Known to home educating parents as "The dreaded 'S' word" and is usually the first concern of somebody who knows very little about home education. Schools are assumed by society to fulfil two purposes - education and socialisation. When home educating parents are asked about the social aspect they usually give a standard answer along the lines "Our children have many friends", "Our children are in lots of clubs and societies", "Our children mix with all sorts of people of different ages". Whilst these answers may be factually correct, they obscure the real truth - their children are happy to be at home with their families most of the time.

People, on the whole, are naturally social creatures. If we allow children to develop in their own way, they will begin to relate to other people when they are ready. It is clearly obvious that children do need to meet people in order to be sociable, but most home educating parents are not isolated from society as a whole. A child is just as likely - if not more so - to be sociable with two or three people they meet at home than with a class of 30 children who just happen to be the same age as them.

Trying to force a child to be sociable before they are ready can cause lasting damage and insecurity to them. An increasing number of parents are realising this, despite a popular viewpoint which suggests that children should be thrown into communal environments such as nursery school as early as possible, in order to learn to get along with other children their own age and experience life without their parents. The concept that all children will suddenly become sociable when put into a group of perhaps 20 or 30 other children is frankly ludicrous. Children who are not naturally sociable are likely to find their shyness exacerbated by being in such a large group, and will often be less likely to want to join in subsequent sessions. A far better solution for such children is to introduce them to other children one at a time in their own homes until their confidence improves.

We should let children live in and be part of the real world, instead of effectively incarcerating them for their formative years. Children who attend school are separated from their family and natural community, and placed in unnatural social groupings according to age. This artificially devised distance between children and their siblings, their parents, and their communities, is one of the most serious socialisation problems in our society, yet it is accepted as the norm.

Effective socialisation means mixing with people from diverse backgrounds, occupations, and age groups. This is nearly impossible to achieve in a school environment where children are segregated by age and have very little interaction with other adults, except their teachers. Age segregated institutionalised education creates a culture where a high proportion of young people can relate easily to their "mates" of their own age, but have difficulty relating to people older than them by a few years. This situation has become more acute in recent years as an increasing proportion of young people go onto higher education and enter employment at a higher age than in the past.

Home educated children have the facility to interact with people of all ages in the community. They can meet people by visiting businesses, museums, galleries, public exhibitions, and by attending clubs and societies, religious services, and cultural events. There is also nothing to stop home educated children from joining a sports teams, or music and drama classes alongside children who attend school. The increase in popularity of home education in recent years has resulted in support groups springing up all over Britain, which enable home educated children to meet up with each other and participate in activities and outings. All in all, home education enables children to have a much richer and diverse socialisation experience than if they were confined to a school for the best part of each day. An additional advantage is that they have had the benefit of learning through conversation and close personal contact with people who work in the real world.

One of the saddest misconceptions about home education that most home educated children are some kind of introverted misfits who cannot relate to other people. In reality, most home educated children are not only outgoing, but polite and respectful, and can relate properly to both children and adults alike. This contrasts to a considerable proportion of school educated children who have difficulty relating to adults and whose behaviour is rude and inconsiderate.

In most careers one will be working alongside people aged from 16 to 65, and are expected to relate to these people professionally and courteously. Home educated children are likely to have the upper hand with these interpersonal skills than their school educated counterparts.

Home education is a godsend for children who have difficulties at school because of SEN that the school cannot address, and children who are constantly bullied or victimised. These children's experience of attending school is unhappy and traumatic. For children with certain types of SEN such Asperger syndrome, the enforced socialisation created by the school environment is actually part of the problem with school. They are more comfortable and happy when they can choose to socialise and when not to, and who they would like to spend their time with.

Recent research shows home educated children perform academically and socially above their schooled peers. This is especially so for home educated children from lower class backgrounds and economically downtrodden areas who are less likely to access the high ranking schools with the best support than children from more affluent backgrounds and areas.

