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Worried about Making Friends

Beverley Paine

At school I always belonged to the clique of misfits, a small group of unpopular students who were rejected by the other groups. New kids often started in our group then moved on as they were accepted by the others. Now that I'm approaching 50 and have had a lot of years to observe and analyse my behaviour, and that of my parents, siblings and my largely homeschooled children, I am beginning to think that how we turn out has more to do with 'nature' than it does 'nurture'.

However there is something called temperamental 'misfit': where a child really doesn't seem to belong to his or her parents because they are very different in temperament and personality, for example, an extroverted child born to introverted parents. Or a sports mad child to artistic parents...

In my case time has shown that I'm a lot like my parents. They consider themselves to be social folk even though they rarely go out, visit anyone or socialise at all! My children - now adults - are much the same. They prefer their own company or that of close friends rather than hanging out in crowds or crowded places. Each of us is protective of our values and lifestyle. In our younger days this was frequently displayed as intolerance towards other ways of living but unlike my parents, this youthful arrogance has mellowed in me and my adult children and we've grown. I personally think our 'outside the box' home educating lifestyle is the most likely reason for this difference.

I sometimes wonder if my social group at school would have always been the 'misfits' if I had different parents or grandparents. School barely changes from one decade or century to another, especially in the nature of the social relationships it seems to foster between children. Perhaps how we experience school has more to do with the way we are parented, as well responding to our personality and temperament. My family didn't promote trust between family members. Siblings learned from an early age to dislike and distrust each other and to compete for attention. Although still considered a normal family in most regards looking back it definitely feels socially dysfunctional.

In recent years I've watched adults - parents, grandparents and friends - use different tactics and play games with children that effectively turn the children against each other and their parents. It's subtle and I'm sure they haven't a clue about the long-term social consequences related to this behaviour. It astounds me that they don't realise that they are actively teaching these young children how to be naughty.

What I've discovered by reflecting on my childhood and by watching the behaviour of adults and children is that it is easy to blame our inability to make and sustain friends as adults on our experiences at school. However, I now believe that a lot of the anti-social behaviour is actually originally fostered in the family home and school simply reinforces these lessons. Competition and subtle teasing disguised as 'playfulness', together with a reward and punishment approach to helping children develop discipline combine to produce the very problems parents and teachers wish to avoid.

Home education is essentially different. We are, by and large, a different breed of parents, parenting in a completely different way to most people. This is because we are with our children all day, every day. Not because we have to be, but because we want to be. And that is what makes the difference. Our children are surrounded by people who want to be with them and who enjoy their company.

This is the heart of sound social development. Socialisation occurs naturally and at a pace our children can handle. In fact, they control the socialisation process. We are tuned into their developmental needs in way that teachers can never be and which parents who only get access to their children after school and on weekends need to work extra hard to achieve.

When our children encounter the type of relationship conflicts we experienced as children, the ones we still see happening in schools, because they are home educated they'll draw on the coping and managing strategies we've modeled and practiced within with the home. Some children may enjoy playing the peer pressure game for a while, experiment with it and see what happens, but because home educating gives children the time to get to know who they are as people first they won't lose their identity and sense of self to please others or to fit into dynamics the group. That isn't to say they won't work hard to please their friends, but at some stage they'll pull back and be true to themselves. The longer children have been home educated the more noticeable this behaviour becomes.

It is sometimes hard to believe our children will learn the social skills they need and become adequately socialised if they have little contact with their peers, especially same age peers. We've been brainwashed by a couple of hundred years of schooling, of experimental social engineering to believe our children need constant companionship with other children. It's simply not true: humanity didn't get to where it is today because children played with children all day every day. Children don't need that to grow and thrive, they need to be part of the world of adults and to have access to playful periods with people of all ages. If you are playing with your children every day, if other people play with your children on a regular basis, if they get to hang out with one, two or more children when they need to (and children will ask when they are ready, you don't have to push it on them) then all is well.

