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A Case Against Institutional aka Public School Socialization

The word socialization was coined by social scientists to discuss the concept of how people learn to get along. My fat 2007 dictionary doesn’t give socialization the status of its own entry, but only lists it under the word socialize, which it defines as:

1. to make social; adjust to or make fit for cooperative group living 2. to adapt or make conform to common needs of a social group 3. to subject to governmental ownership and control; nationalize 4. to cause to become socialist

The above list tends toward the negative, or controlling, possibilities of the concept. However, the word social is generally more positive, being, in summary

having to do with human beings living together and their dealings with one another; gregarious; getting along well with others; of and for friends

The common thread in the definitions is that people interact with other people. What can be lost in the translation is that it is individuals doing the interacting. There is no general society that we need to all take care of. We are all individuals making the best of our opportunities. So what then of the concern that children be properly socialized? What does this mean? What is the goal and who benefits?


Children are inevitably born from other people. There is no reasonable denying the unique bond between parents and children. It is also quite obvious that young children need rather intensive care taking. It is expected from time immemorial that parents bear this responsibility, even if they sometimes choose to delegate the actual physical work of it.

Children learn expected modes of getting along from whomever spends the most time engaging with them, or from learning to deal with being ignored. They learn what they have the power to affect and how likely it is that they will get desired results. They are introduced to methods of interaction and consequences for various choices.

It is in this context that we should compare the potential for socialization in the family versus socialization in an institution. Let me clarify that I am well aware that families come in all shapes and sizes. Parents vary as much as any group of people do, but so do government workers and school employees.

There is nothing about getting a job in an institution that makes you a better person and more likely to care better for children. Yes, some people go into the job with the best of intentions, but the system is not conducive to what many try to accomplish. In fact, it is easy to see that the lack of continuity in relationship and parallel lack of personal investment in the relationships makes such child-care employees much less likely to care as much as a parent. There is not the same incentive, nor the same opportunity.

Institutions, such as schools, orphanages, prisons, and hospitals, are well known for their lack of ability to treat people as individuals. Being treated as an individual is something we all crave, because we are individuals. It is also how we reach our greatest potential, because only then can we give priority to the learning, healing, or work that will give each of us our greatest results. When we are at our best, we have more to offer to others.

Still, some people argue that school is such a normal part of childhood that someone who does not attend will not be ready for “real” adulthood. These arguments are usually made in sweeping terms, assuming that the family model of learning about social interaction needs to defend itself. This is ironic considering that family is the most obviously natural arrangement for nurturing and training children. Institutions are tortured attempts at mimicking what the family by biological design provides.

Possibly at this point, someone will fall back on claiming that such institutions are necessary for education. For that, I point you to this discussion of common misconceptions about education, and what institutional education is really about. Also, I will ask, who decided institutions are the epitome of education when families are what children are born into? Why is it not rather the job of those who champion such institutions to prove that they are superior and necessary?

We should not confuse common with normal in the best sense normal. Normal in its best sense means that which conforms to the innate character of something. The innate character of child training is the family.

In a family, a child has the long term relationships that foster security and understanding. The security is important to learning, because a sense of security leaves a child’s mental and emotional faculties free and flexible to learn. Understanding is important because learning takes place best where there is optimum communication and insight into a child’s needs. Parents by far have the greatest capacity, desire, and opportunity to understand their children.

Let’s divide our culture’s categorization of childhood into two parts. First, there is what I will call true childhood. During this time, a child is developing the cognitive and physical abilities to take care of themselves. They really need care takers to make sure their basic survival needs are met and that they are protected. This probably runs from birth to 12 years, on average.

Next, there is what I will call forced childhood. This is a time that has been legally mandated as childhood, from around 12 years to 18 or 21, depending on the particular behavior (in the United States driving allowed at 16, financial independence at 18, drinking alcohol at 21). During this phase of life, there is a definite lack of experience, and some physical strength that might be gained, but basically people in this age category are very capable of making their own choices. While they may need and hopefully seek much counsel, they are quite capable of survival, love, and wisdom on their own. Most people are comfortable leaving young children with young adults of this age.

In true childhood, the family is easily the most secure and understanding place children can be. There is no more need to subject them to the pressures and forces of the world than to expose them to virulent diseases. Their systems are not strong. The family provides a secure place to learn how to communicate and be responsible without fear. Here is also where social skills are actually more fully tested, as we all know that those we live with see us at our most raw. It is at one time the safest place and the place where iron rubs iron.

Forced childhood is probably the source of much so-called teenage rebellion. People this age don’t want to be treated like children, because they intuitively know they aren’t. If they are treated with respect, rebellion will be mild to non-existent. There still might be requirements if they live in their parents household, but it is recognized that they are more contributors and will venture out on their own. Hold a bunch of young adults in an institution against their will, who are naturally trying to stretch their wings, and it is no wonder there is conflict. This not the way to teach people mutual cooperation; it is the way to teach them what prisoners feel like.

What do most people want for children socially? They want them to know how to talk to other people, to resolve conflict, to follow through on agreements, to be kind and help others. This is not best learned from people they barely know, who will pass through their lives quickly, and who will bully them into conformity and hold them to constant performance pressures. It is not learned by hours sitting in desks or listening to lectures. It is not learned by high concentrations of time in age segregated environments where passing tests is the measure of one’s worth. It is best learned by being around both mature people and weaker people who need their patience, where relationships last long to get to the meat of life on all levels.

Too often, the assumption is that a child who stays at home will not learn to talk with people, understand cultural norms, or be able to navigate work place hardships. This is silly because culture starts in the home and every home is a culture of its own, whether children go to institutional daycare or not. In homes, there is much work to do to make it what it is, yet the same people who want children to “be ready for the workplace” balk at the idea of children learning to work at home. If homes are not functioning as well as they might right now, it is quite probably because families are fractured by the time and influence at institutions.

It is odd that though most people will readily recognize that children who grow up in orphanages have difficulty thriving, they cannot see how schools are basically daytime orphanages. It is well known that children who have spent a lot of time in orphanage have trouble bonding in relationships. They either become deceptively outgoing, seeking attention; or they become passive and withdrawn, seeing no hope and not wanting to be abandoned again. I saw this clearly in the mere two weeks I spent being a surrogate mother to children in an orphanage in Zambia. It is backwards to send children to daytime orphanages for hours every day and then complain families are dysfunctional.

There is no good reason to ask if young children who spend most of their hours at home will develop social skills. Of course they will. There is no good reason to to expect young adults who are confined to institutions until they are 18 to have an advantage over those young adults who get to spend lots of time having one-on-one conversations with the many varied adults and children in their lives. Of course they won’t. The family cannot be replaced or replicated by institutions, no matter how hard they try.