Teaching Kids to Make Phone Calls

My kids are afraid of phone calls…

…and they come by it honestly. Text me the words “Can you hop on a call?” and I’ll be like, “Sure! I just have to do a quick shot of tequila and then run to the pharmacy to pick up a tube of cortisone cream for the hives I got from your text.”

That said, if you ask me to please call and place our taco order, I will call and place our taco order. I will not throw a protective arm over my eyes and yell, “AAAAAGH! Noooo!” like a taco-loving vampire squinting suddenly into the sunlight. But my kids will. (And I use the term “kids” loosely. My daughter is 17; my son is 20.)

In its role as a calling device — versus, say, as a TikTok enabler — the phone, for my children, is like a baffling archaeological artifact chiseled out from the Pleistocene Era, but one that’s on fire and will probably kill them. And if you want to laugh, watch this video:

They would rather walk the 1.2 miles into town to see if the froyo place has their favorite flavor than call the froyo place and say the six words, “Hi. Do you have maple today?”; a happy but less wholesome alternative is to refresh the froyo place’s Twitter feed for an hour, not unlike the way my husband would sooner drive 100 wrong miles than stop and speak to a human about where he’s trying to go.

To be clear, these are lovely, skillful people. They will put down their multivariable calculus homework to sit with me and listen to Nina Simone; they can make a killer quesadilla and put up a tent in the dark; they are political activists and excellent friends. But ask them to call the dentist and it’s like (sorry) pulling teeth. And they’re definitely not alone. When I asked my Facebook friends how their kids felt about making phone calls, I got over 100 stories ranging from shy reluctance to full-blown alarm to imagined death. As one friend put it: “They don’t make them.”

It’s a little baffling, the way they’ll happily FaceTime with their friends, but then a single looming old-fashioned phone call can trigger an almost existential kind of shuddering dread, even in a person who is otherwise neither anxious nor introverted. (Full disclosure: I am both.) My son compares making a call to the performance anxiety of improv acting, which he hates. “A text you’re in control of,” is what he says. “A phone call can totally go off the rails.” You call the pizza place and you’re like, “Hi. I’d like to order two large pizzas for delivery,” and they’re like, “Our pizza oven is down. Do you want ziti?” And you’re like [cue the wild-horse eyes].

Role-playing helped my children when they were younger — just to get the rhythm of who speaks when, and what they might say. (One friend’s kid presses talk and says, “What?” Another kid’s friend says, in lieu of “Goodbye,” something more like, “I’m going to wear my cut-offs.” Click.) They’ve also battled the impromptu horror by writing little scripts for themselves. For my daughter, this is usually related to her political activism, since she calls our elected officials approximately one million times a day. For my son, the script is usually about a car on Craigslist. He just showed me this, typed out on his phone: “Hi, Al. I just saw the two Honda Accords, and I was wondering if either of those cars were still for sale.” (My tiny child is alive and well inside a man’s body!) He wrote an alternate script for leaving a message. When I asked which one he ended up using, he said, “Luckily, it went to voicemail, and the mailbox was full.” “Thank god!” I said back to him, and he laughed.

I used to picture the kids staring nervously at the phone, role-playing a 911 call after they’d, you know, found one of us slumped over unbreathingly or sawed off their own legs. But now I realize, thanks to the sometimes-wonderful pressure of peers, they can call to reserve a campsite or order chicken wings or (I’m guessing) call the head shop, if head shops are still a thing. In this way, as in most other ways, the children will ultimately do what needs doing when either desire exceeds dread or there are no other alternatives. You’d think I’d be done learning this, because it has always been true.

So, yes, the kids may not need to make a ton of calls in their lives, but they’ll still need to cancel the occasional doctor’s appointment, conduct a job interview, or pick up when their grandparents call singingly from two separate house phones to wish them a happy birthday. And it’s good for them to know how. If they’re really starting from scratch, these how-tos are from my book How to Be a Person:

Teaching Kids to Make Phone Calls

Teaching Kids to Make Phone Calls

At the very least, you’ll want them to call you one day, after they’ve left home. Just so you can explain, better than Google ever could, how to roast a chicken or file taxes or water a hydrangea. Just so you can hear, in your aching Mama ear, their badly missed voice. A mere satellite away.

Catherine Newman is the author of, most recently, How to Be a Person. You can find her at Ben and Birdy.

P.S. 21 completely subjective rules for raising teenage boys, and 21 completely subjective rules for raising teenage girls.

(Illustration by Alessandra Olanow.)