Socialisation, the new “s” word?

Socialisation: noun
1. [psychology] the modification from infancy of an individual’s behaviour to conform with the demands of social life.

2. the act of socialising or the state of being socialised.

Socialisation has been a hot word amongst the parents of young children for a long time now. It’s a word you are sure to hear from any parent whose children have recently begun attending day-care. It’s a reason given by most first-time parents seeking Early Childhood Education (ECE) places or activity groups for their baby or toddler. It’s often the first thing mentioned by people discussing whether they would ever home-school their child.

As a first-time parent I, too, was concerned about my child being properly ‘socialised’. Having only one child in the house and mostly childless adult friends myself, I was anxious to ensure that my baby grew up knowing how to play and ‘socialise’ with other children. I wanted him to find such interactions normal, natural and enjoyable. I wanted him to be able to make friends easily. I did not want him to be the kid at school who was teased or ostracised because their former interactions have been so adult-based that they don’t seem to know how to function in a child’s world.

I know that other parents have the same aspirations and fears for their children. In an ECE setting, discussions with parents raise this topic time and again. One of the issues most likely to raise parental concern is any suggestion that their child is failing to ‘socialise’ well. The focus of socialisation anxiety for most parents is School (the capital is deliberate); the vast majority of parents with pre-schoolers want their child to develop social skills and networks which will ensure their successful inclusion in the micro-society of the school playground. And they make many significant decisions for their babies and toddlers based on this aspiration.

In semantic terms, ‘socialise’ refers to the process by which we are “organised in a socialistic manner” [‘socialisation’], ‘society’ being defined as “organised community; system of living in this” [Oxford Mini-Dictionary].

To ‘behave sociably’ does not therefore translate necessarily as ‘behave kindly’ or even ‘behave well’. It simply means to behave in a way that is in keeping with the established or predominating social structure. In an extreme example, socialisation is the process which allowed Nazi Germany to commit its atrocities. The desirability of a ‘white master race’, the acceptance of the persecution and annihilation of various ethnic and cultural groups were all part of the ‘socialisation’ meted out to children in Germany in the 1930’s and early 40’s.

All of which begs the question: what do we really mean when we say we wish our children to be well socialised? Are we wanting our children to become efficient capitalist consumers? Do we wish them to accept the popular social constructs they see around them? Is raising our children to be ‘well-socialised’ at variance with the values we wish to teach them, with other aspirations we may hold for them? Do we merely wish them to be one of the ‘popular’ kids at school – or simply to make friends easily?

For many of us, the term ‘socialisation’ is used to describe two related sets of aspirations. We want our children to develop good relational skills – the ability to build effective relationships, communicate freely and interact comfortably with other people. We also want our children to have the skills to cope with the society we live in – to be able to ‘fit in’ with whatever our perception of the ‘normal’ or ‘real’ world is. Put simply, we want our children to be capable of making friends and getting along with people.
Neuroscience is now confirming what child development specialists have long observed – that the ability to form healthy relationships begins with the opportunity to form a secure relationship with a primary bonded caregiver (‘attachment’). The strength and quality of a babies’ earliest relationship/s will affect his/her life-long ability to build good, lasting relationships. Nathan Mikaere Wallis of the Brainwave Trust has this to say about the developing brain of a 0-3 year old child:
“What it needs is to feel safe and secure in partnership with someone who adores them … The more they have of that, the more hours they have of that and the higher quality they have of that, the better the outcomes will be … right across the board, because that’s what grows a frontal cortex.”

If we wish our child to be ‘well socialised’, we must first ensure that we ourselves strive to build a relationship with them that meets this primary need. We also need to do our best to model healthy relationships, because this young brain is in “data gathering” mode and is laying down templates to which it will refer for the rest of its life. Wallis suggests that we minimise our young children’s exposure to our own anger and aggression – fighting between parents, for example, is best done well away from even a young baby. Sibling scraps are not believed to be detrimental and probably enhance relationship skills! We need to learn to negotiate, argue constructively, to stand up for ourselves and to defer gracefully when we are in the wrong, and the home is a fine practice-ground for this.

There is a lot to be said for learning preliminary skills in a household containing multiple members of mixed age groups. Parents welcoming a third or above child are generally less concerned about this child learning to socialise, because the child is immediately part of a micro-community of siblings and their friends, educational groups and activities. For first time parents, parents of only children or young children close in age, the issue of their child learning to socialise with other children is generally a more pressing one. Most of us are aware that inter-child social interaction is very different to adult-child interaction, and that when our child begins school the need to socialise almost exclusively with other children will become tantamount.

