Sunday, December 30, 2007

Vertical vs. Horizontal Socialization

I've been tossing some ideas around on socialization--that one topic that causes the most heated arguments between supporters and critics of homeschooling.

Most of the time, when an argument breaks out on this topic, the two sides start talking right past each other. Socialization is of course a complicated topic with many aspects. In fact, the very term itself has multiple definitions, so it's really not that hard for one person to say something, and to have his listeners completely miss his meaning--since he was operating on a different definition than they were.

But I think that most of the arguments regarding socialization revolve around two of its critical aspects. The first of these aspects is the concept that it is through interactions with others that we learn necessary social skills. This is the aspect that critics of homeschooling allude to when they charge that homeschooled children are at risk of improper or incomplete socialization. The argument typically goes like: "If you're not having your children interact with lots of other people from other walks of life, they won't learn how to function in the real world! When they grow up and move away, they'll find themselves bewildered at all the new social settings that they weren't exposed to as children, as they would have been in the schools." Of course, this argument has caused many a homeschooler to bristle and retort:
Quit interrupting my kid at her dance lesson, scout meeting, choir practice, baseball game, art class, field trip, park day, music class, 4H club, or soccer lesson to ask her if as a homeschooler she ever gets to socialize.
Homeschoolers will occasionally argue back by referring to the second of these aspects: it is a well-observed phenomenon that we tend to become like the people we spend time with. If we spend time around a group of people, we tend to learn pretty quickly what they will find funny, and even start to enjoy the humor. We tend to learn pretty quickly what is considered socially acceptable or unacceptable in this circle, and often absorb these views ourselves. This is such an old observation that it shows up numerous places in the Bible, generally accompanied with warnings to select our companions carefully. (The book of Proverbs is filled with such warnings.) Homeschoolers occasionally make the argument that the social environment of the typical school does not make it easy for young, impressionable students to seek out and find companions of high moral character. But this argument, in turn, causes advocates of the Public Schools (in particular) to bristle and level all kinds of countercharges which are beyond the scope of this particular essay.


I'd like to take a look, though, at the ramifications of this second aspect of socialization, because I think these ramifications have huge consequences for our society--not just among school-age children.

Let's set up a thought experiment. We'll compare and contrast two people. The first is a forty-year old man, who's been happily married for twelve years with three kids ages eight and under, and who's well-established in a stable career. The second is a seventeen-year-old boy. Now, we can say right away that these two are likely to see the world quite differently, simply by virtue of the fact that the forty-year-old has much more life experience than the teenager.

For example, consider the way these two think about love, romance, and sex. The forty-year-old, being a man and all, is going to think about sex a lot; but he's going to think about it somewhat differently than the seventeen-year-old will. He's likely to have made more mistakes in his life. He's more likely to have had his heart broken a few times--and he's more likely to have broken other people's hearts, sometimes by accident. And the forty-year-old, by virtue of the fact that he's still happily married after twelve years of marriage, has likely figured out how to keep some discipline over his feelings and impulses--more than one would typically expect of a seventeen-year-old. The seventeen-year-old, in contrast, is a lot less experienced. He may have had some girlfriends, but his views regarding love, romance, and sex are likely a whole lot less mature than those of the forty-year-old. His views of the opposite sex and relations therewith are still more based on juvenile fantasy than experience. Odds are he's still got a lot of mistakes ahead of him before he figures it out.

And this is by no means true only regarding their views of love, romance, and sex. There's a good chance that the forty-year-old will have a more mature understanding of responsibility, of work, of children, of money, of education, of health, and of risk. Now, it's nothing the seventeen-year-old won't learn over time as the harsh lessons of life come crashing in on him; but the forty-year-old has been around long enough to understand something about all of these from first-hand-experience.

The next step in our thought experiment is to take two such seventeen-year-olds and immerse them in completely different social environments. One youth is growing up primarily around other adults, like this forty-year-old man. He's forming meaningful relationships with a lot of them. We'll say he's managed to land an apprenticeship at a local machinist's shop, where he's learning both how to run the machines and fabricate parts, and a little about how to keep the books; we'll say he's been spending time with Habitat for Humanity; we'll say he's been singing in the local community chorus. Although this youth does spend a little time around other similarly-aged youths, it's only a little time; most of his time is spent in the company of adults. (I recognize that this is not the way we generally socialize kids in our society today, which is part of my point later on. Stay with me here.)

