As a species, we humans are decidedly a mixed bag. Interactions with other people elicit emotions ranging from rage to indifference to joy. For most of us, the frustration inherent in everyday communication can be looked upon as a minor irritant – the cost of doing business. For other people, those annoyances are deal breakers. They see other humans as means to an end at best and as ubiquitous obstacles at worst and figure “What’s the point?” Human connection for its own sake is not seen as intrinsically rewarding and, as a consequence, is not actively pursued.
We run social skills groups with kids and adolescents, many of whom struggle in the realm of social interaction. Among our group members, there’s as much variation in the value placed on social connection as there is among society at large. When parents ask their kids what they like about being in one of our groups, most of our younger kids point to the activities we do and being able to run around in a gym with counselors who understand them. As they get older, they begin to develop an understanding of their experience that suggests a greater appreciation of the abstract. They enjoy being part of a community in which they’re not seen as being “the hyper kid” or as “the quirky kid” because the other kids are just like them. For these older children and adolescents, the fact that they can share their time with others who share similar issues, interests, perceptions, and values is at least as important to their happiness as any activity they happen to share together. Connection, in and of itself, is the important thing.
There are exceptions. Every once in awhile, we take our groups on excursions outside the comfort of our gym to a nearby restaurant. It’s interesting to see the way kids respond when they’re placed in different settings. Some of them warm to the occasion and enjoy the chance to chat or just hang out with their fellow group members in a new environment. Other kids are reluctant to come along on these outings and their tendency to stay on the periphery is reflects this discomfort. Sometimes, it’s a matter of anxiety but for some other kids, they just don’t see the point. Why would we just want to hang out? When do the activities start?
When kids see the world this way, it’s impossible to actively teach them that social interaction is an inherently worthwhile or valuable pursuit. Regardless of whether this worldview stems from an issue of development or temperament, trying to push them towards a greater appreciation of just being with people is likely to come across as nagging and will probably wind up being counterproductive. The best we can do is to craft a milieu in which shared participation in activities is as easy and enjoyable as possible, with the hope that social interaction becomes more enticing or manageable over time. Yes, it’s important for kids to develop a minimum level of social competence but it’s equally important for adults to help them get there without being judgmental or unrealistic in their expectations.
In late September, I attended Rosh Hashanah services at my temple. Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, and Yom Kippur, the day of atonement which follows a week later, make up the high holidays – two of the most important of the year. Both holidays emphasize self-reflection. We look to identify ways in which we’ve missed the mark as individuals over the past year, and we consider how we might become better people during the upcoming year. It’s a time of new beginnings and renewal. During the Rosh Hashanah service, I came across a silent meditation in our prayer book that read:
“May we find life so precious that we cannot but share it with the other.”
It’s a beautiful wish for the new year and, as I read it, I thought of the kids I’ve known who didn’t see the point in “just hanging out.” Social interaction is messy, complicated, and often maddening. But it’s also the source of tremendous joy and gratification. May you all find life so precious!