There is no doubt that children benefit hugely from spending time with other children and learning to engage with them and enjoy their company and their games. But in our industrialised world we have created some strange distortions around this process. First is the emphasis that is often placed on children engaging with others of exactly the same age. Many nurseries propagate this idea by promising parents that their child will be in an age-specific environment and protected from the physical perils of playing with older children or the intellectual perils of being subjected to younger ones. There is plenty of evidence that children benefit both intellectually and socially from being in the company of children of different ages. A child who is mixing with children both older and younger than themselves will be acquiring a much wider range of social skills than one who is mixing exclusively with those of the same age/stage of development. Children are quite capable of making friends outside of their own year-group; as with adults, temperament and mutual interests are more important than age.

Another questionable idea is that you go about ‘socialising’ young children by putting them into large groups of other children with a minimal adult presence. Wallis talks of young children learning best “in partnership, not in abandonment” and this applies as much to learning social skills as any others. Parents and caregivers have a huge role to play in facilitating successful social learning for their young children. As with any other new situation, very young children are more likely to attempt engaging with new people and trying out new relationships when their bonded caregiver is safely at hand. An engaged adult who can name or describe situations or feelings they are as yet unable to articulate for themselves, and help negotiate any conflicts that arise, is an excellent grease to the somewhat uncertain wheels of inter-child interactions at this stage.

I also doubt the validity of the many ‘educational’ activity groups for young children as a means of developing inter-child social skills. A group of children following in adult-led activities together are not really experiencing any meaningful social interaction with one another. In my experience, children benefit more from regular sustained contact with a group of children who become known to them, than from attending different activities with different groups across the week. Quality of relationships is important in growing and extending social skills; this way, children learn how to develop social bonds or networks, rather than simply learning to cope with an endless round of vaguely familiar faces. And, as with most things, the best way for children to learn is through playing - together.

We also have to accept that a child’s social development will be shaped significantly by their own personality. Some of us will not become garrulous or outgoing, no matter how much time we spend in the company of others. Some of us seem to have more (or less) need of constant social stimulation in our lives. Some children will happily run to join a large group of cavorting kids, whether they know them or not; others will make no social overtures at all until given a calm or intimate setting in which they can engage with a small number of people. None of this speaks of ‘better’ or ‘worse’ ‘social development’ so much as of temperament and a path to developing social competence. Each of our ‘paths’ will be determined by our individual natures and experiences.

I’m with Diane Levy in believing that teaching co-operation is the key to ensuring good social functioning. The classic Enid Blyton ‘spoilt child’ (who even now days is not a roaring social success) is the one who is phenomenally uncooperative. The teaching of cooperativeness to pre-schoolers is obviously a process which must be respectful of their developmental stage in order to be successful. We must model both our expectation of them co-operating with us and our own ability co-operate with them, as appropriate. A co-operative child is generally pleasant to be around, and this will enhance their ability to form relationships with both other adults and children.

Much of the discussion of ‘child socialisation’ is centred around the importance of children learning to get along with other children because most adults are aware that school can be a rather miserable experience for any child who fails to ‘fit in’ with other kids. Thus, the pre-school years seem to be ever-more dominated by attempts to ‘socialise’ kids to fit into the school environment. It’s understandable – none of us want our child to be the one who is excluded, picked-on or bullied. But the question that begs to be asked is this: is being socialised for a school context the same thing as being well socialised?

This is a complicated question, because schools are complicated places. To begin with, schools as we now know them are a complex blend of ideologically-based agendas for social adjustment and advancement. Since it is in the nature of society to be composed of many sub-cultures, the homogenising attempts of school must result in the creation of a separate ‘society’ which is distinct from the sub-cultures of its individual students. Thus, the micro-society created within a school is almost inevitably different from the wider society to which it belongs.

Many of the social structures found commonly within schools are at clear variance with the wider world. At no other time in your life, for example, will you be expected to interact almost exclusively with those born in the same 12-monthy period as yourself. I hear regularly from parents who are concerned about their child wishing to play with others not of the same age at school; it is only within a school context that this is viewed as unusual behaviour. Traditionally, children played in groups, either with extended family, or with whoever happened to live close by. Such groupings can encompass a comparatively wide variety of ages, as indeed most real-world social groups do.

A second obvious difference is the one of adult/child ratios. In most schools, these are very low, compared with the actual ratios of adults/children in the non-school world. In a standard school, with relatively few adults present, the teachers all too easily take on a similar role to the warden in a prison – in the sense that the social skills that really matter are the ones that allow you to survive the other inmates. The very high number of children compared to adults in school results in a situation where large groups of immature, partially-socialised beings effectively ‘socialise’ each other. In terms of fitting children for the world outside school, this is hardly ideal. I must note, however, that I have seen excellent socialisation occurring in very small schools with high numbers of adults involved. Children in this situation treat adults as actual people, and quality relationships are able to be formed.

