This last week has certainly changed the way we live our lives, and it is natural to have mixed feelings about the chaos that swirls around us and the lightening-speed alterations we have made to our natural rhythms. For many, anxiety, fear, and resentment predominate—but we can find hope, joy, and meaning in this crisis if we choose to look.
Social distancing requires us to hunker down at home and certainly, it is crucial we follow these guidelines if we want to return to normalcy as quickly as possible. What do we need as parents to make the most of this unusual (and I hope unique) situation? I scoured various sources and boiled down their recommendations, which I hope you will take into your head and heart. I think they will help you feel more confident and composed about this time with your family.
Truth #1: This is going to be difficult.
The essence of parenting is change: things are always out of our control in one way or another. So, first, we need to remind ourselves that we are already well-versed in navigating change—maybe not quite on this level, but the same routines and tools apply. When externalities are chaotic, we know what our children need from us; let your parental instincts kick in.
Likewise, it is helpful to remember that it is not our job to make our kids happy all the time. We don’t have to feel pressured to deliver good news as the sole means of generating positivity. Psychotherapist Tina Payne Bryson (a regular speaker at Turning Point School) reminds us what helps kids do well, feel good, and thrive is to feel safe, seen, secure, and soothed (what she calls the “4S’s”).
In challenging situations, I take solace from the wisdom presented in Michael Rosen’s beloved picture book, We’re Going on a Bear Hunt. In their search for a bear, whenever the family encounters many obstacles—muddy fields or scary forest—they remind themselves: “You can’t go over it, you can’t go under it, you can’t go around it, you have to go through it.” To be sure, we are going through it, and you are your family’s leader in this adventure. You are the role model for your children, who will be watching carefully to see how we adults handle the ambiguity and changes. Hold your boundaries.
Truth #2: Children need routine and predictability with non-anxious adult presence.
Dr. Bryson advocates for “high structure” coupled with “high warmth” as we create systems for routine. This is exactly the formula we are hoping to replicate in our remote learning practices, and it is one you can employ at home.
Create order with some flexibility. Remote learning schedules will help to structure our children’s days. Weave in times for bathing, eating, socializing (digitally), exercising, reflecting, playing, and regular sleep schedules. When children know what to expect, they do better.
You can tell your children that there are good things and challenging things about the situation, but there are limits we all must adhere to in order to keep everyone healthy. You can do this with a non-anxious presence.
Psychotherapist Lori Gottlieb offers the example of an airplane pilot who calmly and firmly addresses the passengers when there is turbulence. The pilot (generally) doesn’t freak out, but rather tells us to stay in our seats and keep our seatbelts fastened. Model your behavior after the pilot. Fortunately, we can honestly tell our kids that most children are not becoming very sick at all from this virus, so we have every reason to think that they will be just fine.
Truth #3: We have the ordinary in front of us.
Think about all the times we have been too busy to spend time with our children. Now we have the space to have actual conversations and to share leisure time. Children need our attention, not to fix anything, but to walk alongside them through their challenges and disappointments and to express to our kids in overt and subtle ways that in our family we truly belong to each other. Lean in and connect.
Be aware of the language you are using in front of your children. They hear us saying things like:
- “I don’t know how I will deal with my kids at home for such a long time…”
- “These kids are driving me nuts…”
- “Is it possible to suspend your own kid from home school?”
I’m not saying you shouldn’t feel stressed about the days ahead at home with your children, but consider practicing what Dr. Bryson calls “name it to tame it”; with your partner or a trusted friend, lay out what the underlying issues are, and then problem-solve. If you’re saying you need x, figure out what your plan will be to get it. For example, “I am feeling really stressed because every time I get on a conference call for work, it seems like the kids need something, and I’m not sure we’re contributing equally.”
Then use this model with your children to help them problem-solve. Are they having their own trouble concentrating in a Zoom class? Feeling a bit stir crazy from the lack of formal recess? Feeling stressed out because social interactions have moved completely online, and they’re convinced they are being left out of conversations? You can do hard things, and so can your children.
We will likely remember this time for years, if not decades. Create some special moments. How you are with your child is more important than what you do with your child, and some special, enduring traditions might emerge from your family’s collective creativity.
Truth #4: Social distancing doesn’t mean social isolation.
Get creative about connecting with friends and family. Older kids can make playlists for friends, kids can watch television shows “together” with friends while Facetiming and talking about the show together (or afterward), and kids can do online gaming together. As a family, you can Zoom or Facetime with extended relatives. You may be concerned about additional screen time now that much of learning is online for a while, but our kids truly need an avenue for socializing and emotional connections. Find the balance.
You might hear your child telling you he or she is “bored” without screen time. This is not a bad thing. Allow them the luxury of boredom that might lead to their discovering an instrument, some art supplies, an unread book on their bookshelf. One great suggestion was to host a “salon” once a week at dinner and assign each member of your family something they are curious about to research and share with the rest of the family. Getting outside for walks and hikes is imperative. Nature is blooming, and it will bring joy. We are wired to be outside; the horizon soothes us. When we are anxious, our bodies need to move. Get out there!
Oh, and don’t forget to give (and get) hugs from loved ones. It’s easy to subconsciously internalize the discussions about social distancing into a physical reaction, even with our loved ones. If you are sharing living space with someone, it is certainly appropriate to share physical closeness as well. Just be sure to wash your hands first!
Truth #5: Your children need to find meaning in this situation (and so do you).
Ask your children to help around the house (wiping down doorknobs and light switches is a job most children can do) as a way to let them know they have an important role to play in supporting the family during this time.
More importantly, social distancing allows all of us to perform a service that benefits our family, our friends, our neighbors, and even people whom we will never meet. Let your children know that they are helping to keep people safe.
This pandemic demonstrates that we are not separate from each other. This is a beautiful, spiritual truth, and it comes with the heavy burden of responsibility. What happens to one of us happens to all of us. We always knew this, and now we are living it. But if we pause and are still, I think we can acknowledge the human need to find meaning in our lives that transcends all the anxiety and fear we are experiencing right now; a powerful trajectory toward meaning is through human connection, through feeling a sense of agency, through people, places, and things to love.
Writer Rebecca Solnit distinguishes between optimism and hope: optimism is when we know what will happen and it will be great; this certainty discourages engagement. Hope is when we see the future as uncertain but something we create, and we proceed forward with the values we want to see protected and fostered. We want our children to have voice, to be full members in the future’s design, and to participate fully in making the world a place that prioritizes what matters most. We want them to be full of hope.
I believe we can find joy in the crevices of our worry and concern. I saw a double rainbow this morning, and while I don’t believe in omens, it was a reminder that there is beauty in the world, and it is evanescent—so, too, is sorrow. Breathe through the tense moments and know we are showing up for our families and for each other.
Head of School