Optimal socialization

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This text is part of: "I would never send my kids to school" by Piotr Wozniak (2017)

Socialization model


The process of socialization can be modelled. Models are needed for optimization. With a good model, we can optimize socialization using a set of chosen optimization criteria.

Socialization model illustrates shortcomings of modern mass socialization via schooling.

In this chapter, I will look at socialization as a neural learning process that is governed by a set of rules developed in the course of biological evolution. Those evolutionary rules are derived from game theory. The behavioral dynamics that determine the learning process in socialization are also affected by game theory.

The presented model of socialization is not value based or value dependent. Optimization criteria can be chosen using a different set of values. Kids, parents and educators can use the conclusions coming from the model to plot their own developmental trajectories. Those trajectories will be different for a Christian, Muslim, anarchist, or an atheist. All value systems can benefit from good modelling of the socialization process.

In the end, a common set of socialization strategies seems to emerge independent of the value system. The chief reason for the common core is that it emerges from the overarching goal: the good of the child.

Evolution and game theory

The name "socialization" might imply that sociologists are best equipped to analyze and optimize socialization. However, as socialization is all about behaviors, it is the behaviorists who might be better equipped to understand its underlying mechanics.

My work revolves around efficient learning. Socialization is a very special form of learning, and my specialization makes me see it in a very unique light. My background in biology helps me see the evolutionary aspect of socialization. There are things in our behavior that socialization will not and should not change. Socialization does not change our genes or our hormones. It can only result in changes in the brain via learning.

My background in computer science helps me see socialization in terms of game theory. If you distill the unchangeable biological components from the popular meaning of socialization, game theory can explain a great deal of social behavior. This makes modelling of social dynamics easier. With a good model, we can begin the process of optimization. We can take an analytical approach and look for strategies that would result in the best outcome given a set of criteria.

Socialization process

Socialization process occurs via exposure to social interactions in a social context. Socialization cannot be programmed, micromanaged, derived from books, or based on instructions from a teacher. The external forces may have an impact on the direction of the socialization, e.g. by choice of environments, or on via a commentary. However, the process itself is neural and organic, and it should be subject to minimum external interference. In short, you cannot take a kid's head, point it towards a stranger, and instruct him: "say 'Hello'".

Optimization criteria

At the choice of optimization criteria, we run into first trouble with the concept of universal socialization. We need to know what we are trying to achieve. Should socialization serve the society or the individual? Or do we have a multicriterial problem at hand. We instantly see that the optimization of socialization will be inseparable from values. This means that optimization of socialization will always be a question of personal choice. We may codify certain aspects of socialization goals in law to provide the boundary conditions. The law may make breaking certain social norms illegal. We largely agree that killing should be illegal. However, more detailed socialization guidelines would encroach on personal convictions and freedoms.

For example, spanking has been made illegal in several countries. Nudity in public is illegal worldwide. Unveiling one's face may be illegal. Veiling one's face may be illegal. It is easy to see that codifying socialization goals in law nearly always involves limiting personal freedoms. As much as the state attempts to never intervene in the matters of religion, it should minimize its intervention in defining optimum socialization. The analogy to religion is striking when we compare the goals of socialization for a Christian, Muslim, socialist, or for a liberal.

Here I propose a major simplification of the optimization problem. I claim that socialization optimized for an individual will serve society as a whole. In other words, if you make an individual well-socialized and happy, he will likely make a good contribution to society. It is not much different from market economics: we want to minimize legal constraints on businesses in the belief that markets predominantly optimize in the direction of global good. Individualistic socialization optimizes for an individual, and will leave some members of society unhappy or hurt, as much as market economics incurs many casualties.

All forms of socialization would lead to a different social life which is a non-zero sum game. Stable strategies in individualistic socialization will produce maximum social gains. The losers of the game will primarily recruit from those who were poorly socialized. We cannot optimize globally, because individual strategies will be closely linked to personalities and values. Global optimization is complex and is not possible for it is data deficient.

In addition, I believe that socialization should serve individual productivity, and should free the talent and creativity. This is where the greatest potential of socialization lays hidden. Genius and creativity provide exponential returns on investment. Those who fail to conform to social pressures will often be labelled as poorly socialized. I take the opposite view: socialization should make sure an individual can accomplish great goals independent of pressures exerted by others.

If you disagree with that claim, this chapter will not convince you. Please refer to your sociology textbook for a more standard take.

As of this point I will limit my considerations to the following socialization creed:

  • Human beings are social.
  • Socialization should not attempt to change behaviors ingrained by evolution.
  • Socialization cannot be micromanaged.
  • Socialization is a form of learning via generalization derived from sample experiences.
  • Socialization operates on behaviors that are derived from game theory.
  • Socialization can be optimized.
  • Optimization of socialization should focus on the primary criterion: humans should be productive members of society.
  • Optimization must be individualistic because it depends on individual personality and individual values.

Goals of socialization

"Society is a republic. When an individual endeavors to lift himself above his fellows, he is dragged down by the mass, either by means of ridicule or of calumny. No one shall be more virtuous or more intellectually gifted than others. Whoever, by the irresistible force of genius, rises above the common herd is certain to be ostracized by society, which will pursue him with such merciless derision and detraction that at last he will be compelled to retreat into the solitude of his thoughts." - Heinrich Heine

Social skills and social intelligence

Do we want to develop social skills or social intelligence? The first approach is egalitarian and utilitarian. It aims at forming a harmonious society. However, social intelligence is more progressive and farsighted. We do not just want to form a society that functions well and keeps everyone happy. Focus on social intelligence is a way for advancement on a social platform and well beyond.

Social competence is one of the goals of socialization. Peer acceptance may be used to assess social competence. I believe that goals of socialization must primarily favor productivity derived from effective function in society. Peer acceptance should be secondary, esp. if it does not align with goals and psychological needs of an individual subject to socialization.

In essence, we rather want the smart ones to lift the society up instead of just making them adapt to social norm to please the average. I will assume that socialization is more about developing social intelligence, not just social skills.

Perpetual learning

One of the main purposes of early socialization is to facilitate social function. Socialization is a failure not when it makes an individual less productive or less happy. The main self-perpetuating impact of poor socialization is when it results in social withdrawal, asociality, or anti-socialization. Withdrawal leads to less progress in further socialization and a feedback loop that threatens to lock an individual in a lonely corner. The very least purpose of early socialization should lead to establishing a platform for lifelong social learning. Few people can be considered well-socialized by the age of 20. This is a process that will continue for life. For many, social anxiety is an inherent part of their personality. For those individuals, coercive socialization may leave scars for life. Due to the existence of critical periods of development, early life may determine the outcomes in social development. There is a world of difference between growing in a loving family, or growing up in daycare.

Social intelligence

Social intelligence is what makes humans unique. While we have poor memory for sets, lists and numbers, we have a great memory for visual images (like many other animals). We also have a great memory for social situations and for the language. Advancement in social and abstract thinking required a sharp departure from the detail-oriented brains towards generalizing brains that employ forgetting to more efficiently reason about the environment.

When I hypothesize that the human learn drive contributed to the spurt in brain growth 2 million years ago, I should add that social intelligence is one of the key areas where the learn drive is employed. This is in agreement with hypotheses of Humphrey, Mithen or Dunbar except for the fact that social intelligence makes only a large component of overall human intelligence based on a good use of the learn drive. The Facebook epidemic today relies on the same basic drive to understand other people and their place in social hierarchy. However, we all agree that Facebook will not completely satisfy the learn drive in most people. We still want to know the news, understand science, look at beautiful pictures, etc. A healthy learn drive goes well beyond just the social sphere.

Facebook might be contributing to our new take on social intelligence that keeps evolving and integrating the digital component in new ways to interact, form relationships, hierarchies, and social groups. Obviously, that powerful force may be used for good and for bad.

Social competence

Social competence is the ability to effectively accomplish goals in a social context. For me there are no hedonic aspects to social competence beyond the obvious association between a happy state of mind and productivity. In other words, social competence should lead to a happier life, but it is the productive life that defines it. Social competence should also make members of a social group happy, but this again would not override the underlying goal of productive life.

My terminology makes little difference between social competence that leads to individual productivity and social competence that leads to global good. Those are indistinguishable on the assumption that individuals should be free to set their goals and that freedom leads to a resultant global good.

Lack of social skills leads to social avoidance, which can severely cripple an individual in most contexts. However, I can also imagine situations in which a social misfit is highly productive while working on some genius idea. For example, a mathematical theory. This tells me that socialization should be just one of the components of education, however, it should not override other goals of learning if they loom paramount. Freedom in satisfying the learn drive and the growth trajectory should prevail even if socialization suffers as a result. It is the individual who should make his own decisions. Socialization should not be achieved per force, should not be mandatory in any way (other than in cases like criminal re-socialization), and should not lead to distress which might result in asociality.

Socialization as a rule generalization

Socialization is a form of learning that is largely based on neural network generalizations. We do learn some social rules from others, incl. parents. They may politely explain that it is nice to say "Hello" to other people to signal good intent and a friendly disposition. However, this declarative learning is not sufficient for effective socialization. Social competence cannot be achieved by reading books on social competence. As it is always the case in neural learning, good generalizations require a good sample. We experience real life situations, find commonalities, and draw conclusions. Those conclusions may have a form of neural generalizations, i.e. we internalize experience without consciously declaring or realizing the rules. In short, to play well in social situations we need to experience many social situations.

The problem with social skills is that they may align and form differently depending on the context, learning sample provided, composition of social groups involved, etc. For example, socialization in prison leads to a different skillset as compared to socialization in a playground. Social rules may turn out contradictory in different contexts. This is why rapid changes of social context may actually impair learning. Rapid changes may lead to interference and instability.

Neural principles of socialization

Let's define socialization as the following processes:

  • developing skills for coping with a constellation of personalities (one to one interaction)
  • developing skills for coping with a constellation of social dynamics (one to many interaction)
  • adapting individual behavior in the face of social pressure (many to one interaction)

By coping skills, I mean all skills targeted at minimizing aggravation and maximizing the pleasing effect for both parties of the interaction, while productively accomplishing goals in a social setting.

Two principles should be kept in mind when viewing socialization as a neural learning process:

  • pre-training: for best social competence in a given environment, socialization should proceed in contexts that resemble that target environment (esp. in cultural and social terms)
  • incremental change: once high competence is achieved, incremental change to the environment may lead to further learning. Incremental approach is needed for algorithmic stability based on lower degree of interference. Incremental changes are also beneficial for psychological reasons. Rapid change of environments entails stress which may condition asocial behaviors

This simple neural model makes it easy to compare socialization effects of different social groups, and different socialization trajectories in development. For healthy kids, employing the above principles allows of traversing any social trajectory towards any social setting. The process of change can be iterated over and over again in different social groups and different contexts. However, practical limitation of lifespan inevitably leads to a whole constellation of socialization rulesets that never become stable. We never finish the socialization process, and always modify our behavior in the wake of interaction with others.

In practical terms, those neural principles mean that for a CEO, feasible and useful socialization might proceed from a family setting, to peer groups (incl. one to one interactions), to business-like environments (incl. one to one interactions). Those may later be enhanced by socializing in a proverbial golf club. Exposing a future CEO to socialization in a hunter-gatherer tribe or in a football team might be educational but not a sine qua non of good social competence in business. Similarly, socializing in academic setting of a business school may be helpful but not indispensable. The entire learning trajectory is based on a feedback loop between social skill requirements and personal preferences. The target is never known in advance.

In contrast, for a researcher, socialization might begin in a family setting, advance to peer groups, to college, and to academic environments. A scientist socializing with lawyers, clergy, or with politicians will soak in inspiration, learn a great deal, but again, if deprived of those options, a scientist can still thrive in his field, and in his particular social setting.

The verdict

Socialization must favor social productivity. Cognitive social skill deficits or self-control deficits would undermine social competence, however, understanding others does not need to lead to submission or seeking acceptance.

