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Homeschooled Weirdoes and the Culture of Conformity by B.K. Marcus

Remember that weird kid in school? I don’t mean the really scary one. I mean the borderline oddball. The one you had to talk to a bit to spot the weirdness. The boy who never knew what TV show everyone was talking about. The girl who, when you asked her what her favorite music group was, answered some long name that ended in “quartet.” The kid who thought you meant soccer when you said football.

How did you treat that kid? (Or were you that kid?)

In “Homeschooling, Socialization, and the New Groupthink,” I suggested that the most useful definition of socialization is “ensuring that a child becomes sociable, that he or she develops the intelligence and social reflexes that promote peaceful and pleasurable interactions.” I also suggested that some of homeschooling’s critics might mean something more sinister: indoctrination into a particular vision of society.

But after reading my article, third-grade schoolteacher Heather Lakemacher, commenting on Facebook, pointed out yet a different meaning of socialization: not seeming weird.

This is the real reason, she said, “why this stereotype of the poorly socialized homeschooler exists.” Whereas I had only addressed adult perceptions of homeschooled children, the true culprit, she said, is other kids:

Many of us who were educated in a traditional school have vivid memories of meeting other kids our age who were homeschooled and thinking, “Oh my god! This kid is so WEIRD!” It’s entirely possible that the child in question grew up to be a happy, well-adjusted, productive member of society. …

However, I think the stereotype exists because of the power of those childhood interactions with a peer who just didn’t behave in the way we were expecting them to behave. That’s not an argument against homeschooling, but data will always have a hard time dispelling emotionally charged memories.

She’s right. Odd kids can make a lasting impression.

Grownups regularly note how polite my homeschooled son is, or how he’ll talk to them at all when so many other kids clam up and fail to make eye contact. Adults find his lack of awkwardness with them charming. But what do schooled kids see?

Diane Flynn Keith, a veteran homeschooling mom and author of the book Carschooling, writes that homeschooled kids are, in fact, “not well-socialized in the traditional school sense.”

I hate to be the one to break it to you, but there’s nothing “normal” about our kids. Your homeschooled child is odd compared to the schooled population because they have not experienced ongoing school-based socialization and standardization. …

They haven’t been indoctrinated in the same way. They have not been steeped in the popular consumer culture to the degree that most schooled kids have been. They are not adult-phobic and peer-dependent. (“Yes, My Grown Homeschooled Children Are Odd — And Yours Will Be Too!“)

And most of the time, homeschooling parents love that about our kids — and about homeschooling in general. We don’t want them to be standard. Whether we admit it or not, we tend to think they’re better than the standard. But it’s true that our socially flexible and resilient children can be puzzling to their traditionally schooled peers, and vice versa.

So why does the assessment of weirdness flow only in one direction? Why don’t homeschooled kids think the mainstream schoolchildren are weird?

One answer is that our kids know the mainstream experience through television, movies, and books. They may not always track the finer distinctions between Degrassi High and Hogwarts, but they certainly know a lot more about schools and schooling than mainstream kids know about education outside a classroom.

But I think that even without the pop-cultural lens on the schooling experience, homeschooled kids are just less likely to see anyone as weird. It’s just not a part of their semantic reflexes. Instead they think, “I don’t get him,” or “I’m not into the same stuff she is.”

As a result, homeschooled kids aren’t just more tolerant of diversity; they’re probably also more diverse. And that’s a lot of what gets labeled weird by those who are better assimilated into the mainstream culture.

What’s probably obvious to anyone familiar with homeschooling is that it’s good for the emotional health of kids who don’t easily fit in. What is less obvious is the damage that a culture of conformity does not just to the oddballs in that culture but also to the kids who conform with ease — and to the liberty of the larger society.

For over half a century, studies have shown that the need for social acceptance not only changes our behavior but can even make us perceive the world differently — and incorrectly.

In the early 1950s, psychologist Solomon Asch conducted a series of experiments on the dangers of group influence. When presented with simple problems that 95 percent of individuals could answer correctly when free of group influence, 75 percent of Asch’s test subjects would get the answer wrong when it meant concurring with the group.

