My younger son is in the middle of a play date, but not the type of my childhood. I didn’t drive to pick anyone up. No one dropped off a child here or stayed to share coffee while the kids play. No one walked down the street or rode their bike around the block to meet a buddy.
Instead he’s on a Google Hangout with a buddy from California. With three time zones and a couple thousand miles between them, there’s not much spontaneous about this sort of play date, but there isn’t any need to actually get dressed either. They’ve never met in person, but they know a growing amount about each other. Mostly they exchange the important stuff — LEGO preferences, video game tips, and occasional bits about the weather. Having only raised boys and never been one, I’m musing that this is typical preteen boy discussion, regardless of the distance between two kids. After raising his brother through this age, I’m fairly certain that the sharing of feelings of my 11-year-old world is not the stuff of boy friendships at the same age.
They met through me. The young one thousands of miles away wearing a hat and glasses through the wonders of Google Effects is one of my writing students, a brilliant, sweet boy of nine. While I have plenty of email contact with my students, we also “hangout” via Google’s video chat app. My younger son, unable to remove himself entirely from anything I’m doing, often wandered through the room while I was teaching. I can’t recall how these two first got to talking to each other, but I’m pretty sure it began with a lesson interrupted by my child. Soon, they were chatting after our lesson was done. Today’s meeting, however, was the first planned just for them.
It’s going swimmingly. They’ve played games together, discussed email and their level of responsiveness to it, and several dozen things that don’t make much sense to me. And they’re still going strong. All without a drive, clean-up, snacks that no one is allergic to, or shoes. Or even pants. (PJs are on. We aren’t quite that causal around here.)
The boys have other online connections as well. Both play Minecraft on a server with friends, with plenty of game-related and unrelated chat going on in the left-hand corner of the screen. For my younger, these kids border between strangers and friends, many being kids with whom my younger has shared a virtual classroom for the past few years. My older son also has a set of friends with whom he shares the virtual Minecraft playground, some whom he knows IRL (in real life) and some whom he doesn’t. It’s a strange world for me, who grew up when being on (the) line meant being on the (rotary, wall-bound) phone.
I’ve been reluctant to accept that my sons’ social lives have increasingly large elements of virtual conversation and play. I’ve been cautious about this rather anonymous world on the internet, worrying about the proverbial bad guy looking to do them harm. I’ve relied upon a moderate amount of parental controls with a high degree of conversation about online behavior. We talk about privacy. We talk about safety. We talk about how easily misunderstandings can occur through text-only messages. We talk about appropriate conversation, whether on a private Facebook chat, an invite-only Minecraft server, or public forums about games, meteorology, or computer repair. And I keep the computers on the first floor, screens in plain sight. (A glance to my left shows my older with one monitor set to Facebook and the other on an old Harry Potter game. He’s been nostalgic lately.) In short, we’re careful.
But it’s still a bit strange. True, they both have plenty of “live” contact. We’re all introverted, so our definition of “plenty” might not match that of the extroverted school-goer, but they’re not generally lacking for time with Real Human Beings In 3D. While I’ve homeschooled long enough to know that socialization happens whenever more than one person is in the (real or virtual) room and is hardly limited to time with same-age peers, I’m mom enough to worry if my kids get enough live time with their buddies. With busy schedules and a recent loss of neighbors/best buddies, this worry has been more acute this past semester. I’m settling a bit, and these online friendships are helping me relax a bit.
It’s not like I’m online-social-life avoidant. My first online friend came from a gifted education email list, about 10 years back. We emailed back and forth off the list a bit then set a time to meet in real life. She was a key support when, a year and a half later, I started homeschooling my older. I’m not sure I’d have made this leap when I did if not for her very live example. She, after all, did not actually eat her young during those early, trying years (nor since, as far as I know), and if she could avoid that peril, so could I.
Since then, I’ve made several online friends, some whom I’ve met in person and others whom are only names and stories online. More than once a day, I drift to the Facebook forums where these folks gather or to the email lists they populate, sometimes just reading the posts, while other times offering information or asking for support. For some issues, it’s the safest place I know to go, where people with kids like mine can share the stuff that stymies them. I’ve found friends via other online avenues, people with whom I share values and beliefs, some who have become close IRL friends, and many others who remain names and stories.
So as I listen to my young son banter with his online, long-distance pal, a boy who can match him in vocabulary, logical skills, and curiosity, I wonder. I grew up long before an online life was common or even possible. For most of my school-aged years, I was fortunate to have at least one friend who was a sure shelter and who liked me for me. The times between were hard and lonely and, fortunately, generally short. How much it might have helped to have an online community as well.
No, online friendships and play dates aren’t sufficient, but they are fine complements to the real-life friendships we maintain as well. For both my guys and for me they’ve brought us people either out of physical reach or just previously out of view whom share our talent, traits, and interests. Socialization? Yeah, we’ve got that, online and in person.