During this time of social isolation and being cooped up with young children in small spaces, many parents describe their struggle to find an ever-elusive balance between working from home and childcare. Parents feel guilty about doing an inadequate job for their employers and feel guilty about not paying enough attention to their children. Co-parenting has also become more challenging—the question of who takes charge of the kids while the other is working can easily morph into the question of whose job is more important! If the children are fortunate enough to attend a school with online meetings, parents have to organize the day to accommodate the school schedule and help their child stay regulated and attentive during the virtual class meeting, one on one with the teacher, or “sharing time”.
Meanwhile, managing work and the family is taking place in the context of a pandemic of huge proportions. When parents listen to the news or read the paper they are assaulted by the rates of infection and death, the loss of jobs, vulnerable health workers, and hungry families. The fear and sadness outside their protective windows is haunting, adding another cause for guilt. Children, who do not have the same cognitive capacities as adults, do not take in the enormity of the situation in the country, but they do sense their parents’ stress and anxiety. They miss their teachers and their friends, the comforting and organizing routine of the school day, the enjoyable activities.
As the adults become tense and short-tempered, the children become demanding and irritable. Yet, there are times when children seem to escape the cloud of tension and experience joy. It may be the joy of mastery in doing a puzzle, or the joy of creativity in pretend, or even the joy of a favorite dessert. These moments of joy may be brief, but they are infectious. I remember watching young children in an orphanage in Central America–separated from their parents, recovering from neglect and abuse—play in the dusty courtyard. Struggling to wheel a wheelbarrow, following a bug in its journey through the bushes, listening to the conversations of the caregivers clustered on the front steps—their little faces bright with interest and pleasure. As I observed them, I felt pleasure too, pleasure and even inspiration. If they could take pleasure in such small experiences, maybe so could I.
Researchers have known for a long that the positive expression of emotion of an infant or small child can trigger positive emotion in adults (Smith & Waters, 1976; Frodi et al, 1978; Fogel, 2006; Strathearn et al, 2009). Advertisers probably knew that even before scientists proved it—think of all the commercials with adorable young children! Starting in infancy, infant smiles generate activity in the dopamine reward systems of an adult’s brain. Identification with the freedom and creativity of a child in the “magic years” brings pleasure to adults privileged to observe their play (Fraiberg, 1959). If adults can allow the meanings the young child makes of life to exist along side their more “rational” meanings, they may experience a delightful and liberating sense of disorganization—the kind of disorganization that brings enhanced perspective. How do you make bad guy soup and a birthday cake both out of the same pile of sand and bunch of sticks? These are moments I called “momentos magicos” in one of my trips to El Salvador, and if you recognize these magic moments and cherish them, they can accumulate. Accumulating magic moments can build on one another and—if you are lucky—create a cascade of wellbeing. And that is what we need in this time of hardship. So my message is—if you are cooped up with young children during the pandemic, look for the magic moments. Hold onto them. They can do you good.
Fogel A et al (2006). The effects of normal and perturbed social play on the duration and amplitude of different types of infant smiles, Developmental Psychology, 42(3):459-473.
Frodi A, Lamb M, Leavitt L, Donovan W (1978). Fathers’ and mothers’ response to infant smiles and cries, Infant Behavior and Development,1(187-198).
Sroufe A, Waters E (1976). The ontogenesis of smiling and laughter: A perspective on the organization of development in infancy. Psychological Review, 83:173-189.
Strathearn L, Fonagy P, Amico J, Montague R (2009). Adult attachment predicts maternal brain oxytocin response to infant cues, Neuropsychopharmacology, 34(13):2655-66.