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Challenge: Open Discussion

Socialization. Remember that? Yeah, me neither.

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I suppose I’m as guilty as anyone of blaming the continued drop in face-to-face, real-live, in-person interaction on our endless other options, especially regarding my children. I mean, yes, it’s true–the ability to shoot someone a text is just so much easier than picking up the phone and picking up the phone is just so much easier than meeting for coffee and meeting for coffee is just so much easier than, oh man, a whole meal?!?

For my children, texting may actually be their least preferred minimal-effort means of interaction what with the plethora of messenger options within their socials or the endless applications for the same such as WhatsApp, Slack, or (the one I’ve yet to figure out), Discord.

No, I get it. My children migrate directly to Discord because their mom has yet to figure it out.

Yes, we do have endless methods of socializing from the comfort of our respective couches and, yes, I think we often brush off our own bad habits by noting just how much worse our children are at face-to-face contact than we are.

The thing is, that doesn’t make it okay.

Did I just pull out my soapbox? YES!

Okay, not totally.

This story actually starts with an in-home Oprah moment and then reaches soapbox status.

As our son embarked on his senior year of high school, we were chatting about his potential work schedule. He had just come off a summer that ended with several 70-hour work weeks as he was, it seemed, the lone lifeguard left in the ‘Ville after all the other lifeguards returned to their respective colleges. It wasn’t that our son had a busy dance card prior to when that insane schedule dropped, but we certainly didn’t want his next job to eat up all of his free time during this final school year.

We encouraged him to aim for a position with a slimmer work schedule, thus leaving room to grab the last of those high school memories that would be made with friends he’d met in kindergarten and who may very well fade from view in the years post-graduation.

“This is your senior year!” we said, “You should be having the best time ever!”

These statements were also a bit of a follow-up to last year’s pleas to take an easier course load as a senior which was a follow-up to watching him (not) enjoy a junior year that included endless spans of complete academic misery (and zero time with friends). See: The College Try.

We were sure our son would jump for joy at this parental directive to work fewer hours while also being encouraged to go out and have fun even if it meant dipping into our wallets to “comply.”

There were no jumps for joy.

There was simply a shrug and a scoff and a confused declaration of “I don’t even know how to do that.

Um, what?

A few years ago, with our first child, we likely would have responded to that statement with a trip down the very dull road of not relying on electronics to run relationships. This would have included blurbs like “Back in my day” with a returned volley of “Your generation just doesn’t understand.” But this time, a few years wiser, we took one of those rare parenting pauses and tossed out a “Tell me more.

If you haven’t added those words to your parenting repertoire, do so immediately. Well, it doesn’t have to be those words verbatim, but something in the same spirit.

What did he mean by that? What part did he not know how to do?

As it turns out … all of it.

He filled our quiet with words of not only being unclear on how to hang out with his peers but also on feeling lost at how to even get that in-person ball rolling. He certainly didn’t know how to come up with a fun game plan or how to invite people or who to invite or how he would feel if they declined or how to pick a day or choose a time or how to deal with flaky answers or last-minute cancellations or uninvited others inviting themselves.

It really did sound like he had no idea how to socialize in person and, we suspected, neither did his friends. But why? Why did this version sound much more challenging than with our first child?

And then, our Oprah moment. Or should I say our 202Oprah moment.

It was during this child’s prime social development years that the world shut down – his world – forcing him and his friends far, far away from each other. I suppose the reason we weren’t expecting this epiphany is that, prior to 2020, this child was all over the local map. From birthday parties to ice skating to movies to soccer games to bowling, this child was busy and we had the odometer to prove it.

Then, that pesky 2020 pandemic and a few years in which any face-to-face contact was canceled or curtailed and sent his age group (among, ahem, other age groups) to a world driven by virtual contact. Hell, we parents even encouraged it! Here, in our home, we approved apps that likely would have been a firm “no” in a normal year because, well, it wasn’t a normal year and weren’t virtual relationships better than none at all? Our online rules shifted drastically, blurring as we grabbed at any straw that would feed some sort of interaction.

I suppose we just never thought to reverse course in the years following.

Instead, we had gotten used to a life that didn’t include shuffling children from one location to another as we popped on our “Taxi Driver” caps. As we embraced this less chaotic life, we never thought to give it a firm ending. We never thought that leaning into it would add to the stifling of that doing-things-in-person skillset.

It wasn’t that our son didn’t want to do all sorts of cool things with his friends…it was that he didn’t know how and we hadn’t thought to open the door to show him the way.

We really did have to sit down and walk through the basics.

  • Where could you all go? The bookstore? Mini-golf? Bowling? Panera? Great. Pick one of those.
  • Who would you want to hang out with? Sam? Brian? Leah? Willow? Perfect.
  • Pick a few dates and send a note out to see who might be interested.
  • Pick the one that works best for the most people and lock it up.
  • When that date gets closer, remind them of the where and when.

The first attempt could have gone better. There were last-minute cancelations and actual minute no-shows. To our son’s credit? He rescheduled on the fly, parked at a gas station while his phone chirped with words of “not going to make it” or “I forgot that was today.” He easily could have returned home with an exasperated “See, I told you this was stupid” but instead he returned home with a new date on the calendar. We explained to him our theories on stifled socialization and cheered as he began planning another round. Perhaps he would even be the leader in reformatting the brains of his peers to get back together in person.

Second attempt? Success. A smaller group, a night of mini-golf, and a slew of stories told as he beamed with that high of a good time. There was a sense of pride seeping from him as he checked the box on a project that was not just out of his comfort zone but in a zone that was never even formed.

As parents, and I hate to admit this, we have also realized that we need to be better examples in this realm of virtual relationship reliance and that the time to provide an in-home guide is dwindling quickly. The confirmation of that? Our own feelings of angst when it’s go (out in public) time. More often than not, we lean toward “Can’t we just stay home?” than “Won’t it be great to see and be seen?

More often than not, it is great to be seen.

We return home joyously with stories from the night that are filled with laughter and “Oh, you had to be there.” clauses. Stories that would never have been written if we were, in fact, not there. And each time we do return to the safety of our nests, that feeling of angst lessens, replaced with a feeling of “Hey, we should do this again, soon!

And we should, if only to teach our children how important it is to have face-to-face, real-live, in-person interaction

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