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The Valedictorian Who Failed Socialization
This article, by Neysa C.M. Jensen, was originally published in the March-April 1998 issue of Home Education Magazine.
Like many homeschooling families, The first questions we get about our choice is "Don't you think your children need to be around other kids more?" or something similar. The big "S" word is what we call in it in our homeschooling circle. It's a tough question to answer. I have an arsenal of typical responses, such as "our children are around people of all ages and not just their own peer group," but I find the whole question of socialization somewhat irritating. It almost seems irrelevant to me. Who is to determine what kind of socialization is "good" or "bad"? True, we live in a social culture. We are social creatures. But do we have to learn how to behave in social situations determined by a school setting? Can we not learn equally well how to get along within the family core unit with limited outings to be with the larger society? And most of all, what if an individual is not necessarily interested in or good at being around a lot of other people at one time? I can only answer these questions based on my own experience and what I know about my own children.
By all measurements, I was a success story in school. I was valedictorian of my high school class. I graduated cum laude from a good liberal arts college. I was in all kinds of groups, including band, theater, drill team, debate, and more. By all accounts, I was socialized quite well. Proof that the system was good. Even today, I am still involved in many activities outside the home, including volunteer work, music, support groups, and yoga. Yet, I am a strong introvert.
Let me clarify terms before I go any further. When I use the word introvert I do not mean that I don't like other people. I am very much a people person. And likewise by extrovert, I don't mean someone who never likes being alone. I like to use the definitions of these words as they are used in one of my favorite books, Raising Your Spirited Child by Mary Sheedy Kurcinka. Introvert refers to someone who finds their energy level drained by being around people for any length of time, while extroverts find themselves drained by too much time alone. Conversely, introverts are energized by being alone, and extroverts are energized by being with others.
The day I learned these definitions was a revelation to me. We live in an extroverted society. You have to learn to get along, you have to learn to like being with others. This is the kind of socialization taught in schools. I went along with the game when I was young because I didn't know any differently. I didn't know it was okay to be alone. Fortunately, since my family lived in the country, I had quite a bit of enforced time alone. And I really needed it.
From the moment I awoke each day, it was filled with people. I rode the school bus an hour each way, full of noise and the constant presence of other children. I was almost drained by the time I got to school. Then one class after another, crowded hallways, clatter of lockers, lunch room filled with children and bad food, locker rooms filled with other girls. And another hour-long ride on the school bus to get home. By the time I got home, I was so drained by the constant barrage of people and noise all day that I only wanted to sit in my room and be left alone. I didn't want to talk to my parents or interact with my family, which was not well received. It wasn't how "nice" girls behaved.
Looking back, I see that I experienced a lot of stress stemming from my need to be alone and everyone else's need to not let me. Anyone on a college track in the school system knows it's not enough to be valedictorian of your class, particularly if you are an introvert. The stereotypical book worm is not how you want to appear on your college applications. You must participate in as many activities as possible, so as to appear "well rounded" and well socialized.
Not that I didn't like these activities. They were, in fact, my favorite part of school. I didn't realize it at the time, of course, but I chose activities in which I could deal with only a few people at once. In music, I had only to play what the director said. In debate, I had one partner; I didn't have to cooperate with a whole team. In theater, I often did backstage work, such as props, make up, or costumes, which required contact with only a few members of the cast or crew at any given time. These outlets allowed me to be active and still protect my energy levels with enough time alone or with one or two other people. They helped guard my introvert personality. That's the good news, I guess: introverts can pursue their interests and still preserve their integrity.
But in general, being an introvert is not well accepted in schools. Introverts are often teased by other children, ostracized by teachers, and misunderstood by their parents. I think many of my own problems with my parents and the low self-esteem I have dealt with for years has come in large part from trying to fit into society's image of a successful person.
Our society values go-getters, leaders, the famous ones, the movers and shakers. Of course, we do need people like that. But why can't we also value the quiet ones, the thinkers, the creative minds who need time to sit alone and let their brains create? The people finding the cures for diseases, composing beautiful music, creating wonderful paintings, and writing the books that keep us turning the page are more often than not introverts.
