teen on cell phone

Dear Dr. Debbie,

My middle schooler is back at school a couple days a week and tells me that it’s a bit weird. In particular, she reports, because they eat at desks spaced far apart there isn’t any conversation at lunch time. She rides the bus and says, again maybe because the students are spaced apart from each other, most people are on electronic devices. The ride is silent.

How can I help her, and also her friends, make the best of opportunities to engage in person-to-person conversation so this ability doesn’t disappear altogether?

Mother of Pre-pandemic Gabby

Dear MPG,

The art of conversation has indeed been neglected during this time of Social Distancing. But don’t despair, communication skills will return to us as before, much like the ability to ride a bicycle. It may take a little more time yet, since as reported by your daughter, students are still physically distanced and presumably masked. As our social world slowly re-opens, your daughter may benefit from some suggestions for conversation starters, as well as some ways to fill free time with friends in ways other than through electronic devices.

Affirming Friendship

Middle schoolers are desperate for peer connections. A close friend is nearly essential for sharing the ups and downs of each day including frustrations with parents who are so “out of touch” with what someone this age is experiencing. Romantic interests (her own and those going on around her) also overwhelm a typical tween with a flood of thoughts and feelings that beg to be shared. As she moves through adolescence, a tween may have fewer opportunities than she did in elementary school to engage in heart-to-heart conversation with a trusted adult. She is but one in a sea of students as they move from one subject to the next each school day. This makes peer relationships even more important than they formerly were, as she relies on her close friends for feedback and advice and to share examples of the problems and solutions they are each experiencing.

One reason for casual conversation is simply to test and confirm that a friend is truly a friend – interested in who I am (while I’m yet figuring that out), sympathetic with my troubles (because she may have similar ones), and in agreement with an evolving value system during a life stage of rapid personal and physical development. When two friends spend time just “shooting the breeze” they are assuring each other that they can be relied on for good company as well as for help in a crisis.

Conversation Starters

Just in case your daughter and her friends struggle to get a conversation going when they finally have the chance, you might print up a list of conversation starters and post it somewhere handy. Or memorize a few of these suggestions so you can help them get started when they are together.

  1. What’s something you would like to learn how to do?
  2. What, or who, always brings a smile to your face?
  3. What’s your favorite smell from your kitchen?
  4. Would you rather watch a Silent Movie or listen to a Book on Tape?
  5. Who would you want to trade places with for a day?
  6. If you ran the zoo what animals would you be sure to include?
  7. What kind of business would you like to run when you grow up?
  8. What would you like to be famous for?
  9. How will your time with online school be remembered years from now?
  10. Where would you want to spend a week on vacation?

Screen-Free Week

As screen-time has taken over more and more of our time, including school and work hours, it is even more important to commit to time away for other activities. Maybe you participated in TV-Turnoff Week which started in 1994? This initiative was furthered in 2000 by Dr. Susan Linn, who started Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood (CCFC) , a nonprofit concerned about children being negatively impacted by screen-time. The organization advocates for policies and practices to hold back the onslaught of marketing directed to our children. CCFC has been successful in limiting the harvesting of personal data from children by Mattel, Google, and YouTube, holding big companies accountable for profiting from a market made up of children.

You can participate in the annual celebration of off-line activities for children and their families. Screen-Free Week, May 3-9, 2021, is a chance to intentionally replace time with screen-based entertainment with activities that are “restorative, fun, and even life-changing.” This is a great opportunity for a child to reconnect with a friend, too.

CCFC suggests unplugging for just one day, or shutting off phones at dinner time, or reading a book about being screen-free, or taking the whole week to only use screens for work and school and to enjoy some serious offline fun. Your daughter could schedule a day hike or bike trek with a friend, or arrange a meet-up for both families at the Salisbury Zoo.

It may be hard to imagine after a year of isolation and masks in public, but face-to-face communication, with whole faces, will return to our lives some day soon. We’ll all have so much to talk about!

Dr. Debbie

Deborah Wood, Ph.D. is a child development specialist  and founding director of Chesapeake Children’s Museum.

Read more of her Good Parenting columns by clicking here.