“No, Mrs. Smith, it really isn’t a good idea for Johnny to skip a grade. Academics aren’t everything, you know. Socialization in school is also very important.”
“I’m concerned about Johnny’s social skills, Mrs. Smith. The other children want to play with him, but he doesn’t respond. Has he had any opportunities to spend time with other children his age?”
“No, Mrs. Smith, it really isn’t a good idea for Johnny to skip a grade. Academics aren’t everything, you know. Socialization is also very important.”
Listening to comments like these, I always wonder how humans managed to become part of civilized society before children were required to attend school, separated into different classes based on their age.
The History Behind Age Segregation and School-Based Socialization
Where did we get the idea that children can be socialized only by attending school where they are segregated by age? As with so many things that go bad, age segregation and school-based socialization started out with good intentions. With the growth of urban areas and more children attending schools, it was becoming difficult to manage classrooms, which often held as many as 200 children. It would be far easier to divide children into smaller units, based on age, and create specific goals for what to each at each grade level. This was the idea that Horace Mann got from the Prussian education system.
However, there was more to education reform than this one-size-fits-all idea for dividing children into same-age groups. Reformers also saw schools as an agent of social change. For children with little guidance from their family, this could be beneficial. The idea was that these children could learn appropriate behavior and attitudes and then bring them back to their communities, thereby improving the communities.
What about children whose families were providing guidance? What about children who were getting guidance from their church? They would still be learning what the state-sponsored educators thought they should be learning. The issue became one of conformity. If you think it’s not still about conformity, try asking that your gifted child move beyond the regular curriculum and be provided with more challenging work. Try asking that your child be grade skipped so that he can be challenged and be able to spend time with intellectual peers. You’ll find, in most cases, that your child must first learn to get along with children his own age and complete the work designed for his age-grade level.
What Is Socialization?
You can find numerous definitions of “socialization,” but they all come down to the same thing: socialization is simply the process of learning how to behave in a given society. The behavior is based largely on the attitudes and values of the society. For example, if a society values respect for the elderly, people in that society will be expected to behave in ways that demonstrate that respect. One way they may learn to demonstrate that respect might be to address an older person with a title and surname or they might learn that they should get up and give their seat to an elderly person.
Rules for appropriate behavior are not the same as laws, although laws are often based on the values held by a society. For example, people believe it is wrong to take what does not belong to them, and there are laws against stealing. But even without the laws, people would still believe it is wrong to steal. The belief does not come from the law; the law comes from the belief.
We need to learn many beliefs and all kinds of rules in order to get along with others in our society. We need to learn about taking turns, including how to stand in line to wait for our turn or wait our turn to talk in a conversation. We have to learn not to hit someone when we get angry or upset. We need to learn how to act in a theater or in a church. We have to learn how to recognize – and make – an overture of friendship.
Where and How Does Socialization Take Place?
When you think about it, all the rules we have to learn in order to function in society is a seemingly endless list. How do children learn it all? It’s not by going to school. If children learned socialization skills at school alone, they would start kindergarten as uncivilized little beasts. We would also have to assume that prior to compulsory schooling, the world would have been full of people who had no idea how to behave in their society.
The fact is that a great deal of socialization takes place outside of school. It begins with the family. Parents and the extended family are the first to teach children how to behave. Children can also learn how to behave through interaction with community members. This is how children had been socialized in the past when compulsory schooling – or any kind of schooling – wasn’t available.
Learning how to behave in society does not require children to interact with their age mates. Just because a child doesn’t interact with other child of the same age, it doesn’t mean they don’t interact with any human beings at all. They do not grow up in isolation. While it is definitely good for children to interact with other children, they will still be able to function in society if they don’t. There are other reasons it’s good for children to interact, but those reasons have to do with the value of play – and play does not require interaction with children of the same age.
If we simply want to allow children the opportunity to engage in play with other children, what difference does age make? Will they learn to socialize better if they play with children their own age? No. Children do better in mixed age groups than in like-age groups. It’s not just in the area of socialization that children do better either. They also do better cognitively when they spend time with mixed ages.
What Does It All Mean?
It means that we have to stop worrying about our children being unsocialized oafs because they don’t learn age-based social skills in school. Many factors can influence a child’s social skills, but that isn’t necessarily the same as socialization. A child may learn the appropriate behaviors to function in society, but still have problems making friends. The inability to form friendships can be the result of many factors, including the fact that a gifted child can have a hard time finding intellectual peers who also share their interests.
We don’t expect all children to be develop friendships with every other child, any more than any adult develops a friendship with every other adult. Like adults do, children look for others who are like them. The fact that the children are intellectual equals isn’t enough of a foundation for a friendship. However, it is less likely to that a child can find close friends among those who are not their intellectual equals.
We need to provide gifted children with opportunities to interact with their intellectual peers and stop worrying about their socialization in school with age mates.