I believe that socialization should aim at social competence based on social performance and productivity. Isaac Newton, Steve Jobs or young Bill Gates may have ridden over somebody's toes, but society needs this type of creative genius to prosper. If others suffer due to poor genius socialization, they also need to expand their ruleset to minimize aggravation. Socialization is not a one-way process. Societies change individuals, but individuals also change societies. Elon Musk may need to stand in opposition to social pressure to accomplish greater goals and lift society to a new level. Obviously, there is always a friction and trade-offs between social demands and creative performance.

  1. The minimum goal of early socialization should be to establish a platform for lifelong learning in the area of social competence
  2. The ultimate goal of lifelong socialization is to equip the individual with skills that will make her an effective member of society
  3. We should not demand that socialization lead to skills aimed at pleasing others at the cost of one's own effective social function
  4. Socialization must be individualistic, appetitive and free. It should take into account individual preferences, personalities, and values

Socialization: Free or Institutionalized?

One of the stated purposes of compulsory schooling is socialization. I will try to show that socialization via schooling is not only sub-optimum, it may also be wrong. When choosing the optimization criteria, we already see that the concept of universal socialization comes from social utopia. Socialization will never escape the fact that society is made of factions and ideologies that all have different goals and will employ different optimization criteria.

Institutionalized socialization

Daycare and school are often promoted as having powers of good socialization. Socialization is rarely well-defined in that context, however, it is supposed to serve society. Isaac Newton might have had miserable social skills, however, his long-term impact on human progress is astounding. Poor socialization hurt Isaac himself more than it hurt society. It was good enough to only make sure that he did not destroy his own work as a result of being disappointed with social frictions. Incidentally, religious mythology also stole a great portion of the genius's life and might have done more damage to his work than poor socialization. Poor socialization is usually a serious handicap, however, many super-smart people seem to thrive despite being poorly understood or even ostracized. Is Donald Trump well socialized? Or is he socialized well enough to thrive in the pursuit of his own goals? In some cases, poorly socialized geniuses love their own social awkwardness as if it was a badge of honor. For that reason, socialization should belong more to the sphere of personal choice than to the sphere of common good.

How does schooling meet the neural principles of socialization mentioned above? In terms of the environment, schooling is socially poor and inadequate. It adds only a very tiny fraction of skills needed, primarily in age segregated peer group, which is a highly artificial social arrangement with pretty unusual social dynamics that often translate poorly to skills needed in adult life. Age-mixed free-running peer groups in a playground provide a better model of groups encountered in later life.

In addition, interaction with adults at school is sterile in social terms. Teachers and their students almost inevitably develop a behavioral system in which there is only one center of power and there are clear submission rules. Children should be freely exposed to adults from all walks of life, all ages, all levels of skill and knowledge, all personalities, and in as many contexts as possible. Instead of healthy socialization, kids are left in a submissive position to interact with adults who are pressured by the system to form an authoritarian behavioral system.

If life is a rich jungle, school is a human-made farmyard. Farm animals don't survive well in the wild.

A great deal of troubles facing modern societies, esp. in the areas of health, mental health, productivity, job satisfaction and life satisfaction come from the effects of weak socialization in the sterile environment of age-selected social groups run in an authoritarian setting.

As for incremental change of the learning sample, schooling can offer a whole spectrum of options stretched between two suboptimum extremes. On one hand, kids may keep growing in the same age-segregated class over 8-10 years. Such a peer group is likely to develop its own unique idiosyncratic set of social rules that may turn out insufficient or even harmful at later ages. Such ruleset may turn out deeply ingrained and hard to unlearn. At the other extreme, we have kids who are tossed unprepared to new environments, e.g. new schools, or new towns. This can easily end up in bullying, ostracism, stress, etc. The case of Arian described here is a classic example of socialization turned upside down by a context change that overwhelmed the learning system. In terms of neural networks, we would call it catastrophic interference.

Both extremes, high stability and violent variability, have their advantages. Kids in a stable peer group may receive idiosyncratic socialization that will benefit their learning by providing minimum distraction. On the other hand, kids who survive violent changes of environment may receive most versatile socialization and a boost to stress resilience. They will fit a multitude of environments and thrive.

In the end, optimum trajectory will be developed for each kid individually depending on her needs, interests, and personality. The assistance in determining the trajectory should be appetitive in nature. Kids should have their own choice of friends, environments, and pursuits. All forms of artificial control can disrupt the process and lead to consequences that can scar an individual for life. As much as bad schooling can produce a hate of learning, artificial socialization efforts can produce a social misfit.

Free socialization

It is true that schooling is a form of socialization, however, there are superior approaches in terms of cost and quality.

Unschooling is not social deprivation. It usually leads to socializing differently or better. We are social for evolutionary reasons. Some individuals have lesser social cravings. Optimum socialization is based on behavioral feedback. Natural predispositions and drives should also determine how we socialize. Schooling limits those options.

If we look at the biographies of great men from the past, we can see clearly that growing up with adults, home-based education, or living in small remote places never seem able to stop their progress towards greatness. Even more, a degree of isolation seems to boost creativity. Secondly, playgrounds and sports fields seem far better for socializing than schools, where most of the time is spent under the rigor of obedient focus on the learning subject. Last but not least, governments would probably gladly accept an infusion of social misfits like Isaac Newton over a mass of nicely socializing low achievers. Naturally, social deprivation stunts the brain and actually undermines anyone's Newtonian potential, so it needs to be taken seriously. Institutionalization is never optimum in that respect.

Isaac Newton seems to have defied all my rules for harboring genius. Born prematurely, without a father, he never experienced a loving household, and hated his step-father. He never socialized and is even rumoured to have died a virgin. He was unloved and asocial. He was a lousy student, and even did not learn mathematics at school. When he listed his sins by 19, he included "Threatening my father and mother to burn them and the house over them". His investigative life was passionate and largely lonely. He was probably just born a genius that would transpire independent of circumstances.
I venture we need people like Newton. His unfortunate upbringing probably hurt mostly himself. He was a treasure for mankind though. His squabbles with Hook might have resulted in his Principia never been published. Perhaps this would delay mankind by decades?

If schools are great for developing social skills, it must be for clustering people in groups in limited spaces in limited brackets of time. If so, any organized activity for children can play that role. If there is a total of 1-2 hours for socializing at school, a similar amount of time spent in a football club, dance club, or chess club could do the same job and better. If 2 hours does not suffice for optimum development, the time can be extended. Make it 6 hours for the sake of mathematical proof. Whatever the optimum number, it can be achieved easily. Homeschooling families report they find this socialization component easy to achieve. They are even scornful when facing the question: "Are homeschoolers well socialized?". Homeschoolers are a bit different from your average child. They are each unique. They show special areas of strength. They might be difficult in character, and so are most great people. They come with some sense of elitism, but this might actually be good at the social level. I sympathize with their scorn of the "socialization question".

Parents who send their kids for organized evening activities tend to praise the socialization factor, as well as the fact that in those social settings kids are more likely to meet with pre-selected kids who belong to the "more desirable" crowd from the educational and behavioral point of view. In ethnically diverse countries, "desirable crowd" may have bad connotations. In Poland, it simply implies that little hooligans tend not to come to a dance class. In addition, they may also like the pre-selection of parents. One dad told me: "I was surprised to meet the same faces in swimming lessons. The same parents who brought their kids to aikido, picked up a chance to train their kids with an Olympic swimmer. That's fun for both parents and kids. The circle is closer and well-integrated". The glue of that social circle was the enthusiasm over the development options for kids. Last but not least, Dr Peter Gray has no doubt that even those extra activities organized by adults are not a good idea for socialization. To him, nothing works better for socialization than mixed-aged mixed-ability free peer groups in the neighborhood.

Moral socialization

In the context of socialization, I often hear of parents praising school for developing moral standards. This is the opposite to reality as confirmed by a multitude of studies (at least in reference to public schools in most of the western world). This is also common knowledge. Therefore, those praises of school socialization by parents must be a form of self-excuse. My own socialization experience seems to have been more likely to send one to prison than to college. Like all forms of learning, moral socialization must be free, or it will never be internalized and acted upon with conviction.

Morality and social skills should not be confused. A conman may have great social skills while a great moralist may be socially inept. Moral standards should largely be taken from a healthy home environment. Schooling is less likely to shape those. In my own case, all morality comes from reason. I ignored the original standard that my mom tried to instill in me. These were largely Christian values, and to this day, I am greatly influenced, partly due to peer pressure exerted by society at formative years. However, me and my mom disagreed about religion. For that reason, I refused to accept moral standards based on religion only. I would pick and choose, and accept only those that were based on reason. This is why I have pretty radical approach to some institutions (e.g. marriage) and rituals (e.g. funerals) while retaining core values that are more universal across cultures with varied religious influences. In that sense, I totally disagree with the view that socialization is essential for developing morality. I agree, however, with the obvious: socialization is essential.

Circadian cycle is important

Socialization is a form of learning. For that, it proceeds best in optimum circadian learning windows. Socialization must include interaction with adults to ensure early development of high social skills. Adult to child ratio in schools is usually pretty low. Moreover, socialization with teachers is as rare as flowers in the desert. Children should be exposed to a variety of adults in a variety of contexts. This exposure must take place in the optimum circadian window, which is usually obscured by school time. Instead of healthy socialization, at school, kids interact with adults, who enter an authoritarian behavioral system. There are still evenings to interact with parents and/or other adults. However, evening socialization is as good as evening learning. It is largely useless.

Socialization is good and, for healthy kids, socialization is easy. It comes naturally as it is encoded in human psychological needs and drives. For the cases where socialization is not easy, supervised socialization is easier than just tossing a kid to school with hopes and prayers for good outcomes.

Summary: Socialization Model

Socialization model illustrates a few inherent paradoxes. On one had we want to optimize socialization, on the other, it turns out that best optimization is based on non-interference. On one hand, we want to optimize for the common good, on the other it appears that the shortest path to that goal is via optimizing for individualistic socialization. On one hand we show that value systems have no bearing on the model, on the other we see that personalities and values will determine the trajectory of optimum socialization based on the model:

  • socialization can be modelled and optimized
  • for biological reasons, optimization of socialization is achieved best with minimum intervention
  • individualistic socializations serves the good of society along principles similar to market economics
  • optimum socialization can be achieved in abstraction of value and in different value systems
  • individual personality and values may determine the optimum level/degree of socialization
  • socialization is a lifelong learning process
  • early socialization should focus on establishing a lifelong learning platform
  • coercive socialization may backfire and result in asociality or anti-social behaviors
  • critical periods in development make it important to opt against early socialization in daycare
  • social intelligence might have had a significant contribution to the increase in the size of the human brain
  • social intelligence is essential for further progress of mankind on the social platform and well beyond

Social groups


In socialization, the quality of social groups will determine the course of socialization and its ultimate outcome. Social groups will differ in sizes, composition, cohesion, etc. Understanding the dynamics of different groups is vital for optimizing socialization trajectory. Socialization is a natural process that should not be subject to interference, however, up to a certain age, parents and educators can influence the type of social groups that a child is exposed to. Those are vital choices with a monumental impact on the life of an individual. It should be obvious that socialization takes different forms in an art club, in a boot camp, or in prison.

Peer groups: mix of quality

A peer group is a type of social group in which individuals have similar rank, age, or interest.

In peer groups, kids tend to converge in behavior. There is an interesting problem of the effects of peer group composition on educational outcomes. Do the good ones lift the weaker ones up? Or do bad apples have a bigger power in dragging the whole class down?

Teacher's dilemma

For a teacher, there is a clear communication problem in classroom learning. Should she lift the class up and speak to the gifted ones? Or address the troubled kids to make sure no child is left behind? Or should she maximize the effect by addressing the most numerous group in the middle of the distribution?

In a mass of talent that follows a normal distribution, psychology drives the teacher to focus on the middle of the group. Focusing on a class genius would keep the rest bored, frustrated, or envious. Focusing on the laggers or troublemakers usually yields little return on investment. It is then natural for teacher to match the average and try to push it just a bit up.

Practice shows that teachers tend to average and perform to the class in proportion to the feedback. They will inevitably drift in the direction of communicating more with more active students. Those communications set the baseline average and determine the push zone the teacher uses. This is not the optimum push zone, but the zone of maximum tolerated push. This means that an involved and active teacher will try to execute the curriculum, and apply as much pressure as possible below the level of immediately observable regress.