The second of these seventeen-year-olds follows a much more standard life-path: being in a regular school setting, he's around other seventeen-year-olds much of his time. He attends a typical school, which is in session for six-and-a-half hours; in addition, he's involved in some sports and other extra-curricular activities that have him around other seventeen-year-olds an extra hour or two each day. At his church, he's involved in the youth group, which has him around other teenagers for a few extra hours each week. And none of this counts the hanging-out time that most teens like to do with their friends. When you add up all this time, it's not unusual for this youth to be around other late-teenagers for half his waking hours or more. And of the rest of his time, not all of that is quality time spent in the company of adults--a big chunk is going to be spent doing homework, or watching TV....

Now, let's revisit the principle that we tend to become like the people we hang around with. Let's assume this principle is true, apply it to these above two examples, and see what happens.

The first of these youths is being socialized by adults, in the adult world. He is immersed in an environment where adult attitudes prevail on the aforementioned topics of love, romance, sex, responsibility, work, children, money, education, health, and risk. Being in this environment, he gets to see first hand just where all these mature attitudes come from. If our principle is correct, this youth will begin to pick up these mature attitudes, even at the tender young age of seventeen. His constant exposure to these attitudes, in natural settings where these attitudes make sense, will socialize him into thinking that these attitudes are normal.

The second of these youths is being socialized primarily by other seventeen-year-olds, who have views regarding
love, romance, sex, responsibility, work, children, money, education, health, and risk typical of modern seventeen-year-olds. Being around other seventeen-year-olds all the time, it's likely that the immature views on any of these topics held by one youth in this group are held by many of them, so such views will be mutually reinforced within the group. Furthermore, it's not unlikely that a sense of generational solidarity will begin to form--something along the lines of a previous generation's "Don't trust anyone over thirty"--that will tend to see any attempt to pass on grown-up attitudes and virtues as unwelcome preaching.

I grant that every generality has exceptions; All told, however, I think it's pretty likely that the first of these youths is much more likely to start thinking like a man, and be ready to take on adult responsibilities at much younger ages, than the second of these youths.

Now, eventually adult values and attitudes do start seeping in regardless of how one is socialized, but in lots of cases it has to happen the hard way. Eventually the seventeen-year-olds will graduate, and some will go on to college, and some will find jobs; and some of them will lose the jobs, and wreck their relationships, and eventually... eventually will begin to discover just why it is that those adult attitudes existed in the first place. Mark Twain said it best:
When I was a boy of 14, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be 21, I was astonished at how much the old man had learned in seven years.
Of course, by this time, the next cohort of seventeen-year-olds won't want to hear it either.


So to explain the title of this post: I call it Vertical Socialization when a youth is raised primarily in the presence of adults who are doing adult things--working, raising children, involving themselves in community and political life, and so forth. This is not primarily the way we raise our kids these days. I call it Horizontal Socialization when a youth is raised primarily in the presence of other youths of similar age, segregated enough from the adult world that a separate youth culture can develop, with its own separate worldview. For better or worse, this is the way that our society has been raising its kids for the last century or so (although things were a bit different before then).

And no, it's not just in the schools that we see this kind of age-segregation. After all, most churches beyond a certain size these days tend to split out the kids into age-graded classes, too; and they split out the junior high-age kids into their own group; and the high-school-age youth into their own group; and the college-age and young professionals into another separate group; and the seniors into their own group; and on, and on.

(Not to mention the fact that we've driven our kids almost entirely out of the working world, which I happen to think isn't a particularly good idea. That's waaaay too much for this essay, however; so if you want to see some more ideas on this front, I'd point you to John Taylor Gatto's book The Underground History of American Education, first chapter. This book is a little too screed-y for my taste, but it does provide much food for thought.)

