My oldest son has Aspergers. So do I, which means I have very little empathy —common with Aspergers—but I have a lot of empathy for him not wanting to be in social situations, because I don’t want to be there either.

My memories of middle school are mostly me being lost in the world of social cues, and watching, ravenously, to try to understand what I was seeing. Everything I tried seemed to be wrong, but only after the fact, when kids thought I was weird for doing it.

So it didn’t surprise me when my son didn’t make friends at school. His third-grade IEP (individualized special education plan) specifically assigned a teacher and a time period for her to help him make friends, and still, there were no friends.

But something happened when we started homeschooling: I was able to devote a lot more time to finding friends. We could arrange our schedule around the schedules of other families because we have so much extra time in our lives. And the flexibility enabled us to explore possible friendships for my son very efficiently until we found two good friends.

We have had the same nanny for six years. We started when we lived in Madison, now she still lives there and my oldest son does sleepovers at her house, and she manages his play dates with his two friends, both of whom live in Madison, which is a 90 minute drive from our house. She knows his friendships amaze me, especially the one with the little girl his own age, so our nanny takes furtive photos and that make my heart melt.

We would not have been able to handle any of this if we had to navigate life around school. There are so many aspects to building a friendship. One aspect is proximity, which is what I think people think of when they think school is for making friends. But the other is space and time, which school consumes rather than provides.

If I had understood about how to grow and care for friendships, I probably would have understood sooner that homeschooling is better for socialization. It’s so obvious to me now, and I wish I could have had a small quiet space to find friends when I was young like my son has now.

13 replies
  1. Bryce
    Bryce says:

    A key obstacle that school puts in the way of kids’ social skils is that their peer group/social circle is chosen FOR them based on accidents of age and geography; in other words, kids the same age as you who live in the same school district, rather than BY them based on common interests, abilities, etc.

    • Kimberly
      Kimberly says:

      I can already see the contrasts between me and my daughter. She is very outgoing and willing to talk to anyone, old or young because she was never forced to choose.

      At church picnics when it was silent, she would break the silence by talking about zoo animals. I often lament because I never had the socialization skills that she does. When you have children constantly telling you that you are stupid for saying or thinking differently than them, you start to believe it. The real world honors creativity and individualism, ask Steve Jobs and Bill Gates.

      This is the consequence of the artificial social environment that school brings. There is really no way creativity can truly stem from being with people in your age group all day who have no unique experiences or amount of knowledge different from yourself.

  2. Sarah Pierzchala
    Sarah Pierzchala says:

    This is a great post! My own experience in this area is similar…

    My eldest son is Asperger’s Syndrome; we didn’t realize this for a long time but I was aware (terrified, actually) of what appeared to be a profound lack of empathy on his part towards animals, siblings, etc. We observed him very closely and began to realize some interesting things, facts that were confirmed when he matured and became better at expressing himself.

    Rather than a LACK of empathy, he had too much!

    Just as he was super-senistive to certain sounds and avoided them, just as he was super-sensitive to certain tastes and spat them out, just as he needed a particular texture against his skin and wore his favorite blanket until it was shredded, he had to wrap himself in his defensive mode as a protection against the same confusion you described feeling during your school experience.

    Watching him in those earlier years reminded me of observing a primitive tribesman making a scary mask and wearing it to appear tougher than the scary demons he believed lurked in the forest.

    In other words, he was certainly ’empathetic’ in that he was aware of others’ emotions, he just couldn’t deal with them (or his own), he just fended them off and ‘roared’ back at them!

    Homeschooling has been an unmitigated blessing for us, and he’s now a very thoughtful and caring young man who is making friends in our church community.

  3. Sheela
    Sheela says:

    My most compelling reason to homeschool is for the opposite reason. I am afraid that my blond, chatty, pretty, socially suave 7 year old daughter will become, if schools are the ones initiating and providing her social scene, the sort of girl who breaks male and female hearts from the top of the bitchy peer heap. I seek out teenage babysitters who are strong female role models for that reason, I sent her to hardcore nature camp in the woods for that reason, and so I will homeschool, too.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      This is so interesting – it strikes me as a missive from girl-land and it’s something I don’t think about but the situation rings so true to me when you say it.

      Penelope

  4. Kitty
    Kitty says:

    As the mom of an 8 year old boy who has trouble making friends and is just now taking steps in that direction, your experience is so touching, Penelope. I’ve been there as a mom myself. I actually experience a lot of anxiety for my son and just hope for the best for him.

    He’s doesn’t have Asperger’s but we have taken him for counseling (art therapy, wonderful) and I think it was very important. I’m so glad to have that resource for him as he grows – we may return in times of stress!

