Imagine a world in which you are forced to spend six hours a day, five days a week, for ten months, with just a couple of weeks off, in a room full of twelve-year-olds. Imagine that you are expected to interact “appropriately” with those twelve-year-olds, and if you don’t, you are seen as someone lacking social skills..
Imagine that you had tried to interact with the twelve-year-olds, but they didn’t get your jokes. They weren’t interested in the issues that you find compelling. In fact, half of the time, they had little idea of what you were even talking about.
You decide that you will be happier if you stop trying. The room leader notices that you have withdrawn, and decides that you might need some counseling. Of course, counseling may not be necessary, but one thing is certain: you need to spend more time with those twelve-year-olds. Eventually, you’ll become mature enough to get along with them.
No one seems to care that outside of that room, you have absolutely no problem interacting with your true peers – other adults. In fact, you have some good friends and get along with them quite well.
Welcome to the world of many highly gifted children in public school. Compounding the problem is the fact the academic environment is often not sufficiently challenging, which can lead to other behavior problems, which are also seen as signs of immaturity. To provide a more challenging environment for their children, many parents choose to homeschool, but face strong criticism and opposition from others due to the widespread belief that homeschooling does not provide sufficient opportunities for socialization.
What Does Socialization Mean?
We all think we know what “socialization” means, but different people have different meanings in mind when they refer to socialization. Richard Medlin (2000) explains these different meanings:
“Some people mean social activity: giving children the chance to play with friends and participate in traditional extracurricular activities like sports, school plays, and the senior prom. Others mean social influence: teaching children to conform to majority norms. And some mean social exposure: introducing children to the culture and values of different groups of people” (p. 107).
However, Kevin Durkin (1995) explains socialization as “the process whereby people acquire the rules of behavior and systems of beliefs and attitudes that equip a person to function effectively as members of a particular society” (p. 614). More simply put, it is through the socialization process that we learn how to be a functioning member of society. To be a functioning member of society, we need to learn how to behave, how to interact with others in society, and we need to learn the acceptable beliefs and attitudes of the society.
The popular view today is that children cannot be properly socialized unless they attend school and that homeschooling can harm the socialization process of children. However, not only is that view wrong, the exact opposite is true for many gifted children. It is the public school experience that can harm them.
Homeschooled Children Do Not Lack Social Skills
School officials seem to believe that the only way children can be properly socialized is by attending school, where they can be taught social skills along with other children of the same age. That means that homeschooled children cannot possibly learn proper social skills, which explains the negative attitudes school officials have toward homeschooling. Medlin (2000) describes some of these negative attitudes held by both school psychologists and superintendents as discovered by the American Psychological Association and a survey of public school superintendents respectively:
“…homeschooled children may be unable to get along with others and may experience difficulty entering ‘mainstream life.’ Home-schooled children, [the psychologists] said, ‘only hear their parents’ philosophies and have little chance to form their own views,’ whereas conventional schools teach ‘what society as a whole values.’ Home schooling shelters children from society, they suggested, but traditional schools ensure that children will grow up to be ‘complete people’ by teaching key social skills such as cooperation, respect for others, and self-control’ (p. 108).
“…home schoolers ‘don’t want any influence other than parents’ in their children’s lives, believe ‘communities at large are evil,’ and ‘want to ensure their children’s ignorance’. The parents ‘have real emotional problems themselves, one superintendent asserted, and do not realize ‘the serious harm they are doing to their children in the long run, educationally and socially’” (p. 109).
Critics of homeschooling like those school psychologists and superintendents never explain how people have managed to become properly socialized for hundreds, if not thousands, of years when children didn’t go to school. Did all humans before mandatory public education never learn how to behave? Never learn how to interact with others? Never learn the beliefs and values of their society?
Leave that irrational idea aside. The negative views toward the issue of socialization and homeschooling are not supported by evidence. In his review of over a decade’s worth of studies, Medlin found that homeschoolers have not only learned social skills, they also rated better in some areas than their peers who attended public school.
