Ep 280: The Surprising Power of Hanging Out

Andy Earle: You're listening to Talking to Teens, where we speak with leading experts from a variety of disciplines about the art and science of parenting teens. I'm your host, Andy Earle.

We're here today with Sheila Liming talking about letting teens hang out.

There is something scary about teenagers hanging out.

It seems like they're not being productive. They're up to no good.

They're better off being in structured activities that are led by adults and that are planned out.

But it's actually during hanging out that kids learn about where their boundaries are and about how to enforce those boundaries with their friends. They learn how to communicate and negotiate and make plans together.

It's not about avoiding hanging out. It's about making sure they're doing it in the right way.

Our guest today, Sheila Liming is a teacher. She is an essayist and she's the author of the book, Hanging Out: the Radical Power of Killing Time.

Sheila, thank you so much for coming on the Talking to Teens podcast.

Sheila Liming: Excited to be here. Thank you for having me.

Andy Earle: Wow. A really interesting topic today. You wrote a book all about Hanging Out: the Radical Power of Killing Time. Really interesting. And I'm looking forward to diving in and learning more about that. What inspired a book about hanging out?

Sheila Liming: It came from many directions and one of those directions obviously is the COVID pandemic. And I do talk about the COVID pandemic in the book, but the subject of Hanging Out is one I was thinking about even before the COVID pandemic. It was something that was inspired by my thinking about how much my own life had changed since I had been a teenager and some of the behaviors that I was seeing in the young people that I interact with.

And I was thinking about what that phrase meant when I was young, that phrase hanging out, which, last time I checked with teenagers I talked to, it's still a phrase, right? It's still something that we talk about and say. But I was interested in thinking about what that time was like for me and how much my own sense of time had changed since then in the way that I spend time with other people.

And I was reflecting on how difficult it has become, not just for myself, but for many of us to access the time and the space and also the comfort and the intimacy that comes from just hanging out with people, existing together side by side socially without feeling like there's these things we have to get done or something that has to be produced or made, or a box that has to be checked in the moment.

Andy Earle: I don't really find myself hanging out that often these days but there was a time in my life when I did a lot of that. When do we stop doing that? What happens to that?

Sheila Liming: Part of it is aging, of course, as we get older, we get busier. And I think also some of the limitations on us when we're younger are actually conducive to hanging out.

When we don't have cars, when we don't have jobs, when we don't have families and responsibilities that we have to take care of ourself, we have more freedom to engage in this kind of behavior. But in addition to the time and the aging part too I think we actually do plenty of hanging out these days.

We just tend to do it more through digital devices and we do it in these tiny little bites, like a text message here or there, or chatting with people online here or there. Or even listening to a podcast here or there, which is its own form of hanging out. We don't do it in the way that we used to when we're younger, because we can't, we have to slot it into our schedule where we can.

Andy Earle: Yeah, we're hanging out right now. Talking about hanging out. That is meta.

Is hanging out a waste of time? I think that's part of the hesitation with hanging out. Oh, that's not being productive. That's not time well spent.

Sheila Liming: It's often seen that way. The subtitle of the book is the radical power of killing time. And I'm actually not a huge fan of the phrase killing time. When we're like spending leisure time with other people I don't think time necessarily has to be killed, but I think that is the perception. Time needs to be put to good use.

And when you are hanging out, when you are just spending time with your friends or your family, you are wasting that time. You're not using it productively and putting it towards a good use.

Andy Earle: And you would disagree with that?

Sheila Liming: Yes. I would say that actually that time is really productive. We produce our relationships with each other. We produce connections that make our support system stronger, that make our attachments to our communities stronger.

So yeah, I disagree with it, but I also understand where that perception comes from. I think back to when I was a teenager. One of my friend's moms was very fond of saying, when we'd be leaving the house, she'd be like, where are you going?

What are you going to do? And we'd be like, we're going to go hang out. And she'd be like, no, I need an agenda. I need to know what place, how long you're going to be there, who you're going to see, and what you're going to be up to, right? And in the book I argue for more lax approaches to hanging out in the way that I was trying to fight for as a teenager.