In 2005, neuroscientist Gregory Berns conducted an updated version of Asch’s experiments, complete with brain scans to determine if the wrong answers were a conscious acquiescence to social pressure or if, instead, test subjects believed that their group-influenced wrong answers were in fact correct. Not only did the subjects report that they thought their wrong answers were right; the brain scans seemed to confirm it: they showed greater activity in the problem-solving regions of the brain than in those areas associated with conscious decision-making. And the nonconformists who went against the group and gave correct answers showed heightened activity in the part of the brain associated with fear and anxiety.

Commenting on the implications of these experiments, author Susan Cain writes,

Many of our most important civic institutions, from elections to jury trials to the very idea of majority rule, depend on dissenting voices. But when the group is literally capable of changing our perceptions, and when to stand alone is to activate primitive, powerful, and unconscious feelings of rejection, then the health of these institutions seems far more vulnerable than we think. (Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking)

Groupthink, in other words, is dangerous to a free society. And we don’t always realize when we’re not thinking for ourselves.

This kind of cognitive conformity, however, isn’t fixed or universal. Not only does it vary, for example, between East and West; it has also declined in the West since the 1950s, according to a 1996 review of 133 Asch-type studies from 17 countries. That review assessed the cultures in which the studies took place to see if their results “related cross-culturally to individualism [versus] collectivism.” Unsurprisingly, test subjects were least susceptible to the reality-distorting effects of the group in the more individualistic national cultures.

We should expect the same to be true of more and less individualistic subcultures. I bet homeschoolers, for example, are less likely to show the Asch effect. I suspect the same thing of the oddballs at school.

That doesn’t mean everyone should homeschool, or that only weirdoes can be independent thinkers, but it does suggest that the more a culture values independence and diversity, the less vulnerable it will be to the distortions of conformity. And if socialization means helping kids fit in more easily with the culture of their peers, then parents of homeschoolers and schooled kids alike may want to reconsider the value of socializing our children.

B.K. Marcus

B.K. Marcus

B.K. Marcus is editor of the Freeman.

Social Science and the Nuclear Family by Steven Horwitz

The question of the importance of family structure, specifically marriage, is back in the limelight. Conservatives are promoting three papers that provide some strong evidence that children raised by married parents do better along a number of dimensions than those raised in other household forms.

For many commentators, this makes for a strong case against those who appear to claim that family structure has either a minimal effect or doesn’t matter at all. As someone who might well fall into that group, or at least appear to, I think there are several responses to these new studies, all of which can acknowledge the empirical evidence that being raised by two loving parents is better for kids than alternative family structures.

One side note: conservatives might wish to not use the term “family structure denialists” as Wilcox does in the link above.

Comparing a legitimate disagreement over empirical evidence and public policy to those who would deny the overwhelming evidence of the Holocaust is an unacceptable rhetorical move whether it comes from leftists speaking of “climate change deniers” or conservatives speaking of “family structure deniers.” The disagreements in both case are legitimate objects of intellectual discussion and the language of “denier” indicates a refusal to engage in good faith debate.

On the substance of this issue, the conservatives cheering these recent studies don’t always note that there are differences among single-parent households formed through: 1) the choice to have and raise a child by oneself; 2) death of a spouse; and 3) divorce. Each of these presents a different set of circumstances and tradeoffs that we might wish to consider when we think about the role of family structure.

The conservative defenders of the superiority of the two-parent family (and it’s presumably not just “two parents” but two parents of the opposite sex, which raises a whole other set of questions), might wish to disentangle the multiple reasons such a family structure might not be present. For example, the children of widows do better than those of women who choose not to marry the fathers of their children, and the children of widows have outcomes that look more like those of kids from two-parent families.

The empirical evidence under discussion has to be understood with an “all else equal” condition. A healthy marriage will indeed produce better outcomes than, say, single motherhood. But there is equally strong social scientific evidence about the harm done to children who are raised in high-conflict households. Those children may well be better off if their parents get divorced and they are raised in two single-parent households with less conflict.