Naturally, not all teachers call for or acknowledge feedback. Some speak high to the wall as if treating the class as an exercise in self-improvement or self-aggrandizement. Others will just pull out a newspaper and let the class to pasture. A good teacher may want to differentiate between students and assign tasks with difficulty proportional to ability. The problem of mixed ability is hard to crack. In essence, a teacher with many students will always be systemically handicapped. She might wish to employ low-investment homeschooling tricks: assign jobs, withdraw, and use small time allocations to supervise and assist. However, this requires intimate knowledge of each kid. In such interactions, parents always have an advantage. At the primary level, teaching geography to a particular kid requires more knowledge of the kid than knowledge of geography. To tell a kid that Chile has access to the Pacific, the teacher needs to know if the kid know what the Pacific is. It is irrelevant if the Pacific was or was not mentioned in the curriculum. In a mixed group, the Pacific may need to be explained over and over again. Such problems do not exist in free learning when a child can rely on her own learn drive.

For more on modelling mixed-ability classroom dynamics read: Suppression and convergence of growth in classroom schooling.

Drug epidemic

The issue of mixing peers intrigued me particularly in the context of drug use. Drug use statistics vary wildly from country to country, from state to state, from city to city, and even from school to school. However, the wildly unreliable number for drug use or experimentation I tentatively came up with for schools in my vicinity might be above 80%! This is far more than official numbers for the same area. It is very difficult to get any information from the kids. For obvious reasons, they are reluctant to reveal the truth to an adult. Some might be evasive, others will swear cleanliness, yet others will just giggle and ignore a stranger. Luckily, I know a lot of teens from the football field. We have had fun playing there as they had grown up from kindergarten to adulthood. These days, some of those kids move on to colleges around the country and beyond. When four independent kids, all aged 18-20, from three different schools, dropped similar numbers saying "80-85% of my peers use drugs", I concluded that the drug problem must be humongous. Official figures might be too optimistic. A research program conducted recently in the same schools gathered kids in a classroom and made them fill out an anonymous questionnaire. Kids were not too eager to volunteer the truth! What if everyone checked the box "I am taking it?". That would burst the anonymity. In the US, the same number, 80%, shows up when teens were asked if they had an opportunity to use drugs in the prior year, but the actual use was much lower. Perhaps the kids like to boast and this results in those strangely round numbers? At my time, in communist Poland, the drug use seemed to have been close to zero. I lived my school years in total ignorance of the problem. I did not hear of drugs despite of my growing up in varied neighborhoods, from impoverished and crime-ridden to relatively well-to-do. Today, I see many exuberant kids grow to become listless teens and then fade into the abyss of anonymous adulthood. I am horrified to see a change that can occur in the span of just a few years.

One of the schools attended by kids reporting on drug use was a middle school, which combined children from primary schools in 3 different areas of the city. Apparently one of those areas was relatively clean with kids coming to school with little knowledge of drugs. The other two areas were covered with primary schools where drug use was allegedly rampant. The clean kids quickly took on drug use from their "polluted" peers.

As drugs have a direct access to the reward system in the brain, they are able to take away rational control from the hands of most teens. Once they have tried, only the strongest can resist further temptation. It seems the best weapon against drugs is ignorance or ignorance of the pleasure of drugs. Either kids do not get a chance to try drugs, or they come from home with strong convictions that prevent them from ever taking a risk. This is why the case for drugs is pretty clear: mixing peers is dangerous. One bad contagious apple can spoil the whole group.

Should we then mix kids or employ some form of tracking where better students are lifted to a higher track in a separate class? Tracking brings big gains for the gifted who, at the same time, do not need to undermine self-esteem of the remaining students. However, the mere assignment to a lower track is a form of stigmatization. On one hand, life itself is a form of tracking. Some of us become presidents, some of us end up in prison or dead. On the other, comparisons and classifications are one of the chief factors that destroy self-esteem in kids. In the end, the mere fact that we try to lump together kids with a mix of quality is a problem on its own. Individualistic education (e.g. homeschooling), or democratic education in aged-mixed groups do not have those problems.

Modelling the mix

It is vital to determine who is affected more in a mixed-ability class: the good or the bad. Who drags the average more in their direction? I spoke to students, parents, and teachers to ask about their views of the averaging effect. Sadly, most of them believe that mixing up peers reduced the average performance of the entire group. However, teachers usually insist that this largely depends on student personality. There are some resilient individuals who would not bend down no matter the circumstances. Some students might even show leadership qualities and have a positive impact on the group. However, those are exceptions.

I also noted that the average would get dragged down further in schools and classes where it was already pretty low. The effect of good students lifting up weaker students would be more pronounced in good schools, and at the university level.

Is there a universal prescription for ensuring a positive outcome in a mixed-ability class?

If we tried to model social dynamics in a group of peers, the second law of thermodynamics would not be a happy hint. It is easy to destroy, it is hard to build quality. When we mix bad soup with good soup, we do not arrive at a gourmet dish. This would easily apply to drug use. Similarly, one aggressive knucklehead can poison the lives of the entire class. Thermodynamics seems to suggest the bad lot has an upper hand.

Then there is information theory. Truth increases the power of memes. Contradiction helps destroy memes. In that sense, good practises and healthy philosophies should win on the information level. However, we can also see that memes can survive on cognitive bias or the power of rewarding emotions. The case of Brexit has shown that a pleasing lie can beat any cold rational judgement. July 22, 2016 referendum is a proof that we cannot rely on the wisdom of crowds where powerful emotions get involved.

Individual personalities can upset all modelling. A student with leadership qualities may lift the whole class. A small-scale drug peddler with some persuasion skills may do the opposite.

Modelling will also be upset by teachers. Some can be great mentors. On average, they add pressure to the mix and contribute to the regress beyond the limits of the push zone. But some teachers have special skills of penetrating those social dynamics, disentangling the relationships, and tip the scales for the betterment of the whole class. Those mentoring powers are undermined when there is a large flow of student between classes, teachers, schools or cities. Microscopic interaction time on the line student-teacher makes all mentoring ineffective: the teacher has no time to get to know her kids.

The distribution of quality is also vital in answering the mixed peer question. Weaker students are more likely to be helped if they form a minority. Some boot camps for troubled teens will often use the mix of the bad with the good in the right proportion to benefit the bad. A larger proportion of gifted students can set a different tone for the whole class. As in Asch experiments, peer pressure increases with numerical advantage of a group. Immigration is a good example of the impact of distributions. A small number of migrants redistributed around Europe get easily accommodated and lifted up with benefits to societies. When their numbers keep increasing, we see formation of camps, ghettos, unemployment, discrimination, crime and, in a longer perspective, even terrorism.

Finally, even the analyzed aspect of student quality is essential. There is a different impact of the criminal element, poverty, home environment, or students with disability. In that latter case, physical disabilities and learning disabilities will also have a different effect.

Mixed-age groups

Mixed-age groups seem more natural in education. For millennia, children used to learn in families. Younger kids would learn from older kids who can maximize their learntropy. Older kids would improve their communication skills, nurturing skills, empathy, etc. As age correlates with ability and older students form a stronger force, the overall performance average should increase in a mixed-age class. In a mixed-age group, self-esteem issues seem to wane as mixed abilities get masked by mixed age. Little kids would often be proud of befriending an older one, while the older one would be proud to show off his knowledge or skills to the kiddos. I would love to see each kid receive individual treatment. Mixed-age groups simulate individual treatment to some extent while still qualifying as collective education. In mixed-age groups, there is a bit of self-directed learning, and there is a diversified social interaction. As always, the outcomes may depend on the quality of the mix, however, age mixing is usually highly beneficial. Great teachers can work with mixed-age groups to produce miraculous outcomes. However, when the group is tacked together for less lofty reasons, e.g. budgetary constraints, the outcome might be the opposite.

Mixed-motivation groups

A highly toxic mix puts together kids who truly want to learn with those who want to be free from schooling. Those are irreconcilable differences. The unhappy kids take it out on those who want to excel. This breeds bullying. When all the reluctant kids drop out or suffer grade retention, the motivated ones can breathe a sigh of relief. They can focus on learning. Making education compulsory contributes to this type of toxic mix. Compulsory schooling must end.

Mixed-gender groups

There is still the issue of gender mixing. I have never learned in a single-gender class. Only my PE classes were an approximation. They always reeked of testosterone, and a big fight was always just around the corner.

It is always worth to look back at hunter-gatherer societies looking for evolutionary and anthropological clues on benefits of mixing genders. 100,000 years ago, there were clearer gender roles and peer learning would indeed tend to separate sexes. Modern tribes seem to show more gender mixing. Today, we tend to avoid single-gender schools to prevent stereotyping.

In the end, instead of looking at learning performance, I would rather look for formulas that prevent the problem hinted at in Idiocracy. A huge proportion of my most gifted colleagues have no offspring despite approaching middle age. From the evolutionary point of view, gender mixing in a class might not be a good idea. After all, we rarely marry into a tribe. We always look for mates in the other village. I think Westermarck effect is in force in a classroom too. All my colleagues who fell in love with a classmate vehemently disagreed. This reminded me a day when our PE class was joined by girls in sports clothing. That was a real stir. This would probably not last if it turned into a routine. Separating genders seems to help the biological magic of mating. However, sociologists tend to disagree. Gender segregation may result in crippled inter-sex social skills. Some educators propose the golden mean solution for the above dilemmas: keep all genders mixed up and introduce segregation at puberty. To me, however, all forms of artificial segregations lead to reduced ability of kids to cross-inspire.

Conclusion: Free the gifted

With that many factors to consider, there isn't a single model and a single answer to my original question. I conclude:

Mixing peers has a hard to determine effect on the average performance.

This book shows a heavy bias towards helping gifted students. All kids are a treasure, but in an economic sense, it is the gifted student that provides an exponential return on investment. To be precise, the gifted student provides the best return on NON-investment, because few things serve gifted students as well as freedom. Mankind has survived despite letting millions die in pointless wars. At the same time, one Isaac Newton can lift generations and advance science by leaps and bounds. With that bias in mind, I believe that while mixing kids at school is unavoidable, the gifted ones should have their own paths. They should be unschooled, homeschooled, or at least grouped in small classes for the talented with special privileges. They need to be sheltered or set free.

In a similar fashion, the low end of the tail should not be allowed to disrupt the life of the majority. They should also receive individual treatment. I have many young friends in reform schools and they all praise the experience. The stuff in those schools specializes in solving dilemmas of young lives. Those should receive the priority over learning because they determine the long-term outcomes. It is beyond the scope of this book to decide how we should treat the most troubled students. Against all appearances, most have gold in their hearts. I was a troubled kid at some point too. However, if I was locked up with a bad lot in some correctional school, things could get really bad, I think.

In the US, the conveyor belt of social tracking sends troubled kids to prison. Not only is this expensive, this is entirely counterproductive. Smart investment in education could help mitigate that problem at a fraction of the cost of imprisonment.

Mixing peers may be a good thing, depending on circumstances. It is enriching, it can be inspirational, most of the time it is unavoidable. There is no ultimate answer to the probability of the positive outcome in a mixed group of peers. However, it is clear to me that the best students must be set free, and the most troubled students must be handled individually. In other words, we should tackle the ends of the distribution differently. Some form of tracking is inevitable for maximized performance.

Segregated peer groups

As in all forms of neural learning, in socialization, we want to introduce maximum noise in irrelevant parameters, and maximum coherence in parameters that are to be learned. For the visual system to recognize pictures of wolves, we should feed the network with all varieties of pictures of wolves so that the brain could find the commonalities. A long series of near-identical pictures of a wolf is nearly useless in recognition training.

Schools are unique in social groups in that they employ age segregation. There is nothing wrong with socialization in age-segregated groups, except this time of social training is less useful in the course of life where age mixing is a norm. We might equally well segregate kids by their interest in music. That would have some added benefit or common interest, but would on average be less useful for the same reasons as age segregation. The most extreme case of this approach would be a socializing room full of copies of yourself. Perhaps that would be great for setting up a music band, or a football team, or a single-minded research team (no conflict, no creativity), however, this group would be rather sterile in terms of socialization training. The key to socialization is to find ways through a maze of complex social dynamics that rely on inter-personal differences in varying contexts.

