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January-February 2006 Selected Content

How to Join a New Homeschool Group - Kathleen McKernan

It's a new homeschool park day and my kids--all four of them--are clinging to me. It's a big park with lots of kids, lots of kids they don't know. I don't know many of the mothers, either, and they're all gabbing away with the people they do know well.

My oldest son is nine and we've been attending homeschool functions since he was three. For years, I've heard the complaints after a homeschooler's less-than-successful introduction to a new group: "I went to this park day but never really felt comfortable." "It seemed like everyone already knew each other." "No one made me feel welcome." At this park day, I'm getting a bit of that feeling myself.

I'll admit I'm a recovering shy person. Groups of people sitting together and laughing dredge up my insecurities, probably stemming from my own school years. Like so many homeschoolers, I'm intellectually independent, and I'm aware that one of the reasons I haven't done all that well in group situations over the years is because I don't necessarily like being a part of a group. When I was a child and a teenager and "fitting in" often meant acting in a way I considered, well, stupid, my group-aversion was even more intense. Despite, or maybe because of, my public school education, I was lousy at socialization.

But as a grown-up, I've enjoyed finding my niche in the workplace and in various organized groups, and I've had no trouble making friends and thriving among many different kinds of people. With homeschooling, as with new motherhood, I think having a group can make or break your experience. The breadth of ideas that others bring to homeschool groups invariably inspires me with my own children.

I've found, though, that whether or not I'm going to fit in with a homeschool group is largely in my hands.

About a year ago, within days of moving to Los Angeles, I joined the closest homeschool support group. My littlest one was nine days old, and I was in that new-mother fog, but my other children were sick of staying in the house. As I was caring for a newborn, I was also dealing with unhappy older children who missed their old friends and desperately wanted new ones.

So we started going to the weekly park day.

Admittedly, it was easier for me to make friends than it was for my children. I had a newborn in my sling--and that's a definite conversation starter, especially with homeschooling mothers who were eager to share their own birth and breastfeeding experiences.

For the first few weeks, the two older children played with each other. The two-year-old stayed with the baby and me most of the time. But soon, all three of them were mixing it up with the other children and looking forward to Mondays.

Looking back, I realize that there are certain things I've done that have helped my children and me feel a part of new groups more easily. And, so, with great fanfare, I pass on my "Rules for Enjoying Park Day."

My rules are probably remedial instructions; a naturally gregarious person might not need to follow them. But for those of us who are a little more reserved, I consider them crucial for "breaking in" to a new group. Here are the rules:

Come every week.

The most cliquish group of people won't be able to ignore you if you're there all the time. After more than a year of regular attendance, I'm not good friends with everyone, but I have plenty of good friends. Plus, there's something comforting about the routine of knowing it's Monday, and we're going to park day. Park day is sacred on our schedule. The rest of the week, we're pretty flexible. Park day we can't miss.

We go if it looks overcast or if it's sprinkling or if it's windy or if it's hot. (We don't go if the rain is pouring down.) We go if I have a lot of work to do, or if we've had "one of those mornings." Sometimes we're late, but we always go. There's a reason for that.

I used to attend a park day in our previous city, but we started missing one here and there and then three or four in a row and, then, before we knew it, we really weren't regulars anymore. The group had evolved in a way we didn't recognize and weren't particularly fond of. If we had continued going regularly, we might have been more comfortable with the changes. Or, we might've abandoned the group sooner, recognizing a poor fit.

My kids were younger then, and it was more my own scheduling conflicts that kept us from park day. Now, I can't imagine scheduling anything during park day time.

When you're new, come early, before the children have established their games.

It's easier for children to make friends with new kids when they don't have a choice of playing with anyone else. It also makes it easier on the mom, as it's as hard to approach a whole group of adults who are talking with each other, as it is to jump in on some new kids game. The first couple of times we came, we did have to walk up to a big group of people who were already meeting. I did OK, but my kids struggled a bit because of it. The third time we came we were the first ones there, and I would mark that as the beginning of our acceptance into the group.

Participate in as many group activities as possible.

There's nothing like showing that you're a committed, if new, member of a group than to participate in the other activities. We strive to attend most side events. I'm not talking about every field trip, but things like recitals, science fairs and other themed events. We're not necessarily participating, but we usually come to show support for the children who are. I also organize field trips myself--although less often now than when I had fewer children.

When there's a group effort to help someone out, I'm one of the first in line. Not only because it's the right thing to do, but it also establishes my family as part of the community. Early on, I could've said, "I barely know this woman" when there was a request to bring meals to a mother with a new baby. Which was true. I definitely know the needs of a new mother, though, and helping one out just felt right. That first new mother is one of my family's closest friends at the park.

I also became somewhat active on the local homeschooling email lists. I tend to read more than I post, but I post often enough that I have somewhat of a presence. I'm not exclusively a lurker, and I think it helps to have your name familiar to all, especially those who are more peripheral park day attendees.

Don't let the fact that the group doesn't fit perfectly dissuade you.

Where I live in Southern California, there's such a high concentration of people that many people get in the bad habit of needing to associate only with people who are making this-or-that specific choice. I've seen women refuse to advance friendships over different diapering choices. That's so limiting. Yes, it's nice to find like-minded people, but it ultimately expands your mind more to learn from many different kinds. The worst friendship break-ups I've witnessed involved people who bonded intensely and quickly over relatively shallow issues. As their children grew, equally shallow issues blew up their friendships.

I'm not saying homeschoolers should befriend anyone and everyone who homeschools. I do think my associations with people who are different from me have, while occasionally making life uncomfortable, added enjoyment to my life and helped solidify my own values.

That's it. Those are my rules. I know some people might balk at the tenaciousness required or be uncomfortable with the responsibility placed on the new person joining the group. My rules take into account what is realistic to expect of people. Maybe people should be welcoming to newcomers, but the reality is they're not always that focused on them or they're not as welcoming as the newcomer wants or their version of welcoming is different from the newcomer's.

I try to join a new group looking for the good I can find in it. If a group really is nasty and cliquish at its core, I don't think my rules would work. So far, when I've made the effort, my four-point plan for becoming a member of a new homeschool group has worked 100 percent of the time.

© 2006, Kathleen McKernan

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