This article is written primarily for homeschooling parents who wonder if their kids will ever find true, Christ-centered friendships with someone of similar age… and also for those parents who avoid homeschooling because they are afraid for the same reasons. I will spoil the ending for you in this first paragraph but then you still have to read the rest of the post. The answer to your question is: Likely, but not certainly.
I’m going to tell you our story and dedicate it to those moms and dads out there who have seen their children cry tears of loneliness. To those parents who know that pain and are afraid, this is for you…
Have you ever been lonely in a crowded room? I don’t believe there is a person who has never felt that kind of ironic isolation. It is a reality of which I have reminded myself of countless times over the years while parenting my children, particularly when the temptation comes to cure loneliness with extra bodies and activities. I know better. We all know better.
“Our hearts are restless until they rest in Thee, O God” Yes. We do know.
My own experience of peer relationships as a child was heavily negative. I had close friends, many acquaintances, and many places to be throughout my youth, and still I closed my eyes at night feeling isolated. I used to think that it was my personal failure. As wisdom has increased, my eyes have opened to the fact that this is simply the lot of mortals.
When my husband and I made the decision to homeschool our children, we fielded many questions about the “socialization” of our offspring. Ah, socialization! Exactly! Because we knew the long term health of our kids would depend, in large part, upon our ability to guide them to good and holy relationships.
I’ve got to be up front here and admit that we have always been rather guarded about which companions our children spend time with. We have taken the words of Scripture and the saints to heart and guarded the door…
Nothing can be more dangerous than keeping wicked companions. They communicate the infection of their vices to all who associate with them.
~ St. John Baptiste de la Salle
On the other hand, we have allowed the children to become involved in many extracurricular activities with large numbers of their Catholic and non-Catholic peers. We have been busy and surrounded by people. We have walked with them. We have coached their teams. We have stayed at practices even when mocked by the other parents. “Why don’t you put the baby with a babysitter and go have a latte by yourself?” But there is a difference between smothering a child and offering appropriate guidance and protection. By the grace of God, I believe that we have walked that very fine line somewhat successfully… but it has not come without lonely tears.
Why can’t I go to that sleepover, Mommy? The whole team is going and everyone is nice. Tommy even likes to read, like me.
On the one hand, my heart is breaking for this kid who just sees the best in people and who only wants some companionship. On the other hand, I know what I know about people and I won’t sacrifice a child’s goodness on the altar of fun times. Because I sit in the bleachers when the other moms leave, I know how the kids speak and how they treat each other. Sometimes I hear more than I would like. I know which friendships would be treacherous to a pure heart. I know when to make unexpected appearances in the girls’ locker room and when to have a young boy wait to change until certain people have left. I know which parents are filthy in behavior and speech. I know which families allow what we do not allow. It is my business to know. My vocation.
And so, every once in awhile, the child cries in his bed quietly and wonders if there will ever come a day when he will have a friend who cares about him. I tell him softly that the Lord has prepared those friendships for him and that he must not settle for less than godly friendships. He nods and continues to shed tears until he sleeps. I head off to my own room for a good cry and wonder if the problem is with homeschooling. No, I know that isn’t it. I attended some kind of institutional school from infancy through young adulthood, had many friends, and still cried through many lonely nights.
As the children have grown, I have struggled with this again and again, trying to find the balance between necessary growth, exposure, and prudence. I do not exaggerate when I say that it has been an ongoing and monumental battle (on our knees) for souls.
We are not afraid of people, we are attentive to our children. We are constantly stretching out into the world and pulling back when necessary. Being a close family allows us the strength and freedom to weather the lonely times. This approach has provided the most unexpected friendships… and surprising divisions.
I have spent countless hours discerning the correct approach to the social life of my children. I see other Catholic homeschooling families growing up and their children clinging to joy and faith… and some abandoning all of it and self-destructing. What makes the difference? Why does one Catholic child grow to be a faithful Catholic adult? Why does another child of a daily Mass attending, rosary praying, Scripture loving, service-centered family leave the Church and become a drug addict?
Free will. There is that. But there is another element that seems to be absolutely critical in formation. That element is peer influence. Socialization. Friendships.
“Bad company corrupts good morals.” (1 Cor. 15:33)
Let’s take the case of a fictitious (but representative) family who homeschools to avoid negative peer influence in school and to instill strong faith and virtue in their children. After school hours, the parents are faced with a choice: Do I keep my kids locked in the house all the time? Or do I permit them to spend time with the neighborhood kids whose behavior is rather questionable? Or is there a middle ground?
I’ve got to tell you, if you are a homeschooling parent who prefers the second option, please make sure you are the parent in the figurative and literal bleachers. You will accomplish less in your home. You will be viewed as odd by other adults. You will be viewed with disdain by some of the kids. (Those are the kids your kids should not be playing with.) You will also learn very quickly what is going into your child’s mind and heart and be able to step in at key moments… and that is worth a lot in these stakes.
It is not really a choice between the cloister and the streets of London. A third option is to build a family culture that knows how to extend beyond the castle walls in a healthy way and then fall back and regroup when necessary. We have done this with many failures and successes but our baseline remains intact.
Let’s fast forward a little… Past the lonely years when I asked the older ones to trust me about friendships. “Ask God to bring them to you and He will. Do not settle for less than those whom He chooses.” Past the countless birthday party invitations we turned down. Past the evenings when my husband and I wrestled with the question of whether indiscriminate socialization for it’s own sake was worth it….
… to the teen years. My oldest two have waited more or less patiently for the green light. It has been a long wait but they never dreamed of what God had in store for them. I dreamed of it but didn’t have any idea how it could happen. God is a designer and fulfiller of all dreams. My children are now enjoying friendships with virtue-seeking, joy-filled young people and they have also developed healthy and rewarding friendships with adults outside our family. Some of those friends live well over an hour away but my own children have learned to be patient. It is worth the wait to be able to be themselves with those who value virtue and faith. The Scriptures exhort us to do so…. and wouldn’t that be the hallmark of holy friendship? Indeed.
God has taken my dreams, their dreams, and once again expanded them.
A couple years ago, I was blessed to overhear a conversation between my oldest son and his younger brother. The younger one was mourning the fact that he had very few friends his age with whom he could spend time with. He was unhappy that I had denied his request to play with a home-educated youngster from an area Catholic family. I know what I know. He doesn’t know. I sit in the bleachers. The truth was that I would allow my son to would hang out with that boy from the daily-Mass-going-rosary-praying family when you-know-what freezes over. I just want to play! I won’t listen to anything he says! Again, I said no. The boy was seething and my heart was breaking for him. And then his older brother said this in the nighttime quiet and dark of their shared room:
I know how you feel. I have been very lonely at times. I just wanted a friend and mom would tell me that a good friend was worth waiting for. She was right… and during those lonely times, you need to just pray to Jesus to send you really great friends. It seems like it takes a long time but I promise you, it is worth it. Maybe that kid will mature and learn what it means to respect people like a Christian should, but until he does, you shouldn’t hang out with him. It’s not worth it.
That message was from one of my sons to another but I give it to all you moms and dads whose hearts are breaking for your lonely kids. Help them to develop a deep friendship with Jesus and their family members. Guard them from peers who do not honor their innocence, their dignity, or their God. Provide them with opportunities to explore the beautiful and good in life. When they’re young, hold their hand while they branch out. As they grow, sit in the bleachers. Prayerfully discern everyday and you will know when it is time to walk away.
Oh, and please pray for me… I’m got many miles left to go.