It is noticeable that home-schooled kids tend to have a very different ratio of adult/child relationships in their lives. Recent research into the home-school community has shed some interesting light on this. For many years, the perceived wisdom has been that being home-schooled is likely to compromise a child’s ability to socialise well. In an article reviewing recent research on home-schooled children’s socialisation, Richard G. Medlin concludes that, compared to children attending conventional schools, home-schooled children have higher quality friendships and better relationships with their parents and other adults. The abstract for his article concludes: “As adolescents, they have a strong sense of social responsibility and exhibit less emotional turmoil and problem behaviours than their peers. Those who go on to college are socially involved and open to new experiences. Adults who were home-schooled as children are civically engaged and functioning competently in every way measured so far. An alarmist view of home-schooling, therefore, is not supported by empirical research. IT is suggested that future studies focus not on outcomes of socialisation but on the process itself.”

It is to be hoped that any future studies on the process of socialisation take a good look at how this process operates in a school context. The ascendancy of the ‘peer group’ as the primary social influence often results in unbalanced and distorted beliefs and emphases in the lives of our young people. Consider the impacts of cyber-bullying, sexting and other damaging behaviour to hit the media in recent years. Consider our well-documented rates of school bullying and youth suicide. While there is no doubt that the ‘real’ world contains the same problems of bullying, unkindness and abuse observed in schools, many people would agree that such problems are somehow magnified and intensified within the school context. Ex-high school teacher John Card has this to say:
“I listen to the sounds in the hallway. “F* you”, “You’re fat” … The unpleasantness is phenomenal. I listen for a kind word, but that world is silent. The driving negativity of adolescence shatters egos and creates gods.”

Most real-world adults would be quite shocked by the level of aggressiveness, the verbal abuse that is considered normal in many inter-child interactions. This is not, for the most part, the way we treat each other in the adult world. Adults who behave this way would be considered ill-socialised by most of us.

The way our schools are structured may be a large part of the problem. Research from Malcolm Gladwell and anthropologist Robin Dunbar shows our brain can only manage positive social relationships with a limited number of people. The ideal group size is 150. Beyond that, clans emerge, divisions occur and people lose track of group members as relationships fragment. In this light, many schools inadvertently create an environment conducive to social dysfunction, simply by being ‘too big’. In terms of fostering sociable, let alone pro-social behaviour, bigger is not better.

Some of the negative impact of school is partly the result of entrenched and generally unacknowledged attitudes in our wider society. The idea of children belonging primarily in a child’s world (or teenagers living in their own parallel reality) is a relatively recent, first world phenomena that has considerable impact on the way our young are socialised. It would not be unreasonable to say that many young people find their sense of belonging almost exclusively in groups of people their own age, which limits their recourse to alternative opinions and mature support when the going gets tough in the teen-world. Emphasis on quantity rather than quality of social experience results in children who have a wide social circle, but very few meaningful relationships. Lack of deeper connections leaves us all bereft in times of trouble or hurt.

The flip-side of children largely inhabiting a child’s world is a child-free world for adults to go about their business in. While hugely convenient for many, it also has undesirable outcomes in terms of ‘socialising’ children to become adult members of society. Legally incarcerated by the obligation to attend school, our young people are both segregated from and prevented from participating in the ‘real’ working world of adults – and all the examples that world could provide for them. By keeping our kids in school through young-adulthood, we are enforcing an extended childhood/time of dependence on them. We are ‘socialising’ our young men and women to remain children as long as possible.

There will always be dissention on the ‘socialisation’ issue between those who want their children ‘toughened up’ to take on the world, believing this will give them a competitive edge, and those who want their children to become the people we would like to see in the world, valuing cooperativeness and embodying virtues such as kindness, consideration and honesty. Each of us will have a slightly different picture of the society we are fitting our children for, but most of us aspire to raise socially competent individuals. To do so, we need to consider how we normalise our children’s experience of constructive social behaviours, the social examples we set for them and the provision of positive social groupings in which they can develop a sense of belonging.

For a complete list of references see The Natural Parent website.

Kate is a ‘natural’ parent who ditched a career in the film, television and theatrical industry 13 years ago to become a home-birthing, bed-sharing, baby wearing, breastfeeding mother of three. She is currently co-ordinator of both her local Playcentre and Homebirth Group.