Homeschooling is far from an isolating experience. Medlin found that homeschoolers participate in a variety of social activities within their communities and those activities tend to involve a wider variety of people. The type of interaction homeschoolers engage in is much more like a real-world experience than is the experience of the public school child. Rather than being restricted to interactions with age mates and teachers, homeschoolers interact with people of all ages and from different walks of life.
In addition, Medlin found that homeschooled children not only learn how to behave appropriately, they also develop a healthy self-esteem. In fact, the research suggests that they are far from worse off as a result of being homeschooled. They are most likely better off. They have fewer behavior problems than do public school children, are more socially mature, and have better leadership skills.
Segregating Children by Age Creates Socialization Problems for Gifted Children
The socialization issue is compounded by the fact that school officials tend to see socialization in a more restrictive way than the definition used by sociologists. School officials tend to believe socialization is the process by which children learn to interact appropriately with other children of the same age. At no other time in our lives are our social skills defined by how we interact exclusively with our age mates. We tend to socialize with others like us, those who share our interests, who “get” our jokes, who can discuss issues on our intellectual level. Those are our true peers. We can certainly find true peers our age, but we aren’t restricted to finding them in a group of 25 people.
Gifted children have much more difficult time finding their true peers in a school setting than do non-gifted children. Think again about a world in which you are forced to interact exclusively with a small group of twelve-year-olds. That is the kind of world we force on our highly gifted children. We can better understand how difficult it is for highly gifted children to find their true peers in school by first looking at IQ scores. IQ stands for “intelligent quotient,” which is determined by this formula: IQ = Mental Age/Chronological Age X 100. The IQ of most people fall in the 85-115 range).
A seven-year-old with an IQ of 100 is both mentally and chronologically seven (100 = x/7 X 100). However, a seven-year-old with an IQ of 130 has a mental age of 9 years and 1 month (130 = x/7 X100), while a seven-year-old with an IQ of 145 has a mental age of 10 years and 1 ½ months. The higher the IQ, the higher the mental age.
Expecting a seven-year-old with an IQ of 145 to find true peers with whom to interact and form friendships in a room full of seven-year-olds with IQs of between 85-115 is like asking a 10-year-old to interact and form friendships in a room full of seven-year-olds. It is quite likely that you would find that the ten-year-old would appear to have problems socializing.
It’s not just advanced intellectual ability that affects the socialization process in school either. Gifted children tend to develop asynchronously. That means that their development in the intellectual, physical, emotional, and social areas is uneven, so while they may be intellectually advanced, they are not necessarily advanced in the other areas. Many gifted children are socially advanced, able to get along well with others – outside of the school environment. They are especially adept at interacting with adults, whom highly gifted children see as their intellectual peers. These children in the school setting, however, are seen as being “too dependent” on adults, which to most teachers signals a lack of “appropriate” social skills.
Gifted children may or may not be emotionally advanced, but this area has additional problems. First, many gifted children are emotionally sensitive. They have what Polish psychologist Kazimierz Dabrowski called an “Emotional “Overexciteability.” (Dabrowski lists four other overexciteabilities in these areas: physical, sensual, intellectual, and imaginational.) Children with this emotional sensitivity are the ones who are often told they are “too sensitive for their own good.” Slights that roll off the backs of other children are taken to heart by these children. This depth of feeling is not a sign of emotional immaturity. It is a sign of the depth of their feelings.
In addition, because gifted children can think like an older child, teachers expect them to also act like an older child. For example, that seven-year-old with an IQ of 145 can think and talk like a ten-year-old, but she’s still seven. That means that she is more than likely going to act like a seven-year-old emotionally. However, teachers, and even parents, will interpret that normal seven-year-old emotional behavior as a sign of immaturity because they are expecting ten-year-old emotional behavior. Instead of seeing this as a need to place this gifted child with intellectual peers where she can learn how to control emotional responses (appropriate social behavior), it is seen as a sign that the child must stay with the other seven-year-olds.
