Monday, October 29, 2012

The (Vanishing) Art of Conversation

Nothing profound today, just an observation.

Now, I love serendipity.  Right before I headed on my way to the Chippewa Valley Book Festival, I realized that my husband had taken my little iPod pluggie thingie . . . you know, that doohickey that allows you to plug your iPod into your radio?  Now, this had me seriously PO'ed because I was about to take a VERY long drive with a very SHORT turnaround: 5 hours each way in a 36-hour period.  When you factor in things like sleep and all the activities I had planned for the next day (three school visits) before I had to head back and then get into the car again the very next day for yet another appearance (a 3-hour drive one way) . . . that's a heck of a lot of time in the car that I was planning to put to good use listening to an audiobook that I'd downloaded especially for this trip now wasted.

So, instead, I punched in the local NPR affiliate and let public radio keep me company on that very long drive.  Now the lovely thing about Wisconsin is we've got coverage pretty much all over the state, and most of it effortlessly bleeds into the other, so you really don't miss much.  Of course, when you listen to the same news once over (because All Things Considered repeats), that's a drag.

Anyway, I'm driving along; it's a pretty day, nice autumn colors, good weather, that kind of thing.  Spotted a ginormous bald eagle on my way up, too, maybe twenty miles outside of Wausau.  As amazing as the eagle was, that wasn't the interesting part of the trip, though.  Instead, what REALLY held my interest was a fabulous Fresh Air, a program I rarely listen to not only because I'm not all that interested in most of the guests (sorry, but it's true), but it's on at the wrong time of day where I live.  This time, though, because I was trapped in the car, I heard a fabulous interview with Sherry Turkle, a clinical psychologist, who's the founder of MIT's Initiative on Technology and the Self.  Her main focus is studying the ways technology has changed the way we interact with one another.  Her newest book, Alone Together: How We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other, addresses something I've written about before: how ironic it is that, in this age of increased connectivity, our interpersonal connectedness--our ability to meaningfully communicate with one another--has suffered.  What I found especially intriguing were her research findings on the huge impact adults' anxieties over not in being in touch with their kids 24/7 has; how these anxieties are enormously detrimental to emotional development, particularly in the arenas of privacy, the capacity to be alone, and to disengage from one's parents (a pivotal milestone in adolescent development).  I'm not going to recapitulate the entire interview; if you're interested, take a listen. (Well worth it, I promise, and food for thought--really.)

Now, as a shrink, I didn't find any of Turkle's concerns alarmist in the slightest.  But, frankly, one thing I hadn't paid much attention to was kids' preferred modes of engagement.  That is, we kind of all expect adolescents to hesitate to be outwardly engaged, know what I'm saying?  They're the ones who'll slouch in their chairs, kind of dare you to impress or excite them, and heaven forbid, they ask the first question.  (Once a couple kids get the ball rolling, though, then it's like the group has received permission to become involved and excited.  Like Kohler High School where I spoke the week before . . . wow, those kids really got into it and we could've kept going.  But you got to hope for those two or three brave souls to start things off.)  

During the festival--but particularly after--I was reminded of Turkle's work when it came to engaging kids.  I spoke at two middle schools and one high school, and while I enjoyed each venue, the difference between the willingness of the younger kids to allow themselves to be engaged and talkative and excited versus the older kids was obvious.  The last middle school, Northstar, we talked for a good ninety minutes and were still going strong when the asst. principal had to intervene and send the kids off to resource.  This is no surprise, mind you; if you know adolescents, then you can look at the high school kids and shrug and understand this comes with the territory.  

But what did make me think about Turkle's work was when a) the high school librarian emailed to say that the kids were so excited by my presentation that they'd descended in droves to find my books and b) a couple of the high school kids got in touch to ask questions and tell me how much they liked the presentation . . . but through Facebook and Twitter

Which was kind of interesting.  

Now, I get a lot of emails, tweets, and FB messages; most authors do.  The middle grade kids from two of the Dublin schools I toured last year still stay in touch, but they were the most involved at the time, too.  Here, though, clearly those high school students were plenty interested, but expressing that, out loud and at the time, wasn't cool (for whatever reason).  Maybe this is why I always make sure to tell kids they can contact me through the usual social media or my website, and that I will always answer (so long as they're polite).

I think what I've observed is a microcosm of what Turkle's seen.  Since I am a shrink, I have noticed that so many older kids, those raised with cells, have a lot of trouble both making eye contact during and flat-out having a sustained--and uncontrolled--conversation.  Do I wonder what this means for kids' development in particular and notions of privacy more generally?  You bet.   

I waffle about whether it's better to meet with large groups or small; I've had great experiences with each.  Smaller groups imply conversation as a given while large groups foster anonymity.   But, on the other hand, the dynamics of a group are quite powerful, and once you can engage a couple kids, then it's like a row of dominoes: the questions keep coming and the conversation flows.

What I don't doubt is this: it is important for us, as authors, to actively engage kids in the ways our books invite.  That means, I think, that we have to model how to have conversations with kids who may not know how to do this very well.  To that end, the more directly we can connect--eye contact, face to face--the greater our ability to touch kids. Yes, by all means, keep in touch after the fact.  Be available.  But a text is not a person; a Skype visit is not a flesh and blood person; a blog can not engage the way you--your presence--can.  In a way, our books open the door to a conversation.  The least we can do is actually have one.


Jordan Dane said...

Very interesting. I've been observing this for quite a while, since I wrote Stone Angels & used my niece as a lab rat. The stunted emotional development & inability to disengage from parents is most intriguing to me now. Thanks for the link & the thought provoking post.

Ilsa said...

My pleasure. The more I've thought about and observed kids, the more concerned I am. This is real, and one point Turkle makes is that while we might assume it's the kid's fault, parents are ultimately worse in terms of separation and development. They don't call them "helicopter kids," after all. I also wonder if this doesn't create the expectation that moving back home is always an option.

Jordan Dane said...

Yes, I think this is true. Parents leave a financial & emotional tether tied to the kid that inhibits their child from being responsible for their failures & finding solutions on how to survive setbacks. Anything goes too, from failed relationships to bad choices on any level. The kid always gets bailed out.

I wondered if this was a Baby Boomer need as parents to be "providers" to their kids, but it may also be attributable to the infuence of technology & constant connectivity. The technology supports & feeds the parent's need to be needed.

Either way, it is scary.

Jordan Dane said...

Your post has sparked an idea for a character. Not sure I can make it work, but you've brought me closer to a notion that's been with me for a while. Thank you.

Ilsa said...

You're welcome ;-)

Turkle makes an excellent point: that text, the ring of that cell, reinforces that someone WANTS you and WANTS you RIGHT NOW. That text also sparks an artificial sense of urgency: that RIGHT NOW quality. The need to be wanted and desired cuts across all age groups but is particularly pointed in adults when their kids try leaving their orbit. Remember how anxious you were to get away from your parents? Think about how hard that is to do nowadays.