Andy Earle: But isn't that when kids get into trouble, when they're just hanging out and they have no agenda and there's nobody checking in or anything that they have to do? That's when idle time happens, and bad things happen.

Sheila Liming: Those are some things that can happen, but they're not the only things that can happen.

And one of the things that I really value about Hanging Out is that it is a space of improvisation, where you basically just get to play. You get to make up your own agenda and your own priorities, and negotiate those things with other people as you decide, what are we going to do?

Where are we going to do it? How long are we going to do it for? Et cetera. And I think that's actually really important for the maturation process for all of us.

Andy Earle: There's so many like activities that kids are doing that are led by adults or pre structured that you don't have to navigate that space where you're uncertain and you have to work things out with other people.

And I want to do this. No, I want to do this. Okay. What if we do this and then this, or this time, and then that next time and whatever. And you avoid that if things are dictated for you, or preset for you. But when you get into this space where things are more open ended, then you're forced to communicate and express your desires and boundaries and work those things out.

Sheila Liming: Exactly. Yeah.

Andy Earle: You talk about partying in the book, which is a form of hanging out. And it was interesting, I thought, the roots of the word party where this idea comes from.

Sheila Liming: I'm very interested in the spectrum of feelings we have about parties. Some people really like them. Some people really hate them. This can be especially true when you're talking to teenagers, right?

Some feelings of dread sometimes surrounding parties, or like anxiety or apprehension. All those feelings are perfectly natural and normal. And I was interested in seeing where they come from and tracing the roots of the word. The word party comes from the same root as the word partition.

Which basically means to separate. And it's an exclusionary device. And that's part of why some of us sometimes think of parties as anxiety ridden events where we're going to feel like maybe we don't belong there, or we don't want to be there. Or we feel anxious about how long we have to commit to being there or what's going to happen to us in the context of being there.

Parties have this history behind them of exclusion, of feeling like there's an in crowd and there's an out crowd.

Andy Earle: Who gets invited, who doesn't get invited. All the cool kids are going to be there, but you're not going to be there.

Sheila Liming: There's that wonderful film Eighth Grade, and the scene of the pool party is one of the most excruciating scenes in recent film history. The poor girl getting ready to go to the pool party that she's only been invited to because the parent felt bad for her.

And then having to wade into that scene of people who don't want to be around her and wow, you just really feel for her. And I think we've all been in that situation or imagined we could be in that situation.

Andy Earle: What should we know about parties? How do you think about parties differently after writing this book about hanging out?

Sheila Liming: One thing is how important they are to the way we observe time passing. Part of what we do when we attend a party is we commit to getting together with people and observing that something has happened. An event has taken place, or a year has come full circle, or it's somebody's birthday, or it's the 4th of July. And that's what we're doing. We are marking time together. And that's something we can take away from parties along with the idea too, that they are anxiety producing for many of us. And that's a normal feeling to have.

Andy Earle: You talk about this film in the book, Victoria. And she's just hanging out and bouncing around. And it's like a night in her life. And I thought it was really interesting a lot of the stuff you talk about with this, but one thing in particular is being alone, but then wanting to fit in with this group of people. And leading to some things like then they're stealing stuff from a store and she's goes along with it and put some stuff in her pockets too.

And it got me thinking about how so much of those things we were talking about earlier with hanging out as being time when kids can get into trouble. And a lot of times it is that wanting to be part of the group or wanting to be cool and wanting to fit in, and that desire for approval leading you to go along.

Sheila Liming: I think that's something that comes about through hanging out and through our social interactions with others. Is this negotiation of boundaries. Figuring out where those boundaries exist. And sometimes you don't know where they exist until you get up right to them. Until you like are looking at one. And then you're like, oh, you know what? That's a step too far for me. I'm not willing to go there. Or I just did something that made me feel uncomfortable.