Desegregation speeds up socialization

Kids interacting with older kids and with adults learn more. Social science says that we tend to converge in behavior. It would seem desirable if kids could follow adult role models and converge in that direction rather than focusing on creatively exploring social reality with their peers. When they have no examples to follow, they get more creative, they break barriers, and, paradoxically, will come out less socialized by adult definition. That creative component would be highly beneficial if it wasn't invariably dangerous. Kids left alone on their own do not follow the Lord of the Flies scenario, however, they will invariably run into a variety of problems. Aged-mixed setting of a democratic school with a tiny admixture of adulthood seems far superior, and research seems to confirm that those kids get the best type of socialization we have known.

To those who insist that schools are superior in teaching and in socializing, to those who believe that schools a great socializing ground because of the contact with peers, we should address the questions of asymmetry: if acquiring academic knowledge requires a qualified adult teacher, why do we insist that most of social learning occur with unqualified peers? In my ideal model, most of academic learning should be acquired via self-learning in sparse consultation with adults, and with cross-inspiration from peers. On the other hand, best socialization occurs in a constellation of mixed-size and mixed-ability groups. To be precise, all personality, knowledge, skill, and goal parameters that play a part in social interaction should ideally be fed into the socializing setting in maximally varied combinations. Neural networks may benefit from pre-training for faster convergence. In a similar way, open-minded adult commentary can speed up the socialization process.

Daycare socialization debacle

The saddest side effect of kindergarten socialization is the slow transformation of a young mind from the inborn social attraction to peers towards seeing them all as competitors in the game of life. While we can see life as a non-zero sum game, it is rarely the case with kids competing for toys, food or spaces. The kid who used to love his peers may easily turn into a lone wolf who puts a high price on me-time. This is the exact opposite of what we want to achieve in socialization. Parents of young siblings see those processes develop on a daily basis at home too. We do want to grow efficient social players, however, we also want to be sure they do not develop a lesser love for the rest of humanity. Cooperation trumps winning (the play on words is intentional).

Cultural context

Socialization is context dependent. Usually it is a good idea to keep a group of kids together in the same class for many years of schooling rather than to keep changing classes, schools or towns. The monotony of sameness is good for it does not provide distractions from learning. However, the same monotony weakens the socialization value of the classroom. Small groups develop their own micro-cultures and behavioral systems. In this sense, socialization in a class is not much different from socialization in a bigger family except is it age-segregated, and consequently knowledge-segregated, as well as ability-segregated, incl. social skill level segregation. A simple illustration of the contextual dependence of socialization is the fact that many years of socialization in an Asian culture, e.g. Japan, may be useless when moving to Middle East, Europe, or America. At younger ages, we struggle less when moving to a country with a new culture. This illustrates the power of oversocialization. Too much learning makes forgetting hard, and forgetting is vital for adaptation. This contextual dependence of socialization re-emphasizes the fact that socialization is most universal if it spans multiple varieties of environments.

Socialization is like learning in general. Richness is welcome, but specialization is unavoidable. Like general knowledge, acquisition of social skills can be compared to a tree growth (see: tree metaphor). The only major difference is that the learn drive in socialization will be subject to valuations based on (1) game theory, and (2) imprints derived from years of evolution of brain networks responsible for human social intelligence.

Adults vs. peers

Peter Gray is a worshiper of age-mixed peer groups. He has devoted a great chunk of his research to the subject. In short, toddlers will often engage in parallel play in which their interaction will be limited. On the other hand, when mixed with 4-6 year olds, toddler will interact and learn far more. Playing with a loving parent is also of value, but peer mixing provides a never-ending source of self-directed play and learning. Learntropy is lower, i.e. less rewarding, when interacting with kids of the same age. It is lower in interaction with adults whose communication system is often too complex for the young brain. In other words, for a 3-year-old, maximum play learntropy might come from kids in the age bracket 4-10 years. Naturally, increasing adult exposure will shift the optimum learntropy age bracket, and it is not unusual or bad for small kids to prefer teen or even adult company. Preference for adults may actually be a hallmark of maturity, e.g. in terms of communication skills, world knowledge, emotional needs, etc.

There is an optimum proportion of peer and adult exposure. Ideally, kids should influence that proportion by their own appetites. Socialization is subject to the same rules that govern the efficiency of the learn drive. This is why self-regulation is an effective approach.

In my own life, the impact of peers was predominantly negative, esp. at the primary school level. The fault was largely with me. A large portion of that negative impact came from waking up inner forces such as the need to show off or to dominate. There were also cases of positive inspiration, but those stood in minority. Unfortunately, my case is not unique. In socialization, we need some assistance from the adult world for trajectory corrections.

Group socialization theory

In a groundbreaking article, "A group socialization theory of development", Judith Rich Harris methodically demonstrates that parents have minimal influence on children and that peer groups dominate development. Parents know and bemourn this problem. Raymond Moore would call it peer contagion and look for shielding young kids from bad influences. Group socialization theory is not universal. Kids do indeed develop behavioral systems that favor peer groups. In modern societies, research confirms parental impact to be dramatically undermined by daycare and schooling. In extreme cases, shared family environment no longer plays a role in education, and personality development. Parental learntropy may drop to near-zero if the only topic of conversation is school performance and homework.

Harris believes that there are benefits to an increase in peer dependence as it forms a more natural introduction to the realities of the adult world. However, benefits need to be balanced with other factors that favor brain development, which, in the end, help the adaptation to all social contexts. Those factors include chronic stress, learntropy, etc. As much as diversification favors learning, so does natural amplification, i.e. the intensification of learning derived from genetic predispositions. Animal studies show that genes have a powerful effect on the course of socialization. Natural amplification tends to accelerate brain development, which improves social intelligence in the long run.

Neural network plasticity makes it inevitable: each human interaction leaves an imprint on the brain. The extent of that imprint will depend on exposure and a particular behavioral system. The simplest interpretation of group socialization is in terms of the learn drive. If children satisfy their learn drive better in a peer group, they will learn better from, and gravitate towards peers. A parent who cares to make an impact needs to satisfy a child's learn drive in addition to other psychological needs associated with socialization. This means that the conversation cannot be driven by school obligations, or by the parent. The conversation must be driven by the child herself.

Adult exposure

Adult exposure can best be explained in terms of parenting on the assumption that, in modern society, we should foster an old good African rule: it takes a village to raise a child. We all should take care of the kids.

Diane Baumrind classified parenting into authoritarian, permissive and authoritative. She thus helped establish clear terminology of parental strategies. Her successors added various dimensions to this rudimentary modelling. They added neglectful parenting, they added rules vs. responsiveness axes, and more. I like to see Baumrind's classification in simple terms of a ruleset:

  • authoritarian parenting is based on running a kid through a gauntlet of strict rules (too many rules)
  • permissive parenting is based on few rules (too few rules)
  • authoritative parenting is based on a small set of vital rules and a large behavioral space (optimum ruleset)

This classification instantly points to the right approach, and how it can go off rails towards the extreme. There are many other classifications, and many other variables. Parental responsiveness seems of less interest as it is common knowledge that parents should communicate richly with their kids. It is the extent of the ruleset that is less obvious. The set of rules is what affects the impact of adults on socialization.

Adult exposure cannot have a form of permissive parenting because this is the type of parenting, which frees the child from the need to do any socialization training. Freedom is good for creativity, however, freedom based on appeasement takes away all challenges necessary for learning, socialization, character, ethics, etc.

Authoritarian parenting improves discipline, but undermines social skills and creativity. Kids under authoritarian rule achieve less at school and in life. In mothers, there is a correlation between the years spent at school and the degree of authoritarian limit setting. Moral reasoning of children in authoritarian setting is undermined despite the fact that authoritarian parenting is often derived from the quest for stronger and better morals. If the kid does not decide to be moral on his own, his decision to act morally may be just a show for social effect, deprived of inner convictions. This is not the morality we aim at. Even worse, kids freed from shackles of authoritarian parenting will often detox on misbehavior and compensate by violating social rules.

Authoritative parenting is by definition optimum. On one hand it follows all natural instincts needed in development. As such it is warm, loving, aware, sensitive, permissive, biological, and in agreement with attachment rules. On the other, it demands strict unbreakable rules in reference to safety, health, respect for other people, and property. The set of rules is minimum, rational, game theoretic, biological, clear, and inert.

The set of rules for any kid can be summarized in a single sentence: take care of the world. The derived ruleset is best expounded by a mature brain. This is why I believe adult exposure is vital for socialization. It does not need to be exposure to parents. Any mature brain will do. Along the principles of the group socialization theory, adult exposure must occur in a conducive behavioral system where rules do not constrain the relationship. The exposure must be driven by a child's own learn drive.

I agree with Peter Gray that democratic schools provide a perfect socialization breeding ground: freedom to explore, age-mixed and ability-mixed peerage, and a small admixture of non-interfering non-authoritarian adults.

High and low social skills

There is a lovely quote from David Mills: "Kids do not learn social skills through interacting with other kids, any more than children learn to play the piano through interacting with other musically illiterate children. Children learn social skills through observing and emulating adult behavior" (Science Shams & Bible Bloopers).

I agree to a large degree with Mills. I also wish kids might shine with high moral standards taken from moral adults and soar above the evils of the world. However, I need to disagree in part too. We can divide social skills into: high skills and low skills (this taxonomy is mine for the sake of argument). The desirable high skills we learn from moral adults (and not only). High skills include politeness, care, willingness to help, comforting smile, clever self-deprecating remark, decoding sophisticated emotional signals, etc.

However, there is still a huge area of low skills that bring us closer to our evolutionary origin: response to aggression, reading evil intent, peer co-operation signals, decoding raw emotions, etc.

A vital part of one's EQ is decoding emotions. I include decoding emotions as part of both high and low social skills. The expression of emotion will simply differ in a sophisticated adult, in a hoodlum, or in a child. The adult will often learn to mask true emotion for good or bad reasons. This is why understanding low-level raw emotion is vital. This is the type of social skill kids learn in the most raw form from other kids. This is good. See: Live bullying. Even with strong pacifist leanings, we need to acknowledge the fact that kids need to know fights, wolf packs, bullying, and unadulterated egotism. Skipping the development of those skills may leave the best brain handicapped for life. The brightest of the best inventors and scientists need to know how to bring their ideas to life. Sometimes it involves a brutal fight. Without a fight, brain legacy may need centuries to be re-discovered.

Peer dependence

The concept of peer dependence was popularized by writings of the "grandfather of homeschooling": Dr Raymond S. Moore. Moore claims were rooted in his own research and prior research by the pioneer of ecological systems theory Urie Bronfenbrenner. One of the important themes of this book is that the breakdown in communication between adults and children, esp. between parents and their own brood, might pose a very dangerous aspect of poorly executed socialization. Dr Judith Rich Harris goes one step further with her claim that no parental force can overcome peer group socialization.

There are linguistic, cultural, and behavioral signals used in peer-to-peer communication that make it easy and more attractive for kids than the communication with the adult world. Rich communication allows of setting common goals, and interests. Communication is a fast pathway to reward. In a positive feedback loop, the links with peers get stronger while the links with the adult world become weaker. Communication channels with peers improve, and communication barriers with adults grow along the same set of principles that govern information dissemination in memetic science.

Many parents complain that their kids, when entering teen years, become far more dependent on their peers than on their caregivers and guardians. Peer opinion is more respected. Peer pressure is more effective. Peer communication is more important. This takes away parental influence. I recall those social dynamics pretty precisely from my own household. Once the respect for parents diminishes, the role of the parent, esp. in the area of moral teaching, is greatly handicapped. Moore claims that the smarter the kid the bigger the danger. A gifted brain is an amplifier of communications, inventions, research, motivation, and more. A gifted brain will amplify reactions and behaviors without much consideration for their positive or negative outcomes, incl. the moral aspect.

The negative impact of schooling produces one more positive feedback loop in which degraded communication leads to strong peer influence, poorer grades, more pressure at school, more pressure on parents, more pressure exerted by parents on kids, less respect for parents, more craving for freedom, and more wish to escape parental influence. It is very hard to say what part of the blame should be apportioned to parents (e.g. for yielding to school pressures or social pressures), and what portion is just part of the system or a natural course of social development.

