There’s no cafeteria to watch a friend accidentally snort milk out of his nose, and there’s no blacktop to kick in the winning run in kickball.
But for homeschoolers in the 21st century, that doesn’t matter.
Contrary to decades of stereotypes painting homeschool students as awkward and asocial, today’s homeschoolers have far fewer difficulties in building healthy friendships than they did in the past.
Technology’s rise has been so swift and widespread, much of the socialisation now starts on, moves to, or somehow involves the internet — no matter the learning environment.
“They’re doing just as well or better,” Brian Ray, a homeschooling researcher at the National Home Education Research Institute, tells Business Insider.
The grassroots nature of homeschooling conceals the industry’s true size. Some 3.5 million kids are homeschooled in the US today, a population that dwarfs the 2.5 million kids enrolled in charter schools.
A small but growing body of research suggests homeschoolers, compared to kids in traditional schools, grow up with stronger friendships with other kids, better relationships with their parents and adults, greater empathy, and, at least as adolescents, a greater sense of social responsibility.
“Homeschooling really cultivates a trait of open-mindedness and [being] open to new experiences,” says Claire Dickson, a Harvard sophomore who was homeschooled from kindergarten through her senior year of high school.
In Dickson’s experiences, homeschooling meant almost a complete lack of structure. She learned the basic subjects just like her peers, but she spent little time in her actual home. “I have to explain to people that we didn’t have a blackboard in our kitchen with equations written on it. I was out in the world,” she says.
Thirty or forty years ago, the stereotype of homeschoolers being poorly socialised was more fact than fiction, Ray says. Homeschooling had just been legalised in the US, and so the only people a fringe style of education attracted were people who held fringe — and some may say, quirky — beliefs.
“You were either a right-wing, Christian, semi-fundamentalist or a left-wing, move-to-the-country, wear-Birkenstocks-and-raise-goats kind of person,” he says. “But now we’re thirty-five years after that.”
A recent Pew research survey found 55% of teens said they regularly spend time with friends online or on social media, and 45% said they meet through extracurriculars, sports, or hobbies. Both statistics suggest classrooms aren’t the only way to make friends in the online era — social-media apps, sports, and music lessons know no institutional bounds.
In Mount Kisco, New York, 17-year-old John Kelley says he’s made a number of friends through social-media sites, namely, Facebook and Snapchat. Occasionally, they will get together to play tennis, but sometimes a friendship emerges unexpectedly, like at a philosophy seminar he attended last summer at Princeton University.
This month, he says, he’ll be going to Dallas to visit someone he met there and who he stayed in touch with over the past several months. The correspondence wasn’t by snail mail.
“Definitely without my phone I would not have stayed in touch with them,” he says.