And now I understand where that boundary is for me. So that's something that comes out of hanging out with each other and out of the social connections we build when we're just spending idle time in each other's company.

Andy Earle: And if you never get into those situations where your boundaries are stretched or you're pushed past them a little bit, then you don't really have to figure out for yourself where they are and how do you enforce them, especially in context where you might be going against what everybody else is doing. And it might seem like, hey, this is just chances for kids to get in trouble. But also maybe some of those things are necessary to learn those skills and to practice that.

Sheila Liming: In the book, I talk a lot about hanging out in the context of almost like physical fitness or musculature. It's something you do. And the more you do it, you build up stamina, you build up muscles, and you build up this ability to deal with the discomfort that sometimes comes from doing it too.

Whereas, if it's not something you do very often, those muscles atrophy a little bit, they get slack, they get out of shape. And then when you have to do it, it feels just unbelievably painful. So it's all about repetition and practice. Building momentum that makes it all easier.

Andy Earle: And it's part of what happened during COVID. We all atrophied our hanging out muscles.

Sheila Liming: I certainly did. Yeah.

Andy Earle: You talk about playing music and jamming as a form of hanging out, which I thought was really interesting. I spent a lot of my teenage years getting together with people to play music or record songs or write songs. You talk about improvisation and how hanging out is the space of improvisation. But also I think having something that we're doing together was really helpful for me to find those spaces of hanging out. There's a lot to be said for even like video games or having an activity that's improvisational, where we're creating something or doing something together as a space to give us an opportunity for hanging out.

Sheila Liming: It's nice to have those kind of low level projects, something to do together that, on the one hand helps pass the time, but also allows for that kind of negotiation to unfurl. I talk about jamming because playing music with other people in this loose improvisational environment was important for me for gathering some of those skills and some of that musculature of hanging out.

I am naturally a type A person and I have had to learn how to get better at being cool in these situations. And it's been a long journey in my life to the point of being like, okay, now I see how this works. Now I get that I just need to relax and have a good time or let someone else take the lead for a little while.

Andy Earle: And you have gotten into multiple bands you talk about in the book, including playing the accordion. For various groups.

Sheila Liming: A very cool instrument, which let me tell you is guaranteed to make any teenager very popular. Just pick up the accordion. I will say that when I was young, I started out playing piano.

That was the first instrument I played. And I came to accordion accidentally when I was in my young twenties. Because my grandfather played accordion and he had passed away. And my family had this accordion sitting around. And I was in college and dorms, and I did not have a piano. And one day it occurred to me that's like an accordion is a piano. I wonder if I can pick that up. So like I asked my parents, would you send me grandpa's accordion? And then I found a teacher and I started playing it and I was like, this is so fun, and it's so weird, and I love it.

Andy Earle: Yeah, it's different. It's not a super common instrument. But I love that as a way to also connect with people. Honing those skills and being in college also looking for ways to connect with people. Let me get back into music and that could facilitate that.

You have an interesting section of the book about being on a reality TV show. And pretending to hang out on TV. How did that come about?

Sheila Liming: Emphasis on the word pretending. This was a strange adventure I embarked on when I was living in a place where I didn't know anybody.

In 2014, I moved to North Dakota, a place that I had never even spent any time in before, because I got a job there. And then I did what people do when they move to a new place: I started looking for friends. And I found this friend. She had a well known blog and I was reading her blog and I knew she lived in my town. And then one day I ran into her in person and we started talking. And then we started hanging out and we became friends. And then she got very famous. And then she had this reality television show that was on the Food Network.

And she did what most people do in those instances. She culled from her friends, like, come be on an episode of my show. And so that's how I accidentally ended up on this Food Network show. And what I realized was that I was being asked to effectively hang out and play the role of being a friends on television. And to perform in that capacity. And it was a very strange experience. Because in the process of doing that, I also realized that I had grown away from my friend and we weren't really friends anymore.