The only exception to the above is during the de-schooling period for peer-addicted youngsters. Children who have spent considerable time in child-care, preschool or school often need time to rediscover who they are and to restart building their social skills and socialisation from that centre again.

Some parents worry that this family closeness is a problem. We are surrounded by messages that reinforce school as the primary socialising agent in society. Schools grew in number at about the same time as printing fiction became popular: stories portraying children living and working in the real world gave way to stories of children living and learning in boarding schools, or living and playing on school holidays! The 'normal' child naturally seeks the company of other children, is outward going, polite, personable, has good manners and can generally sing, dance and perform brilliantly! It helps if he or she is clever and can make just about anything required too!

Most home educated children enjoy the company of their parents and siblings as much as their friends. They find this normal and natural. They protect and look out for each other and reassured by this bond feel confident to explore strange social environments together. As our children grew people would often comment on the strong respectful and cooperative friendship between our three children. I naturally compare it to the fractured competitive and unhappy relationships I had with my siblings during my teen years and feel blessed to have had the opportunity to parent and educate in a different way.

Life wasn't always rosy and happy though: my children fought and got grumpy too. Often it would be during periods when I was unwell and not being as attentive as usual to their needs. Or financial worry would bring stress into the family. When my eldest was six I learned a valuable lesson: ten minutes of one-one attention, on her terms, doing what she wanted or needed, would give me an hour of peace to do what I wanted. 'Bad' behaviour signaled a need for attention from the parents.

I would often sacrifice 'my' time (to do the chores, read a book, etc) to provide activities that would engage all of the children. If I saw friction developing between children in larger groups I would organise and supervise appropriate activities that would hopefully be engaging and interesting. Just 'being there' often diverted some of the destructive behaviour. Children are comforted and reassured when we provide boundaries, provided those boundaries are respectful and meet their developmental needs and aren't unnecessarily restrictive. Sometimes I'd deliberately organise separate activities, especially if one child or a group of children needed protection from others. This happened when, at the age of twelve, our daughter wanted to be on her own to read and her brothers felt abandoned and would tease her, hoping she'd stop reading to play with them.

Group games ( Always Learning Books have many booklets of such games for children) are really useful for 'breaking the ice' and to help children feel more at ease with each other. We think they'll simply jump up and play together because they are children. It doesn't happen - well it will, but not the first time the children meet. Usually, like adults, they take a few visits to get to know a bit about each other first, before they feel comfortable playing. We can push children together and hope for the best but a supervised organised or structured game will quickly provide the platform to forge those new friendships we and they desire. Sadly, many of the traditional games I enjoyed as a child at school and after school are almost lost, but they are still popular with youngsters if you teach or show them how to play. Home education camps are great places for doing this.

For a long time I worried if my children were seeing enough people, especially children. Eventually I realised that all I had to do was ask them. They didn't resent me making play dates for them but because of my insecurities I often inadvertently fell prey to doing too many social activities each week, with the result that we became tired and grumpy. We all need time to process the social and emotional learning from playing with or chatting to our friends. It is okay to wait for our children to ask us to organise play dates and outings. This helps them recognise and become responsible for their own social growth and development too.

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Beverley Paine with her children, and their home educated children, relaxing at home.

Together with the support of my family, my aim is to help parents educate their children in stress-free, nurturing environments. In addition to building and maintaing this website, I continue to create and manage local and national home educating networks, help to organise conferences and camps, as well as write for, edit and produce newsletters, resource directories and magazines. I am an active supporter of national, state, regional and local home education groups.

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We began educating our children in 1985, when our eldest was five. In truth, we had helped them learn what they need to learn since they were born. I am a passionate advocate of allowing children to learn unhindered by unnecessary stress and competition, meeting developmental needs in ways that suit their individual learning styles and preferences. Ours was a homeschooling, unschooling and natural learning family! There are hundreds of articles on this site to help you build confidence as a home educating family. We hope that your home educating adventure is as satisfying as ours was! Beverley Paine


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