentricity, more tolerance of stylistic diversity. As one child she quotes puts it, “School kids do judge you a whole lot worse than the homeschool kids.”
Relationships with Adults–In contrast to the generational divides fostered by peer group isolation at school, homeschoolers typically grow up with much richer interaction with adults, leading to increased comfort-levels in the presence of adults, a more adult vocabulary, and a willingness to be guided and inspired by adults.
Diversity and Minorities–More and more minorities are turning to homeschooling. Public schools are segregated places on the whole, and even schools that are formally integrated have sharp racial divides within the school. Gathercole acknowledges that many homeschoolers have few encounters with people from different racial backgrounds to their own, but she gives some examples of homeschool co-ops that are ethnically and religiously diverse, suggesting that exposure to diversity is “available to homeschoolers who seek it.”
Preparation for the “Real World”–Homeschooling is actually a better preparation for the “real world” of 21st century work and family than institutional schooling.
Citizenship and Democracy–Despite critics who allege that homeschooling is uncivic, in reality homeschooled families are more civically engaged than the average, and homeschooling fosters strong community bonds. Public schools, on the other hand, produce a lot of apathetic, apolitical people.
Teen Identity and Selfhood–While many children transition to school during the teen years, some continue homeschooling for the freedom it provides–freedom from lockstep curriculum and peer pressure. Teens who do transition tend to have little trouble making the switch.
Gathercole covers a few more topics, but this is most of it. Most of her data comes from the interviews she conducted and from the writings of other advocates, some of whom are published researchers. As my summaries above perhaps indicate, there is not a lot of nuance in this book. Homeschooling is great. End of story.
When it comes to the academic research on the socialization question, Gathercole cites some of it when it suits her argument and does so indiscriminately. Readers who are familiar with the literature she cites will find her use of some sources reductivist. I could say more about this but it is hardly worth it, for this book is not intended to be a definitive summary of the research on homeschooling and socialization. It is, as I said at the outset, the sort of book intended to help those who don’t know much about homeschooling overcome their knee-jerk worry that homeschooling damages kids socially. Readers seeking a more subtle and authoritative account making some of the same points might try Gary Wyatt’s Family Ties, whose chapter on socialization I review here.
A final point worth noting about this book is its endorsements. Patrick Farenga wrote the foreward, and on the back cover there are endorsements by Helen Hegener and Wendy Priesnitz, all veterans of the left wing of the homeschooling movement. But the front cover carries an endorsement by Michael Smith, current president of HSLDA, who also interviewed Gathercole for HSLDA’s radio program Home School Heartbeat. Reading through the book I was struck repeatedly at Gathercole’s fluency in the languages of both the homeschooling left and right. She is perfectly comfortable talking up unschooling and secular themes but also speaks freely and without irony of conservative moral values and spiritual commitments. Her ability to transcend the partisan divide that has hounded the homeschooling movement since the early 1980s suggests to me a bright future for Gathercole as a movement spokesperson as younger generations of Americans continue to move beyond the culture war rhetoric of the 80s and 90s.