Which brings me to a topic that has baffled me plagued me given me sleepless nights and sometimes nightmares that's right I AM TALKING ABOUT SOCIALIZATION AND SOCIAL SKILLS!
I would love love *love* your view of what I've been told repeatedly in the past: social skills are critical for our children, social skills improve their speech, being with peers is how our kids imitate typical kids (earning their "pass" privilege I suppose).
I'll be honest, I come from an era (and also not of this culture, originally) where we didn't do play-dates. We didn't have preschool. My mom wasn't even sure she wanted me in kindergarten if I could start 1st grade, and primarily for academic reasons -- NOT for social skills.
My argument is, "why should I care if socialization comes from adults versus peers (kids my kid's age)? After all, adults have better social skills than kids -- it makes sense to me to have my child interact more with adults if this is where he's comfortable and he will learn social skills from people who have learned social skills. What's wrong with waiting until my kid's peers are beyond the age where they solve problems with physical action and change their moods 25 times in 15 minutes a.k.a unpredictable preschoolers?"
I don't get it. Please help me -- my brain is just not clicking on the benefits of socialization for very young children when it can be so stressful for those children.
This is a complex, difficult topic, and also pivotal and super important. My overall views on it will come from two or three places or ways of thinking as I explore it here, but I will also include within my views a belief that in particular circumstances my specific opinions do change from the overall. Some people might think this is wishy washy or unhelpful, but I think it is more helpful to be very precise about these things instead of having some sort of rule made up that is supposed to work for everyone, because that is not usually the way things work best in real life.
If, when you are reading this post, you believe your child is more like the counterexamples I am writing less about or mentioning as exceptions to my usual idea, and would like to hear more about that, please say so in the comments, because I will have amazing resources for you.
In my personal experience, which is going to be my first way of thinking to derive ideas from, I am very glad I learned from peers, even though a lot of the time I considered them to be noisy and baffling. And a lot of them were randomly mean. Not even just to me, I'm saying random. Especially girls of a certain age. I don't know if the reader will remember this. You can read my view of it in the chapter coming out in Phil Smith's book Both Sides of the Table.
But I learn a lot from pattern recognition, or trying to recognize patterns. And if a pattern is kind of random, it takes longer. So much about culture and enculturation and tribes and cliques and mob mentality and what makes people tick and who I am not and cannot be, I learned from being around a wide variety of people my age. So much of what I know today that enables me to survive and thrive in real life is information of this very nature, and although I have read a lot about it and deliberately studied, my foundational learning about being able to recognize these things in life and put them to use in practical ways absolutely came from the brute fact of being put into situation after situation where I had to figure out how to be in the world with a wide variety of other children.
It was very valuable to have my parents and other supportive relatives and adult friends of the family around to explain things to me, to demystify them, to be on my side when things were unfair, illogical, unfathomable. It was very affirming to have them around to be interested and maybe even kind of proud when I went on and on about whatever it was that had nothing to do with what anyone else I knew would be interested in. Or, on the other side of myself, when I said something that made no sense to anyone whatsoever and they decided to interpret it as "poetic" and "creative," as loving adults are wont to do.
Now I am an adult person living in real life and I have to ask the reader: do you think the environments I typically find myself in, such as work (all due respect to my colleagues, you are awesome) with its arcane political structures and customs, the grocery store, the dry cleaner, the road, etc. have more in common with (a) mystifying sets of people thrown together doing their thing or (b) a tight community of people who are basically kind of focusing together like a benevolent team with the apparent primary purpose of making my life as awesome and seamless as possible?
Right. So you see where I am going with that. Well, or where I went, really. So, having both was perfect, because I got hands on experience with what real life was going to be like, but then I got to go home and have supportive wonderful people on my side to debrief with about it. (Life is still like that, because I married well, and we do that for each other.)
From a more theoretical child development standpoint, autism is considered a developmental disability, which actually makes a lot of sense to me when translated into the old idiom "late bloomer." For me, the late bloomer-ism was social/emotional and my academic was OK, but from others, the sensory also blocks academic (the way I see it... I feel like the sensory is what blocks most of the development because whenever I get more hazy at things it is because of that bombardment, and also when I look at others who are shutting down or melting down I can see them clearly as experiencing overload. Remember that so many of us experience emotions like a physical sense instead of like a cognitive thought. We get sick or pained rather than confusing "I think" and "I feel." I should probably write a separate article about this since I have had so many conversations with friends about it. But anyway...)
