I was sitting with my son’s best friend, Joe, and his sister and his mom in a restaurant in Illinois. And a text came from the school to say which classroom Joe is in.

Joe said, “Am I with Robbie?”

His mom called Robbie’s mom.

“No. You’re not with Robbie. But Robbie’s mom says you’re with Jacob. You like Jacob.”

“I really like Robbie though. We sat next to each other all last year.”

Joe’s sister piped up: “That’s okay. You can make new friends!”

I said, “Did you request for the kids to be together?”

But the school doesn’t allow that.

Which is pretty standard. Principals set up classrooms so that it’s easiest on the teacher. You can’t have all the trouble makers in one room, you can’t have all the top students in one room, and you can’t have all the kids with crazy parents in one room. So after you accommodate all that, there is no space to also accommodate who is whose best friend.

Which means that kids make friends and then have to start over again, when the classroom changes.

As a kid I remember going to the huge auditorium to see the class lists posted on the wall. And I remember being really sad when my best friend was not in my class. I remember thinking it’s so much work to make  a new best friend, which you always have to do, because you need a best friend in your classroom each year.

But as an adult I see the systematic destruction of a kid’s sense of belonging. What is the benefit of reorganizing classrooms every year? This is not a model for how the real world works. In the real world, when you find people you like, you stick with them.

In the real world, you stay with a group of people you like for two or three years. In the real world, according to a study at Gallup, if you have two friends at work, it’s nearly impossible to hate your job. So if you want to teach kids about the real world, allow them to request that they stay in a classroom with their two best friends.

School teaches you that being with the people you like is not nearly as important as getting the right balance in the classroom. School teaches you that it is not reasonable for you to expect to be able to control who you spend your days with. But in fact, one of the most important aspects of navigating adult life is asserting control over which teams you work with. You should work with people you want to work with, and school should teach you how to figure out who you work well with.

It’s ironic that people worry so much that homeschoolers are not socialized properly. Because what kids really need is to make friends and do their work—whatever that is—with people they like working with.


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17 replies
  1. liza bennett
    liza bennett says:

    wow, so powerful.
    I never thought about that aspect of school, though it was quite a traumatic part of grade school.
    Every year my private religious school would switch me over to the “other class” where I was even less comfortable than I was in “my class”, and where I had no best friends. I have no idea why. It is true that my parents were crazy, but they never complained about their kids’ treatment, or asked for any special favors. I was socially awkward, so what did they think they would accomplish? Every year I would go on a learning/talking strike until they switched me back, since of course my parents were not going to bat for me.
    Maybe that is why I homeschool my completely socially able, even skillful children?

  2. Debt Free Teen
    Debt Free Teen says:

    This is sooo true. I was homeschooled and I got to keep my friends. BTW-they were all different ages too because I made friends with other kids who had shared itnerests.

  3. karelys
    karelys says:

    This is very interesting. When I moved to the States it felt impossible to connect with anyone!

    Once I realized that it was the way it was supposed to be I just gave it up. It makes sense that most Americans are work driven and live in isolation, that friends are work friend since we dedicate so much time to work and there’s very little time left for anything else outside of it.

    So if we normalize this in school then yeah, later in life it seems normal to chose work or activities despite relationships. And many times work comes before relationships (important ones too like marriage/parenting/etc).

    • Bec Oakley
      Bec Oakley says:

      This is a really good point, and the extension of this which is that in school we’re trained to only socialise with our peer group (weird because I just did a post about that!).

      It’s the only time in our life where our social circle is restricted in this way. Being able to develop good working relationships with colleagues of all ages is a desirable skill, but we don’t give kids a chance to do that at school.

      • lhamo
        lhamo says:

        This is especially challenging for kids who are atypical in some way or another. I was “gifted” and always a misfit in my small, rural schools. When I was in middle school, I went to visit my sister at university for a long weekend and went to classes with her and hung out with her and her friends. People treated me like a PERSON for the first time, not like a freak. They were interested in me and interesting to me. I didn’t want to leave! Going back to middle school was literally torture after that. If homeschooling had been something a little more known/mainstream back then, I totally would have grooved on it. At the time, it was still pretty fringe so not somethign that we ever considered. But yeah, age-based cohorts are totally unnatural.