So I graduated from high school and college ear-marked for success. But had I been successfully socialized? I guess that depends on how you analyze it. I had successfully found ways to participate in life with other people while protecting my need to be alone. But by society's standards I was not able to "get along" with others. I like being alone. I preferred it. I needed it. I had flunked socialization.
When I first entered the job market after college, I quickly discovered that being in an office full of people all day, just as being in a school full of people, was exhausting for me. The first job I held was as a receptionist for a radio station. I was on the phone or greeting people constantly. I didn't like it. In my next job as an editorial assistant in a publishing company, I had fewer people to deal with, but still quite a few to whom I answered. I found a job later on as an editor and writer that I loved. It worked well for a few years. Then I decided to become a freelance writer, which was the best job for me. I often see or talk with just one person at a time, rarely more than one a day. I see now that the jobs I held were all best for extroverts. I had been trying to fit into an extrovert world, to act and work as an extrovert. I had to learn that being an introvert could be good too. It took many years for me to accept this aspect of myself and be comfortable with it. With the end of every job, I felt like a failure. Now I see that society failed me, not the other way around.
I find myself as an adult still choosing activities which allow me to pursue my interests without having to be in large groups of people all at once. And when I do have to be in a large group, I come straight home for some time alone. I see my friends one at a time or in small clusters.
Both my husband and I have found work and leisure that allows us to remain the introverts we are. We like to entertain, but not large housefuls at once. We prefer intimate gatherings with a few friends. We have both chosen professions that give us plenty of time on our own. And the volunteer work we do is one-on-one, or small groups. We are most happy spending time alone with our family or by ourselves.
No, I have never learned how to "get along with others" very well. Yes, I am able to cooperate, negotiate, be kind, and think about others. I am quite capable of handling any social situation that comes up. But not because of the socialization I received in school. More in spite of it.
After learning that my first child is a strong introvert, I began to question what kind of socialization she would be getting in school. I sent her to preschool on the premise that she would learn to be social there. But she did not. She still worked on her own, in her own space. A colleague of my husband's commented on this by asking, "Don't you think she would get used to it after a while?" Well, I suppose one might "get used" to anything negative after a while. But to what end? Do we want to rob our children of their inborn introverted traits? I truly don't think it is possible to change one's natural tendency toward introversion or extroversion, so why try? It can only damage the child.
And besides, the world needs introverts, whether society is ready to recognize that or not.
I can't see sending our children into the world that is not ready to let them be themselves until they are at least old enough to have formed the self-esteem, confidence, and self-knowledge to answer the world, "I am an introvert and proud of it." My children, who are all introverts as far as I can tell, love to play with friends, go to lessons, and participate in sports. I think they are able to be socially acceptable because much of their time is spent in quiet at home, and their energy banks are full. They are not run down by a day full of people to the extent that they mistreat their family and friends out of stress and frustration. Their self-esteem is high. They will hold a conversation with anyone, adult or child. In fact, they often tell the check-out clerk in a store their whole life story before we get through the line.
When the topic of socialization comes up now, I have to think more about whether the kind of socialization being referred to is even relevant. As homeschoolers, I don't worry (never have) about whether my kids are experiencing enough involvement with other people, learning how to act appropriately, and learning social graces. They are without a doubt doing all of those things. I have to think more about whether they are getting enough time alone, time to restore their energy levels, time for thinking and creative pursuits.
That's what worries me most when I see so many school families whose kids are in every thing, everyday. I wonder how many of those children are introverts and how stressed and exhausted they must be. I worry about their self-esteem and their ability to function. None of us can act socially when we are run-down, stressed, and frustrated.
Let's learn to let introverts be themselves without emphasizing so much the time they spend with others. Life is about learning who we are and what our purpose might be here on this earth. All life exemplifies balance, including introverts and extroverts. Let's accept that balance and revel in it rather than reject it. There is a place for everyone where they can fit in, energize themselves, and feel comfortable.
© 1998, Neysa C.M. Jensen
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