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"But What About the Prom?" ... and those other socialization questions
Susan Richman, 5/7/2010

[Reprinted from Issue 102 of PA Homeschoolers magazine]

Ok, I’ll admit it: I myself asked this question. It was one of the very first times that I’d ever heard about homeschooling, back when our now 30-year-old son Jesse was just a 2-year-old. I was visiting my mom’s home, and saw John Holt, an early homeschool advocate, on the old Phil Donohue TV show talking about homeschooling. Almost involuntarily, one of the first questions that popped into my mind was, "But what about things like… high school proms?" (One of my second thoughts, of course, was "Hmm, now this sounds very interesting," and the rest is history.) Now, mind you, my ‘prom question’ was an especially foolish one coming from me, as I hadn’t had particularly meaningful ‘prom memories’ from my own high school years—but teens and dancing just seem like one of the necessary types of socializing. And how would homeschoolers find those types of opportunities? Would homeschoolers be missing out on a lot, especially as teens?

And so we began homeschooling and those questions about socialization opportunities were always there. They’d come from worried grandparents, from checkout ladies at grocery stores, from new friends who weren’t homeschooling-- and they came from us. Most homeschooling families do worry about this question, more than they probably like to admit-- and this can be especially so at transition ages, when kids now need something different. Most homeschoolers would probably agree that positive socialization options usually don’t just pop up on their own-- you have to plan for them, be ready to drive for them, and take the time to make them happen. In our kids’ early years, the best friendship and socialization times were probably through family friendships with other homeschoolers-- this works well, as then the parents are equally invested in making sure there are regular get-togethers and playtimes, because the parents like to spend time together too.

As our family grew, homeschooling also grew up, and with more people homeschooling, more opportunities would develop quite naturally. There were homeschool art festivals and history and science fairs, math contest groups and writing clubs, music lessons and group fieldtrips. There were homeschool 4H clubs, co-ed volleyball, weekly co-op classes-- and almost every museum and nature center and zoo soon began offering special homeschool group classes. Most of these types of group activities just naturally add in informal play times so that kids could get to know one another and really form friendships. By the time our youngest, Hannah, came along, there were so many group options available that it became a matter of picking and choosing-- it just wasn’t possible to be in every good option. After all, we did need to stay home at times too; we’ve all learned that within a family there can also be lots of positive social learning (though this too can have its challenges, as Sarah Seitz shows in her article in this issue on helping siblings learn not to compare themselves to each other).

But what about that prom? Were there still some things that homeschoolers might really miss out on?

Fast forward to our son Jesse’s high school years at home….

The young 20-something reporter was talking to me by phone about homeschooling at the high school level. And of course, after we’d gotten through the questions about how parents could provide for advanced math or foreign languages or sciences at home, he came around to the ‘But what about socialization?’ question. I knew it was coming—after all, it always pops up in these types of interviews. Some homeschoolers jokingly call it ‘The S-word Question.’ I also knew that he was talking, at least in part, about the typical types of teen socializing—which often means dances. I immediately shared that providing positive socialization opportunities was something that all homeschooling parents did worry about, especially at these upper grade levels, and that most found good ways to meet needs for finding friendships and learning to work with groups. I then launched into an enthusiastic description of our monthly homeschoolers square dances, called and fiddled by my husband Howard, which involved toddlers through high schoolers, along with parents, all together. "You might see a high school age boy dancing with his mom, then with a group of enthusiastic teens, and then with his 7-year-old sister, having a great time with all ages!"

There was dead silence on the other end of the phone—I almost thought we’d gotten disconnected. "Are you still there?" I finally asked.

Yes, he was still there—"Oh, sorry, well, this all sounds very, uh, wholesome…. but while you were talking I was thinking about my own high school years… and I just can’t imagine ever wanting to be at any sort of a dance with my parents there too!" I laughed and shared that this was indeed one way that homeschoolers’ socialization experiences might be different—they really didn’t seem to mind this type of cross-generational socializing, and even often viewed it as ‘normal’ and expected. The reporter definitely found this odd, to say the least!

