Italian journalist Mattia Ferraresi recently published the following in the Boston Globe, something I’ve been pondering for a few days.
“We of course couldn’t stop the emergence of a previously unknown and deadly virus. But we could have mitigated the situation we are now in, in which people who could have been saved are dying,” she wrote. “I, and too many others, could have taken a simple yet morally loaded action: We could have stayed home.
“I and many other Italians just didn’t see the need to change our routines for a threat we could not see.”
I, like many parents, have been thinking a lot about this threat we cannot see and our role in modifying our behavior.
As children and teens are home from school, a parent may ask, Can I let my child go for a walk with a friend knowing they likely won’t maintain the recommended 6-foot distance? Can I let my child play with a friend who isn’t sick? Do I need to social distance to these extremes?
In other words, Can I bend the rules, especially for a threat that still feels (thankfully) invisible in my community? The answer is no.
While we may think our family is immune to severe illness or death from COVID-19, we just don’t know who is carrying the coronavirus and who isn’t until it’s too late. And recent news is showing a significant number of Americans in the 20- to 64-year age range are getting sick and even dying. For the greater good of the community, why not play it safe?
How do we then manage life at home with our children when we have to work, have to help our kids with schooling, have to keep our young ones engaged and have to work with all ages through their challenges of boredom, withdrawal from friends and arguments for excessive screen time?
We are living in a new reality with new challenges. Here are some ideas of how to cope and even thrive in these extraordinary times.
Keep calm. If we panic, our children will panic. If we are constantly checking the news or our phones and talking about the virus, we aren’t available to our kids and we aren’t modeling a calm presence. Our anxiety does not help them. Answer your children’s questions in an age-appropriate way, and if you don’t know the answer find out from a reputable source.
Model self care. We could be in this for a long time. Self care now is essential. Take a bath, play music, go for a walk — whatever it is that fills your bucket — and build it into your daily routine. The yoga community will tell you (and science backs this) that deep breaths calm the nervous system. Ask your children what helps them when they feel worried or upset. Create a cozy nook in your home where anyone can go to take a break.
Maintain sense of humor. If we can let go of our stress and think about the absurdity of this situation with all family members in the house 24/7, you may find a smile creeping across your face. Take the “meeting pirates”— children who barge into their parent’s video meetings — or the dad who actually had a roll of toilet paper thrown at his head while conducting a virtual conference.
Understand and empathize. Your 3-year-old may not understand why she has to stay home, nor may your 13-year-old, for that matter. Sit with them and explain. For example, “You really want to see your friend. It’s hard to be stuck in the house all day.” Let your child cry, talk about his feelings, be angry. Then move the conversation forward by offering to engage in an activity, like baking cookies, drawing together or taking the dog for a walk.
Foster social connection. Virtual playdates or gatherings have been working wonders for children of all ages. Keeping our social connections keeps our hope alive and our spirits lifted. Google hangouts, Zoom and FaceTime are all easy to use. While your kids are at it, host a virtual tea time or cocktail hour with your friends.
Accept imperfect behavior. Kids may be angry, snarky or otherwise bears inside your home. Let them be. This is no time to demand constant respectful behavior. Their mood will change. Ignore, put on headphones or leave the room if you can’t handle their moods without blowing up yourself.
Come together. Take this time to slow down and connect. Kids can no longer go to after-school activities or see their friends, nor can you. What activities do you love to do together? Create a list of projects, games or crafts. Have dance parties and family cook-off competitions. Get out old toys. Make popcorn and watch movies. Start a family journal or blog and invite all to write or draw their thoughts about this unprecedented time.
Create. As my husband always says to my kids in a barreling voice when they proclaim they are bored, “boredom is the crucible for creativity.” Leaving our kids to their own devices allows them to sit with, then move through, their discomfort of feeling like they have nothing to do — and realize they can create fun on their own.
Embrace the chaos. Your house will get messy. This is a sign of creativity and engagement. Clean up together with song and dance and celebrate after with hot chocolate and popcorn.
Consider your routine. If you haven’t already, sit down with your family and discuss needs and opportunities for everyone in the family. A daily scheduled routine might be helpful for some families and backfire for others, but morning check-ins can set the tone for the day, and be a time for family members to express how they are feeling.
Listen. Top-down structure that takes into account only your needs and what you think makes for a productive day will not work. I might feel better getting dressed first thing, but my kids might be completely happy (and productive) if they stay in their pajamas. Ask your kids what works for them and be willing to try it for a week. Reassess and change things up if needed. Your children will appreciate the sense of control and self-efficacy this brings (and as an aside will do wonders for your relationship).
Make peace with screens. Without scheduled school and extracurricular activities, our children have more time on their hands and screens can easily become the go-to option. Co-create some general guidelines about what is acceptable use. Also be realistic. Our kids will be using their digital devices more than in the past (screens are their only way of being social right now), and that’s OK. If you need to use a video as the babysitter so you can have a virtual meeting or take a bath, by all means go for it.
Offer privilege with responsibilities. If after a few day’s grace period you need to instill some structure, try Vicki Hoefle’s concept of privileges and responsibilities. The idea is: “Yes, you can be on your device as soon as you finish your school work” or “Yes, you can play with your Legos as soon as you pick up your other toys.” Decide what boundaries are important to you and stick to them.
Acknowledge and celebrate. The coronavirus outbreak is causing many challenges for families: lost income, lack of childcare, power struggles and, of course, major health concerns and lost lives. Those of us who are fortunate enough to survive this pandemic relatively unscathed can come out of this with tremendous growth for having weathered this crisis. Through this challenge our children can develop a batch of admirable traits — resilience, cooperation, diligence, grit, generosity, self-control, gratitude, compassion, flexibility — if we chose to swim rather than sink. Acknowledge and celebrate the traits they are developing.
Support one another. Kindness matters. Watch out for signs of stress, anxiety or depression in your children, family and friends — and yourself. It may not be possible to model calm at all times, and that’s OK. That’s real life. Connect with others and seek help if you need it.
Lower the bar. “Set the bar low. Lower. Keep going. Right there,” as Kimberly Harrington writes in her article “Now Is the Perfect Time to Lower the Parenting Bar.” I want to give a huge caveat to all of the above as it is not realistic to think we can become school teachers and stay-at-home-working parents while keeping sibling fights at bay, healthy food habits on track and a tidy house. By all means, plug in the digital devices if they will help you keep your sanity or aforementioned selfcare practices. Do what it takes to safely keep yourself from going over the edge. And if you want some confirmation that your kids can still go to college if you don’t think your homeschooling is up to snuff, check out “I Refuse to Run a Coronavirus Home School.”
Practice gratitude. We are fortunate to be learning from those across the globe who were exposed earlier and are truly suffering. As of this writing, there are only two confirmed cases in Teton County. I am grateful to the scientists, policy makers, medical professionals, grocery store employees, teachers and all others who are doing their best to keep our community, our country and the world healthy, functioning and as safe as can possibly be.
Take good care.