Parents considering long-term family travel, as well as those already world schooling, face the following question.
Will my child, educated outside my home culture, have sufficient opportunity for socialization?
In this post we will consider what socialization is and debunk many of the assumptions behind it.
The purpose of this post is to start a discussion. After you read this article, I am hoping you will weigh-in with your thoughts.
This post is only part of the discussion. Make sure to read another perspective on socialization written by my friend, Nancy, over at Family on Bikes. Nancy has been a public school teacher for 21 years and has authored five books. While her twin sons were babies, she and her husband raised them while teaching in places like Ethiopia, Taiwan, and Malaysia. Seven years ago, she and her family took an amazing bike tour from Alaska to Argentina.
Nancy believes that world travel is beneficial for a time. After a year or so, however, she thinks parents need to consider staying put for the sake of socialization. She believes that full-time, long-term travel may prevent kids from developing deep relationships with other kids their own age.
Brent and I disagree with the commonly held assumption that children need to spend extended time with peers in order to fully develop. Rather, we believe that socialization is the natural outcome of healthy family life. By contrast, an unnatural form of socialization occurs in the traditional classroom setting.
Brent and I believe that family travel provides every opportunity for a child to be prepared for adulthood without ever stepping foot into a classroom. In our home, we often say, “We are not raising children, we are raising adults.” As parents, we must be ever mindful of that.
As a result of some of our private chatting, Nancy and I have decided to go public with this discussion on socialization. We invite you to read this article and leave your comments here. Then, go over and read Nancy’s perspective.
Merriam Webster’s Medical Dictionary provides the following definition of socialization.
The process by which a human being beginning at infancy acquires the habits, beliefs, and accumulated knowledge of society through education and training for adult status.
Every parent wants to have an emotionally well-adjusted child that is able to interact socially. What parent wants to knowingly raise a socially backward child that is uncomfortable interacting with others? For parents raising children overseas, the fear is often compounded by the unknown.
To allay these fears, parents may turn to traditional schooling (boarding, public or private) where the educational opportunities will presumably allow “normal” socialization.
In this article, we will also demonstrate that travel outside of a family’s home culture can provide and broaden authentic socialization opportunities in a non-classroom setting.
Most Americans of this past century have been the subjects of a massive, largely unquestioned social experiment: compulsory government-subsidized education. At its inception, efficiency was one of the great values. The one-room schoolhouse, with multiple ages and development levels interacting, was seen as hopelessly inefficient.
Spearheading the streamlining effort were great industrialists like Henry Ford (whose view of education could best be summarized by his own words: “History is bunk”). Independently-thinking, creative or artistic students would not function best on the Model T assembly line. Branded with grade levels, the masses could be herded through the system and fit into the gleaming vision of a mechanized society.
Around this same time, William Torrey Harris, US Commissioner of Education from 1889 to 1906, expressed the vision of socialization in his Philosophy of Education (1889)
Ninety-nine [students] out of a hundred are automata, careful to walk in prescribed paths, careful to follow the prescribed custom. This is not an accident but the result of substantial education, which, scientifically defined, is the subsumption of the individual.
From its outset, the vision of American public education (and due to its influence, classroom education worldwide) is not to develop the individual student socially but to “subsume” him into society.
Over a century of this vision has played across the educational landscape. As a result, two great assumptions have become a part of American educational life.
Other than the classroom, where else in the universe do people stay strictly age-segregated?
Three generations of public educated Americans have been primarily socialized among peers. Even after graduation, we age-segregated Americans have a penchant for generational label-making: boomers, busters, gen-x, and so forth.
US culture is stifling inter-generational interaction. Where are the grandmothers who are content to pass down heirloom recipes and traditions? Where are the young men who look to grandfathers to teach them a trade? Industrialization has wiped out the vital role senior adults once had in the US culture.
When we remove the family as the primary hub of socialization and instead cram children or teens into a classroom setting, the overwhelming influence becomes age-similar peers. The child in that setting will often have a void in knowing how to interact with those outside his age-range. How many eighth grade boys do you know that can change a diaper? How many are comfortable sitting and listening to the instruction of an 85 year-old elder? This “generation gap”, formerly considered a blight on society, is unquestionably accepted.
