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The Particulars of School Experience

I was reading a general child development book and making note of all the assumptions we assume about children that really may say more about kids in the context of school than they do about kids. By which I mean that when studies naturally focus on peer relationships in school, which is a very specific context for peer relationships, those studies might miss out on the fact that peer relationships in school may be the default experience but it is not necessarily TRUE the way that a babies need to suck is TRUE.

There are a lot of similarities between what I’ve seen of my own children’s middle childhood and what the books say about middle childhood but when it comes to some of the peer experiences, I see a lot of differences, especially around the gender assumptions.

Around the local Columbus homeschool community kids do tend to group by age and gender but not nearly as much or as rigidly as much of the research says kids do. Instead homeschoolers tend to group around activity and interest and availability. Kids play with the kids who show up so big kids play with little kids and girls play with boys and sometimes they do sex or age segregate but most of the time they do not. Most of the time you just have packs of kids who are kinda around the same age (or ability) running around or standing around.

Now I’m not saying that homeschool is more TRUE anymore than school is more TRUE; I’m saying that it would be a mistake to assume that school is TRUE because it is more typical. Looking at atypical families (homeschoolers) might bring insight to more typical experiences (school). Because maybe it is not true that most kids naturally sex segregate to the point where most boys will actively avoid speaking to a girl unless they have to (see this chart); maybe that is true when you put large groups of same age children together for six hours a day. Maybe in schools where children are in mixed age this doesn’t happen in the same way.

I  wonder how much we assume is developmentally to be expected and instead it’s developmentally expected in a very particular context. Wouldn’t looking at children in other contexts give us insight into kids in general?

As a therapist who works with a lot of kids, I try to remember that we are all of us deeply affected by our environments and that a child who is having a particular experience in school is having that experience because of who he is AND what school is for him. For the child who is struggling, I hope to help him (and his parents) find a balance that honors the person who he fundamentally is and understands that he still needs to find a way to function in his environment.

11 Comments

  1. I agree that the study group of the kids should be widened. Homeschoolers are different, also some other extra-curricular type activities such as churches, temples, or hobby clubs often have interactions that are not solely age based. One of my problems with the concept of public school (though this is not the reason I homeschool) is that the idea of children learning socialization skills from kids the same age seems fundamentally flawed. I learn things from someone who has more life experience, or job experience, not someone on the same level as myself. This is I think the reason many homeschoolers or non traditional scholars (online virtual academies etc) exhibit a higher level of maturity than their conventionally schooled counterparts.

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    • Lee, I’ve noticed that in some ways homeschooled kids seem more mature and in other ways they seem younger than their schooled peers.

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      • I agree, Dawn. In some ways Rebecca and her homeschooled friends seem younger to me than their same-age friends who go to school, and in other ways they seem more mature. And it’s true of our homeschool groups (both at our park days, and at our homeschoolers 4-H club) that the kids are unlikely to group themselves by gender. They don’t even always group themselves by age, but the more kids of different ages there are, the more likely they are to do this (if there are only 2 kids under 6, they will group with big kids, usually, but if there are 3 or more, the smaller kids will break off, same with kids who are older). And almost all of their play is non-competitive, it is almost always cooperative.

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      • I agree that the homeschoolers I know are by and large a more “innocent” –um, maybe less wordly–bunch. I think what I meant was that I see the population as better able to interact with a wider range of ages. Part of it may be the obvious advantage of more individualized attention, part of it may be that they don’t have as many preconceived ideas of what is “cool” and what will make you look dorky in a social situation. It is an interesting thing to ponder!

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  2. I think there’s an interesting insight here, that would make for an interesting research project/report.

    My guess would be that some of the difference would depend on availability — that the large number of kids available in conventional school settings allow segregation (based on gender/age). In a setting with fewer children, those lines are too restrictive, especially if you want to combine them with other characteristics (do you want to play with the boy who climbs trees, or the girl who is playing at the sand box? How much does it matter whether you’re a girl or a boy when you make that decision?)

