A high school senior was feeling anxiety about returning to school. Since school ended precipitously in March she had become involved in social causes in her community and now school seemed like going backward instead of forward.
A recent college graduate was forced to return to his parents’ home when work ended in his chosen field. Discouraged, he appeared to have resumed adolescent behavior by sleeping or playing video games.
Reports are that colleges have now become the new hot spots for virus transmission since the recent return of students to campuses. Young people are described as disregarding the need for social distancing as they pursue social interaction.
Both young and old have felt the impact of the necessary limitations on behavior brought about by the spread of covid19. The end of normal school days has transformed children’s lives. Closing of work places and working from home has at the same time changed the lives of adults, in particular those of parents. Life in the new normal does not feel normal at all and has elicited a range of emotional and behavioral reactions while stressing coping skills.
A major change for many people has come in the routines of daily life. Traditionally, school and the work week began on Monday. Hours of meals, chores, bedtime and waking were determined by the requirements of daily living in the context of the larger social world. For many an internal clock develops in response to these patterns of life. One consequence of the changes brought about by life in the pandemic is the disruption of this internal clock.
An important aspect of maturation in development is the ability to make transitions. It may be hard to face Monday morning after a weekend free of work or school. It may be more pleasurable to stay up and watch tv than to go to bed. Daily life is filled with the need to make such transitions within each day.
The need to make such transitions is difficult for children and is particularly challenging for parents of young children. As parents we are trying to teach our children how to live in a world that has schedules, chores to be done and often the need to comply with requests they may not like. Hopefully, as adults we have learned these lessons and growth and maturation have given us the ability to carry them out.
Young children do not yet have the skills needed to switch focus, to move readily from one thing to the next. They don’t yet have our sense of time or the ability to be future oriented. They are not thinking ahead about the next thing on the agenda, even if it is something we know they would like. It is frustrating to leave something that is pleasurable and they have not yet mastered the ability to tolerate such frustration.
Life in the pandemic has required a reordering of life’s transitions. This has been difficult for everyone, but as difficult as transitions are for young children, many older children approaching adulthood seem to confront a more profound challenge. The transitions at this stage appear to create a disruption of the developmental process. The transitions now faced are not simply within daily living but in the move from one life stage to the next.
The move from high school to college, from college to the work world are not only moves from one life stage to another, they are changes involving steps in the developmental process. Significantly, involved is the ability and assertion of independent functioning. It is the capacity for and expectation of functioning independently that is threatened by present life realities. This may feel more threatening to one’s sense of self than making more expectable transitions.
Young people are reacting to these disruptions with anxiety, regression and even defiance of presently required social behavior. The role of parents may be to understand the force of such disruptions and be available to offer support.
Some years ago, child-care centers around the country posted what seemed like commercial art work on classroom bulletin boards. Apparently, some centers used individual pages of coloring books as work sheets for the children to color. The quality of the work was judged by the ability of a child while coloring to stay within the outlines of the objects shown on the page.
More recently, there has been a revival of interest in coloring books, some even made for adults. The newer ones not only have outlines of pictures to be colored but also suggested use of the colors to be used in various pictures. Apparently,the art work consists of an ability to fulfill predetermined decisions about what creativity will allow.
Too often, the judgment made of children’s work has to do with how well they stay within the lines of the objects on the page when coloring. In some ways it is like the practice sheets that children are given on which to copy letters when learning the alphabet. In both instances, success comes from achieving the control necessary for the task. Children are praised for staying within the lines and their work is appraised accordingly.
Actually, there is a deeper significance to the value placed on staying within the lines when coloring. This speaks to an important task of the preschool years relating to the development of inner controls. In the early years, children express their feelings and wishes directly through their behavior, easily striking out when upset or frustrated. A major challenge for parents in these years is helping children express themselves in socially appropriate ways while at the same time providing the controls children are not yet able to provide for themselves.
