Why Homeschool Introverts?

One of the big things that introverts want people to know is that “introversion is not the same as shyness.” And it isn’t — just because someone is introverted doesn’t mean they are shy, and there are plenty of shy extroverts as well (Susan Cain has an article about this). People tend to assume shyness is the same thing as introversion, but that’s just not true. Introversion refers to a preference for how someone gathers energy — they are energized by alone time rather than by being around groups of people. Shyness is fear.

But how is it that we become shy? If it’s not inborn, then we must learn it at some point, usually quite early in our lives. You might see an outgoing child become shy, but it’s rare that a socially confident adult suddenly develops traits of shyness. So what happens to turn introverted children shy?

Confusing “Shy” and “Introverted”

The confusion between “shy” and “introverted” has a long history. Jung, whose work the Myers-Briggs test is based on, wrote that “the introverted attitude includes a tendency to be shy.” While extroverts can be shy (and it might actually be more difficult for them since shyness conflicts with their need to be energized by other people), shyness is more likely in introverts. A certain level of shyness might simply be part of the introverted temperament, but more extreme shyness and social anxiety is not an unavoidable part of introversion.

In his article “Are You Motivated by Your Fear or Your Preference?” Andy Mort says that understanding why introverts are believed to be shy and how that belief impacts society is important. Since introversion is so often confused for shyness, introverted children are often told that they are shy by well-meaning adults who think they need to “fix things.”

When I believed I was shy I adopted that label and acted shy; I feared certain social interactions because I didn’t want my ‘shyness’ to be picked up on, and so often withdrew. Shyness as an identity was reinforced by virtue of the fact that I believed my introverted tendencies were in fact me being shy. And the more I fought them by trying to be more extraverted, the more I withdrew (and more shy I believed I was) because I was using so much social energy. – Andy Mort

Rather than recognizing introverted children and teaching them how to be stable, confident introverts, we tell them they’re shy and try to turn them into extroverts. Someone once said, “Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid” (this quote is often attributed to Einstein, but I can’t find out if that’s accurate). Similarly, when we judge introverted children by their ability to be extroverts, we send them the message that there is something wrong with them, and we label that something shyness.

What Next?

It’s obvious that a solution to this problem has to include a flexibility that allows for people to actually be individuals. It’s one of the great ironies of today’s society that we’re obsessed with individualism, but only if it fits neatly within a certain standard. This is one of the many reasons parents choose to homeschool — to tailor the learning experience to each child’s needs.

One of the most common arguments leveled against homeschooling is that it creates shy, socially awkward children. In reality, homeschoolers are no more likely to be shy than public schooled children. In her book Introvert Power, Laurie Helgoe suggests that homeschooling is actually the best way for introverted children to learn, at least until school reforms like the ones Susan Cain discusses in this interview can be implemented.

For an introverted child, homeschooling offers a chance for them to learn in their preferred environment — alone or in small groups of people they know well. Since they’re not stressed by the constant over-stimulation and energy drain of being around large groups, they’ll have more social energy available when they do interact with other children, which will help them develop stronger social skills and more confidence in social situations.

These social situations could be church gatherings, homeschool co-ops, field trips, play dates — pretty much any social activity with other children and with older or younger people. Since parents spend so much time with homeschooled children, they’ll usually know them well enough to tell when the child should be encouraged to get outside their comfort zone and make friends, and when to back-off and give them “introvert time.”

My Homeschool Socialization Story

An introverted homeschooler's views on socialization at school marissabaker.wordpress.com

a picture of a much-younger me

Once upon a time, there was a little girl named Marissa whose parents were worried about her going to kindergarten. She was going to be away from home all day, five days a week for the first time in her life. So her mother enrolled her in a summer school program where she would only be gone half a day, to help her get accustomed to being away from home.

Every time Marissa was dropped off at this school, her little sister would cry because Marissa was being abandoned. Years later, there are only two things Marissa remembers about this experience. One was that the teachers wanted her to take naps on a thin blue pad in the middle of a large room filled with strange people. She never slept because she was too nervous, but she had to lay there anyway. The second is hiding under the playset outside the school when all the children were sent outside so she wouldn’t have to face the other children (her mother says one of the boys hit her, but she must have blocked this memory).