Corruption of the character is hard to eradicate and it is very hard to provide ethical vaccination for corrupting influences that are a daily norm in schools from which I hear kid reports. Corruption of the character is often based on durable changes in the way emotional brain works in kids. For example, the trauma of bullying may produce outcomes similar to the trauma of the war. In the worst case scenario, the impact of peers may end in the most irreversible change of them all: suicide.

Inspired by Bronfenbrenner research, Raymond Moore believes that schooling should begin at the age of 8-10. In his words "early institutionalization is a most pervasive form of child abuse".

A good representation of Moore's position is this interview(e.g. 20:06).

Moore is right saying that late-schooled kids have a potential to quickly catch up with their peers who have been schooled rigorously from an early age. Even more, his own wife's remedial reading program convinced him that kids forced to read early are most likely to need a remedial program later on. Moore is right that kids can catch up on both social and academic platforms. Moore is right that those free running kids can then outdistance their peers on sheer grounds of being less affected by the impact of rigorous schedules on brain development and personality. He quotes research where the speed of "recovery" is staggering. This is plausible, but this does not need to be optimum.

There are downsides to shielding kids from the evils of the world. That shielding is part of the Christian fundamentalist dogma. Strong morals are a priority for fundamentalists, and a mere exposure to evil is believed to have a capacity to soak in through the young mind. Peer dependency is seen as cancer of social contagion. Even a bloody videogame is supposed to have a capacity to corrupt the young mind. I disagree. I believe that all truths of the world should be presented to kids in the objective and unemotional way. Those skeletal truths should then be colored by a moral commentary that matches kid's knowledge and cognitive capacity.

For example, I do not see a problem with young kids understanding death or killing. Objective truths do not need to be traumatic. It is a matter of presentation that needs to match child's temperament. Once the truths get established, we can sink into the natural reservoir of empathy to explain, for example, the evils of war. I am pretty sure that this cold scientific approach will not leave us unemotional or ruthless in the face of evil. Some instincts and fears are inherent to a developed mind in healthy kids. As long as there is a moral authority present in the child's life, I bet for excellent outcomes. However, peer dependency can be a problem. The problem is not in exposure to the truths of evil. The problem is in the resulting breakdown in communication with moral authority.

The golden mean falls in between the extremes of "education by peers" and peer-less "education by family". The golden mean can be accomplished by on-demand socialization with some non-interfering adult supervision, moral commentary, and a crystal-clear communication on the line between the child and its prime moral authority. The simple premise behind this thinking is: we should open all information and communication channels to children. They need to communicate freely with their peers, parents, teachers, and have access to all media. Let the child make up her own mind of how the world works. Problems arise when communication channels break down or there is an information bias (e.g. as in my own case mentioned below).

Personal anecdote. Why use anecdotes?
I write elsewhere how I arrived at some crazy ecoterrorism ideas in childhood.

Moore's diagnosis fits my own case to a degree. There was unusual "peer dependency". However, there was no parental rejection, family warmth was not lacking, peers were not too bad in their influence. The problem was mostly coming from within: I wanted to show my strengths and I ran the show based on ignorance that posed a risk to my life and the life of others.

I was not actually dependent on any of my peers, or any group of my peers. I was dependent on the existence of peers I could show off to. Perhaps part of my lesser dependency on my own family was that I was hardly ever able to impress? It was easier to jump off the third floor window to impress my classmates than to meet the high bar of intellectual or school performance set by my mom or my siblings? I was probably an animal craving that "wow" factor as my prime motivational award. This is one of the reasons why I believe parents should set the performance bar low enough to fit the push zone. All success in meeting adult benchmarks should be rewarded richly in well-deserved praise that could substitute for the peer praise. Without that reward, the performance bar is meaningless on the assumption that punishment is reserved for major violations of the rules. Without the praise, the kid may look for rewards elsewhere

Conclusions: peer dependence

  • group socialization is a powerful force that shapes the character of children
  • the effects of peer group socialization are often disappointing from the point of view of the adult world
  • peer dependence can best be remedied by rich communication, and understanding the child's reward system
  • rich communication can easily collapse when parents come in with an agenda (e.g. without good grades, your future is bleak)
  • parents should open all communication channels for the child, incl. the communication with the outside world and the peers
  • parents should let the child soak in the truths of the world while providing the assistance of a moral commentary
  • parents should set the performance bar within the push zone and reward all success richly in well-deserved praise

Alternatives to school socialization

Schooling leads to a degree of socialization, however, this is a type of socialization that is by far inferior to what is possible in the optimum case.

At school, social skills are supposed to be developed during the breaks and via post-school friendships. During a class the kid is more likely to see his peer's back or to hear "You are not here to socialize!". Breaks are short and spaced out. School playgrounds are too noisy for mindful communication. Friendships can be facilitated by schooling, but kids who do not attend school, have more opportunities to meet friends in other contexts.

Parents often romanticize their own school experience recalling fantastic friendships that often last a lifetime. For a realistic assessment, they need to recall that healthy humans are social animals that will form bonds in any imaginable circumstances. Great friendships are also born in boot camps, concentration camps, in street gangs, or in prison. The inference that these are healthy socialization grounds is obviously wrong.

In a similar fashion, parents who fear their kids would never see outdoors and turn into hikikomori, should recall that trauma born in closed-system socialization may be the chief cause of asocial attitudes. Kids traumatized by schooling need to be given a detox period after which their true social nature can hopefully be revealed.

Considering the above, missing on school socialization can only be an issue for children living in isolated communities. However, if kids need to be delivered to a remote school, they might equally well be delivered to their best friend's place, or to any imaginable organized group (e.g. martial arts class, football school, etc.). Homeschooling communities are particularly rich in their socialization support. In their milieu, "missing on socialization" is called an "S word" for the never-ending skepticism of those who know little of the subject.

In urban environments, a sports field is a great and a superior substitute for schooling. It works better for loosely supervised socializing, reduces bullying, reduces pathological behaviors (assuming minimal adult supervision), etc. Instead of a half-baked 10 min. breaks that are not sufficient, neither as a break from learning nor for socializing, full blown relationships can be developed at conducive hours.

Smiling kids can interact freely in the middle of the day at their preferred time rather than to substitute for tired wandering in the late afternoon.

Socialization: Open and closed systems

In terms of social dynamics, there is a vital difference between a school ground and a playground. In case of frictions, kids can walk out from the playground. The school forms a closed system, while a playground is an open system. This makes a world of a difference in healthy socialization. In both systems, segregation and clustering will quickly result in forming peer groups and cliques. In a closed system, peer groups are well-integrated but more fossilized.

Those dynamics can be observed in social animals as well. In a pod of dolphins, confrontations quickly determine the rank status by virtue of superior strength. Weaker individuals simply swim away. This behavior is disrupted in dolphinaria where animal aggression is proportional to the limits on space.

For similar reasons, one of the prime flaws of school systems is the breeding ground for bullying. In an open system, kids have the option to quit the field. Bullies tend to be isolated. In an open system, bullying is less likely to lead to a reward, while victims have an easier route to avoidance. Open systems do not limit freedom and result in remarkably less aggression, esp. if there is some non-interfering supervision from adults (e.g. parents). Meeting bullies is vital for healthy socialization. If those encounters can remain game theoretical, they will leave a good socialization imprint. If they are violent, as it is often a case in a closed system, they may lead to chronic stress, developmental problems, emotional bias or even suicide. Emotional trauma is anti-thetical to education. Instead of socialization, we have negative socialization. Instead of developing skills for tackling bullies, kids may develop a pathological fear of bully types, a hate of bully types, or even a hate of themselves.

A simple experiment demonstrates the psychological impact of a closed system: take a popular playground, and fence it. It immediately loses some of its appeal. If there was an admissions gate with a clock that makes it impossible to leave the playground before an hour is out, the popularity of the playground would plummet. There are many closed facilities that are incredibly popular with kids, however, the ability to leave a playground at any time is an important component of the sense of freedom, which contributes to the joy of play.

Adults who are skeptical of open systems should make the following thought experiment:

If you were to be closed in a room with a number of random people, what number of people would you prefer? Most individuals opt for groups in the range from 6 to 12 providing reasons such as: big numbers are intimidating, but low numbers provide poor choices of people to interact with. Now that you have your favorite number, would you like the room to be equipped with a door (e.g. to take a break from a socially awkward or intimidating situation)? Nearly universally, we prefer to have the exit option which is an expression of freedom. This is also based on the understanding that a walkaway is often the simplest and stress-free method of resolution. The problem with schools is that the door is usually closed and victimization is rampant.

The dynamic nature of peer groups in an open system has its educational value. There is a wider range of experience and wider exchanges with a larger number of peers in a larger number of combinations at varying set sizes. While there is lesser integration, there are few inherent barriers in an open system to prevent further integration where there is mutual interest in developing closer relationship. Matching of interests, passions and characters is more natural in an open system, which, in theory, can lead to more stable relationships. This is naturally counteracted by the fluidity of the system. The more fluid the environment, the harder it is to develop long-term friendships.

Age mixing is beneficial and more pronounced in an open system, while schooling results in a larger same-age interaction due to natural amplification of same-age relationships in age-segregated classroom. Age mixing has a profound educational value. Open systems are far more inspirational in child development.

Formation of cliques is more natural in the playground, but more permanent at school. The dynamics that lead to bullying are present in an open system, and a degree of disruption can come from (1) struggle for power and (2) arrival of an outsider that does not follow group rules. In a closed system, with insufficient adult ratio, they inevitably lead to fighting and bullying. In an open system, the range of dove and flight strategies is far wider leading to less aggression and less violence.

Peter Gray in "Free to Learn" (Chapter 8) provides a fantastic analysis of differences between structured play and unstructured play. In terms of socialization, there is a world of difference in playing football in a professional club vs. playing it on a football field with a pack of mixed-aged and mixed-ability peers in unstructured play. The list of socialization skills is too long to mention, but Gray's analysis provides a beautiful parallel to socializing in closed system vs. open systems. Socialization is to serve a better life, and life is an open system play.

Praise of socialization at school is as old as the school itself. As we often get cooped up in small spaces in office jobs, school is supposed to prepare the individual for those high-stress environments. A kid raised in the playground may not be able to confront an office bully. My answer is the same as in the case of resilience and chronic stress preparedness. We should aim at socializing optimally and exposing kids to toxic environments as late as necessary. Mature mind is more likely to rationalize strategies for survival in toxic environments without incurring the penalty on brain development caused by chronic stress. It is the same old tried strategy: develop the brain first, expose it to chronic stress at maturity.

There is also an important component of toxic environments in adulthood. Adults, as free individuals, are at liberty to change jobs and environments. Kids have their freedoms limited, and changing schools is often impossible. Moreover, school environments may be inherently toxic for kids with a specific mix of social characteristics, personality, looks, habits, interests, sexual orientation, etc.

Dayna Martin, an unschooling proponent with a great deal of fresh ideas on education, believes that free learning is great for the freedom of choosing one's friends. A homeschooler has an option to never meet or talk to the kid he considers a bully. Freedom to choose will lead to a selection bias, however, this is not more harmful that freedom to choose friends in adulthood. Freedom is simply a basic right that cannot be denied on the grounds of "better socialization". There must be a mutual coincidence of needs and interests. If friendship prepares someone for adulthood differently, it may only benefit social diversification. We need more happy individuals who are free in their creative pursuits even if their interests and personalities depart from a social norm.

In a famous statement Peter Gray says "In social play, each player knows that anyone who feels unhappy will quit, and if too many quit, the game ends". That naturally refers only to open systems. I could paraphrase that for closed systems: "In social play, each player knows that anyone who feels unhappy will be bullied into submission. The game never ends".

No schoolyard is fully closed, and no playground is fully open. However, open flow of players should be the goal of early socialization. We can introduce young brains to the more stressful variant of closed circles at the point of maturity when all defense weapons are in place.