So: it's to do with development. Piaget thinks development goes like this: you get ready, and then you can do things. Vygotsky thinks it is more like you learn by doing; doing flexes your readiness muscles into their potential. That is an oversimplified comparison, because I love doing oversimplified comparisons, but you see what I mean. Vygotsky, whose team I'm on, also believes learning is social. I recommend reading some of this stuff, or starting with Joan Wink and LeAnn Putney's A Vision of Vygotsky for a fun, well illustrated intro. Because of my own life experience, as well as my experience as a teacher, I also think learning is social, and you don't just magically get ready for stuff: you have to practice.
Back to my life: school didn't get a chance to help me much academically, because I come from a family of intellectually curious people who fluently answered my questions and read to me until they'd saved up enough for an Encyclopaedia Britannica, at which time they added "you can look that up!" to their repertoire of awesome intellectual support (which also gave me countless hours of cross-referencing derailment fun). But it was at school where I learned to find the kids that were nice to me, and the primary way of it was to find the ones with whom I had interests in common, and try to see if I could get interested in as many of the things they introduced as possible. What many of us really had in common that I could wholeheartedly endorse was Baseball. (More details in Phil's book. I am not a bookseller, I just don't want to give the whole chapter away in this blog and then everyone will be bored by it when reading the book.) School was brilliant at helping me socially. I learned some discernment, and some adjustment, and some communication.
I also got some desensitization. These lessons came over and over again and some of them came at great cost, especially during middle school time when the girls get meaner and the rules harder to work out. In high school, I couldn't take it any more, was kicked out, and moved to an alternative school situation. Desensitization was happening at a slower rate than introduction of stressor stimuli, as they would put it in terms-like-that. I put it in terms like that because I think part of what is good about going to school even though it can be on the nightmarish side is because it toughens you up for real life, which, I mean, not that life sucks or anything, but you have to notice it is full of loud, awkward sounds, headachy smells, social rules that are barely short of Byzantine, and why-would-you-even-create-such-painful-ugliness lighting situations, some of which include gratuitous nasty sound effects. Well, I mean, you the reader probably didn't notice all of that, because you have special powers enabling you to ignore such stuff, and now that I have pointed it out to you, you might have to notice some of it, thereby making your life have some more annoying features. Sorry. Forget I said anything. :)
This brings me to the counterexample. For most kids, I really do believe it is a good idea to be exposed to one another. I believe in an inclusive world. However, the thing about desensitization is that there has to be enough good mixed in with it to make it worth it so you don't completely shut down or melt down. It can't be a complete and utter nightmare where you can't get anything out of it. If that is what is it like, then you are indeed not being exposed to other kids, you are protecting yourself from any exposure to anything, because you are so bombarded and freaked out, which is the opposite of what is supposed to happen. If I am talking about your kid, I would start smaller, like yes to the play dates, one or two kids, and some people need to organize their own educational situations in order to do this. Also, you can increase the number of friends if and when needed, and you can pick friends who have features you want, such as a non screechy voice, an even temper, patience, an exhaustive knowledge of seventeenth century metaphysical poetry (well, or you know, something that kid and your kid can relate about). So in some ways some people might be doing this to get their kid desensitized enough to benefit from school next year. Alternatively, some people might live in a place where they don't trust the school system, or had a bad enough experience, or for some other reason they will continue to organize their own situation for the kids. I still think and believe people who do this well are not isolating the children or having them only socialize with adults. I know someone who does it very well, which is no easy task, and I will ask her to weigh in here on the comments if she feels like it, but I don't want to call her out by name in case she does not feel like it.
If she does not weigh in on the comments and you the readers feel like this is your kid and you need to hear more about that aspect of things (unschooling) let me know and I will go get her and sweet-talk her into feeling like it :).
If you think your kid might be more like me and benefit from school for social reasons even though it is difficult, but you want more information on how to get started on making it a benefit instead of a giant nightmare, from the parental standpoint, let me know and I will ask my mother. I do remember coming home from school a lot with problems with mean girls or things like that. I even remember their names (I wonder if Eric secretly remembers the names of the jackwagons whose names he decides not to utter?). I do not remember my parents' perspective on how they made it all better because I never knew it, but you may be interested in knowing it, and actually so am I. :) Let me know what will work for you. I'll just end by saying they did make it all better many times and from my perspective a lot of it had to do with Baseball. They did a lot. You do a lot. I salute you.