One day, when Marissa’s mother picked her up from school, Marissa was crying. She asked, “Have I been away long enough? Can I come home now?” This broke her father’s heart, and he decreed that Marissa would never have to go back to school again.

After this short summer, I was homeschooled through all twelve years of elementary, middle, and high school. My sister also graduated from our homeschool, and my brother is currently finishing up high school at home. I’m one of those homeschooling success stories who went to college, earned better grades there than I did in high school from my mom, and earned my B.A. along with an undergrad research project that I’ve been assured could have gotten me into grad school and on track for my English PhD.

Socializing Homeschoolers

The previous paragraph aside, my goal today is not to defend the academic merits of homeschooling. I want to talk about socialization. Last week, a friend shared with me a great blog post that covered everything from the hypocrisy of America’s talk about “diversity,” to the merits of homeschooling, to defending introverts. In this post, Matt Walsh addressed the frequent claim that we need to send our children to public schools so they can “be socialized.”

In fact, kids who are homeschooled tend to be much better in “social situations” because they learned how to socialize from adults, rather than aping the personality traits of their peers. Public school doesn’t make kids “sociable,” and I think you could more accurately argue for the opposite. The whole concept that we need to send our children to government facilities to be “socialized” makes me shudder. Our children aren’t animals, and I wish we’d stop speaking about them as if they were.

This is a common argument from homeschool families and homeschooling supporters. I don’t exactly want to argue against it, but I have to admit my experiences are somewhat different. While the homeschooled me was quite comfortable socializing with adults and people younger than me, I was never very comfortable in my peer group (a fact that hasn’t changed much, though I’m a little more confident around other young people since going through college). The flip side of this is public school kids I’ve met who ignore younger kids and make no effort to hide the fact that they don’t want to talk with adults. There are, of course, both homeschoolers and public schoolers who are comfortable socializing with anyone and everyone (I suspect this is a personality-type thing more than a where-they-went-to-school thing).

Introverts in School

In a book titled Introvert Power, Laurie Helgoe (who holds a PhD in psychology) discusses the pressures that introverts face in an extroverted society, including the public school system.

In an extroverted society, we rarely see ourselves in the mirror. We get alienating feedback. Alienating feedback comes in the form of repeated encouragement to join or talk, puzzled expressions, well-intended concern, and sometimes, all-out pointing and laughing. … Alienating feedback happens where neighborhoods, schools, and offices provide no place to retreat. Alienating feedback happens when our quiet spaces and wilderness sanctuaries are seen as places to colonize.

Unfortunately, I don’t have her book in front of me at the moment and can’t find the other quote I wanted online. I’ll have to make do with a paraphrase. In her discussion of the school system, Helgoe talks about how the emphasis on group projects and participation in class can sabotage introverted children’s efforts to learn. Her idea isn’t to completely do away with this kind of work, but that schools should cater to different learning needs instead of trying to fit everyone into the extrovert-ideal mold. In the absence of such an education environment, she suggest homeschooling can be the best environment for an introverted child to learn because it allows them to utilize their strengths and can more easily be designed to fit individual children.

My Experiences

Though I did have friends my age while growing up — most through church, a few through homeschool groups — I did not really interact with a wide variety of people my age until I started college. There, I got a taste of what it might have been like for me to have gone to public school. After settling into life at college, I usually ate alone while reading, talked in class only when I was called on or had an idea I really wanted to share, and socialized with a few people one-on-one or in (very) small groups. And, in spite of the teacher who proclaimed that people eating alone was the most pathetic thing in the world because at heart we are (or should be) social animals, I was content with the level of socialization I enjoyed/avoided at college.

I don’t know exactly what would have happened had I been in public school instead of homeschooled those twelve years. If thrown into the social environment of public school while growing up, I might have made friends and “crawled out of my shell.” However, I suspect it would have been much more like my summer school experience and my first quarter of college, except without the confidence gained by twelve years of studying on my own and being told it was okay to be bookish. My basic personality would not have altered, but I would have felt pressured to hide my quietness and conform instead of being supported in my personal growth. Like Beatrix Potter says in this quote, “Thank goodness I was never sent to school; it would have rubbed off some of the originality.” The world doesn’t need cookie-cutter minions popped out of identical molds and taught identical things. It needs a wide variety of people who have been given the chance to shine using their individual talents. And that is something homeschooling is uniquely suited to do.