Over the years, I’ve seen many further types of socializing at dances among homeschoolers, and I think this epitomizes how homeschoolers are unique—and also how they might be somewhat similar to their agemates. By the time my two girls, Molly and Hannah, were teens, there were enough homeschoolers they knew to actually tackle that prom idea. They were part of regular meetings and email discussions and phone calls about decorations and food planning and getting appropriate music and finding a good site, and their bedroom was filled with prom supplies and catalogs and prom magazines. Maybe they were so involved because they were girls (I can’t imagine my boys getting too excited about this sort of thing, and I don’t think many-- if any-- boys were on these ‘committees’), or maybe homeschooling was just now really growing up. I guess eventually they even became more ‘normal’ teens, in that they began restricting how many ‘chaperones’ could attend. Seemed almost every homeschool mom, camera in hand, was more than happy to offer their chaperoning services, and the teens eventually felt this was a bit excessive! But there were some differences in these ‘proms.’ First, many kids came in groups, with no dating involved—many homeschoolers discourage dating, and it was never expected that everyone would come with a date. One year a girl even arrived with her dad as her official ‘date’ for the evening—and had a great time! Further, we kept hearing similar comments each year from the DJs hired to provide music for these proms—they universally agreed that this group of homeschoolers danced with more enthusiasm than any other group they’d ever worked with in the past. The kids all danced, all had a great time, almost no one sat along the sidelines. One further difference moms noticed: there were few problems with keeping these teens from drinking or smoking or sneaking outside (things I remember being big issues in my teen years!). The teens were much too busy having a great time with their friends and dancing their hearts out. The girls all loved the chance to get all dressed up in fancy long prom dresses—and when I talked with a homeschool friend who did photography work for school proms, I realized that these homeschool girls did indeed in general dress a good bit more modestly than was typical at the school scene!

And square dancing also continued to be a hit among homeschoolers—we’ve called many square dances across PA for homeschool groups, and the kids continue to be enthusiastic, energetic, and quick learners. We’ve especially enjoyed calling a regular fall square dance for Lorie LaSala’s large choir and orchestra group in Lancaster County. Lorie reports that the kids all look forward to this chance to be together for fun and just pure socializing--it really helps build more relaxed friendships among the kids.. As always, the more experienced kids are ready to help the new students figure things out, they all listen well to directions, they all help set up and clean up, and they all come up to politely and enthusiastically thank us at the end of the evening. It is, as my reporter friend above would have said, very wholesome. I wish he could be there!

When our own older kids were all in college or beyond, our local homeschool square dances started dwindling—the older kids were busy and had other things to do, attendance was flagging, and we eventually stopped. But one marriage—between our son Jesse and his wife Patricia—had already developed from these square dances, and another wedding between homeschoolers Sarah Tisdale and Cody Earhart, who met at our square dances many years ago, just took place last summer. And soon my daughter-in-law’s younger siblings and their friends were reaching their teen years, and they realized that they missed these monthly square dances. They took on all the work of planning, organizing, fixing up locations, and starting this tradition back up. It was yet another example of the type of initiative-- and sheer hard work-- that homeschool kids are willing to go through to create good socialization opportunities. They indeed don’t want to just ‘stay home and be lonely’, and they’ll take things into their own hands, often developing real leadership skills in the process. We’re now seeing a whole new group of families at the monthly square dances, with kids of all ages enjoying this time for family fun and exercise and socializing with others. And I still see the easy type of socializing I remember from our kids’ younger years.

