By Francie Arenson Dickman
Matters involving explanation of position, negotiation, emotions that can’t be condensed into an emoji—seem to tie their tongues.
I think I’m going to dust off my law degree and hang it above my stove. It hasn’t seen the light of day since the late ’90’s. I wasn’t sure that it would again, as What to Expect When You‘re Expecting made no mention that a J.D. for mothers would be like a bouncy seat—helpful, though not essential to have. In fairness, at the time I read What to Expect, the smartphone, the source of all our issues, had yet to be invented.
Now, however, I find myself back in business. I practice nightly in my kitchen—a less-abled blend of Judge Judy and Julia Child, cooking up dinner and counseling in diplomacy, oral advocacy and conflict resolution.
Who knew I’d be so busy during my kids’ 7th grade. I figured my husband’s parenting calendar would be full since he handles math, but my girls would otherwise be off and running their own lives, and consequently their own mouths. Such is not the case. The word problems my kids have are ones involving actual words. Not basic banter; my kids can do that. But anything more complex—matters involving explanation of position, negotiation, emotions that can’t be condensed into an emoji—seem to tie their tongues.
Take tonight, for example, as I’m cooking bacon for our “breakfast for dinner,” my daughter appears in a panic. She’d been upstairs simultaneously studying for a Constitution test and practicing for a dance competition. She felt good about her inalienable rights but confused about a couple of eight-counts. “What should I do?” she asks.
“Have you emailed your dance coaches for help?”
“Am I allowed to?” she asks.
“I would assume.”
“But you don’t know for a fact,” she presses.
“I don’t need to know for a fact. They’re called coaches for a reason,” I tell her, touching on some basic contract law. “Their responsibility is implied.”
“Fine, but what should I say?”
With a wave of the spatula and the directive to say what she thinks she should say, I send her back upstairs, but not before the bacon burns and my other daughter, her twin, comes into my oven-lined office. Her fact pattern is more complicated: A friend, via group text, has invited some girls to a movie on Sunday. Everyone else texted they could go but she isn’t sure what to say since she’s not in the mood for the movie now but she may be over the weekend, and either way, she loves the friend, and doesn’t want her to think she doesn’t and she doesn’t want everyone on the chat to think she’s being rude. “How should I handle it?”
“Pick up the phone and explain this to her,” I advise.
She rolls her eyes. I wave my spatula.
“Once upon a time,” I tell her, “if we had something to say, we picked up the phone and spoke into it.” She looks at me with the same look of disbelief I used to give my grandmother when she’d tell me she used to have to go outside and pull on a giant rope to flush their toilet.
Lately I feel like my grandmother, too, with my constant recounting of the way things used to be and my longing for the good old days, which ironically now include my Lord of the Flies middle school experience. I can’t count the number of times I sputtered into the receiver, “Can I come, too?” Only to be met with, “No” and a click. Sometimes, I’d hear, “Let me check with my mom, I’ll call you back,” but the friend never did—or, as I liked to tell myself, she did call back, only she couldn’t get through because my mother was on the line yakking with a neighbor.
The olden days weren’t pretty. We were often unkind, but at least we were unkind face-to-face, and so forced to feel firsthand the effect of hurting another person. And yes, our thoughts might have been better expressed had we had our mothers standing over our shoulders piping words into our ears like Cyrano, the way parents today do with their children’s texts, but, for better or worse, the words were ours. We were lucky. We had the luxury to learn to speak up and hash it out through trial and error. And isn’t that the purpose of puberty—to allow kids to slowly spread their own wings in the world so that eventually (and hopefully) their social skills mature along side their bodies?
Stringing sentences together while simultaneously staring someone else in the eye is a skill, as are the abilities to advocate and apologize. But mastering any skill takes practice, and how can kids practice in an age in which they are socializing with a screen, and even their most mundane and innocuous interactions are in writing, and therefore subject to scrutiny, interpretation and possibly public consumption? They can’t. Or, they are scared to, and so I’m consulted.
As someone who has made careers as a lawyer and a writer out of communicating opinions and ideas, I found my daughters’ tendencies toward silence concerning. But then I read an article by Stedman Graham, Oprah’s man, on Huffington Post and felt better, the way one does when she finally gets to put a face to a name. My kids are “soft skill” deficient. And in all likelihood, so are everyone else’s.
In “Preparing for the 21st Century: Soft Skills Matter,” Graham explains that soft skills are “practices that were once in the background of all our lives.” Things like eye contact, analysis of body language and conflict resolution which “were constantly demanded from us as we moved through our days.” Skills which he says, “are not likely to be developed through silent communication” but yet “… continue to play the biggest role in determining your chances of achieving success.” What’s more, he cited a study that found that fewer than 30% of college kids were even aware that these skills matter.
Their ignorance must be bliss, I’m left to think as I scrape bacon from the pan and fret over how my kids will ever land jobs, and if they do, how they will keep them. Will they be running to the kitchen the rest of their lives, every time the boss asks a question? Better yet, what will be the future of the entire workforce once us old-schoolers take down our degrees and retire? Entire careers will become extinct. I imagine support staff will be the first to go, as no one will know how to answer a phone. Not long behind them, the journalists, followed by the business folks, the politicians and eventually even the lawyers. Except those of us holding court in our kitchens—because, for better or worse, there’s no technology that could ever mess with the job of being a mother.
Francie Arenson Dickman’s essays have appeared in The Examined Life, A University of Iowa Literary Magazine, The Chicago Tribune, and Literary Mama. She lives outside of Chicago with her husband and twin daughters and is currently completing her first novel.