So I was in this weird place where I was pretending to be her friend on TV. And in reality, I was seeing very little of her. So, it was a very surreal time in my life. But it was interesting to think about in the context of hanging out because a lot of reality television is structured around that idea of seeing people hanging out, of watching them hang out, of eavesdropping on their social lives as a form of entertainment.

Andy Earle: It makes me think about how how things change when we're being observed. You're talking about how you had to find pictures. They're doing a baby shower for her or something. You had to come up with all these pictures, and there came a moment when I realized that my friend and I probably weren't even friends anymore.

It really struck me that this same thing happens when we're posting our lives on social media. We're hanging out, but we need to make sure we get the good selfie that shows us in the place, doing the stuff. There's this part of ourself that's watching and thinking about how do we look and is this going to be making a good post? And that has that sort of same effect.

Sheila Liming: That's something none of us are immune to. That pressure to get it right when we know we're being observed, which is one way that cell phones and digital media have transformed our world. Now we can be observed at any moment without expecting it. It feels sometimes like it's harder to experience time away from that pressure.

Andy Earle: Every time you're together with people, you want to memorialize it. Let's get some pictures. Let's post about this. And in some ways it's cool. You're creating a record of it. But also it's like creates that distance. You talk about this feeling that we would actually hang out and then we would hang out for the cameras. And it doesn't feel the same.

And then you're trying to make it bigger and better every time so that it looks good. But then it takes you out of just being present with the person or being real.

Sheila Liming: That's something we see with TikTok. The desire to make everything into a kind of spectacle. Even when it's something mundane. There's this pressure to make it big and exciting and attention grabbing and stuff like that.

Andy Earle: And then this happened! We were just driving in the car, and I pulled a prank on my brother!

Sheila, thank you so much for coming on the show today and talking with us about your book, about your experiences, about all the lessons you've learned through thinking about and researching the art of hanging out. Really appreciate you taking the time.

Sheila Liming: Thank you, Andy. I appreciate it as well. It's been fun to talk to you.

Andy Earle: The book is called Hanging Out: The Radical Power of Killing Time. And where can people go to follow updates from you to find out what you're working on next?

Sheila Liming: I am on X, formerly known as Twitter. You can find me there. My handle is @seeshespeak and I have that same handle on alternative sites like blue sky and things like that.

But the book is newly released in paperback. Came out in January, 2024, and it's been expanded with a new afterward. It's for sale at all fine and reputable bookstores. So you can find it there.

Andy Earle: We're here today with Sheila Liming, talking about letting our teens hang out. And we're not done yet. Here's a look at what's coming up in the second half of the show.

Sheila Liming: So one thing I mentioned in the book is the predominance of headphones and earbuds when we're in public spaces and the way that converts a public space into a private space because it makes it so that you can't really be interacted with outside your sphere of control.

We had a really interesting conversation about selfies in general.

And the way young people view that as a form of self expression that they're entitled to. So it's not just narcissism. It's also, I want to think about the way I appear to the world and have some control over the way that happens.

Andy Earle: Reclaiming your image a little bit.

Sheila Liming: Yeah. I think that's really important.

Sometimes hanging out is not going to be a comfortable thing. It's not always going to be something that feels completely successful or wonderful. But that's okay because when we create a momentum, then it becomes more easy to try again next time.

We take comfort and safety in scheduling ourselves and our kids. We think, okay, now we've got that taken care of. They're doing something. They're protected. And of course, there's good reasons for doing that.

But at the same time we are walling ourselves off to the potential for growing through risks.

Andy Earle: Want to hear the full interview? Sign up for a subscription today. It's completely affordable and your membership supports the work we do here at Talking to Teens. You can now sign up directly through Apple Podcasts. Thanks for listening and we'll see you next time.

Creators and Guests

Andy Earle
Andy Earle
Host of the Talking to Teens Podcast and founder of Write It Great
Sheila Liming
Sheila Liming
Associate Professor | Writing Program, Champlain College | opinions my own | HANGING OUT (paperback out Jan 2024 - https://t.co/W6qMAtVnKf)
Ep 280: The Surprising Power of Hanging Out
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