Cooped up Together: “Getting to Know You”
Many parents now find themselves in the company of their children without alternative caregivers and without distractions for a longer time than they have been for a long time, maybe forever. I wanted to reach out to them with my thoughts and some ideas about how to make this time more constructive and more enjoyable.
In some ways, this is a time to relax, to let go of the demands of your schedule and to stop worrying about getting to school and work on time, cleaning and organizing school clothes, and fretting about homework in older children. Sleeping in, eating when you are hungry instead of at regular mealtimes and munching on comfort foods, spending the day in your pajamas, allowing more screen time. It is good for families to enjoy this kind of release from the constraints of our hectic daily lives. However, for many children and families, this lack of structure, can generate problems after a short period of time. For that reason, I recommend making a schedule that approximates the one they follow during their regular work/school week, but includes more free time and a more relaxed tempo, and leaving unstructured time for weekends. Of course, this type of planning should depend on the personalities and needs of the individuals in the family–some families find routines more stressful in general!
Parents could, for example, create a schedule that roughly follows the routine of their child’s school day—free play time, followed by a parent-child activity, then snack, more activity, lunch, nap, etc.—depending again on the age and developmental needs of the child. The closer the schedule mimics the school day, the more familiar and comfortable the child may be with the routine. It is important, though, to be flexible about it. If you follow the schedule rigidly, you will be sure to invite struggles. The schedule should maximize the fun activities. One family I know adopted an activity from the preschool’s morning meeting. The parent asked the child, as the “weather watcher”, to look outside the window and report on the current state of the weather.
As you might have guessed, it is my opinion that although inconvenient and anxiety provoking, this family self-isolation can be an opportunity. When my husband and I were first married we won a lottery for junior faculty members to stay at a cabin on a remote island in Maine. It was beautiful and remote, without telephone or television and certainly without wifi. There was a logbook for guests to write about their experiences during their visit. One after the other of the entries described “getting to know my wife and children for the first time”. These workaholic and high achieving academics were describing a new experience, but they also were expressing regret about all the family time lost. It impressed me a great deal.
My friend and colleague, Alayne Stieglitz, an excellent source of knowledge about early childhood education and play, suggests that parents take this time to play with their child. “Let them lead and observe them closely. The better you get to know your child through play, the better you know how to interact with them in stressful moments. What makes them laugh, what are they interested in, what revs them up, and what calms them?”
These are wise words and they recall Berry Brazelton’s famous statement about infants: The language of infants is their behavior. Of course, this is predicated on the fact that infants do not yet have language, but it also applies to older children and even to adults. Observing your child’s behavior gives you a new window into their inner worlds, into the meanings they attribute to their life experience. Even very verbal preschool children, for example, often have different meanings for words from our adult meanings. An amusing example of this occurred a couple of weeks ago. I had been preoccupied by how to “scale” an intervention to support infant mental health. In the playground of the preschool, I joined two 4-year old boys creating a “bad guy cake” out of sand and twigs and acorns in a bucket. One of the boys took a second bucket partially filled with sand and suggested that they “scale” the second bucket as part of the project. I was fascinated and asked how he planned to do that, imagining in my fantasy that this intelligent 4-yo might give me some tips. He said, “Well, we could put this bucket on a scale.”
I am not going to address the very important subject of home schooling, which local school districts and Internet sites will cover far better than I. I am including a few sites that Alayne sent me for younger children. My favorite one is #frommywindow. It started in Spain and involves children drawing pictures and taping them on the inside of their windows so that passersby can view them, a way to cheer people up similar to Italians singing or playing musical instruments out their windows for their neighbors to enjoy.
Parents can also keep a journal about what they did that day. What was your child’s response to the various activities, what was your response? What did you do to comfort yourself, what did you do to comfort your child? If you can motivate yourself to do this, I guarantee that it will be a source of inspiration and amusement in the future.