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Heavy Meddle: Why Won’t My Children Talk To Me On The Phone?

A mother ponders why her children are happy to text her, but refuse to talk on the phone. (SplitShire)
A mother ponders why her children are happy to text her, but refuse to talk on the phone. (SplitShire)
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Welcome Meddleheads, to the column where your crazy meets my crazy! Please send your questions via email. Right now. Not only will you immediately feel much better, you’ll also get some advice.

Hugs,
Steve

Dear Steve,

I know this is going to make me sound like a nagging Jewish mother, but it’s a question that’s been nagging at me for a few years now: How do I get my kids to call me? On the phone, I mean.

I should clarify. I have three children, two boys and girl, ranging in age from 19 to 28. All three of them have flown the coop. Two are out of state, and the third lives three hours away by car. (No, I do not guilt trip them about this.) They are all well-adjusted and relatively happy. The oldest is engaged to a wonderful woman. I have a lot of blessings to count.

I don’t mind texting. But I’d like to hear their voices.

But the only time they call me is when they need something. Otherwise, they just don’t answer their phones. They prefer to text. I don’t mind texting. But I’d like to hear their voices. I’d like to ask them how they’re doing and not just get a status update or a digital telegram. I’m not saying I want to have an hour-long heart-to-heart with them every night or even every week. I understand that they have busy lives. But I am their mother and I do want to feel like I’m a part of their lives. And for me, speaking on the phone helps me feel that connection. I guess that makes me old-fashioned.

For the record, I speak to them around two or three times a month, and again there has to be some specific reason for them to call, or answer a call. I call them each every week or two (I can’t help myself). I can’t remember the last time one of them answered and was willing to spend a few minutes catching me up.

My question is: how do I bring this up?

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Signed,
Not a Nagging Jewish Mama

Dear Not Nagging,

I realize this doesn’t help your situation, but after I read your heartfelt letter I did pick up the phone and call my mother, who is also Not a Nagging Jewish Mama!

As for your question, I think your letter does a great job of articulating your concerns. You recognize that your kids need time and space to be who they are. You’re not asking for daily updates. You simply want to hear their voices and feel like you’re a part of their lives. That doesn’t sound crazy to me. It sounds perfectly natural. So tell them how you feel. Speak from the heart, just as you have to me.

I don’t know the history of your family, or its particular dynamics. So there may be specific reasons why your kids seem to be dodging your calls. And you should be prepared to hear about those reasons if you do talk with them. For instance, they may have a different perception of your efforts to be involved with their lives.

some of this is no doubt attributable to a generational shift in modes of communication.

But some of this is no doubt attributable to a generational shift in modes of communication. Think about it: in a matter of decades we’ve moved from visits to letters to phone calls to texts. At the same time, kids are living further and further away from their parents.

The problem is that once a particular generation becomes adept with a particular mode of communication, it’s awfully hard to get them to accept what they see as an outdated mode. I myself railed against text messages in the past, arguing that they depersonalized conversation. But as more and more of my friends and family adapted to texting, I was reluctantly pulled along.

The appeal of texting — along with most other emergent technologies — is efficiency and control. It’s less a conversation and more a series of unilateral decisions to engage. Texting allows people to convey basic information and sometimes even little outbursts of pixalated emotion (emojis) without the inconvenience of having to engage with another actual human voice.

I know that sounds sort of nutso. But it’s the culture in which your children came of age. Open ended phone calls — ones with no fixed agenda — may feel to them like time sinks. The idea of talking to mom may provoke all sorts of conscious and unconscious ambivalence. One way of controlling all that is to defer to texts. I would urge you not to take this personally — except that you do take it personally.

The most important thing here is to make your true feelings known.

The one aspect of your letter that may be a little tougher for them to hear is the line about how they only call “when they need something.” But I think they need to hear that, too. People — especially young people trying to make their way in the world — often get caught up in their own agendas. They don’t necessarily think about how those agendas might register inside of others.

The most important thing here is to make your true feelings known. It might also help to come up with some kind of schedule for phone calls, so that expectations are clear on both sides. I realize that sounds a bit formal. But it’s better than falling into the same pattern of informal unanswered calls and bruised feelings.

Good luck!

Steve

Author's note: I’m genuinely curious how many mothers of adult children feel some version of what this mother is articulating? (I know my mother does.) It seems to me symptomatic of a broader emotional atomization that has come along with technology. But that’s just me. Feel free to offer your take below. And by all means send a letter to Heavy Meddle, too. You can use this form, or send your questions via email. I may not have a helpful response, but as I always stress, someone in the comments section probably will. Thanks.

Steve Almond is the author of the book "Against Football." He is the co-host, with Cheryl Strayed, of the WBUR podcast, Dear Sugar.

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