The sounds of children playing outside have been a constant stream over the last few months. Starting in April, my four little neighbors, ages three to seven, have been playing outside. They are a hearty bunch as the weather in April is still chilly in this area. They also appear to love to scream. Little girl screams of delight and excitement are carried by the breeze. Early this summer, I had a greenhouse put up. The youngest of the girls came by, curious, and perhaps feeling a little alone. She so wanted to get up close. She is three. What does social isolation mean to her other than some of the adults around her wearing a mask? She looked both confused and disappointed when I didn’t hang out close to her. Her beautiful brown eyes registered a bit of sadness.
Earlier in the year, just as the pandemic was arriving in this area, Sadie, who is sixteen years old, mentioned that she had found out there was a case of Covid in our town. She makes a particular gesture when she is worried. She purses her lips. I said, “So what do you make of that?” I told her that she was making that face. She laughed and then sobered. “I kind of didn’t think it would get here, but then I did think it would get here. Now it is real.” A 69-year-old client has said something very similar. I told Sadie this. It is a normal reaction, to hope the worst will not happen, and I wanted her to know this.
A friend told me of her ride to Jackson with her friend and her friend’s ten-year-old son. After his mom had parked the car, he refused to get out. “I don’t want to die of Covid. I don’t want to get out of the car.” My friend asked her friend if she had talked with him about the pandemic. She had not, but she watched the news with him in the room. He was hearing it all and had drawn his conclusions. His conclusion, absent of any other information, was that he would die of Covid if he walked down the street in Jackson.
An eight-year-old I know wanted to put up caution tape on her swing set in the backyard. Her mom asked her why she wanted to do that. “So that it looks like the swings in my school.” Her mother paused, considered, and then let her do this. Her mom is a therapist and knows that kids often act out what scares them. They will do this with play, their dolls in the hospital; in this case, the swing set arranged for a pandemic.
The children are aware of the pandemic. They may not understand the science, few of us do, but they know it is deadly and random. What is unexpected is often far more frightening. It jumps out at us from the dark. There is little way to prepare for any broadside, the sudden death of a pet, sudden illness of a relative, never mind a pandemic.
When talking with someone earlier this year, right after the stay at home suggestions, I realized how shocked I was that it had come to this. But even understanding doesn’t quite do it. There is still a sense of unreality that swirls over this event. After about six months, there are 200,000 dead, and the kids who overhear the evening newscast hear this. It is not confusing that they would be disturbed.
Every generation goes through traumatic events. Significant trauma is often a big event and is remembered forever. Kennedy’s assassination televised into my 7th grade sewing class is a clear memory to me. I remember the skirt I was attempting to sew. I remember staring up at the TV screen anchored high on the wall. I was horrified. Traumas can prepare us to cope. They can build resilience if there is a safe adult to talk with, an adult who is not so traumatized that they can talk. I wonder as I talk to kids what the effect of this will be for them. How will this prepare them, and for what? Will they have people in their household who talk them through what is unknown, frightening, and at times incomprehensible? The pandemic is not a brief burst of awfulness but a constant slow grind of quarantines, limits, confusing messages, and the unpredictable.
Sadie is a very independent young woman. She listens to her parents, but she thinks for herself. For other kids, this is often not the case. I hear from other kids I visit that they have overheard their parents talk about the pandemic as a hoax. I am not entirely clear of what they think this means. There is a contradiction between their parents telling them, “It is no big deal,” and the news media counting the dead. What must they make of this? Sadie is also old enough to think the information she hears through from the perspective of being a near-adult with a mind that can work in abstracts. A ten-year-old does not have this advantage. If something is scary, it is globally scary. It is the monster under the bed, but it is a monster that is impossible to wish away.
Listening to what the scientists recommend may be very different from play dates with friends, large gatherings at popular recreation spots, and sports that involve hundreds. The kids are not social distancing or wearing masks except for those that are old enough to work, and then many employers tell them to follow business protocols that include masks and social distance. The appearance of this very mixed message, I believe, causes a contradiction that can only be resolved with a dismissal of what the scientists are saying. The gap between what the scientists are saying and what is occurring in the community is too great to be bridged with logic for many adults and children.
Will isolation and stay at home orders have an adverse effect on towns and cities, business, and education? Of course, they will. A lot has been said about the difficulties of doing school through Zoom, and the struggles and meltdowns children are having working with this situation. Parts of the country are back to school, and parts of the country are still on Zoom. This situation presents another set of contradictions and more confusion. Many communities have ignored the scientists’ recommendations about when to open up schools and businesses. This creates yet more confusion. What makes sense? What will keep the contagion down?
The parents often do not understand the curriculum the kids are working with. They learned their way of doing math years ago and very differently. School by Zoom has been a very mixed situation. Many in this country will go on and off Zoom over the next several years. This is a point of deep concern for educators and parents alike. The kids miss their friends. The kids say this often. By April, even children who were no fan of the classroom months ago would now do darned near anything, including the dishes, to get back to school, to see their friends, to a typical day.
It has been said that children like predictability. I think most of us like predictability, and nothing about Covid is predictable. How long we will be dealing with it, who gets ill, what the long-term consequences will be, all of this is a gamble. No one knows where the dice will land. If this is difficult for adults, it is challenging for children in order of exponential magnitude. The rules keep changing, and this is not fun.
A teacher I know vented her frustration at the beginning of going back to the classroom this August by saying, “I go to my email, and the rules have changed. I go to my classroom and rearrange the desks in the room, and then I get another email. I could spend the entire day rearranging furniture.” I tell her it occurs to me that the administration has no idea how to deal with this, no more than most of us mortals. The pandemic is new to us. We don’t know what to do or how to do it. The challenge is in the complete unpredictability and the push of the changes in what we know.
What will be the ‘takeaways’ for the children living through this moment in history? To a substantial degree, it will depend on the adults surrounding them. Do their parents talk with them in a realistic but straightforward way, or do they not address it? Do they dismiss the whole event as overblown? How will the children make sense of this, and how will this color their perceptions of safety, comfort, and connection? We all need to be the adults in the room. We need to talk to our children realistically but not with an overemphasis on what is most scary. Talk to the kids at their age level, use words that they understand and are not loaded. “Yes, the pandemic can be pretty scary, but we have really, really smart people working to develop a shot that we can all take that will keep us healthy. Those same smart people are figuring out ways to keep everyone safe and healthy, and if they do get sick, they have things they can do to help them get healthy again.” Not talking with your children will not keep them safe. Telling your children it is a hoax when they can hear that people are dying is not helpful. Whatever your political beliefs are, this is a great time to keep them to adult conversation. If the child has a question, answer the question. Again, simply, with age-appropriate language and an emphasis on being positive. Emphasizing how frightening this is will not help any of us get through this.
So gently be honest. Keep it simple. Allow your child time to ask questions and pause to listen and ask questions yourself. Admit that it is frightening but let your child know that humans have gotten through this kind of situation before. It has all worked out for many of us. We are after all the descendants of the survivors of the Great Pandemic of 1918. That is an excellent start to getting through this.