We've All Forgotten How To Socialize, Haven't We?

My family is really out of practice.

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The doorbell rings and my husband looks at me like a deer in headlights and whispers: “I’ve forgotten how to answer the door.” We are hosting friends for dinner for the first time in two years and, as the two of us awkwardly greet our guests, it’s clear we’re really out of practice being social creatures. And if I, a grown adult with decades of life experience, am feeling stressed about socializing in a post-pandemic world, what must my kids be feeling?

For two years, I was so focused on the day-to-day challenges of managing COVID safety and virtual school that I hadn’t begun to examine the more subtle social impact on my kids. But then I began to notice that, due to COVID’s influence – access to technology, social media and changed family patterns over the past two years – my kids’ socializing looks quite different than it might have in a pre-pandemic world.

While they love going to school and socializing with their friends in that context, they are less eager to make plans outside of school. In addition, both of my middle schoolers seem less sure of how to even go about making plans with friends. It’s like they were out sick the day everyone learned that lesson, except the reality is that everyone was out sick for that lesson.

It was slightly panic-inducing when I realized that we had all forgotten how to socialize in one way or another. First, I talked myself down, reminding myself that I didn’t fail them as a parent–we just were facing yet another result of the weird pandemic circumstances. My next step was to focus on being constructive about my worry: How could I help my kids build the social skills that allow them to be with their friends in a way that feels fun and satisfying to them (not fun and satisfying to me)?

Remove judgment and assumptions

My kids can be just as happy hanging out with their friends online, either on FaceTime or playing XBox together. Initially, I found it so depressing that they see those experiences as equivalent. Still, when I stepped back and removed my judgey lens, I felt grateful that they have a variety of ways to connect with friends that feel nourishing (my word, not theirs). In my mind, I have a hierarchy where in-person socializing sits above online socializing, but I’ve had to move away from that hierarchy because their realities are completely different than I ever imagined.

Call them hangouts, not playdates

Recently, when talking to my tween about making plans with friends, I asked if he wanted me to organize a playdate for him. He looked at me shocked and said, “Can you please not use the word playdate? It makes me sound like a little kid.” When I relayed this story to his older brother, he stared at me with disbelief and said, “Mom, you have to use the words ‘hangout,’ not playdate. Playdate is humiliating.”

It made me realize that my language choice reflects a more significant issue: I am still treating him like a 4th grader (his grade when the pandemic started) rather than recognizing him as a more mature 6th grader. Language matters when we want to help our kids feel seen and understood.

Walk before we run

In the middle of the pandemic, I interviewed my friend Dr. Molly Colvin, a neuropsychologist at Mass General Hospital. We were discussing getting kids back to some version of “normal,” and Dr. Colvin suggested that because kids were out of shape in every way – emotionally, academically, socially and physically – we need to give them a long runway with lots of steps back on the return to normalcy. As she described it, before they can run a mile, maybe they walk a mile.

Before they can do grade level math again, they need to review their math facts. Before they can return to the socializing they used to do, they might need to ease in with some more manageable interactions. Instead of starting with sleepovers and weekends away together, try an hour of getting hot chocolate or tossing a football in the park. We need to adjust our expectations about what feels comfortable to our kids, rather than forcing them back to where we think they should be.

Get curious about what’s standing in their way

When I feel concerned about a certain issue with my kids, my inclination is to apply my own experience or their siblings’ experiences to the circumstances. However, I work hard to fight that temptation in order to let my kids write their own stories of their adolescence. To that end, I try to use curiosity to understand where they’re coming from and where they want to go.

For instance, my instinct is to say to my 11-year-old: Why the hell don’t you want to hang out with friends this weekend? My experience tells me that I need to handle it more subtly: I notice you don’t seem interested in hanging out with friends outside of school. I’m wondering why that is? Or if my kid tells me he wants to make plans but doesn’t seem to be able to execute, instead of saying: Ugh, what’s so hard about making a plan? I might say something like this: It looks like it’s hard for you to finalize a plan. Would you like some advice or would you like my help?

Ultimately, my biggest goal on my family’s return to socializing is to recognize that it’s not a one-size-fits-all approach – each one of my kids has different goals in mind and each one needs a way of getting there. My job is to show patience for where they’re starting from and get curious about their experiences.

And, too, I’m borrowing from that approach to handle my own discomfort returning to socializing. I’m taking the time to notice my reactions: Is my heart racing before I going out? Am I unsure of what to wear because nothing fits? Am I seeing people out of obligation rather than desire? Does it simply feel more comfortable to stay home? I have similar goals for myself as for my kids: start small, give myself a long runway, be patient with myself and avoid judging other people’s approaches. And someday, maybe my husband will remember how to answer the door.

Vanessa Kroll Bennett is the co-host of The Puberty Podcast; the founder of Dynamo Girl, a company using sports and puberty education to empower kids; and the author of the Uncertain Parenting Newsletter, musings on raising adolescents.