by Julie Lynch

In high school, I knew a kid whose hobby was stealing cars and going on joyrides with his buddies. Eventually he was arrested and hauled before a juvenile court. With absolute earnestness the young miscreant stated to the judge, “Your Honor, I just fell in with the wrong crowd.”

The judge put on his glasses and leaned over the bench, “Young man,” he intoned, “Are you aware that each of your three friends has also tried that line on me? All four of you state that you have fallen in with the wrong crowd. Tell me, please, which of you will take credit for being the ‘wrong crowd’?”

We all know that the crowd is usually wrong, mostly because it is composed of multiped foolishness. Even when the crowd is not necessarily engaged in bad behavior, it still, by nature has a negative impact on the psyche of a child.

Murray Milner, a sociologist at the University of Virginia, recently completed a study on teen behavior. He concludes that while students have little power in school, they do have control over status levels within the crowd. Much of their energy is thus spent struggling on the ladder of status: rising, falling, and pushing others out of the way. “Coolness” is an endless pursuit, sapping energy and productivity. It also explains other related teen problems; drug and steroid use, anorexia, depression, promiscuity, gangs, and suicide.

Most students find themselves in a mini-crowd, or peer group. Because schools segregate children strictly by age, students settle into a system of stratification. The attitudes and behaviors of their age-mates becomes paramount; younger groups are treated with score and parents are viewed as clueless. Stratification also fosters perpetual immature by discouraging youth to socialize with adults.

Peer groups impose their own sets of values. From slang and mini-dress codes to overall attitudes about life, culture, and religion, the peer group subconsciously tells the young person how to act and think. Because approval is vital, children actually derive happiness and a sense of self-worth from acceptance by their peers. Sociologists term this “peer dependency.” If gaining peer approval means changing a religious belief or parent-taught value, studies show that more than 80% of children are willing to do so.

Peer groups are, by nature, cruel. In his book Dumbing Us Down, 26-year veteran teacher John Tayler Gatto states, “The children I teach are cruel to each other; they lack compassion for misfortune; they laugh at weakness; they have contempt for people whose need for help shows too plainly.” A friend of mine relates the story of how she started smoking at age nine: “The other kids they wouldn’t play with me unless I smoked too, so I started.” Other cruelties are more subtle, such as the amused glances tossed at the overweight kid or the veiled barbs endured by the non-athletic one. Generally, the less cool children are simply ignored, not being worthy of the attention of the self-anointed.

A study conducted in 1959 concludes that seventh grade is the point at which peer approval becomes more important than parental approval (surely this threshold is lower today). Yet seventh grade seems to be a common time for returning homeschooled student to school, so they can experience the “real world.”

In his revealing book, Teach Your Own, education reformer John Holt states, “When I point out to people that the social life of most schools and classrooms is mean-spirited, status oriented, competitive, and snobbish, I am always astonished by their response. Not one person of the hundreds with which I’ve discussed this has yet said to me that social life at school is kindly, generous, supportive, democratic, friendly, loving, or good for children. No, without exception, when I condemn the social life of school, people say, “But that’s what the children are going to meet in ‘real life.’”

It doesn’t take a Ph.D. in logic to realize that junior high and high school have little to do with “real life.” Real life doesn’t have enforced peer groups, age segregation, battles for status, and constant pressure to conform. If people acted in the workplace the way kids do on a field day, Mike Smith of HSLDA calls high school a completely artificial environment for socialization.

For home-taught students, the primary peer group is the family. The primary imparter of values is the family. The primary source of love and acceptance is the family. Why replace this model with a crowd of foolish age mates?

Home education actually delivers students from the crowd. It frees them to form friendships and to engage in meaningful activities without becoming a carbon copy of his peer group. A study by the National Home Education Research Institute finds homeschool graduates to be more involved in their communities, more spiritually serious, more self-reliant, and generally happier than their public school counterparts.

The crowd asks the wrong questions. It asks, “What do others think?” and “What are the cool kids doing?” Our children need to ask, “What does God think?” and “What does He want me to do?” Pondering these questions will lead to more than physical and emotional well-being. It will save souls.

Written in August 2004, this article was published in CHEA’s Support Network News, receiving the “Best ‘Why I Homeschool’” Award from the Support Network. Julie Lynch was the leader of Homebuilders in Contra Costa County.