A common misconception exists that children need to mix with large numbers of other children of similar age for long periods of time to develop proper social skills. However, it is of utmost importance that one does not confuse socialisation, social skills, and good manners as they are three completely different things. Good manners stem from how you think: a gentlemen is defined in the Concise Oxford Dictionary as a man who tries to make others comfortable and a lady is the female equivalent. Social skills are best defined as invisible rules required to assimilate into a particular community of people and gain their respect. These invisible rules are dependent upon particular situations and people you are dealing with, and they change when you move to a different community, but manners are universal.

Children initially learn social skills and expectations from their parents and those they see around them, so the most important thing parents can do is to model the kind of behaviour they would like to see themselves.

A high proportion of the social skills that children develop at schools are those required to fit in with the school culture and survive playground politics. They are often of no relevance or use for life as an adult both in the workplace and the community. To make matters worse, many of the social skills required for children to be popular with their peer group in the school playground are positively undesirable outside of school.

This situation leads to the next issue of peer pressure whereby children and teenagers adopt undesirable behaviour not for any true personal satisfaction, but purely for the sake of maintaining friendships and being popular. Children who attend school full time are surrounded by children of a similar age for most of the time. Therefore they look towards other children rather than adults for their main source of approval. In order to gain the approval of a group, it is necessary to conform to the behaviours and norms of that group.

This often culminates in children embracing obnoxious behaviour, or watching denigrating television programmes, whilst abandoning respectable and rewarding hobbies and interests just to be "cool" or even "normal" for that matter. Many good minds are ruined by this change of behaviour and activities.

Peer pressure brings conformity, not individuality - and it brings conformity in superficial or harmful ways. If children do not wear expensive designer clothes, own the flashiest consumer products, and follow the latest craze then they will lose respect from the peers and are likely to become victims of bullying. This can be very expensive for parents and provides children with a false view that they can "buy" respect and friendship simply by owning an expensive mobile phone or game console.

Peer pressure becomes a particularly insidious problem in the pre-teen and teenage years. When children go through periods of insecurity, or wanting to be part of the "in-crowd", they often adopt dangerous habits or conduct illegal activities in order to prove that they are "cool", or that they are not pandering to their parents. This is why so many teenagers turn to drugs, alcohol, smoking, underage sex, and crime. A potential exists that peer pressure associated with minor trivial matters will eventually spiral out to more serious issues in a similar way to that described in the following extract from a book about home education:

What became a symbol of his predicament was James's shirts. He hated to have his shirt untucked, but at school all the boys had their shirts hanging out of their pants. James was teased for having his shirt tucked in. Celia found herself telling him to leave his shirt out so he would visually blend in with the crowd and be less of a target. It dawned on her that if he compromised on a little thing like tucking in his shirt to get along, then what lesson was he learning about the bigger issues in life? Would he learn that he would have to give in on the issues of sex, alcohol, drugs, and poor behaviour in order to blend in? Would he suppress his talents and interests because they were unusual? Celia decided that being true to himself was the most important lesson James could learn.

Home educated children are not subject to peer pressure in the same way that children who attend school are. They are free to follow their own interests and form their own identities without the fear of being ostracised by the 'crowd'.

The article concludes with two very fitting quotations.

M. Csikszentmihalyi (1992) writes of the purpose of school socialisation as "The essence of socialisation is to make people dependent on social controls, to have them respond predictably to rewards and punishment. And the most effective form of socialisation is achieved when people identify so thoroughly with the social order that they no longer can imagine themselves breaking any of its rules".

Modern ideas about school friends differ from the sentiments expressed by the Earl of Chesterfield in his famous letters to his son in the 1700s:

"The friendship which you may contract with people of your own age, may be sincere, may be warm; but must be for some time reciprocally unprofitable, as there can be no experience on either side".

"The young leading the young, is like the blind leading the blind; 'they will both fall into the ditch'. The only sure guide is he who has often gone the road which you want to go. Let me be that guide, who have gone all roads, and who can consequently point out to you the best".

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