Last May at our end-of-year AP Party held at our farm for students from our PA Homeschoolers Advanced Placement Online classes, we had both a square dance and a swing dance. A student from Texas and a student from eastern PA, who’d never met face-to-face before the party, planned to teach all the homeschoolers the basics of swing dancing in between the square dance sets. It was an amazing hit, and kids and parents danced till midnight. I afterwards asked the boy from Texas if he taught swing dancing regularly, as I thought that he could surely pay for his upcoming college years doing this. He shared that actually he’d never taught a group before in his life, just individual friends—but he was one of the most gifted natural teachers I’ve ever seen. By breaking down each move so that it truly was easy, he soon had everyone doing all sorts of complex routines—Howard and I learned a lot that evening! Oh, a few kids needed some encouragement to jump in and take part, as levels of natural shyness or out-going-ness of course really vary among homeschoolers as among school kids. But this boy worked to get everyone involved and active. Most had no experience with either square or swing dancing previously, but learned quickly and with real gusto. The dancing really helped the kids relax and enjoy each other, too—remember, most of these kids hadn’t met in person before. There was lots of laughter, lots of good-natured joking, lots of just plain wholesome fun. These were students who had previously known each other only through text on their course website, yet another unconventional way homeschoolers form social bonds. My daughters each, at different times in their lives, had best friends who lived all the way over on the eastern border of Pennsylvania. Like many homeschoolers, their friendships were not bound by geography. They were rarely close to kids in our (very rural!) area, instead valuing friends who lived hours away.

But back to our barn, where students from Texas and Pennsylvania, who had previous shared AP Economics games and essay comments, now shared a quickstep. Swing dancing has been really growing in popularity among homeschoolers, just as in the general population—and after seeing the York County homeschool swing dance team perform at our final Homeschool Excellence Day that we sponsored in the State Capitol several years ago, I could see how this truly counts as an incredible phys ed program. It’s an amazing aerobic workout, with a touch of gymnastics moves thrown in when you get really advanced. Swing dancing usually involves joining with a community group that offers regular dances and instruction—and I’ve met now many homeschool teens who quite quickly became very adept and began teaching others. Once when Howard and I attended a large community swing dance in Pittsburgh with a small group of homeschool friends, we were surprised to meet up with several other homeschool grads who came regularly too. I especially enjoyed the expectation that people would dance with a different partner with each song, reaching out to everyone there.

But homeschoolers dance in a wide range of ways, finding a type of positive socializing and arts and fitness activities that suit the family’s values and goals-- just as they do with all socialization activities. Again, the diversity of ways homeschoolers dance mirrors the diversity of ways they socialize-- sometimes seeking personal excellence, sometimes connecting academics with socialization, often unconventional.

I’ve known homeschool groups that have organized 18th century-style dances (think ‘Jane Austen’) or Civil War dances, where all the girls came in handmade dresses reminiscent of the time period. And there are the large homeschool groups that put on major musical plays, like Fiddler on the Roof or Annie, involving varied types of dancing throughout-- not to mention all the team building work of truly working on a major group project over months of rehearsals. I know a group of homeschoolers in the Harrisburg area that are active in a community square dance club. Many homeschool girls loved Irish step dancing, and some, like Sarabeth Taber-Miller of the Poconos area, have done exceptionally well in competition at all levels. Once we had two homeschool grads do an incredibly complex set of Irish step dances at our Harrisburg graduation ceremony. They were exactly in step with each other, looking like they’d rehearsed together for weeks—I was surprised to find afterwards they’d never met before this graduation event. They had both gone through competitive step-dancing, and so knew the same dances and could immediately meet and dance together like pros. And I can’t tell you how many homeschool kids have risen in the ballet ranks at their dance schools, to the point where they are teaching whole classes of younger students by the time they reach high school-- again, gaining leadership skills, honing socialization skills with all ages, and gaining positive mentoring from their teachers. As with most homeschooled students, these budding teachers don’t see socialization as restricted to their peers; they count their friends among those older and younger as well.

Do homeschoolers have a different type of socializing experience from school kids? For sure. Do they sometimes lack positive opportunities? It can happen—and this is often a reason older homeschoolers want to head to public or private school. Do homeschool families and kids work hard to develop or find positive, age-appropriate venues for socializing and friendships? All the best families definitely do-- and many older teens especially show real initiative in making opportunities happen. And amazingly enough, they can even find ways to dance…. My early question about homeschoolers and socializing and ‘proms’ has been more than answered!


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