The teenager has already unfriended me on Facebook and is now threatening not to respond to my phone texts. “Are you TextNagging?” he wrote me one day, in response to what seemed (to me) like an innocent question. Although one I had posed in three prior text messages. Describing his responses as “selective” doesn’t even come close.
He has been charged with raising a substantial sum of money for a trip he wants to take this summer. So in addition to odd jobs, he’s been spending the last many weeks tutoring after school and on weekends.
I have become his ad hoc manager in this endeavor, first sending out an email to my Mom List, asking if anyone knew anyone, blah, blah, blah. But also keeping track of his appointments – since I need to drive him to most of them, they need to fit into my schedule as well. Basically, all he has to do is make the appointment and show up.
How hard could that be? Right?
“Please call your Wednesday people and tell them you have a game that afternoon. See if they can reschedule,” I say to him in the morning as he’s walking out the door.
When he arrives home, I ask, “Did you call them?”
“No one answered,” he says.
“Did you leave a message?”
Initially, I had thought this might be a shortcoming of my teenager alone, but upon closer inspection I have discovered that this is standard operating procedure.
“Why didn’t you leave a message?” I ask.
“They’ll see my number as a missed call,” he says. “They’ll just call me back.”
“No. No they won’t,” I explain. “Because you are calling grown ups. And that’s not how we roll.”
My son believes that if he calls one time and there is no answer and he hangs up, the ball is in the other person’s court. This is how many (maybe even most) young people operate. They don’t listen to their voicemails. They don’t read their emails. If you need to be in touch with them, it’s either by text message or through Facebook. And for me, with my teenager, half of that access has been denied.
“If you don’t leave a message, it doesn’t count as calling back,” I nag. “And if you don’t call back, they think you don’t care or aren’t interested.”
He looks at me as if I were speaking in tongues. No they won’t, he says.
But they already have. He’s lost one “client” already because the mom left a message on his voicemail that he never responded to. In this case, it wasn’t that he didn’t call back, he just never checks his voicemail to begin with.
I remember being at a lecture a few years ago with Michael Thompson, author of Raising Cain. Among other things, he spoke about boys’ brains and how they develop and asked the male audience members when they remember becoming “organized.” “Not until I was in college,” said one. “In my thirties,” said another. “Never,” proclaimed one courageous soul. The point, according to Thompson, is that we sometimes need to moderate our expectations of boys. They’re built a certain way and often cannot perform the way we wish they would.
I remember coming home from that lecture and slipping into my son’s room. He was in 5th grade at the time and just about to fall asleep. “I’m sorry I’ve been treating you like a defective girl,” I said to him, using the author’s own term. My son had no idea what I was talking about and I’m sure didn’t even care.
But these communication issues don’t seem like organizational impairment. They seem like the mores of an entire generation that are, well, stupid. Or so I thought, before I read Pamela Paul’s article in The New York Times last week, “Don’t Call Me, I Won’t Call You,” which posits that it’s not just teenagers who eschew voicemail, but practically everyone except, apparently, me.
Whether or not that’s all true – that voicemail is passé and that boys can’t manage their affairs – doesn’t matter a whit to me. I can nag just as facilely in a text message as I can face to face. And in a way that Mr. Darwin would surely be proud.