The family predates the machinery of Ford and Harris by millennia. In a pre-industrial age, education took place naturally at the table and workbench. Father, mother and siblings worked, learned and grew together. The values of thrift, honesty and hospitality were learned at the family table.
For world-schoolers, the family table is still the hub of socialization whether that means eating street food under palm fronds, tossing a blanket down on the white Caribbean sands or picnicking at a zoo in Mexico. The immature school cafeteria banter between provincial peers, is eclipsed by the enduring interactions at the table of a traveling family.
Infant socialization begins in the womb as mother talks to baby. After birth, baby learns to trust at his mother’s breast. As mother and child spend hours nursing together, authentic socialization happens. Baby emerges a confident, nurtured and trusting person. He learns that his needs will be met. He senses that he is valued and cherished. That lifelong lesson accompanies him into adulthood.
I realize that not all mothers choose to breastfeed for many reasons. Those of you who do, however, will find an even greater acceptance and normalcy in nursing while you travel through developing countries. I love how women in southeast Asia and Latin American just nurse wherever and whenever.
Socialization and Siblings Building on the foundation of secure infancy, lifelong friendships start at home. This is one of the unfortunate losses of age-graded education. When children spend most of their day with peers, they often lose the ability to spend time with younger siblings.
It is a priceless treasure to raise siblings who will be genuine friends for life. When there are siblings, socialization has portability. That is, socialization happens in our backyard, whether that backyard is a Mexican beach on the Pacific or the playground of a busy Manila suburb. I love how world travel has allowed our children to deepen the relationships they have with their siblings.
Side Note on Size Our own family has nine children, five biologically and four by adoption. We are thankful that our children have multi-age peers wherever we travel. We joke that our family has built-in birthday guests. We believe that children in large-sized families have an advantage in being able to interact with multiple age ranges.
That said, even one other sibling provides a significant base for “portable” socialization. Expatriate parents with only one child may need to be more intentional to provide opportunities for their child to learn certain values (e.g. sharing, resolving conflict, etc.).
Bridging the “Generation Gap” Age-segregated, classroom-based socialization is no match for the opportunities found in full-time, long-term, world travel. I will never forget watching my pre-pubescent daughter learning fiber arts in a roomful of international ladies at least 50 years her senior. The discussion turned to menopause. Over their looms, the ladies laughed and chatted. As our daughter learned to weave, she listened to ladies from diverse backgrounds talk openly and comfortably about their bodies in the most humorous and natural way.
Would you rather your daughter have her first gleaning of female sex education in the open context of mothers and grandmothers? Or, would you choose the plastic environment of an eighth grade classroom (or worse yet, a fifth grade playground) where young girls taunt and teach what they think they know?
Industrialization and its handmaiden, compulsory education, efficiently removed the functions of income generation and education from the home. Age-segregated groups appeared in all parts of American society. Peer-to-peer groups like sports teams, clubs and church groups often tear away at the fiber of family, vying for attention. Is it any wonder that family dysfunction in the 20th century should increase when socialization was placed in the hands of professionals?
Although Nancy values world travel, she believes that long-term world travelers need to seriously reconsider socialization. I believe that parents sending their children to traditional classrooms need to seriously consider the outcome of their children “acquiring the habits” or “accumulating the knowledge of society” through age-similar peers. Even homeschooled families can fall prey to the myth of socialization by constantly hunting out peer-based groups.
Traditional schooling worldwide has children spending the vast majority of their childhood (and the best hours of their days) not only sequestered in a classroom but also shaped by their peers. Yahoo news recently ran an article on the humorous way an eleven year-old boyfriend / girlfriend ”couple” broke up through texting. The innocence of childhood is lost when the child’s focus becomes peer-focused. Early on, children become accustomed to the breaking up-making up cycle. This apparently, we are told, is the ”process of friendship.”
