Sociality Is Learning

As adults, we take social skills for granted… until we encounter someone who lacks them.  Helping children develop social skills is viewed as a reasonable educational endeavor in elementary school, but by high school, educators switch to more “serious” subjects. Yet, youth aren’t done learning about the social world. Conversely, they are more driven to understand people and sociality during their tween and teen years than as small children.  Perhaps it’s precisely their passion for learning sociality that devalues this as learning in the eyes of adults. For, if youth LIKE the subject matter, it must not be educational. Unfortunately, I fear that we are doing a disservice to youth by not acknowledging the social learning that takes place during this period. Worse, what if our efforts to curtail social interactions out of a preference for “real” learning have professional costs?

Very few of us work in professions where we are forced to focus on one anti-social task all day, every day.  Even academics, a notoriously hermitic bunch, have to interact with students, fellow faculty members, and perhaps grant makers at some point.  Most of us are constantly relying on and honing our social skills, developing new techniques to communicate our message, navigate office politics, manage someone’s expectations, and keep the peace.  Those in service jobs face this in an acute way, having to manage irate customers and balance many people at once. Social skills are the bread and butter of professional life.  So how do we learn them?

It’s easy to point to middle school as ground zero of youth drama. The rise of status hierarchies combined with budding sexuality throws all sorts of relationships upside down. Bullying, social categories, and popularity are all there. But the key to “surviving” middle school is learning how to navigate these muddy waters with an intact self-esteem. It’s not that jealousy and other social dramas disappear after middle school; it’s that they get much more nuanced as people’s skills improve.  But for people to improve their skills, they must learn how to manage unpredictable and uncomfortable social situations. These aren’t skills learned in abstract; they’re learned through practice.

Over the last three decades, youth lives have gotten increasingly structured. Many youth spend little to no time in unstructured social settings, otherwise known as “hanging out.”  The practice of hanging out is consistently demonized by educationally-minded folks as a waste of time.  Yet, it is in that space where youth learn to navigate social situations, make sense of impression management, and develop the social skills necessary to be productive adults.  

Social media has created an interesting rupture in the landscape. Youth turn to it to reclaim unstructured social encounters, to create a public space that allows them to simply hang out with their friends, peers, and cohort.  The flirting, gossiping, and joking around that takes place is not proof that social media is useless, but proof that it’s extremely valuable. Without other spaces in which to gather, youth have developed their own. They want to be social, but we also need them to develop social skills. What’s fascinating is that they’re learning to do so in a mediated landscape, developing norms that will persist through adulthood. It’s not like all social encounters between adults are face-to-face; learning how to interpret a Facebook post is a great skill to have when entering an email-centric corporation.

Rather than demonizing social media or dismissing its educational value, I believe that we need to embrace the environments that youth are using to gather and help them learn to navigate the murky waters of sociality.  We cannot “fix” their social worlds, but we can provide the scaffolding that they need to help learn to make sense of sticky social situations. We can serve as listeners, guides, and cheerleaders. We can be there when they’re trying to make a decision about a best way to handle a situation and play devil’s advocate when they need to work through complicated dynamics. But to be there for youth, we have to treat them with respect and value what they’re learning. We have to value the importance of learning about sociality. And we need to be able to listen as confidants, not judges.

We can continue to demonize social spaces, dismiss hanging out, and overly regulate our kids. But I believe this does them a disservice. Being a successful adult in society requires social skills.  And we desperately need to give youth space to learn them. They’re committed to learning; why aren’t we supporting them in doing so?