I wanted to offer you some more thoughts about parenting during COVID. In Wordsworth’s famous autobiographical poem, The Prelude, he talks about “losing the props of my affection” when he was 8-years old. In saying this, he refers to the death of his mother. I have always thought that this way of describing parental function as “propping” was such an apt way of describing the way parents support their children in a quiet, typically unacknowledged, way. It reminds me of a preschool child sitting in a parent’s lap during a remote learning session, an elementary school child’s parent helping them with a school project, and a high school student’s parent stocking the fridge with her favorite snacks during exam time. Parents deserve a little “propping” these days also! They are under a great deal of stress. They are worried about how to do good work at their job– either remotely or safely outside the home. They are worried about how to manage household chores with children under foot. They are worried about how to help their children learn remotely or whether it is safe to send them back to school. In the background of all those concerns is the fear of illness and death. These are very difficult times. In addition to “propping”, there are other ways parents can turn the hardship of the pandemic into opportunity. I hesitate to add anything to the burden of parents, but I am taking a risk to suggest that they try very hard to look beyond the stress and austerity and recognize a new chance to help their chidlren grow. I often talk to parents about how boundaries and limits are good for children, how “good discipline” grows children’s brains. In fact, I have recorded a series of podcast episodes and shorter Youtube videos about “good discipline”. I have done this because discipline is the most popular topic that parents ask me about as a child psychiatrist. American culture does not make it easy for parents in this domain. In fact, our culture seems to capture parents between a rock and a hard place—expectations that you keep your children’s behaviors within societal bounds while at the same time encouraging their autonomy! During the pandemic, and to the degree that there is still social distancing with its associated losses—the constraints of freedom and treats like visiting friends and family, play dates, going out for to eat – parents may struggle even more to set limits on their children’s behavior. They sympathize with their children’s distress, and they put up with more whining and even tantrums. Now, I have stated in podcast episodes and videos that it is important to lower expectations for everyone—children and parents. I think lowering expectations is crucial in order to adapt to these new challenges without excessive frustration and self-criticism. However, it is also a chance to help children grow, by helping them learn how to respect boundaries. You can teach your children that– in this hard time– different rules apply. I would first tell your children that you are all in this together. Explain that this is a special time, a time when everyone has to work together. This stance embraces children as important members of the family. Then I would apply the Ury and Fisher’s book, “Getting to Yes”, that I have discussed at greater length in the podcasts. The main idea is that parents have negotiating power, just as children do, and that in these negotiations both parents and children define “firm positions” and “flexible positions” at the outset (Ury & Fisher, 1981). The firm positions are nonnegotiable and the flexible ones can be negotiated. The pandemic offers parents an opportunity to learn to establish “firm positions”.Contemporary parents often have difficulty with this. One of the reasons parents taking firm positions is helpful to both them and to their children is that it takes problematic doubtout of the equation. Parents can get anxious when their children challenge them, and they can begin to waffle, doubt themselves. This waffling undermines the children’s belief that there are some things they cannot change to their (short-term) advantage. The truth is that their long-term advantage is being able to deal with inevitable frustrations and disappointments without falling apart. Remember that once the firm positions are established, they should not be negotiated. The support the pandemic gives parents is the pressure of necessity. Parents have to get their work done. They must hold to their firm positions, while being willingly negotiating their flexible ones. Children are also allowed “firm positions”, although parents must scaffold their choices. For example, depending on their age, children might stay firm on having screen time (the amount of screen time and the timing of screen time may be something parents insist is “negotiable”.) The main idea is that parents are supporting their children in learning how to tolerate “no”. This, as I said, is extremely helpful to children. Once they learn to accept that there are limits in life, they can turn their attention to their more “flexible”–read “possible”– ambitions and put their heart into them. Ury W, Fisher R (1981). Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement without Giving In, Penguin.
This image may seem anachronistic in the context of a discussion of remote learning, but you will see that it is actually very much to the point. I am suggesting that what is missing in remote learning and to a lesser degree in physically distant in-person learning is what is called “socio-emotional” learning. This kind of learning takes place in relationships. It begins in the infant-parent relationship, demonstrated by Tronick’s still face paradigm (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=apzXGEbZht0). It continues in preschool, where—supported by their teachers– children learn to play with their peers and to take turns. It continues in elementary school, where children learn to compete fairly and to tolerate losing. Finally, it continues in high school, where children learn to use their friendships as a bridge to the kind of independent future that our culture values. Socio-emotional learning is a community affair. One of my favorite preschool teachers told me that what she missed the most in remote learning was the loss of “community”. She had worked so hard to create a “family” in the classroom, only to see it come apart under the constraints of remote teaching. Teachers have tried to build and maintain the sense of community remotely. It has worked more or less well, depending on the developmental age and learning style of the child. In this blog posting I will discuss two features of a community that are compromised in remote learning and even potentially in in-person physically-distant classrooms. One major loss is —whether it is the exuberant embrace of preschool children welcoming each other at the beginning of the school day, or the teacher’s gentle touch on the shoulder of an elementary school child who has trouble paying attention, or the hug of a high school student comforting a friend who has broken up with a boyfriend—physical contact is an essential part of community. Even when children return to school, physical contact will be limited due to health concerns. What can we do to restore some of this connection? physical connection Young children may benefit from sitting in a parent’s lap or next to them on the couch during a remote learning session. It may help children to hold onto a stuffed animal during the class–even for young children to hold a “class bear” while listening to the teacher remotely. When the children return to school, these bears can come with their children to the classroom, carrying the child’s name to prevent one child’s bear getting mixed up with another’s. All children—even high school students– like to hold onto something—whether it is the family dog or a stuffed animal from their earlier life. Another major loss is a . How can we attempt to build a sense of belonging in remote learning? There are community-building exercises used in classrooms that might be adapted to a remote context. For example, young children may name their favorite food, their favorite animal, or their favorite color, and then the teacher may give their classmates a chance to remember what their classmates’ favorites are. Older children can guess the provenance of their classmates ancestors. That enjoyable exercise also emphasizes our paired societal values of diversity and commonality. sense of togetherness In addition to the content of the exercises, the act of playing games creates an experience of doing something together. Games like BINGO, which also teaches number and letter recognition, can be played remotely. BINGO and other games can be creatively redesigned to teach other academic skills as well giving the experience of acting as part of a group. The game of “telephone” can be adapted to remote learning. The awareness of how communication can be distorted by individual misperceptions is a lesson that can be understood at different developmental levels by all children. It is a lesson that underscores the value of community by illustrating how easily community can be disrupted. Older children can work on class projects emphasizing community. They can study Civics as a way of understanding what is happening in our country and imagining how they can take a constructive—perhaps politically active– role in creating a better future. I don’t want to leave this subject without acknowledging the wealth disparity revealed by the practice of remote learning. Although most families have a smart phone, some have no computer or I pad, and often what devices the family owns must be shared. This of course puts some children at a severe disadvantage. The children in the image of this blog posting are joyful members of a community, despite experiencing material disadvantage. In my next blog posting I would like to discuss the critical role of parents in remote learning.