And the fact is, most people prefer it this way. We all like being around those people who are going through the same things we are. I'm in a family with really young kids; it's fun to hang out with other families with really young kids, because we all have something in common. We can swap stories, and swap ideas, and compare notes. It's not as easy for us to find common ground with those who have yet to get married or start families, or with those who're retired and planning on getting an RV and traveling the country. It's a whole lot more work to find points of common interest with people of different life stages.


But there are consequences. It should be obvious by this point that there's a serious weakness to the Horizontal Socialization model, especially when it is adopted on a society-wide scale. The weakness, simply put, is that it damages the ability of people--individually, and as a society--to pass their values on to the next generation. You may want your child to grow up to be trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, etc., but you aren't the only one socializing your children--and this is true whichever of the socialization models is in use. And if the others who are also socializing your children have values that conflict with yours, well... then you've got some competition. But in the Vertical Socialization model, there's a better chance that the other people who are socializing your kid at least have mature outlooks, too. In the Horizontal Socialization model, your children are being socialized by people who are just as immature as they are.

As I said, on a society-wide scale, this can become a big problem. The trouble is that the values that define our worldview, that make us who and what we are, have to be transmitted from one generation to the next, or they get lost. Do you want America to be a peaceful nation? A just nation? A free nation? A good nation? Many nations aren't; these things don't happen by accident. To the extent that America is any of these things, it is because of the values instilled in the population. After all, We the People create the kind of society that we live in. But if we fail to pass on our values regarding Justice, and Responsibility, and Liberty, the aforementioned national virtues can eventually be lost. (Along these lines, I highly recommend this (very long) essay by Lee Harris that talks about the intergenerational transfer of values and traditions in the context of various contemporary social debates.)

And in embracing Horizontal Socialization, we have in fact selected a socialization model that damages our ability to pass our values on. It results in cultural drift, so to speak--no one's driving this train. I think, looking at the tremendous change in societal values that has changed over the last century--not just in America, but in Europe and much of Asia as well--that we've got plenty of evidence on hand of the kind of cultural drift that occurs when you raise the next generation in an age-segregated culture. When a system of Horizontal Socialization is first instituted, things go well for a generation or so, as most (but not all) children receive their enculturation from other outside sources (family, church, scouts, other institutions of civil society). But a little at a time, an increasing number of these children make it into the adult world without having been ingrained with the mature values of their elders. The presence of these people in the adult world tends to weaken the aforementioned outside sources of enculturation, meaning that each succeeding generation gets less and less of the older, more mature values, until a tipping point is reached and society throws the whole set of values out the window. In our society, this tipping point happened early in the 1960's; but there were plenty of signs that things were heading in that direction for at least a generation before that.


One last observation: there is a temptation in the religious community to try to create parallel social structures--that is, Christian schools, and Christian social settings, in which their kids can be raised and socialized, where they won't be continually bombarded with objectionable values. These social structures are just like the ones in the broader society, only populated with and run by Christians. But if my above assessment is correct, this effort is doomed. The problem is that these structures themselves are what is hindering the transmission of mature values. They incorporate the same age-segregation as the rest of society, and this is what causes a youth culture to develop that is resistant to adult enculturation. (I seem to remember reading recently that Jamie Lynn Spears got pregnant while attending an overnight Bible Study, of all things.)


So now what? My wife and I--and I suspect a good chunk of the homeschooling community is pulling in this direction--have decided to try to institute Vertical Socialization as we raise our children. We recognize that doing so is very counter-cultural, but it's occasionally worth it to tilt at windmills. I'm enheartened by the fact that we're not the only ones thinking along these lines--I only came up with the thoughts that became this essay after absorbing and digesting the writings of many others in the homeschooling community for some time.

So we're under no illusions about this being easy or anything. As I mentioned before, people do tend to prefer the company of those in their own life stage. One can't just throw a bunch of seniors and a bunch of teenagers together in a room and expect puppies to start blooming, or whatever. It may not be easy to find enough adults who are willing to form close relationships with the young'uns (although it's probably easier in a good church, like ours, than it is elsewhere).

And for that matter, it means we have to start pushing against the cultural trend--even in our church, which may be the hardest part of the job. No, we're not under any illusions about whether this is an easy path we've set ourselves upon.