    I don’t know anything about home schooling, so my comparison is family gatherings — I’ve noted that boys and girls will play together in family/friend gatherings when they won’t in school.

    I also think that there are a number of things about school/organized activities that promote (not just allow) separation by gender (the one I”m noting most distinctly now is that soccer of U7′s — under 7′s in our neighborhood league is single-sex). This is creating segregation that drifts over into other activities (like the Y-guides circle that started with the soccer group).

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    • The book I was reading is really heavy on social learning but they don’t stop to think that social learning about gender in age segregated groups is not any more “normal” (as opposed to typical) than social learning in less segregated groups. It’d be interesting to figure out how much of our gender ideas are socially constructed BECAUSE of school, really. Because of peer pressure and the need to conform. There is just less need to conform in smaller groups (I was thinking they could look at very small schools like the one my friend went to in upstate New York where the graduating class was five). But I’m not sure how that might translate to actual beliefs/behavior out there in the world.

      I don’t know. I just got off the elliptical trainer and am high on endorphins, which is making me extra loopy.

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  3. PS: The interesting insight — and there must be some research already on the topic, is how gender relationships might e different in the group setting (school) v non-schooled children (perhaps your “unschooled” example). I’d be intrigued in seeing something very simple, like seeing how many times a girl talks to a boy, how many times a boy talks to a girl. Just that would be interesting to see.

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  4. I agree with your observations for the homeschooling scene we’ve been part of, too. My kids were always in more age and gender-inclusive activities than they would have encountered in school. Other parents whose kids are in school have occasionally commented on the fact that my kids are willing to play with all ages–for example, if my daughter is at a playdate with their daughter, she doesn’t object to the younger siblings being involved, etc. It could be that it’s family culture, too, but of course when you homeschool your kid has more exposure to your family culture and less to anything else.

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  5. I agree that school is a culture. Just as adults have workplace culture, kids have school culture. That culture definitely affects kids’ behavior.

    As bj said, I wonder how many of the differences can be attributed to the size of the group and choice of playmates. I remember from my own childhood that I would willingly play with my younger sister and younger cousins if no one else was around but not if there were kids my own age to play with.

    It would be interesting to research further.

    ps. first time poster who enjoys the thoughtful questions

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  6. Home schooled kids are not the norm in Western culture, so no doubt there are differences. Most kids are in a school culture, just as most adults are in a work culture. Kids that grow up in cultures where they are part of a tribe or expected to work at an early age are in a different culture too ,as are the children of the super-rich who have often been tutored at home and then at boarding schools, Their experiences, lives and choices are different. All children are influenced by their culture, and no, these interactions are not biological like infants needing to suck. No surprise there.

    I don;t really understand the objection to a textbook dealing with the situation that is the norm for most children in our culture.

    Certainly a paper on the differences you have observed in home schooled children would be valuable, but keep in mind how much control parents in that situation have over whom their children have available to play and interact with. It is not all the childrens’ choice in that situation any more than in a school culture, just that parental assumptions and expectations might be different.

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    • I think the book is really good actually. I don’t think it COULD look at homeschooled kids anyway because there isn’t much research (and I’m not about to do research on it ‘cuz it ain’t my area of interest). I was just struck by how little acknowledgment there is that school ITSELF could be what creates this development. The researchers state these FACTS about middle childhood with the same confidence they state FACTS about an infant’s need to suck. They don’t present it critically at all. So they say, “BOYS DO THIS.” Instead of, “In the school environment, boys do this.” And I think that it’s important to qualify because there is a lot of support for sexism in this research. But maybe boys DON’T naturally want to beat each other up to prove who’s alpha. Maybe boys who are able to have more flexibility in their environment may make other choices. Or we could just assume that boys are always alpha dogging it and shrug it off as “boys will be boys” and point to research that “proves” it.

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