Stop texting and start talking

Have electronics replaced social skills?

Twenty-three years of life as a camp director have given me a bird’s-eye view of how kids have changed. One wouldn’t imagine that two decades — a tiny blip of human history — could produce significant change in human nature. But it has. Ask anyone who works with kids.

Compared to 20 years ago, kids today are better at “me-first” skills and not as good at group skills. Which means they can set goals and drive towards them. They tend to have pretty high self-esteem and to believe firmly in their rights — both material and the more abstract rights and privileges. They’ve been told from birth that they’re great — because they draw breath — and they believe it. All of which makes them a little less able to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes.

There are three kinds of sharing that kids need to do: the easiest is sharing things, the next level up is sharing space and the toughest thing to share is time — which usually translates into attention given to children by adults. Thanks to smaller families and more intent parenting, kids today are accustomed to lots of one-on-one attention. It’s no surprise that the various skills of sharing are not exactly second nature to them. Sharing is not a skill that all humans are born with. For many of us, sharing is a matter of practice — or not.

Even more concerning is what we call social skills. This is the stuff that anyone old enough to want to read this column takes for granted in our personal kit bag. Social skills are what we use to make friends and keep them. They’re the little undefinables (tough to teach too) that allow us to read people’s faces so we know how they feel about us at any given moment. Social skills are what give us a general idea of what to do and say and when in relationships, to help keep them ticking smoothly.

Social skills also include conflict skills. Even the most conflict-averse of us have ways of managing the inevitable conflicts in our relationships. We all have our own ways of dealing with conflict to avoid explosions and to keep from littering the ground around us with too many dead relationships.

Not so the kids of today.

And why not? It’s painfully obvious.

The Twitterverse, Facebook, texting, the ubiquity of cellphones, iPods, iPads and other electronica all combine to make our children more at home on-screen than in the room. We see this all the time — texting at family dinners, playing computer games in the living room, people sitting across the table from each other at a restaurant, all thumb-surfing. Instead of talking to each other they’re “talking” to someone in their virtual space.

Which wouldn’t matter if it were occasional. But being on-screen for most of their unprogrammed waking hours has produced a generation with less powerful social skills than their predecessors. It is a truth of human nature that you get good at what you do a lot of — and not too good at what you don’t practice doing. More kids today struggle to make or keep friends. They don’t seem to know what to do when they have conflicts. Sharing — especially the higher order sharing — can be difficult. None of this is a surprise when you remember that these are not skills you learn in school — or online.

You learn social skills by playing with other kids and not at soccer or baseball or hockey or art class. Programmes give kids parallel play time. They’re with their peers but not interacting much. In fact they may even be competing.

You earn social skills through unstructured play. This is what happens when kids aren’t in programs and are together without screens. It bears a resemblance to family dinner: People talk to each other about … whatever. They interact. They get closer to each other. Without thinking about it, or maybe even noticing, they manage and grow their relationships. So before you cancel family dinner, or enrol your child in yet another program, think about which skills they’ll really need in life. Which will matter more when they’re 35 — being able to score a goal, or stay married?

Parenting columnist Joanne Kates is an expert educator in the area of conflict mediation, self-esteem and anti-bullying, and she is the director of Camp Arowhon in Algonquin Park.

Article exclusive to STREETS OF TORONTO