Daycare vs. playgrounds

What applies to schools is also partly relevant to daycare. Play with other kids is vital, but it does not need to be done in a kindergarten. Parents can easily provide more conducive growth conditions than structured daycare. Community playgrounds are the best field: any time, any body, any weather. Organized groups: music, sports, dance, interest, etc. might also work. However, free socialization thrives in unstructured setting

Machiavellian conditioning

In a group of peers, schooled kids can easily be distinguished by their approach to caregivers and supervisors. For example, if two kids damage a computer, e.g. by accidentally spilling a drink, the schooled kid is more likely to attempt to hide his offence from supervisors. He will expect punishment without actually feeling guilty for the offence. Homeschooler is more likely to communicate that the damage was accidental. Schooling seems to develop this kind of siege mentality: silent conspiracy against the authority. This is not how we want to run societies.

Schooled kids socialize with their peers and consider adults as ruthless authority. Authorities can be cheated, misguided, kept secrets from, etc. This is Machiavellian thinking. Communication skills and the sense of justice are diminished.

School uniforms

There is a well-intentioned idea to provide kids with school uniforms to facilitate socialization. This is an egalitarian idea in which poorer kids should not feel relegated to inferior categories by their inferior clothing. However, school uniforms are also a great metaphor on the homogenizing and subjugating aspect of schooling. All kids are supposed to look and act the same. Individual expression and creativity is limited. All kids are supposed to follow the rules. Those who do not come in their uniform will be sanctioned. Prisons use uniform for similar purposes. They make prison management simpler. Uniform is also not much different from the recruitment into a military service. On arrival, recruits are shaved and deprived of their clothing. This is the first step towards depriving them of their own identity.

Uniforms and uniformization

Personal anecdote. Why use anecdotes?
I like to learn in very scant clothing that would not meet any decency standards. For this reason, I am surprised I never complained of being overheated or constrained at school. I bet I had been homogenized and subjugated pretty well.

My school uniforms kept evolving with age, they were navy at first (as in the picture), then they were green, and then brown. I did not respect my uniforms and they were frequently sliced with a razor blade ostensibly due to school yard accidents.

I recall no uniform towards the end of the primary school, and in high school. Poverty was no longer an issue. My mom received support from Emmaus charity, and I never had reasons to complain about the quality of my second-hand clothing.

Earlier, when my American uncle sent me colorful bell bottoms in the early 1970, kids started calling me "pajamas man". This was supposed to be offensive, however, my pride in American trousers well outweighed the peer pressure. I never gave up my parrot dress. I was probably able to care little. This was a bit different when I was introduced to a new class of peers. Caring little might be a result of a fortunate personality characteristic. However, dress code can become a serious issue for teenagers and result in social exclusion, truancy, depression, or even suicide. In that sense, school uniforms make some sense, however, students who learn individually are not affected by the problem. One thing less to worry about!

Primary school - III d
Primary school - III d

Figure: In the year 1971, school uniforms were a norm in communist Poland. This is my class, 3rd grade (IIId). The paintings on the wall celebrate the communist labor holiday (May 1). Uncomplimentary colorings on the teacher's face are an expression of the impact of discipline on fondness (bloody mouth and pimples). School uniform may help reduce negative social interaction in a closed system of schooling. They are not needed in free learning in open systems

Socialization deficits in homeschooling

I will keep this chapter short. There are no deficits in socialization inherent to homeschooling. Poorly socialized homeschoolers are not much different from poorly socialized schoolers. It is often a matter of personality or choices. If there even is a myth of socialization deficits, it is a domain of the less educated, who know nothing of homeschooling. Among homeschoolers opinions differ: some claim to be well socialized, others claim to be socialized differently. Like we do not discuss the impact of schooling on the use of lipstick, we should patiently ignore the calls to discuss the impact of homeschooling on socialization. We might also just reverse the questions: "What about the impact of schooling on anti-socialization?".

Unless homeschooling parents intentionally decide to keep their kids in isolation, there is no issue.

Budajczak on socialization

Dr Marek Budajczak is a socialization expert and a Polish pioneer of homeschooling. His Christian convictions made him particularly critical of the type socialization kids receive in Polish schools. My own experience entirely agrees with his research (Christian perspective has no bearing on my opinion). Budajczak likes to joke that socialization at school has a form of watching the back of a fellow schoolmate. If goals of schooling involve socialization, teachers often contradict it by saying "You are not here to socialize!". Creativity and socializing can be equally disruptive in the goal of loading student's mind with ever-increasing volumes of information.

Having homeschooled his kids, and having socialization in the sights of his research, Budajczak insists that homeschoolers engage in better forms of socialization than kids at school. Like there are no good measurement yardsticks for good learning, there are no good measurement yardsticks for good socialization. Brian Ray concluded that 13% of homeschoolers fail to socialize properly. However, in all populations we have leaders and laggards. In addition, one man's good socialization is another man's socialization pathology. The best socialization comes from free exposure to a social environment. External assessment is always biased the selected criteria, which may reflect parental or institutional ideology. Optimality of free socialization is determined by child's own goals and brain's natural adaptation capacity. For a ringing endorsement of homeschool socialization see a comprehensive review by Dr Medlin Homeschooling and the Question of Socialization

Rowdy teens

Teen nighttime talk

Rowdy teens scare the adults. Their noisy presence in urban setting in the late hour is intimidating. It is a familiar picture across the developed world: a group of teens, with beer, chatting late into the night on a local bench, playground, football field, or a bus stop. The usual approach of the adult community around is: do not approach, do not reproach. Conventional wisdom is that those kids will not get far in their lives without parental supervision or some major re-thinking of their priorities. The prescription I hear from an average adult goes like this: they need to go to school, parents need to make sure they do their homework, and then they need to go to sleep. Period.

That prescription would only make things worse. One of the reasons the teens huddle together is to escape from the restrictive world built for them by adults. Parents and schools conspire to roll the teens on a perfect development trajectory. This pressure often backfires. Instead of breeding homework, it breeds the craving for freedom, independence, and companionship.

While writing the article, I approached a few "unapproachable" groups of rowdy teens to find out more about their goals and motivations. The most important first impression everyone would get from the approach without a reproach is that these are your ordinary good kids (most of the time). The fact that they drink beer or take drugs only comes from lack of good goals set in their lives. This mostly comes from lack of role models, lack of good examples, and general sense of helplessness. Being together and having some fun is the escape from the drudgery of life. Their discussions might do more good to their brains that actual schooling. When talking about football, teen problems, partying, parents, and school they are actually exchanging valuable information, they engage in problem solving, they show the best of critical thinking they are capable of, they are their own individuals steered together in strange directions by peer bonds. This is so much better than passive survival at school where own thinking is hardly allowed or demanded. If schooling could yield some lasting knowledge, I might not write those words, however, they often treat the school as a burden they need to survive at minimum cost. School is part of the enslavement by the adult world without actually providing any answer to their actual problems, of which, conflict with parents about schooling is often very prominent.

Paradoxically, it is the problem kids that are often most vocal about the value of schooling. When school is a place of peace compared with their home, it is a form of escape from family problems. Similarly, those who ended up in reform schools, praised the discipline, the order and the sense of purpose bolstered by close discussion with well-qualified stuff. They also considered it very helpful to get isolated from toxic peers, and destructive influences such as drugs. Some insist that toxic peer groups provide dynamics that almost inevitably result in a slide towards the abyss of addictions or crime.

All those complex relations between school, home, and peer dynamics demonstrate that there is no simple formula to remedy youth problems and education. This complexity makes me think that local individual optimizations would work better than grand educational reform plans. This would make many an educator shudder, but local optimisations based on individual decisions inevitably lead to solution based on market forces. I emphasize again and again that I see the future of education in the market of ideas, i.e. not an economic market that could distort optimization criteria. Natural selection in such markets would help evolutionary forces converge on optimal long-term solution. See: Education Reform.

Peer group effect

Early in my investigations, I would go to a football field and make a vote among peers: "Who likes school?". As much as kids are conditioned to say "I like school" when talking to a figure of authority, in a peer group, the opposite is true, it is cool to say "I hate school". Indeed, in larger peer groups, esp. under some influence of alcohol, or perhaps drugs, kids seem to be mutually energized with a chant "School sucks! School sucks!". I quickly realized that I can only gather true opinions by face-to-face conversations assuming I can build trust and not be treated as an intruder or "yet another boring teacher".

College plans

When I compared teens from a larger city and those from a 300-people village, I noticed a striking difference. None of the kids from the small village planned to go to college. When I dug deeper, I figured out that they just do not know people with college degrees. They have no role models, no examples to follow. College simply never occurs to them as an option. Their rural origin adds to a sense of inferiority.

Are they rowdy?

Here I list a few stories of teens that seem very rowdy at first. However, on closer analysis, they are full of potential. They are not as rowdy as they seem.


Simon is an example of a great talent with a very bad reputation among adults. His reputation now starts building up as a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Simon is 16. He is incredibly smart and harbors multiple talents that are not easy to spot. Superficially, he makes an impression of a "lost cause". His vocabulary isn't too rich, his accent sounds like taken from a criminal underworld, his brothers had frequent clashes with police, two of them ended up in reform school, so did Simon. Simon declared, he would never go to college: "I am done with learning. I hate learning". When I try to figure out why a math and music talent hates learning so much, I quickly see the impact of compulsory schooling amplified by a violent father who abused alcohol and still made impossible demands about kid performance at school. When Simon plays football, I see seeds of future Ronaldo. His moves are an acme of perfection. Strangely, he does not run around much. He is a smoker. At 16, his ability to sustain effort is already severely limited. He got his own hip-hop band, but they are not too successful. He got a talent, but they lack organization and support. After a few years in Ireland, Simon's English was excellent. This also explains his not-so-perfect Polish. It is hard to believe that in the last 3-4 years, he regressed so much that he now avoids speaking English. He pours scorn on Polish schools: "I had English at school and I still forgot it!". Simon is a tragic mixture of talent, decline, genius, and hopelessness. One thing he definitely lost through coercive schooling: learn drive. His life will go the way of opportunities that open up. If he gets a job as a baker, he might become a baker. For a month or for life. He is one of the saddest cases of talent that may never be used by the world. I meet Simon often when I go for jogging. I will not stop trying. I hope to add some more optimistic update in 2-4 years.

Update April 2020: Simon is a now a young father of a 1-year-old baby. Against all odds he decided to go back to school. He explains the change in his thinking with slow "maturation" of his brain. He smiles more these days

Queen Victoria

Rowdy teen groups often involve a few female groupies that faithfully follow the pack, contribute few ideas, and oppose no ideas. Victoria is a beautiful and smart 16-year-old. It must be her looks that earned her a special status in her peer group. She is a queen. Not the queen that rules the pack. Just a ceremonial queen, worshiped by many and put on a proud display. Victoria used to be one of the best 12-year-old dancers in her age group. She is also a good student. Some time ago she even told me she liked school. This instantly made me interested. However, her claim soon turned out to be false. I decoded her pretenses in minutes. I was suspicious when she gave English as one of her favorite subjects. When I wanted to have a chat in English, she excused herself with "In Poland, we should speak Polish". She instantly became defensive, and I knew I would need a second try to uncover the truth. We met several times since and I was gradually trying to win her confidence and get some more honest answers. Soon it transpired she told me of her fondness for school because she just thought it was a right thing to say to an adult. It appears she had been conditioned to impress adults with good words about her education, her dancing, and her good behavior. She got a few subjects she likes indeed. She is under constant pressure from her parents, who are also very eager to help with homework, so that she can retain her Straight A student status. She got a clear plan to study economics in high school. Other than that, her favorite "hobby" is hanging out with her teen, largely male pack. It seems her future will be determined by the interplay of her coercive "for show" life presented to the adult world, and her actual interests, passions and teen inspirations. Victoria is a clear example of the fact that the pressure of schooling can turn a good student into a rowdy teen. The bigger the burden of schooling, the lesser the interest in learning. This can change the course of a teen life.
Update April 2020: A few days ago, Victoria delivered a healthy baby daughter. The lucky father is the ever-smiling leader of the rowdy crowd of her admirers. He explained his positive disposition with "cuz I smoke weed"


Alex does not make a good first impression. He looks like coming fresh from a bloody fight. One eye is red of blood, and the other has a pearl-white cataract. No wonder his nick is Zombie. His looks attract problems. At teen concerts, he is often stopped and searched by police. By his looks, he is instantly profiled as a troublemaker, drug addict or drug peddlar. He is upset "Why don't police frisk those steroid guys? They would sure find something. They are simply afraid of big guys. They just need to report some job done so they victimize me".