  5. Kelsey Langley
    Kelsey Langley says:

    My daughter endured kindergarten in public school before we started homeschooling. Before public school, we always classified her as a social butterfly because she seemed to not know a stranger. But once in public school, she struggled to make friends and manage her behavior in a classroom of 27 kids. We didn’t know it until later, but she was having social anxiety. She doesn’t do well in crowds or in very loud places and this presented itself in many ways. We had an IEP and it took us a year of trying out possible solutions to realize the problem- she couldn’t cope in that environment. She is now flourishing and is more social, happy, and problem-behavior free because of homeschooling. Talk about a life changer! I’m so glad we had the courage to make the change when we did.

  6. Julie
    Julie says:

    This has been my experience also. Homeschooling has provided for fewer, but mostly positive, peer interactions vs the many, but mostly, negative peer interactions my daughter had in school. Going into activities with other children she now has positive expectations and that makes a huge difference in how it goes.

  7. jana miller
    jana miller says:

    Moving as always. The world needs to hear this Penelope:) Thank goodness for blogging or I would have never found you!

  8. Heather Sanders
    Heather Sanders says:

    I’m visual, so the photos in posts speak to me. I love this photo because that is a pure smile–and when we see our kids smile like that it is better than a hug; it is life and breath.

    Kids can do amazing things – I’m convinced of that. To do these amazing things they need to feel secure, heard, accepted, loved BEFORE being challenged.

    Security is the start. Homeschooling gives that security because parents can hone in on their kids’ needs better than anyone else. When we fail to do that, either our kids find a way to get it from another mentor and we indirectly (or perhaps directly, of we’re being honest) acquiesce that role, OR our kids crumble.

    Homeschooling is the most straightforward way I can see of loving my child.

  9. Judy
    Judy says:

    Both of my kids can talk to anybody and anything, including a wall if it will listen so we don’t deal with the challenges of Aspberger’s or social anxieties but I can see through homeschooling how wonderfully kids can be socialized. In fact, I find that mainstream schooled kids have a general lack of social skills.

    I think homeschooled kids make friends easier because they have to learn to adapt to different people and situations throughout the week. My kids go everywhere with me and observe how I interact with people and conduct business and they model that behavior. At 4 and 6, they have no problem conversing with anyone of any age, asking for directions, ordering for themselves at a restaurant, etc. We get compliments all the time about how well mannered they are.

    On the other hand, mainstream schooled kids make a group of friends in school and then socialize only with that group for the remainder of the school year or for many years. They have very little interaction with adults in a non-authoritarian role. They have no need, desire, opportunity, whatever, to make new friends and its almost painful for me to whatch how awkward and puzzled these kids are when my son walks up to them on the playground and simply asks “Do you want to play?” Its even worse among girls and my daughter usually ends up playing with the boys because few of the girls will play with her or even acknowledge her invitation to play. It’s bizzare, really. They will literally look her in her eye while she is talking to them, make no response and simply walk away. I’ll see those same girls liven up and behave like “normal” kids when their friends from preschool show up.

    I have yet to observe clique-like behavior among the homeschoolers with which we’ve interacted. I’m not saying it doesn’t exisit, only that I have not seen it. What I have seen are kids who are open to meeting and playing with kids they don’t know. Even the kids who are clearly socially challenged will socialize on a one on one basis with new kids, even if its to ramble on in detail about the one thing they’re passionate about. What’s so sweet is that without fail, I have seen the recipient of these monologues appear genuienly interested and even ask follow up questions. Frankly, I think those kids are cool and look forward to the day when my own kids are that passionate about something.

    We just spent a day with a good friend from graduate school. She is Turkish and her kids don’t speak English. Despite the language barrier, the kids were playing happily together within an hour of meeting. I loved watching how easily my daughter approached and introduced herself and how, with his sister’s encouragement, my son did the same. What we discovered is that the adult effort to get the kids together failed but when left on their own, the kids worked it out on their own. But from what I’ve observed among mainstream schooled kids, I doubt if that would have ever happend because of their general lack of social skills.

  10. Kirsten
    Kirsten says:

    Taking my son out of school in 4th grade was the best thing we could have done for his social development. Besides the obvious benefits of spending more time with a wider range of people, the school’s “social skills class” got in the way more than it helped (we were skeptical, but agreed, and he loved the diversion from the boring classroom). All they could do was offer behavioral rules – some of which are challenges for plenty of adults I know (e.g., “Don’t talk about yourself too much.”) Now that he’s connecting to the real world rather than pre-selected peer groups, he relies on himself and his own questions of trusted adults to figure it out how to get better – because he wants to. Being motivated to hang with his teenage older sister is the best social skills class I could think of – and he enjoys the challenge of figuring out how to engage her, despite their disparate interests.

  11. Becky Castle Miller
    Becky Castle Miller says:

    I’m thankful for the friendship opportunities homeschooling gave me when I was a kid. One friendship in particular, when I was 9 and 10, had lots of time to flourish as we did homeschool gym days together, made a club, played in the woods, played at each other’s houses, and did church and community performances together. Now 23 years later, we live ten time zones apart, but we’re still friends and are working on a dream project together, virtually. The collaboration skills and teamwork relationships that homeschooled kids can form definitely serve them well later in life!

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