Can We Talk?

Psychologist and Boston Children’s Museum advisory board member Sherry Turkle calls for the renewal of face-to-face family conversation.

I was so pleased to sit down with Sherry Turkle’s thought-provoking new book, “Reclaiming Conversation.” Through her research, Turkle, an author, professor, and member of Boston Children’s Museum’s advisory board,  explores in the book how quick “sips” of conversation— texts, emails, Tweets, posts, etc.—are replacing meaningful conversations, and the negative effects of this shift are becoming more and more evident. I was particularly struck by the consequences the decline in conversation is having on children.

Turkle’s research took her to Holbrooke, a private school in upstate New York, where teachers have made worrying observations about their students’ lack of empathy and emotion around peers and adults. Healthy development stages would have seen the kids reach this milestone years ago, but they seem to still not understand when they have hurt someone’s feelings. The kids are disinterested in talking to their peers or their teachers, and the teachers believe that phones are to blame. 

Sherry Turtle, psychologist, Boston Children’s Museum advisory board member, and author of “Reclaiming Conversation.”

“The teachers asked them what sorts of friends they want to make. The kids answer that they want friends who amuse them and keep them from being alone. They don’t mention caring, sharing, talking or listening,” Turkle writes. Phones create a kind of companionship that dispels the need for deep, meaningful connections with peers and mentors, so kids may no longer need or crave the kind of friendships that provide true support and togetherness.

Family life has also experienced a shift towards more “silent” communication in recent years. Turkle describes young children at the dinner table complaining to their mom or dad when they check their phones at dinner, forcing them to compete for their parents’ attention. I personally experienced this “silent communication” with my youngest son (now 25) who, for many years, insisted I text rather than call him. For a time, I did comply with his request, as that was a way to keep lines of communication open. But as he got older, I made sure to find creative ways to capture his full attention in a face-to-face conversation in order to deepen and broaden our talks.

“Children crave attention; they want their parents to hear them, acknowledge them and really listen to them. If your children don’t learn to use the parts of their brain that are meant for conversation, their neurons will not connect in those ways. They simply won’t learn to connect with others and to have comfortable conversations. They will fear and avoid human contact,” she writes.

Family conversation teaches children that there are others different from themselves and shows them how to put themselves in the shoes of another. It creates a link between a person’s words and the emotions attached to those words. It teaches children how to empathize and appropriately demonstrate how they are feeling to others, both integral components of what it means to be human. 

“To join in conversation is to imagine another mind, to empathize, and to enjoy gesture, humor, and irony in the medium of talk,” Turkle says. “As with language, the capacity to learn these human subtleties is innate. But their development depends on the environment in which a child is placed.” While children learn communication skills at school and during play with peers, development begins at home with family.

Face-to-face conversation also creates a safe space where it is okay to be one’s authentic self. When phones are brought into family conversation, at the dinner table, for example, this safe space is disrupted. “Once a phone is there, you are, like everyone else, in competition with everything else,” says Turkle. 

How do we combat this growing problem when smartphones have cemented themselves as an essential tool for keeping our everyday lives in order? Turkle makes it clear she is not calling for a technology take-down. She understands and believes in the power that technology holds to better our lives when used thoughtfully. Technology, she explains, should add to your life, not control it. 

It isn’t an easy thing to take a step back from our devices in our own lives, let alone teaching our children to do the same. At Boston Children’s Museum, we understand the importance of engaging directly with children through conversation and play, without distractions present. Parental involvement during early childhood provides children with the support they need to develop into productive, healthy, and empathetic adults, while at the same time creating a more positive environment for children to learn and interact with the world. Our hope is that both you and your child will benefit from this distraction-free time together, what Turkle calls “the talking cure.” 

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