When parents in high-conflict marriages split up, the reduction in their stress levels, especially for women, leads to improved relationships with their children and better outcomes for the kids. In general, comparisons of different types of family structures must avoid the “Nirvana Fallacy” by not comparing an idealized vision of married parenthood with a more realistic perspective on single parenthood. The choices facing couples in the real world are always about comparing imperfect alternatives.

In addition, to say that married parents create “better” outcomes for kids does not mean that other family forms don’t produce “acceptable” outcomes for kids. It’s not as if every child raised by a single mother, whether through divorce, widowhood, or simply not marrying the father, is condemned to poverty or a life of crime.

Averages are averages. Though these three recent studies do continue to confirm the existing literature’s consensus that marriage is “better” for kids, there is still much debate over how much better those outcomes are, and especially whether other family structures are or are not sufficient to raise functional adults.

And this leads to the next point, which is that parents matter too.

The focus of the “family structure matters” crowd is almost exclusively on the outcomes for kids. That parents matter too is most obvious with divorce, where leaving a bad marriage may be extremely valuable for mom and/or dad, even if it leads to worse outcomes for the kids. The evidence from Stevenson and Wolfers that no-fault divorce has led to a decline in intimate partner violence, as well as suicides of married women, makes the importance of this point clear.

We can acknowledge that higher divorce rates have not been good for kids, but we can’t do single-entry moral bookkeeping. We have to include the effects of divorce on the married couple, because adults matter too. When we add this to the idea that conflict in marriage is bad for kids, the increased ease with which adults can get out of marriages, and the resulting single parenthood, is not so clearly a net problem when we consider the well-being of both children and adults.

These calculations are complicated and idiosyncratic, which seems to suggest that they should be left to those with the best knowledge of the situation and not artificially encouraged or discouraged by public policy.

This last point raises the final question, which is what do these studies mean for public policy?

If two-parent families are better than the alternatives, what does this imply? Are conservatives suggesting that we subsidize couples who have kids? Should that apply to only biological parents and not adoptive ones? Isn’t this a case for same-sex marriage? Should we make divorce more difficult, and if so, what about the probable result that doing so would reduce the number of marriages by increasing the cost of exit?

I would certainly agree that we should stop subsidizing single-parenthood through various government programs, but I’d make the same argument about two-parent families as well. In any case, what’s not clear is what the conservatives trumpeting these studies think they mean for public policy.

Perhaps, though, they think the solutions are cultural. If conservatives wish to argue that these studies mean that we should use moral suasion and intermediary institutions such as houses of worship to encourage people to marry and stay married if they wish to have kids, or that we should encourage young people to use contraception and think more carefully about when and with whom they have sex, that’s fine. And in fact, teen pregnancies are down.

But if intermediary institutions can do all of that, then they can also play a key role in helping single parents who make the difficult decision to divorce or continue a pregnancy in the complicated circumstances of their lives. Such institutions will also likely do that more effectively than can the state.

So if we are genuinely concerned about single parenthood, we should be asking what are the best ways to deal with it. Libertarians like me might well agree with such conservatives if they think the solutions are cultural or should rest in the hands of such intermediate institutions. But if they think there are public policy solutions, particularly ones that limit or penalize the choices facing couples, I wish they would spell them out explicitly in the context of their discussions of these studies.

One last thought: It ill-serves libertarians to deny the results of good science and social science, whether it’s climate change from the left or family structure from the right. We should, of course, critically interrogate that work to make sure that it is, in fact, good. But if it is good, we should welcome it as we should first be concerned with the truth and not our ideological priors.

The next questions we should ask, however, are about the implications. In the case of these recent studies on family structure, it is incumbent upon us to assess both the quality of the work and its implications, and we should pay particular attention to what is not being seen and what questions are not being asked.

Just because one family structure is better for children all else equal means neither that other family structures aren’t good enough for kids, nor that all else is always equal, nor that we shouldn’t consider the well-being of adults when we discuss the consequences of alternative family structures.

This post first appeared at the excellent philosophy blog Bleeding Heart Libertarians.

Steven Horwitz
Steven Horwitz

Steven Horwitz is the Charles A. Dana Professor of Economics at St. Lawrence University and the author of Microfoundations and Macroeconomics: An Austrian Perspective, now in paperback.