Public Schooling Can Harm the Socialization Process of Gifted Children
Children don’t come to school as blank slates whose self-concept and self-esteem are developed in school. A study by Dario Cvencek, Anthony G. Greenwald, and Andrew N. Meltzoff (2016) found that children have already learned to feel good or bad about themselves by the time they start school. As Meltzoff says, “It is a social mindset children bring to school with them, not something they develop in school” (as cited in McElroy, 2015). That means that a child may have already developed a positive sense of self through the socialization process at home and in the community. The question, then, is whether the continuing socialization process at school will benefit or harm a child. In the case of the gifted child, it is more likely to hurt than help.
Through the socialization process, children learn not only how to behave as a member of society, but also who they are. They develop a sense of self, and that sense of self is determined by the opinions others have of them. This is the Looking Glass self, a concept first introduced by Charles Horton Cooley. According to this concept,, children develop a sense of self as a result of interacting with others. The development occurs in three steps (Isaksen, 2013):
- They imagine how they appear to another person.
- They imagine what judgments others make of them based on their appearance and their behavior.
- They imagine how the others feel about them, based on the judgments made of them.
It’s important to note that the steps are all based on what the children imagine to be true. But what they imagine might not in fact be true. For example, a five-year-old kindergartener takes his planetarium to school, where the teacher allows him to use it to project stars on the walls and ceilings of the darkened classroom. This five-year-old wanted to spend hours talking about the constellations and the universe. A self-taught reader, this five-year-old had been reading about the stars for nearly two years and was eager to share what he had learned. The other five-year-olds, however, had little interest in learning details about the universe. Once the novelty of the stars on the walls and ceiling had worn off, the children wanted to move on to something else. They made this clear to the teacher, who then asked the child to turn off the projector. What this child imagined was that the other children didn’t want him to talk. He took it personally and imagined that the other children simply didn’t like him. That was not true. The children simply weren’t as interested in the topic. But the child saw himself as he imagined the other children saw him – unlikeable.
Of course, what a child imagines might be true. For example, this same child in first grade struggled to do assigned work. He struggled, not because it was too difficult, but because it was too easy. He told the teacher that it was too hard, however, because he didn’t have the understanding to explain that the simplicity of the work led to feelings of anxiety. The teacher, though, interpreted the child’s statement to mean that the child didn’t understand the material and doubled down on her efforts to explain the concepts and get the child to do the work. She saw the child as one who was less capable than the other children, but the exact opposite was true. The fact that the child knew he understood the material was less influential than the teacher’s opinion of him as a child who needed extra help. He imagined that the teacher saw him as incapable of doing the work, and he was right. That is how she viewed him. The child saw himself as the teacher did – a child with problems.
That five-year-old child is not an imaginary child. He is a real child and those were real experiences. These experiences demonstrate the effect school experiences can have on a child. As Leigh Shaffer (2005) notes, “Social interactions can proceed smoothly only when all participants share a common definition of the situation” (p. 58), but in both situations the participants did not share a common definition of the situation. In kindergarten, the child and his classmates saw the same situation quite differently. In first grade, the child and his teacher saw the same situation quite differently.
These school experiences, and others like them, can negatively affect a child’s self-concept and lead to low self-esteem. This negative effect is the result of the socialization process as children alter their perception of situations to be consistent with the views of others (Sherif & Sherif as cited in Shaffer, 2005). This is precisely what happened to that five-year-old child. He had entered school as a happy, confident child, but those experiences, and many others throughout his time in school, began to negatively affect his self-concept and led to low self-esteem. His socialization, like all socialization, began at home and in the community. All children begin to develop a sense of self through interactions with family members and with members of the community. These interactions may help them develop a strong, positive self-esteem, but the school experience for many gifted children not only fails to reinforce that positive self-esteem – it can destroy it.
Other Factors Negatively Impacting Children in School
Another factor that negatively impacts the the socialization process of gifted children in school is their advanced verbal abilities. This is especially true of verbally gifted children, whose large vocabularies and advanced verbal reasoning can put them at odds with other children. As Virginia Burney and Kristie Neumeister noted, “because of advanced vocabulary, increased intensity, and/or different interests, high ability children may experience difficulty interacting socially with the same-age peers.” Think about that five-year-old kindergartener who wanted to talk about the universe with his classmates. He had the vocabulary, knowledge, and interest to discuss the topic for hours. His classmates did not.
