Right up front, let me say this is not to meant to lecture or preach at parents. It is not meant to put another burden on the shoulders of parents who who are now bearing so much under the weight of the COVID-19 pandemic. You don’t need to be told you’re doing it wrong, or you’re not doing enough. What I want to do, as one parent to other parents, is remind you of what is truly important right now, and will prove its importance 20 years from now. It is not an added responsibility; it is the one you already have.
If you now have school-age children at home who would normally be in school outside the home, you may be helping with or providing some educational continuity until schools re-open. Regardless of how much or how little you are doing, I ask you to remember that the most important lessons kids are learning now – all kids – are not academic.
I ask you to try to see these weird and and frightening days through their eyes, and let that influence what you teach them by your words, actions, and attitudes.
Consider what you would like them to take away, and what you think would be valuable for them to learn, because it could shape their character for years to come.
We know kids can be tough and resilient. But they are also tender and vulnerable. For a child to be living through this historical event, there is the potential to form values and outlook that will stay with them for the rest of their lives. How they process that, and interpret what is going on around them, will depend greatly on you.
Are you communicating to them that being at home with them is a burden and a hardship? Or are you showing that you want to be with them?
Are they seeing you stressed, anxious, angry, fearful, or selfish? Without denying your own visceral response to these difficulties, you have an opportunity to show courage: that is, not fearlessness, but facing the situation despite your fears — facing it well, showing them how it’s done.
Don’t feed your children on your fears. This is truly one of the worst things we do to children, and we often don’t even realize we’re doing it, or don’t realize how destructive it is. It often is simply an indulgence. We think of our giving vent to fear as another way of expressing our feelings openly, or staking out or values. But your children are not your peers, and they can’t process your fear the way I or another adult would. They internalize them and become anxious and fearful themselves. Knock it off. You don’t have to hide your fears, but you need to show your children how we face fearful things with courage and spirit.
Remember, this does not have to be a terrifying or anxious time for them. In fact, for some kids, this will be the six-month summer vacation. They have a right to be free from care. Let me repeat that: Your children have a right to be free from care. They don’t have to see this like we adults do. Every moment clutching grass with their toes, blowing dandelions, chasing butterflies, throwing a ball, playing cards with mom and dad, or skyping with friends is their right as children. Turn that damn news off and keep childhood in play. Do it. Just do it.
In between my 2nd and 3rd grades, Portland’s schools extended the summer vacation because of a budget crisis by releasing us one month early. It was an epic summer. Those extra weeks felt like forever to us. A glorious 4-month break that I remember as one of the best summers ever. But you know what? It was the summer of 1972. The war in Vietnam was just winding down, as ground troops were being withdrawn. Still, spring saw the North’s Easter Offensive and over 600 US troops were killed that year. Left-wing terrorism erupted around the world, and the Troubles in Northern Ireland escalated. After years of protests, riots, and social upheaval, the world was not happy or hopeful. But I was about to turn eight. Our Summer Without End was not touched by the chaos and violence that was going on. One reason for that is that my parents did not let us see the news. Only when I later realized the insanity of those days did I come to appreciate the extent to which we were allowed to carry on with our childhood. Of course, it didn’t last. But when I looked back, it made the days of innocence seem even sweeter.
It is sweet. But like so many fragile things, it must be guarded.
Another thing today’s children will learn: our responsibility to our neighbors. Will they watch mom and dad compete for goods and hoard and put their household first? Some parents may think their children are seeing them place a high value on “providing for the family,” or “Taking care of our own.” But instead they are often seeing fear and selfishness. You can show them something better. Talk about how your family can share with others. Talk about how your family can contribute. Talk about how their comfort and safety doesn’t hinge on having extra toilet paper.
They will also learn from how you process the endless stream of true and false information, if you show discernment and a healthy skepticism, and act on facts rather than fear or panic.
We can go a step further — all of us, not just parents — to show that where there is neighborly love, fear, if not eradicated, is at least silenced, and not given decision-making power over us. Thinking of others — particularly the frail and vulnerable — and their needs goes a long ways to opening up a narrow concern limited to our own safety and comfort. “Perfect love casts out fear.”
Well, this may have ended up preachier than I hoped, but I feel certain that when they are grown, today’s children will remember what we’re teaching them in these days of disruption and anxiety, because they are watching us, and listening.
Let’s give them our best.