A fish is the last creature you want to ask about water. The average Britisher watching BBC probably has a better grasp on US partisan politics than the average American CNN viewer. The reason? The words “too close to the situation” come to mind. In other words, the Frenchman knows not Paris until he lives in London.
Travel, the Fulcrum of Culture Archimedes asserted that he could move the world with a lever of adequate length. Likewise, as parents, we give our children that Archimedean point when we provide cultural distance and diversity. While they may not share the narrower perspective of their home bound peers, the wisest of those peers will ask them for their more globally informed opinion.
We all have blind spots, conditioned by our socio-economic, ethnic and linguistic background. Traveling with our children—and seizing the cross-cultural learning opportunities–opens horizons that a mono-cultural, peer-conditioned child could not begin to grasp. These opportunities include the ability to interact with people from other cultures or socioeconomic backgrounds.
On our last visit to the US, we met several Americans who had nothing but grim pictures of Mexico to offer us. In their eyes, we were unfit parents to bring our children into Mexico. Of course, they had never been to Mexico. Our traveling children were able to see through the naive ethnocentricity of those statements.
Travel, the Family-building Tool Every hour we spend as a traveling family– seeing new places, daring to go on adventures, struggling to leave our comfort zones, and tasting new foods—is an hour invested. We are not ticking off the hours for an educational bureaucrat or home school evaluator. Rather, the challenges we face in travel help forge relational bonds, bonds that exceed largely temporary, classroom-based socialization.
For those who feel most at home in the traditional classroom setting, here are a couple multiple- choice exam questions
1. Choose the child most likely to befriend the child of Japanese descent.
(a) the public schooled child that just finished a unit on World War II in the Pacific
(b) the world schooled child that both biked around Mount Fuji and visited the war memorial at Pearl Harbor.
2. Which child would be most likely to treat a Mexican immigrant with respect and fairness?
(a) the Texas 10th grader who watched NBC’s footage of Mexican border violence and recounted it among his peers at lunch hour?
(b) Or the Pennsylvania 15 year-old that learned to paint from 69 year-old Mexican master muralist living peacefully in the interior?
John Taylor Gatto taught in the New York City Public School system for thirty years. As a teacher of the year, he is eminently qualified to speak on the subject of education. For anyone contemplating sending their child to school in the interest of “socialization”, his books are a must read. The titles alone betray the heart behind this innovative educator.
The Underground History of American Education (2006), Weapons of Mass Instruction: A Schoolteacher’s Journey Through the Dark World of Compulsory Schooling (2010), and Dumbing Us Down: The Hidden Curriculum of Compulsory Schooling (1991)
In a recent post on his blog, Gatto responded to a mother that was wanting to rekindle a desire to learn in her three traditionally schooled children. She bemoaned the fact that she had “trusted the system” to do so. Although Gatto is addressing the issue of “rekindling curiosity”, the answer is equally relevant to socialization.
Mr. Gatto, even in the context of a New York City Public school, used travel and exploration to motivate learning and growing. He states,
“How much more can a parent, unencumbered by the limitations of culture and location, seize the adventurous opportunities that arise for her child?”
Authentic socialization is listening to those that are older and wiser. Jan is a friend we met in Mexico. She is in her seventies. She has devoted her life to the study of Alaskan tribal groups. Throughout life, she learned basketry and other woven arts.
After teaching adults in Mexico for many years, her skilled hands imparted that wisdom to our daughter. As our Hannah learned to weave a basket, Jan shared years of business experience as well, sparking thoughts of entrepreneurship in my eleven year old.
Javier Zaragoza is in his late 60s and is a respected artist. His realist murals adorn walls throughout the area, including a massive mural chronicling the 450-year history of Chapala, Mexico. In his quiet art studio, he taught our son to paint.
While he teaches, Javier gives his philosophy on realistic art and how it reflects the created order. This man, for a season, gave up his dream to pursue the dollar. Now, in the winter of his life, he cautions our Josiah against doing the same. He tells him how fleeting money is and how priceless it is to follow your own dreams. He believes in Josiah; Javier teaches him to believe in himself. Two years later, Javier Zaragoza remains an important figure in Josiah’s upbringing.