But we do think it'll be worth the work.


Sarah said...

Really good post. One thing that you might consider, too, is that in a vertical world, the 17-year-old is not only interacting with the 40-year-old, but also with the 6-year-old. I think this adds another dimension even--the ability to jump from one level to another. I think this is a tremendous skill that is vital in the "real" world. And one that is lost with horizontal socialization.

Timothy Power said...

Yeah, I neglected to mention that point in my post--good catch. I've seen some seventeen-year-olds at our church--both boys and girls--who are great with children. I see their interactions as a very good thing--both for the seventeen-year-olds (who are learning how to be gentle, patient, nurturing and supportive), but also for the six-year-olds, who are learning how to interact meaningfully with older people.

We have managed to convince ourselves as a society that it's somehow improper--even dangerous--for kids of different ages like this to interact; and given that we've age-segregated everyone for so long, it may actually have become dangerous in some circumstances. But I certainly don't think it's inevitable, if people are socialized "vertically" from the beginning.

timeless said...

Excellent post! I learned a lot, and you express both sides eloquently. The "Big Picture" however must examine ALL the "independent variables"...successes on both sides. You may have one, or even two kids in a family who thrive being homeschooled, and then a third child whose "personality" just doesn't cotton to the same method. What do you do then? The provision of an education that creates responsible, productive adults depends on SO many variables...the experience of the teachers and the recognition that each child is a separate human being who deserves MORE than just being "programmed" in some generic, middle-of-the-road" education that teaches the "test" instead of the real education needed which prepares all children to think critically, to be responsible and accountable, and to appreciate the concept that "education" never ends - it should continue throughout ones lifetime! Teaching children to hunger and thirst for learning that extends well into adulthood is the ultimate! Anymore, these days, public education fails in this regard. And "education" that produces young people to respect others, to be tolerant, to learn self-discipline, and to embrace a steller set of values starts as soon as a child can understand speech and words! Education starts at home...and perhaps "home" is where it needs to stay in this day and age. (Unfortunately, not ALL parents are properly educated, much less motivated, themselves to provide even the basics! And "horizontal socialization" can be good and bad, depending on, again, multiple variables. There's just no "black and white" here...but children DO suffer,in the long run, MORE from this than not.

What are you going to do if your son, "Happy BAby", grows up to be a straping, fit athletic young man who WANTS to participate in football, or baseball, etc...and is indeed talented in this regard? I guess what I'm trying to say is that a parent's responsibility is to provide what any given child NEEDS to excell in life, and it's YOUR job to figure this out, early on, in order to maximize that child's talents, and STILL prepare them for adulthood in regards to their character!

Anonymous said...

Great article, I liked your analogy of 17 vs. 40.
For anyone who needs help with this issue, the reply I always use when I am negatively questioned about socialization is, "Gee, I am not a socialist. Besides, I think Abraham Lincoln did alright." People are usually too dumbfounded by the pun and cannot argue about Lincoln's sucesses. As you can tell I am really tired of that question.

KayPelham said...

Thank you for this post and I'm glad that you addressed how the age-separation goes on in churches too.

I do have one question. "Screedy"?

Kay Pelham

Timothy Power said...

Sorry. "Screed-y" probably isn't a word. A "screed", according to Merriam-Webster, is (among other things) "a ranting piece of writing." I was turning this noun into a verb, to describe that the book has a few ranting qualities about it. I still recommend it, though; as I said, there's much food for thought there.

KayPelham said...

Got it! Thanks. Silly me found no results at google for "screedy". Didn't think about "screed". Maybe I'm just not qualified to homeschool. Wrong!

Concerning age segregation in churches --- I have a friend with 3 children now in their 20s. They began homeschooling them somewhere around middle school and junior high. In a conversation with the mother about them making that choice at that time, she said to me, "You know, Kay, more important then getting them out of public school was getting them out of youth group." The father was full-time ministry on staff with a church at the time they pulled out of public school and "youth group".

Timothy Power said...

That's OK. I just realized that in my previous comment, I said I was changing a noun into a verb--when I should have said I was changing a noun into an adjective. Maybe I'm just not qualified to homeschool, either.