Verbally gifted children can get frustrated when the other children do not understand them or when the other children cannot express themselves well. For them, communicating with non-gifted age mates can be a frustrating experience. It is not unusual for these children to appear withdrawn and unable to interact with others. In other words, they appear to lack social skills.
Many of these children are also introverts, who enjoy spending time alone with their thoughts and can feel overwhelmed or drained after spending time interacting with classmates. That is especially true when that interaction is nothing but frustrating. These children are not shy and do not lack social skills. When given the opportunity to interact with their intellectual peers, they do so with ease, although they will still need some “down time.”
Attempting to turn verbally gifted introverts into social butterflies can also damage a child’s self-concept and self-esteem. Most classrooms and lessons are designed with extroverts in mind, which isn’t surprising since the majority of people are extroverts, but that design is not good – or even healthy – for the introverts. Introverts prefer working alone, but are usually required to engage in cooperative learning. Children who do not participate are seen as uncooperative and therefore lacking in social skills. The response is too often to try to get the child to participate in more group activities in order to improve those skills.
This is not to say that introverts should not engage in any group activities, just that an unwillingness to participate is not necessarily a sign of a problem. Regardless, these children need quiet time for reflection, but even that is difficult in the typical elementary classroom today. That classroom is more often than not a loud and active place that is not conducive to quiet reflection (Burress & Kaenzig, 1999).
Both the advanced verbal abilities and introverted personalities of some gifted children lead to problems in the classroom that are more often than not interpreted by the teacher – and classmates – as a sign of inappropriate social behavior. That interpretation is reflected back on the child, whose Looking Glass Self becomes a negative one.
What is the Best Schooling Option for Gifted Children?
No option is best for all gifted children. Homeschooling may not be right for every child – but neither is public schooling. Too many people mistakenly believe that children must attend school with age mates in order to learn appropriate social skills. The reality, however, is that attending school can create social and self-esteem problems that hadn’t existed before these children started school. What matters most is whether children are provided with opportunities to socialize with others, both at home and in the community. It is in the interaction with others that we develop social skills, not in the interaction with our age mates.
Burney, V., & Neumeister, K. (n.d.). Guiding Students with High Abilities: Social and Emotional Considerations. Retrieved from http://www.doe.in.gov/sites/default/files/highability/ guiding-students-high-abilities-social-and-emotional-considerations.pdf
Burruss, J. D., & Kaenzig, L. (1999). Introversion: The Often Forgotten Factor Impacting the Gifted. Retrieved October 4, 2016, from SENG – Supporting the Emotional Needs of the Gifted, http://sengifted.org/archives/articles/introversion-the-often-forgotten-factor-impacting-the-gifted
Cvencek, D., Greenwald, A. G., & Meltzoff, A. N. (2016). Implicit measures for preschool children confirm self-esteem’s role in maintaining a balanced identity. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 62, 50-57.
Durkin, K. (1995). Socialization. In A. S. R. Manstead & M. Hewstone (Eds.), The Blackwell en- cyclopedia of social psychology (pp. 614-618). Cambridge, MA: Basil Blackwell.
Isaksen, J. V. (2013, May 27). The Looking Glass Self: How Our Self-image is Shaped by Society. Retrieved October 03, 2016, from http://www.popularsocialscience.com/2013/05/27/ the-looking-glass-self-how-our-self-image-is-shaped-by-society/
McElroy, M. (2015, November 2). Children’s self-esteem already established by age 5, new study finds. Retrieved October 4, 2016, from UW Today, University of Washington, http://www.washington.edu/news/2015/11/02/childrens-self-esteem-already-established-by-age-5-new-study-finds/
Medlin, R. G. (2000). Home schooling and the question of socialization. Peabody Journal of Education, 75(1-2), 107-123.
Shaffer, Leigh. “From Mirror Self-Recognition to the Looking-Glass Self: Exploring the Justification Hypothesis.” Journal of Clinical Psychology 61 (January 2005): 47–65.