Parents Don't Get “Awkward” By Jason Brand

Parents Don't Get “Awkward”

By Jason Brand

6/16/08

 

Occasionally a word floats up through the lexicon that speaks volumes about the generation gap.  Talk to a group of kids today and you are bound to hear the word “awkward”. Talking on the phone or in restaurants, speaking to parents or friends, saying hello or goodbye – everything is “awkward”. 

 

“Awkward” is accepted by adults as a way to talk about a child’s development- “She’s going through that awkward phase.” It is also occasionally peppered into adult conversations as a way to describe uncomfortable social interactions: “I wouldn’t want to have them both over at the same dinner party because it would be awkward.” Now kids have taken the word and applied it liberally. It has gone beyond wearing a neck-tie to church or getting a kiss from mom while being dropped off for school.  For kids, awkward is everywhere.

 

This is a concern because awkward points to social discomfort and part of being a parent is helping kids to gain social and emotional maturity. When awkward is everywhere, parents don't know what to help and kids don't get the support they need. The current stalemate between parents and kids over the acceptable use policy for the word awkward is a symptom of something bigger that needs a different approach.  Parent's need to get curious about the kid definition of "awkward" and understand it from their perspective. With this understood parents and kids can begin a different conversation where everyone is on the same page and "awkward" feelings can be addressed by the whole family.

 

The parent child “awkward” stalemate usually starts like this:

Kid: I don't want to [go there, wear that, see this person].

Parent: Why not?

Kid: Because it's so awkward.

 

When the word is presented this way parents take it as a "teachable moment”.  They get invested in demonstrating that the first step to getting over awkward feelings is by talking about them and adding definition.  Thus, the next mandatory parental question: "What do you mean by awkward?" And the usual kid response: "I don't know.  It's just awkward." Parents then usually take the top-down ‘I’m older-so-I-know-more’ perspective, saying: “the more you experience the things that feel awkward the more they will disappear.” And there it ends.

 

The desire to talk to kids about their awkward feelings is well intentioned, but the current dialogue is inadequate in today’s world. It’s time to turn stalemate into opportunity and find ways to plug-in with kids and their awkward feelings.

 

The answer: Meet kids where they are at. And for digital kids that means in front of the screen. This is difficult for many parents because they don’t get why or don’t like the fact that kids are spending so much time in front of screens.  Parents need to consider the fact that screens aren't going anywhere and they are a fact of life for kids today.  If parents want to help kids navigate this new world they are going to have to understand both the ups and downs of living la vida digital.

 

Here are some examples of what kids are up against in developing social and emotional maturity in a digital age:

The simple fact that so much of this new world takes place behind a screen changes the social landscape. For example, the new technology provides a buffer from the full range of awkwardness that can take place in a face-to-face conversion – being behind a screen hides the cringes, tears, anger and fluster that are the hallmark of cliques, bullies and meanness.  It can also provide a safer place for kids to express another set of difficult feelings like empathy, kindness and affection that are at the core of strong friendships.

 

Both parents and kids have a natural aversion to awkward situations, and adults are no different from kids in always having an eye open for the path of least awkwardness. It is about options, and if there is a less awkward option regardless of age, it is most likely to be chosen. Kids are growing up in a time of seemingly endless options. Take dating as an example: The options for contacting a first crush have expanded exponentially: text message, call- cell phone, call- home phone, email, talk face-to-face, instant message, leave a post on social network "wall" or write a note. It seems logical that with all of these options certainly one would lead to less awkwardness.

 

Kids also report that they are increasingly feeling awkward in the waiting time between social interactions whether it be from the silence on the phone while waiting for the other person to speak to the waiting for a response from a wave hello in the hallway.  These moments seem mundane to parents, but not for kids. This is due, in part, to new forms of communication like instant and text messaging. Kids using IM will carry on numerous conversations simultaneously and can fill in the silence by simply chatting with someone else.  Kids have grown up in a world where communication happens more quickly resulting in little tolerance for dead air space.  

 

The fact that generation gap has widened around the word awkward makes sense when it is viewed as part of the digital divide between analog parents and digital kids. Parents need to see the world through their kid’s eyes as it is happening on their monitors – a fast-paced world of seemingly unlimited options. With these differences understood everyone moves into this new territory together. Then parents can join kids in traversing uncharted technological terrain. But the "awkward" is different this time because everyone is in it together.

 

Here are five commandments that will kick start a new conversation between you and your child and end the “awkward” stalemate.

1. Thou shalt let them be bored:  Part of the awkward feeling that kids face is not knowing what to do during down time.  Kids lives are often overbooked with activities and commitments that keep them constantly busy.   It is healthy for kids to have periods where they experience boredom.  From this place they learn to rely on their ability to provide for their own needs and build an internal sense of how to solve problems.

2. Thou shalt allow the medium to fit the strength, talk about the weakness and let there be comfort zones:   The point here is not to strip kids of their technology as a way to make them feel less awkward.  For some kids using screen-based mediums for communication allows them to get over their awkward feelings and take positive risks.   Parents want to help kids talk about the places where they have difficulty communicating; a conversation that will go much further if kids have a sense that their comfort zone is not going to be taken away.

3. Thou shalt encourage interaction with kids of different ages:  A great way for kids to learn about their own development and see that they can grow out of awkwardness is to be in safe and relaxed environments with kids of different ages.  This provides an important sense of perspective on awkward feelings. It also takes the pressure off parents always having to convince kids that awkward feelings will pass with maturity.

4. Thou shalt awaken in your own awkward moments:  Parents can help kids to understand their awkward feelings by talking about how they deal with their own awkward experiences.  A piece of food in the teeth, a social faux pas, seeing your boss at the gym are all opportunities for parents to talk about their own awkward feelings and how they can be effectively managed.

5. Thou shalt take the long-term approach:  Keep in mind that these technologies are at their infancy and kids are the beta testers who are leading us into a different kind of future.  Chances are parents and kids will rely on these technologies to communicate for many years to come.  Find ways to build a relationship around these technologies where everyone is learning together and take the attitude that because everything is so new awkward feelings are part of the process.

Awkwardness is the buzzword that has captured the feelings of a generation of kids who have grown up digital while still struggling to make sense of the world of their analog parents.  

 

The word awkward can either be viewed as a dead-end street where the answer to "what do you mean?" is always "I don't know.  It's just awkward."  Or it can be used as a bridge between generations and an opportunity to understand the world of digital kids.  The key to building bridges in families is relationships and finding ways for parents and kids to get excited about growing up together no matter how awkward that might feel.  

 

Jason Brand is a family therapist with a technology background who specializes in bridging the screen divide.