        • Penelope Trunk
          Penelope Trunk says:

          This comment makes me think of an off-topic issue, which is a benefit of college is that you can find like-minded kids to hang out with day in and day out.

          I know the world is big and homeschool kids can choose from everyone. But you can really only choose from who you live near. For us, this make college seem like a bonanza – my sons will finally get to hang out on the sofa with a bunch of kids like them.


  4. lhamo
    lhamo says:

    I’ve seen the other side of this, however, and it is not necessarily better. Here in China, local schools typically keep an entire class of kids together throughout the entire phase of the school. So the kids you were in kindergarten class with are the kids you will be in sixth grade with. And everyone is tracked by test-taking abiity (which is what really matters here), so if you are in a “good” class with “smart” kids (meaning good test takers), you will likely do well in a very test-centered system. If you are in a “bad” class, then lord help you — you might as well start looking for work as a migrant laborer at age 10, because the chances of you managing to find a way to succeed in the academic system are near 0.

    My kids’ school has struggled with this, as it is an “international” school, but heavily influenced by the local system (increasingly so as there are more and more Chinese parents enrolling their kids — likely in preparation for them to emigrate at middle school level or above. For the most part, they pretty much follow the Chinese model and most of the classes have remained the same from year to year. And they are most likely tracked to a certain degree (my son’s class this year has all the stronger English-speakers). But there is a little bit of variation. In one case, a kid i know was a troublemaker in my son’s “pack” has been moved to another class this year — most likely at the request of other parents in my son’s original class as I know they were planning to make an issue of it at the end of last school year.

    Anyway, I guess the main point for my comment is that being stuck with the same group of kids year in year out is not necessarily any better than having to change all the time. What would be nice is a system where kids/parents have some kind of agency in the process, and could choose to maintain closer relationships. But, at the same time, it is also good for kids to meet new people. Another situation where homeschooling is really ideal, because you are able to have more control while also having more flexibility. If only I could find a way to integrate the job I love (which inspires me!) and homeschooling my kids…..

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      Thanks for this comment. I really enjoyed reading about how school in China works. So much of what this blog is about is looking at how people do school and rethinking those ways for ourselves. So I think the more different types of school we can read about, the more jumping off points we have to think of new ways of doing things.

      It’s really hard to think out of the box if you don’t have a box. But it’s nice to get a new box sometimes, too.


  5. Sadya
    Sadya says:

    At the workplace you dont necessarily end up with the most likeable people in your team, and if you have already have a friend or two you aren’t really looking for a next best friend.
    In school where not being with your best friend in the new class is heartbreaking, it may just teach the kid to develop skills to deal with a not-so-fun neighbor and a sometimes-likeable-classmate. And that is important for the real world.

    But it still sucks not being be able to sit next to your best friend in school. When kids barely learn to speak (3-6yrs) the teacher forces them to keep quiet, when they learn to make deeper bonds, some stupid lists decide to break them.

  6. Charlotte
    Charlotte says:

    I agree with this point but I find it strange that someone that who advocates job hopping would say that this does not reflect the ‘real world’. In life you move departments/companies you have to make new connections quickly and make time for the people that you really like and have sometimes left behind outside work. Yes you choose people you want to work with but you also need to be finding new people that can best support your aims in that moment. Kids need to be networking in the playground so they can pick a class with people that can support their academic progress.

    Okay that’s rubbish which is why I don’t like the argument that school reflects the real world or that home education reflects the real world – lets not push the real world on anyone.

  7. Julianna
    Julianna says:

    I only have two experiences with this (thru my kids, not my childhood).

    First public school in Brooklyn — we got to submit a list of names and my kids always placed in classes with their entire list. Like so many things in the school system, you have to work it. You did this by getting all parents (we had a core group of 7) and having them submit the identical list. So anyway, that was great. It was great for a lot of reasons, but mostly because my kids were with kids they liked and also because it was a core group of kids who worked at similar levels and had parents who were involved, etc. It was a group that was kid and parent-approved.

