Where the kids are

At some point when I was in college I decided to take all the classes I’d need to earn a teaching certificate, so I could work in a school.  I realized the other day that I didn’t make the decision because I wanted to be a teacher.  I made it because I wanted to work with kids, and school is where (most of) the kids were.

I realized this in the midst of a familiar conversation about the social life of a child considering abstaining from school.  When a young person who hasn’t been attending school expresses frustration (or is perceived to be frustrated) about his or her social life, the default recommended antidote is school. When a young person who has been in school and considers leaving, the absence of school’s built-in social component tends to top the concern list.

I’d like to think that the reason that school is our first thought, when it comes to questions of social development, is the same one that had me choose teaching.  School is just where most of the kids are.  I’d really really really like to think that that’s it: if everyone’s in school then in order to have friends you have to go there.  Of course it’s not the only access to a social life, but maybe it just seems that way, just as it seemed logical that I should teach if I wanted to work with young people.

If it’s not that, then maybe it’s because we remember our own school social lives so fondly that we forget to check to be sure that kind of social scene still exists, and if it does, whether or not that scene would actually fill the needs of the actual children in question.  But I haven’t come across very many people who have good memories of their school social lives.  Quite the contrary, in fact, so I’m afraid we can’t blame that interpretation either, at least not on any large scale.

Unfortunately, I think the reality is that we don’t stop to think about what social life is.  We don’t think about what kind of experience we want for kids.  We don’t think about what it means to be social.  We don’t think about what it takes to have a healthy fulfilling social life.  If we did, it’s hard to imagine that our first thought would be to send young people into an environment in which talking is mostly prohibited, bullying is commonplace, and competition is paramount.

There’s a real irony to this school-as-social-panacea.  In every other realm, we micromanage learning.  We tool and retool the way we make children learn to read and write and acquire every other academic skill we’re committed to.  We’re constantly changing our minds about what exactly we need to teach (within the bounds of traditional subject categories).  We start early and we pour everything we can get our hands on into the teaching.  In many cases it undermines the process, but we keep doing it.  We expect to be very involved in the process and we go to great lengths to stay involved and continue to reform the process.  When it comes to social experience and skills, our only recourse is proximity and exposure.  As long as they’re around other people their age, our actions and choices suggest, they’ll Get Socialized.  We try to intervene when there’s bullying, and we send the ones who aren’t making friends to social skills groups, but that’s the exception rather than the rule.  We don’t insist that kids are around other socially healthy beings, necessarily.  Not socially healthy role models.  Just other people of the same age.

The reality is that we have no idea how to facilitate true friend-making, how to teach kids to make the social choices that satisfy their social needs (particularly if their needs happen to be different from ours).  We resign ourselves to helping them survive a socially hostile and unsupported environment. We complain about it, and wish the schools would do better, but fair blame is pretty difficult to locate.  How many adults do you know who have full, satisfying social lives?  Our expectations for social experience are set pretty low, and kids are paying a pretty high price for it.

A first move to consider, when it seems like something’s missing from a child’s social experience (or any other, for the matter), is the discernment of what actually is missing.  Is the child yearning for more people?  Or does she just want different people?  Or maybe even fewer people?  Is it the quantity of interaction that’s off, or the quality?

If we get a sense for the nature of the problem before acting to solve it, the actions we take are much more likely to be effective.  There are, indeed, many many many young people in school.  That doesn’t mean it’s a good place to learn how to be with people.

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