Authentic socialization is befriending–even for an afternoon–young girls who eat only tortillas for breakfast and lunch. It’s helping them chase a chicken out of their home (a concrete shelter) and seeing the rain drip through the roof. It’s going through your small backpack hunting for some small gift to leave them. Although these girls may not become lifelong friends, the lessons they teach will be life-transforming.
Authentic socialization is working, side-by-side Whether slinging concrete, running wiring, or hanging drywall, the twenty year-olds warmly welcomed the help and companionship of our fourteen year-old son. With his father beside him, he experienced the joy of sweat and of serving others. How can a classroom compete with that?
The Amish pictured here attend school through eighth grade. However, with their one-room schoolhouses and sibling interaction in large families, Amish youth are well accustomed to interaction among various ages.
Authentic socialization is communicating, even by long distance
Of course, many of us have relationships that last a few moments on a Sunday morning, a friend we know only through a mutual interest. We all long to have those lifelong friends. The ones that– as my grandmother reminded me–can only be counted on one hand. If you have a lifelong friend–one who keeps the door open in every season of life–you are indeed fortunate.
We all want that for our children. Many worry that children who travel with miss out on deeper friendships. Travel need not compete with lifelong friendships. E-mail, social media and Skype, all help maintain the open door of friendship across the miles.
This is a picture of our Hannah and her best friend Kaitlin. These girls have been friends as long as they can remember. They send each other little gifts, write often and enjoy those special moments when we get back to the US. Our Hadassah and Damaris are their little sisters; Hadassah has several handmade cards from Damaris. Our Jeremiah and Josiah were born just three weeks apart. Although they are young, they have already exchanged gifts, remember eating grapes in the backyard and anticipate playing on the miniature pony together.
These are friendships that continue to be nurtured. As parents, we encourage them to lay good foundations for friendships that last into adulthood. Time and distance have a way of weeding out short-lived (or superficial) friendships.
Travel does not eliminate lasting friendships, it broadens them. Real friends stay friends through the physical separation.
Yes, there are soccer matches in Mexico and horseback riding and fishing in Belize with friends. Josiah has been traveling for the past two years with some fishing tackle he purchased in the US to give his buddy in Belize. Here and elsewhere, our children have opportunity to develop out-of-family peer relationships.
Those peer-to-peer opportunities are treasured; some go deeper while others will only be in what Nancy calls the ”honeymoon” stage. Is this not true even for us as adults?
In travel, I constantly meet new people. Some, like my friend Beverly whom I met in a campground a few years ago, remain close to this day. Others have eaten at our table, but I can’t remember their names. It’s all a part of the ebb and flow of life.
Social media is a valuable tool for keeping up with the happenings of friends back home. I love that my childhood best friend and I can stay so closely connected thanks to Facebook. Josiah and Hannah each have friends who keep up with them through e-mail.
The last four words of the definition disclose the critical focus of the discussion. Every parent, consciously or unconsciously, chooses the socializing vision of the industrialist or the family.
The Industrialist Vision was to socialize individuals into a particular society. Education in an age-segregated classroom would accomplish this most efficiently, passing on the habits and beliefs and accumulated knowledge of a society.
The Family Vision is to educate and trains the individual child for adulthood. Parents have the power to pass on the habits and beliefs that will enable his child to think and act like adults, without being overly peer-influenced.
Such a vision creates adults willing to take a stand for what is right, honorable and compassionate. We are raising adults. We want our children to be free to think, to create, to learn from multiple ethnicities, and cultures without being overly peer-influenced.
Considering world travel? Go for it. Authentic socialization through language learning, trying new foods, and learning from new cultures will set an amazing course for your child. Go as far as you can, as long as you can. The experiences your child will gain will be wide enough to embrace a world of diversity and yet deep enough to set a firm foundation for adulthood.
Don’ forget to hop over to Nancy’s post to read another perspective. While you are over there, check out her books.
We would love to hear from you. Please Leave Us a Comment. Is there something else I should have included? Let me know.