Despite all appearances, Alex is a regular student. He suffered grade retention twice, but his attendance isn't much below average. His looks cause trouble at school. He cannot name a teacher that would seem helpful or confident about Alex's future. There is something about his zombie looks that makes people believe he is a lost cause. In actuality, Alex is a nice and sensitive guy. Not a saint but definitely not a drug addict and not a troublemaker. His sensitivity affects his grades. When he is not sure of his preparedness, when called to question, he often gives up. He prefers bad grades over the ridicule in front of the class. He says it is a common practise for teachers to put the kid down with remarks like "Again you did not learn much. You are good for nothing, aren't you?". Alex would ignore those remarks if it wasn't for his peers. Alex used to be good at math, however, over years, he built up a backlog of forgotten basics and now math is a pure waste of time. He understands less and less and his motivation has evaporated entirely. He got no plans to ever learn math. At school he learned a false conviction: math is not for him.

Alex is a budding hip-hop artist and dreams of a break from his student life. School and parents create a closed world, which he is free to escape only during vacation. It does not take long for me to figure out that it is not school or education that he needs. He is smart enough to learn things on his own. He needs freedom. Alex is 15 years old. In 3 years he will get a job and apartment, perhaps a girlfriend, and he will be finally able to breathe a sigh of relief. He will be his own man. I only regret that all those years at school did not enrich him in any tangible way. Not by his account, not by my assessment. He has been permanently discouraged from pursuing his own learning or college.

As for his suspect looks, they come from one of his hobbies: collecting colorful contact lenses

Scary Nazi?

Personal anecdote. Why use anecdotes?
I was a rowdy teen too. I did not drink alcohol. From my early years, I lived with a conviction that every gulp of alcohol results in a specific number of brain cells lost. I picked up that false meme somewhere on TV, I presume. The meme lived with me for a decade, even surviving my years as a biology student. It shows how false memes can get conveniently entrenched. I tried to sway dozens of people away from alcohol. When I got treated with a glass of stronger drink during a New Year's Eve party (1980), I was affected double. In some show of force, I demonstrated my boxing skills on some reinforced glass door. I have scars to this day. With a group of teens we walked in our neighborhood. From old Polish movies, I recalled some Nazi songs from World War 2, and sang them at the top of my lungs. I can imagine this might have been pretty intimidating, esp. for the generation that then still remembered the war. As it often is the case, the horrified picture of the semi-criminal group of rowdy teens would be totally misleading. We were far more innocent than it looked on the surface, we were just a group of dumb kids. Good students, bad students, but largely good guys. Perhaps slightly lost in their young lives, not sure about the future, and having some fun



Bullying is a grateful object of analysis in the context of optimization of socialization. Bullying is based on a simple game theoretical model. It is only one of many negative phenomena that can form in a social group. It can effectively be resolved with good socialization. A closer peek at bullying allows of a bird's-eye view of the entire socialization process.

Bullying epidemic at schools

Bullying is a plague in schools. These days it expands its impact through social media. Bullying may lead to suicide, permanent mental scars, or the need to change schools in milder cases. I know both sides of bullying as an oppressor and as a victim. Your memory might fail you and you might recall no bullying from your own experience. If you claim that bullying that you do not remember is no bullying, recall that this claim carries a statistical bias. Most dramatic cases of bullying involve a single individual victimized by a larger group. In such cases, the experience is memorable for the victim only.

Bullying is unhealthy for the victims. It literally affects their brains.

Some of the most scary bullying statistics (numbers vary, I picked some extremes):

  • bullying might be the cause of up to half of youth suicides (10-20% of high school students consider suicide at some point in their life)
  • bullying might be the cause of up to 60% of mass school shootings in the US
  • up to 70% of students encountered bullying in their school life

For more see: Bullying statistics and Bullying and suicide.

Fate of outcasts

Outcasts and outliers increase the degree of bullying. They may fall victim of a wolfpack, or a single bully leader. They may also happen to be bullies themselves. Throughout this article, I look for formulas that would increase knowledge, creativity and contribute to human genius via efficient education. As a side effect, that formula will also lead to increased bullying. Where there are strong rules of conduct, bullying decreases. Free-thinkers may easily fall out of line, off the average, or be tempted to violate rules they consider irrational.

Schools shelter bullying

Compulsory schooling leads to age-segregated peer groups cooped up in close spaces. This is a perfect breeding ground for bullying that can be amplified by immaturity at younger ages or hormonal changes to behavior at puberty. If we want to maximize creativity, we cannot sentence kids to unsupervised peer groups. Non-interference is perfect for learning. Non-supervision can be disastrous.

Peter Gray notes that if you cannot leave school, you cannot leave bullying.

Electronic bullying

Bullying now moves to the e-world. I can be done on Facebook, Twitter or even over e-mail. Due to being extracted from face-to-face interaction and natural emotional cues, for sensitive individuals, e-bullying can even feel more vicious than bullying that involves physical violence. E-bullying can lead to suicide. Different social skills are needed in the e-world and so modern socialization must also involve the electronic component. Parents who keep their kids away from the Internet fearing bad influence risk missing on that new set of socialization skills. It is hard to say how much of that deficit can be recovered at later years. It is hard to imagine a critical period for social e-skills, however, childhood deficits in real world socialization are often hard to compensate for. It is a bit like with learning foreign languages, some childhood deficits or bad habits are hard to correct later on.

Bullying hypotheses: Nature vs. nurture

Nobel Prize winner William Golding gave kids a bad name in 1954 with his Lord of the Flies. Golding was no psychologist, and his fiction implies that kids will descend into a barbarian chaos when left without adult supervision. That bad reputation haunts kids to this day. Does reading fiction make you a better person? What if fiction mis-educates? When we watch 7-10 year olds interacting unsupervised, we might easily fall prey to the same anxious prediction on the nature of children.

To rescue children reputation, psychologist Peter Gray takes the opposite idealistic stance. He uses the example of democratic schools were age-mixed groups form a natural protection barrier and bullying is not an issue. Gray also insists that bullying is rare in hunter-gatherer communities. However, this might be a cultural thing. Not all of those communities have the same habits and rules. They may behave differently in conditions of scarcity as opposed to conditions of well-being. In modern societies, bullying is endemic to age-selected groups typical of modern schooling. It may also occur in prison or in an office, however, it is the school when bad habits take root.

Researchers studying primates (e.g. chimpanzee) claim that bullying is natural and has it evolutionary roots. The same can be seen in rats.

When I observe unsupervised kids in a playground, the mechanism behind bullying seems pretty obvious. When a well-organized and well-integrated group encounters an outlier individual, bullying seems a matter of time. The trigger may be insignificant. Minor annoyance. Minor disagreement. However, once bullying starts, kids seem to instinctively form a wolfpack and the victim stands no chance. The phenomenon is based on a positive feedback loop. The cards are stacked. The wolfpack may become heavily focused on the act of bullying to the exclusion of other forms of "entertainment".

A major qualification needs to be made for the fact that nearly all kids I know attend kindergarten or school. What Raymond Moore bemourns as social contagion, and Peter Gray calls a departure from natural hunter-gatherer harmony, may actually be a result of age-selected grouping of kids at all levels of schooling. Our inner predispositions towards bullying get amplified at school or in the kindergarten. A homeschooler thrown into such environments can quickly become a victim if given no way out. This speaks badly of socialization at school, however, it also says a lot about socialization without schooling, which may be great for an idealized society of the future, except we have not built one yet.

In the end, as I will explain next, the roots of bullying are neither in nature nor in nurture. The roots are in game theory. Nature amplifies what game theory makes inevitable. Nurture can provide a further layer of feedback given adverse conditions, which school is a sad example of.

Roots of bullying

Bullying in animals and humans has its roots in game theory. In this sense, it is not much different from other social behaviors such as altruism.

In the course of evolution, there have been many adaptations that determine the forms of bullying in various social contexts. Evolutionary adaptations that perpetuate bullying may involve seeking comfort in numbers, seeking unity to accomplish goals despite opposition or competition, seeking dominance, etc. Observation of bullying in chimps is particularly inspiring as it is deprived of the interference from abstract reasoning and/or the language.

In social groups, in closed spaces, in certain constellations of personal strengths and goals, bullying is inevitable. It is just part of our genetic make-up and a reflection of disparate goals of individuals that determine game theoretic strategies.

Bullying is innate and all kid groups left alone to their devices will likely experience bullying in the long run.

Socialization can mitigate bullying

Social norms are supposed to mitigate phenomena such as bullying. With age, maturity, knowledge, and experience, we develop a toolset of codes of conduct that help reduce bullying. However, a degree of bullying may always simmer under the surface, even in such seemingly high-minded settings like national parliaments, or research teams. Bullying will not go away, but healthy socialization can mitigate it effectively.

Drop in bullying with age comes in part from better self-control, however, social skills and norms are the most important components of that decline. Development of social skills that contribute to a drop in bullying with age is determined by the social mix to which a child is exposed.

Game theory

For an intuitive illustration of the problem, game theory comes in handy. For example, changing the proportion of hawks to doves in a population will change individual fitness. In a social group, optimum behavioral strategies will depend on the mix and proportions of a number of social qualities in a group. As a result, optimum socialization will also change. In other words, changes to a social mix will affect optimum behavioral strategies and optimum socialization strategies. There is no universal optimum. The optimum is relative to the social environment.

Different population setups and contexts will produce or break up bullying. One environment may lead to social growth. Another environment may lead to negative socialization or anti-social behavior.

There are many variables that will be affected in socialization produced by different environments with a different social mix. Those will include social skills, specific anti-bullying skills (or bullying skills), fighting skills, health, mental health, intellect, disposition, personality, and more. In this multicriterial setting, I believe, we should give preference to strategies that favor brain development because a strong brain is the most universal weapon in all social contexts. On closer examination, this seemingly obvious strategy may stand in conflict with what is considered good behavior or good social environment. For example, the kindergarten rule: "children are expected to walk in a single-file line" may be listed under social skills and gross motor skills, however, it is a clear imposition on freedom that affects exploration and individual development. Environments governed by similar rules prevent rather than foster development of social skills.

Maturity may produce an assessor player that will use superior knowledge to pick a set of rules to operate optimally in a large variety of population mix permutations. This could be a model of our ideally socialized child, where knowledge plays a major part in systematizing rules produced in the course of socialization. As much as in other contexts, in social strategies, knowledge is power.

Optimum socialization

Optimum behavioral strategies may be independent of individual's personality, but the personality will contribute strongly to the effectiveness of the execution of the optimum strategy. Changes to the social mix will result in development different set of social skills. There are always universal commonalities that develop in a vast majority of social contexts (e.g. the Golden Rule, i.e. "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you"). However, there are always minor rules that develop only in specific contexts (e.g. "One crew’s rat is every crew’s rat" or "Primum non nocere").

Unlike it is the case with simple social games, there are no simple or universal behavioral strategies that might help prevent or avoid bullying in all contexts. There are no universal social rules of conduct either. There are different types of players with different characteristics, in different social mix proportions, with different encounter probabilities, and there are spatial generalizations of the theory where a spatial array of interaction sites will determine the outcome.

For universal socialization, we would need to dunk a kid in all possible constellations of social contexts. This is not possible. What seems more sensible is to try out various environments and various constellations, determine development trajectories along child's preferences and feedback, and help break up dangerous trends.

The trajectory does not need to lead to rich socialization. Some kids may inherently gravitate towards lone wolf lifestyle. We cannot block this type of trajectory because a lone wolf working on theory of everything in some isolated hut in the mountains may change the course of human history. As it is always the case in child development, feedback is vital for plotting the trajectory.

Where socialization is rich, it will inevitably lead to dangerous trends, of which bullying is only one. An adult caregiver can break up unhealthy developments in a group of kids. Bad peer mix can lead to inevitable pathologies. An ideal social mix would probably ensure low-stress peaceful development with a degree of inoculation. Like with vaccines, we want to keep the kid healthy, but expose it to a healthy immunizing level of a pathogen.