    I know not all school in Brooklyn allow this.

    Now we’re at a new (to us) public school in Brooklyn. Much smaller, dual language program with just one classroom which means my kids will be with the same room of kids thru 5th grade. This will be our second year and so far, so good but I’m not sure about long term. I suspect this is fine thru 5. The other school was ideal.

  8. Elizabeth Welsh
    Elizabeth Welsh says:

    I was in such a small school as a child that it guaranteed I’d be with the same kids at least every other year (1 and 2 were in one room, 3 and 4 were in one room, 5 and 6 were in one room). Oddly, I didn’t usually make friends in my same class anyway. I was always a teacher’s aid and that was not a good breeding ground for friends. In today’s world, I would have been in G.A.T.E at least. I should have been accelerated. But I had a sister who was just a year older who was barely scraping by. My parents would not agree to hold her back because of me, even though an additional year in 4th might have helped her immensely. They dealt with my needs by having me teach other kids.

    My son is homeschooled. It wasn’t because we wanted that originally. He is even more off the scale than I was. He has even more difficulty making friends than I did. His brief forays into public education were terrible.

  9. karen
    karen says:

    The way i see it, people either are able to make friends easily or they don’t, it is a personality issue. I couldn’t stand changing classes even though there were only two, ha! We always labeled it either the smart or stupid class cause as a child, you are not politically correct at that age. I was always able to make friends anywhere in life if i chose to and my daughter is the same way even though I was completely public schooled and she was private and is now homeschooled. I don’t think that the public schools care about your relationships whatsoever and agree with the poster who mentioned people putting work above people, it is sad. People and their emotional well being are important, how much money is spent on trying to correct imbalances?

  10. KCP
    KCP says:

    While I don’t have children yet myself, I enjoy the thought-provoking posts on this blog and learning more about homeschooling in the process.

    That said, I don’t believe that public schools are somehow failing students on a social level by shuffling students in different classrooms as they progress from grade to grade. While–as Penelope has shown time and again–we definitely enjoy work when we get to work with people we like, don’t we often end up meeting such people upon arriving at a job in the first place? Unless one is an entrepeneur or head of a business/organization, it’s pretty hard to ensure that your closest friends will stick with you wherever you go in the “real world.” As most people will continue to change workplaces/careers throughout their life, isn’t it fair to say that learning the ability to adjust and make new friends in the classroom could be a good skill? Aren’t we all constantly having to adjust and work with new people and make new friends as we move through different jobs and life paths?

    (I do remember being sad if my closest friends were placed with a different teacher when I was in elementary school…but it’s not like I lost the friendships because of it!)

    On a practical level, trying to keep up with personal requests among students would be a nightmare for schools to try to accommodate…and besides, while some kids are capable of enduring friendships, young ones can be awfully fickle too–a child’s best friend one day could be an enemy the next.

  11. Karen Loethen
    Karen Loethen says:

    As the quiet kid who never rocked the boat (Hey, I’m making up for it now!), this is what happened to me again and again.
    I would work up some energy/strength/whatever to make friends with another quiet kid, only to be separated the next term…


  12. motherofkandb
    motherofkandb says:

    This is why I love your blog!! You are able to articulate the things that I worry about!! This year we went through this situation with my daughter. She was assigned to a classroom where she did not know any of the other kids. She cried everyday because she did not have any friends in her class. On one hand I felt sorry for her but on the other hand, I tried to explain to her that this was not going to be the first time that she would feel lonely and out of place. I can think of many times when, because of the yearly classroom shuffle in high school, I was without my friends in class and at lunch. You learn to deal with it as you get older but it is heartbreaking to watch your child go through these difficult social situations.

  13. Kimberly
    Kimberly says:

    I think that siblings are not able to be with one another, in school, is incredibly detrimental.

    Even friends move away and when you grow up, you tend to need your family to rely on in difficult times. Though, they’re almost not your family when you’ve been separated by grades and classrooms.

    My husband and his siblings are complete strangers. He only went to school with one.

    Your youth is a time to get to know your siblings and create a bond with them. School doesn’t care about the individual, it’s all about efficiency.

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