Last week we talked about things you might do to support your children if they’re wanting to find more friends. I also mentioned that if your child is happy with their level of social interactions, yet you’re feeling uncomfortable, that’s a different conversation. So let’s look at one of those possible scenarios. What if the majority of your child’s social interactions are online? Our children are growing up with online technology, it’s more intuitive for them, so it can often be us parents who are concerned, while they are happily chatting with other kids in different time zones. Do they really count?
Whenever I find myself uncomfortable with something in our unschooling lives, “why?” is my favourite question. I keep asking it until I manage unearth the root of the issue for me. Once I’m there, I can begin to make useful observations.
With our world becoming more and more connected through technology, online connections are becoming more commonplace, and more meaningful. Yet they are still often considered “less than”. We tag our in person encounters as IRL, “in real life,” as if our online connections aren’t real. Why? In my experience, I often feel more connected to my online friends because we communicate more—both more often and in more depth. Why? Especially when my children were younger, I could fit online conversations into my personal schedule, like writing email replies after they fell asleep. And for me, written conversations added a level of thoughtfulness, as I’d re-read and edit what I was writing for clarity before hitting send.
Back in 2002 when we discovered and chose to begin unschooling, I didn’t have any family or friends who had even heard of homeschooling. It was online where I discovered homeschooling, where I found a forum with participants from my province, where I confirmed the legality of keeping my children home instead of sending them to school. Online is where I discovered unschooling, and found a forum where thoughtful and caring parents were discussing the ideas behind it and sharing what it looked like in their family. Unschooling communities are often very small locally, yet rich online where the pool is worldwide. These online connections have made a world of difference for my family.
And over the years I’ve made many wonderful acquaintances and found my closest friends. Yet I only see them in person once or twice a year—and that’s mostly now that my children are older. Are they “real” friends? Definitely. Valuable relationships? Absolutely! What’s so fun to observe is that the odd times we do meet face-to-face, our friendship flows. Conversations pick up from where they left off online, they twist and turn, and after we part ways, they pick up online from that new place. With technological advances, online communication has progressed past written missives to speech and even video with tools like Skype and Google Hangouts. Our online communication styles and tools are continually changing, making virtual connections richer.
It’s not about valuing one style of communication over another—it’s about exploring the styles that work for the communities you and your family find you’d like to be part of. My daughter Lissy first found a community of passionate photographers online, and now, a few years later, she has met quite a few of them in person during her travels, alongside staying in touch with them online. Most of my son Joseph’s connections are online, yet he’s still learned a lot about developing, managing, and nurturing friendships.
In fact, the conversations I have with each of them surrounding relationships are eerily similar, given that their favoured modes of communication are vastly different. Our conversations flow through the same topics, the same kinds of questions. That shows me that social interactions online are not by definition less valuable. I think they range in value just as in person interactions do. Again, the key is to look to your children—support them as they explore the world. Spend as much time helping them navigate online relationships as you would if the other child was visiting in your home.
There are skills that are about being human in our world, like communication and relationship skills, which are sought out and experienced through whatever paths we choose. No matter the window to the world your child chooses, it’s the world they can potentially see. Help them explore it, rather than spending your time trying to pull them to your window. Their view may be uncomfortable for a while, but that’s our learning. 🙂