A dad pays his son, a teenage introvert, to start conversations with random strangers. Brilliant idea or bankrupt?
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At any given moment, my son is speaking. He is standing near my desk, riding in the car, or running a trail beside me, the conversation free and flowing.
The topic may be anything: the play-by-play of some random video game or a string of vignettes from his school day tied together by lazy shrugs and honest humor. His delivery is generally thoughtful and deliberate, on point, and with frequent stops for laughter. He is intelligent, funny, kind, and perceptive. His sarcasm game is next level stuff. I could listen to him for hours, and oftentimes I do. In fact, I pay him for it.
Note, the money involved, while more or less speaking fees, isn’t meant to mark a distinction between amateur and professional orator status. Rather, it’s an incentive to work around the obstacles inside him. The thing is, while he may speak to me (or other family and friends) all day, the moment another person enters the conversation he stops suddenly and shrinks like a turtle into the shell of his bright red hoodie. He becomes distant, mumbling, and awkward. He reminds me of Michigan J. Frog, minus the cane and top hat, one moment singing “Hello, my baby!” like the whole world is a stage, the next crawling into a shoebox, nothing left but the croaking. I’m fairly certain he would melt if only science would allow it.
Enriching my teenage introvert
He is a teenage introvert — not exactly shy, but fairly reticent. He’s more than happy to while away the hours sifting through his own thoughts rather than scatter them upon the winds of pointless, albeit polite, conversation. To be fair, his mind is a pretty fantastic place to spend some time. However, lately his aversion to others has gone from mere discomfort to a matter of defiance — an attribute, he believes, to be owned and celebrated. I fear that he is setting himself up for a long road fraught with social difficulties. I hope to help him avoid it.
“How would you like to earn some money?” I asked him as we were sorting through a pile of apples in the produce section of our local grocer.
“Doing what?” he asked, being as savvy as I hoped him to be.
“See that man by the potatoes? Go start a conversation with him.”
“Well, potatoes for starters. There are at least five kinds, talk about that.”
The man, you may have guessed, was a store employee, but truthfully that wouldn’t have mattered. Kids today are raised with “stranger danger” deeply embedded into their psyche. It’s an overreacting export of our fear-based economy and something that fits a little too nicely with our indoor, online culture. The combination has led to the decline of real-world interactions.
Meanwhile, we have been told officially for years that America is safer than it once was. Kids face far more danger from those they know than those they don’t, the facts have shown, yet we keep falling back on the easy scare tactic declaring strangers the enemy. It makes parents feel like we are doing something, I suppose. Which, obviously, is how I found myself standing in a market, paying my teenage introvert to piece together a few syllables about potatoes to help develop his social skills, and maybe toss in some eye contact for effect.
The art of conversation comes at a cost
“How much money?” he asked.
“One dollar per conversation,” I said. “Every time you have a discussion, meaning at least three sentences, of clear, friendly dialogue with an adult you don’t know, I’ll give you a buck. It could add up quickly.”
“Would it be OK if I donated half of it to charity?” He had started a club at his school two years ago to encourage his peers in working for animal and environmental causes — an undertaking that I had hoped would be the cure to his growing social awkwardness, but instead fell apart as one more victim to it — leaving his inspiring passions, much like his wonderful personality, far too secluded from his schoolmates.
“Of course,” I said.
He was quiet for a moment, nodded, and walked away. I pretended to study the Granny Smith in my hand as I watched him chat with the man in the apron. I couldn’t hear the words, but I could hear the laughter, and I saw the smiles as my boy turned back toward me.
“Was that so hard?” I asked.
“No,” he said, as he placed a bag of Yukon Golds in our cart. “I can do it.”
That was two weeks ago, and since then he has earned quite a bit for the charity of his choice, which, it turns out, has been a much bigger factor than lining his own pocket. It has accrued at cash registers, in long lines, and sitting in the cheap seats. It has been part question, part answer, and increasingly without either serving as the prompt.
To be clear, I don’t believe we can, or should, try to “fix” his being an introvert because that’s who he is, and who he is isn’t broken; however, it is nice to know that he is able to go outside his comfort zone and find a bit of comfort there. That is a skill that will serve him well, wherever the words may lead him.