Jungle Book and religion

If game theory is not your forte, recall The Jungle Book by Rudyard Kipling. There is a striking contrast between a creative man cub Mowgli and the well-organized pack of wolves. The pack has its own creed: the strength of the pack is the wolf, the strength of the wolf is the pack. Human mind is adaptive. Mowgli follows wolf rules until fate intervenes. When on his own, Mowgli displays human genius and creativity freed from the shackles of rules. That's Kipling's vital moral. Wolfpacks are an expression of game theory. Unity and cohesion make it easy to convert numbers into achievement. Bullying will affect a lone wolf that disrupts the harmony of the pack. This is why bullying is important. It is important for wolves. It has lost its role for modern humans.

The disciplining role of the Wolfpack Creed has its echoes in religions. For religion's survival, keeping the followers in check is vital. The scripture is the guiding light for scholars and for the highly educated. For the masses, religions provide creeds. The Wolfpack Creed reminds me the Nicene Creed that I must have recited 300-500 times as a little altar boy. With some review, I might recite the creed all again. However, I never internalized the message. At this very moment, individual words seem to keep streaming into my head, but I need to re-recite to decode the meaning. I might have as well been reciting Code of Thug Life as well and it would make no difference in my behavior or my morals. This is the type of futile memory we develop through schooling in the Prussian education system.

Bullying: Parenting strategies

Which parenting strategy would work best in the world of bullying? Raymond Moore would like to see kids grow up with parents until the age of 8-10 until their moral character develops. His formula is based on shielding on the assumption that a harmoniously developing brain will work out anti-bullying strategies at a later time. Peter Gray, on the other hand, would like to see free age mixing of peers where the young play with the adolescents at mutual benefit. In Gray's case, adolescents substitute for parental supervision and mediate conflict among younger kids.

Shielding strategy may result in kids with social deficits unable to confront a bully. Peer groups, without all necessary freedoms, may import bullying behaviors from school. Mixed-age groups may include an older bully that ruins the mediation formula. Shielding strategy seems better with a view to building a better society. Peer mixing strategy seems better in terms of preparing an individual to adult life in the imperfect society of today.

I believe that some sort of golden mean strategy might bring best results. Shielding might be used to ensure unimpeded brain development. Exposure strategy could be then dosed in proportion to its beneficial outcomes to ensure basic inoculation.

It may appear that a measured exposure to bullying can be welcome and healthy. It is not much different to exposure to bacteria, acute stress, low temperatures, etc. It builds resilience. Measured exposure to bullying may be essential for social skills training.

Live bullying

I love watching unsupervised play of kids on a sports field or in a street workout park. The younger they are the easier it is to spot the evolutionary roots of their behavior, incl. bullying. Bullying helps develop some skills that may make life easier for the winners of the bullying game. However, the losers may be handicapped for life. Their future behavior will be marked. Instead of advancing, they regress. Rodents that suffer social rejection show changes in brain chemistry and development. It makes sense from the evolutionary point of view. However, for the advancement of mankind, we need the weaker individuals too. Many of them sport superior brains. It is just they lack in certain aspects of physicality, or personality. I totally do not mind mild bullying as an educational tool. However, "healthy bullying" would need two components (1) adult supervision (to intervene in obviously dangerous situations), and (2) freedom to roam (for the weak ones to seek shelter when losing the game). Schools seem to fail on both fronts. Those schools I attended failed dismally. All worst fights and cases of bullying would proceed unimpeded away from an adult supervisor's eye. Moreover, kids are cooped up in small spaces with no option to "run for mama" or "run for home". They need to eat abuse from morning to evening. Snitching will help in a few cases, but will more often lead to escalation and worsening of the position of the weaker ones. When kids intermingle freely without supervision on a sports field, they always have an option to retreat and let the alpha or the top gang take over the field. Non-interfering adult supervision is also easy. Just one concerned and authoritative parent or coach can stand on the side ready to put out the worst fires. A mere adult presence may change social dynamics on the field. If I happen to sense my own influence, I retreat to a distance to continue the observation. I am a fan of Jane Goodall.

Non-interfering supervision

I do occasionally play a non-interfering supervisor. When I see the kids fight, I do not just tell them "Stop. Go home!". This is futile. This leaves the conflict unresolved. This only shifts the inevitable follow-up interaction to a new place or time. I tried a different method, which horrifies many a parent, but which I believe can be superior if executed well. I let kids fight! All I ask for is to obey the rules of safety (e.g. no eye gouging, no kicking in the head, no biting, etc.). A well-supervised fight between ten-year-olds quickly leads to a resolution. Kids end up exhausted. Sometimes in tears. Sometimes with bruises. The dominance is often established (except for the cases of equal balance of forces). Conflict is often resolved (at least for a while). To most readers, my attitude might sound like an anathema of a good teacher. I tend to believe that we, as humanity, need to respect our evolutionary roots. We cannot hope to grow impeccable saints with big brains without letting them pass certain stages of development. Hermetic sheltering from conflict might lead to more cases of hikikomori and social misfits.

Preparedness for the adult world

Most of the readers will disapprove of the most extreme behaviors shown by Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential election. However, he is a typical bully alpha ready to stomp all opposition. The whole volley of sheltered kids appeared "weak" in Republican Primaries. Perhaps if Jeb Bush or Marco Rubio were allowed of more fighting as kids, they would be more natural in confronting the bully, and more effective in using their platforms or intellect? The model of Ben Carson seemed far more effective: from a little hooligan, to a well-polished intellectual. Given enough space and time, Carson might trump Trump in his own game.

I believe that bullying can be good. It can be an educational tool! But it needs a bit of supervision to work to our lofty societal goals.

To prevent bullying at school, we need to reduce the grounds for confrontation, increase spaces, make escape possible, allow age mixing, and increase adult-to-child ratio or add better supervision. A homeschooler is free. He will laugh off bullies as if not fully comprehending their motives. For a homeschooler, bullying comes from an alien world.

Inspired by the experience of democratic schools, Dr Peter Gray sees solutions in child freedom.

Socialization: Violence dilemmas

The role of violence in modern society is decreasing. Should parents expose their kids to violence (as it nearly always happens at school)? Will non-exposure diminish social skills? I believe response to violence should be based on game theory, and exposure must be proportional to the expected future needs. The importance of those skills is declining, and neglect in the area is less likely to cripple the child for life.

Some parents encourage their kids to strike back when attacked or bullied. They disagree with the universal recommendation to avoid violence and confrontation. The textbook prescription for handling violence is to inform school authorities. In my school years, "snitching" was not even a consideration. In a battle for dominance, only an actual fight could settle accounts. I doubt there is a universal prescription that would not be derived from simplistic ethical considerations. For that reason, I neither condemn nor approve calls for retaliation. I accept this is part of a particular family setting, culture, temperament, environment or specific situation. We cannot ignore the fact that striking back with all its risks and shortcomings plays at least three important functions: (1) possible punishment of the oppressor (which is a form of prevention), (2) development of fighting skills, and (3) development of self-confidence that may be extremely useful in a variety of social settings.

If pacifism was a universally winning long-term strategy, we would not have wars. Life is a game and it is hard to find simple answers.

Punishing the bad guy

Punishing bullies and aggressor is an important motivator for striking back. However, this is a matter of game theory. Striking back may actually do more damage to the good guy. Self-inflicted pain or injuries may still be worth in a big picture because they may actually prevent future violence.

Fighting skills

The value of fighting skills in modern society keeps decreasing. Developing skills in MMA training would be safer and more comprehensive.


Fighting skills lead to social self-confidence. It is great to carry a stick that is big enough to never see action.

Ethical considerations

The universal Christian prescription to turn the other cheek has many drawbacks. It can claim moral superiority. It can lead to inner discipline. However, from game-theoretical point of view, it works well only in a society of doves. It does not work too well in a social mix dominated by hawks. Without an overarching set of principles, we might never have Mahatma Gandhi, however, his strategy did not seem workable at the times of Holocaust: "If these gentlemen choose to occupy your homes, you will vacate them".

Real life question

When I ask kids about their behavior in specific situations of violence, the number of answer combinations and follow-up questions is astronomical and unmanageable. When I ask parents, they are equally hesitant. Only those with strong religious convictions or strong philosophical point of view are unhesitant. Some say "always strike back", others "never resort to violence". In the end, I do not think there is a good prescription. Real life situations are the best training ground. Looking for engineered exposure does not sound like a good idea. However, a bit of martial art training seems ok for the body and the spirit.


I think an ultimate solution comes from a degree of trustful supervision in which an adult can help make decisions without much interference. Schoolground exposure has its values, but I doubt the quality of supervision makes it an acceptable solution. Even the best supervisor will struggle to disentangle the complexities of social forces and interactions in a group of peers. Mixed-aged groups seem far safer in that respect and democratic schools report little violence.

Supervised bullying is better than either (1) unsupervised bullying (e.g. at school), or (2) life sheltered from evil (e.g. in homeschooling). Supervised bullying is a form of socialization training.

Lessons from a child

I have received rich and often bad socialization. When I see a bully, my inner animal screams for justice. Snitching is not an option. Calling police seems alien. No bully should leave the field unharmed. Luckily, I have not had any confrontation for 40 years now! Perhaps Raymond Moore was right? My instinctive bias might have influenced my writing. Perhaps, for counterbalance, you should consider a different point of view: the view from a child.

6-year-old Gandhi

Oski is 6 years old. He did not attend kindergarten and is scheduled to go to school only next year. Outwardly, he seems poorly socialized. His behavior is odd, he always runs into trouble with other kids, but he never seems bothered too much. I was curious about his stoicism and inquired:

  • Woz: What would you do it the other kid punched you?
  • Oski: I would tell mama?
  • Woz: What if mama was not there?
  • Oski: I could talk to the kid
  • Woz: What if he did not listen?
  • Oski: I would go home.
  • Woz: What if the kid followed you?
  • Oski: I would run super-fast. I am the fastest child. He has no chance.
  • Woz: Why would you not punch him back?
  • Oski: Because he would punch me harder. Then I would punch him harder. And then he would punch me harder. A strong punch can break your nose.
  • Woz: What if he called you a scared pussy?
  • Oski: I would explain I am not scared. I am just smarter.

Perhaps Oski's "poor" socialization is the socialization of the future? Perhaps the future belongs to kids that show no fear, but understand the game theory, and take a high-minded rational approach? I was impressed. I felt humbled.

Universal socialization

In this chapter, we took a game theoretic, evolutionary, neural, and utilitarian look at socialization. Despite this unusual approach, the conclusions are the same as those that have been reached by many authors before:

Socialization should be rich, open, and free:
  • Rich socialization is one where kids experience interaction with a rich array of people of different ages, personalities, and abilities, in a rich array of contexts.
  • Open socialization means a natural, self-regulating flow of actors in the socialization game. Openness is punitive for bad actors, liberating for weaker actors, and educational for everyone.
  • Free socialization means minimal interference from the adult world. There is nothing wrong with parents playing matchmakers. However, once the kids interact, they need to be able to enact their own world governed by their own rules.

Parents who look for efficient modern socialization should study the concept of a democratic school, esp. the rich literature around Sudbury Valley School. This type of rich and autonomous socialization, with minimal guidance, and non-interfering role from the adult world seems to be closest to what I have discussed in this chapter. Regrettably, democratic schools are rarely free to be truly democratic. Most of the countries of this world still follow the Prussian system and believe in the constraints of the mandatory curriculum, which is wrongly believed to be the basis of future potential new Age of Enlightenment.

Homeschooled and unschooled kids also have a good chance to implement models known from democratic schools, however, this would involve a degree of assistance and a big dose of trustful parenting as advocated by Peter Gray. Homeschooling is more likely to harbor a lone wolf model. However, I insist that human strength comes from variety. If this is the model preferred by a given kid due to his personality, it should be allowed without trepidation.

The hardest is the job of parents who need to rely on public schooling. Only rich communication with the kid can prevent negative socialization that is endemic to peer groups formed at school.