During these early years, children are busy exploring many aspects of their world and the question of what the lines are within which they are expected to behave is much broader than the coloring sheet they may be given. Parents are constantly confronted with this question as they try to determine what the appropriate expectations are or should be for their children. Parents draw the lines and children comply, rebel, or in various ways explore the flexibility of those lines.
These questions have taken on new meaning currently during the pandemic which has brought with it much tighter lines for parents and children alike. With many restrictions and behavior requirements related to safety in place, both the physical and social world of children has narrowed, stressing parents as well as their children. With the reopening of schools still in question, parents worry not only about safety but about children falling behind educationally.
Such concerns may increase pressure on children to comply with increased regulations and achievements in remote learning. In reality, this may be an opportunity to move in a different direction, away from an emphasis on mastering a specific body of information and achieving specifically valued skills, to exploring ways of stimulating children’s inherent creative potential, and freeing them to develop original ideas and thinking.
One may see this at work in young children when they are provided with materials to use without specific directions about how they are to be used. Children are not at all inhibited by a need to work within a specific space, such as an outline of an object, and become more engaged in exploring the potential of the medium they are using than with what adults might see as a realistic purpose.
The challenge today may be to support children’s creative freedom by loosening wherever possible the lines they are required to stay within.
A friend in New Jersey wrote of having driven twelve hours, fuel stops only each way to Chicago in order to see their new grandson. A young mother in New York tearfully spoke of her parents living in California not having seen her daughter, their granddaughter, for almost a year because of the travel restrictions. Oddly enough, while writing this I received a call from my own granddaughter whom I haven’t seen since December of last year.
One of the many things contributing to feelings of deprivation and social isolation as a result of the restrictions made necessary by the pandemic, has been the geographic separation of families. Many young adults no longer live near their parents, which has also meant difficulty maintaining closeness between their children and their own parents, between grandchildren and grandparents during this era of covid-19. The limits on these relationships may be experienced differently by the generations involved.
The old joke says that the reason grandparents and grandchildren get along so well is that they have an enemy in common. This speaks to the idea that parents are the withholders and grandparents are the indulgers of gratification. To the degree that parents may feel frustrated by grandparent indulgence the currently enforced separation may be appreciated – or perhaps even missed.
However, the emotional experiences involved run deeper than the conventional idea that grandparents like being indulgent while parents have the real responsibility of daily life. The reality is that the birth of a child becomes musical chairs in which everyone moves up a place. The child is now the parent. Instead of being the child of your parent you are now the parent of your child. Our own feelings of dependency are challenged by having someone who is dependent on us. The feeling of being responsible for another life becomes central.
The idea that one is no longer the child, may be difficult for both parents and their parents. Grandparents may give advice based on their experienced wisdom but in expecting their children to listen they are making them children again. In many ways this is a continuation of the developmental process in which children move toward greater independence and struggle to establish their own identity. But the universal impulse to protect one’s children often becomes trying to keep them from making what seem to grandparents to be painful mistakes.
Grandparents want their children to learn from their (the grandparents’) experience – just as they wanted them to when they were growing up. Parents often are trying to correct the things they think were wrong in their own upbringing, which Grandparents often take as a criticism of them. Both parents and grandparents often express being made to feel incompetent by the other.
Parents are learning how to be parents – just as their parents had to learn. And grandparents have to learn how to be grandparents. That learning is the hardest part, and mastery is made more difficult by the current enforced separations. Perhaps the important lesson for grandparents is that their children have to learn in their own way and the present situation may leave no alternative.
As is true of all relationships, the absence of conflict may be appreciated while at the same time the feelings of loss can prevail. Parents who have fond memories of their relationship with their own grandparents, may have some sadness knowing that their children may be deprived of such memories in the years to come.
For grandparents and grandchildren who traditionally are known to have special relationships, the feeling of loss is great, made more bearable by the wonders of modern technology’s modes of communication.
Attention was called this past week to a young boy at a political convention overcoming an obvious difficulty with stuttering to speak with pride about his ability to do so, thanks to the help, and understanding of his disability he had received. It was interesting to note in the days afterwards the numerous commentators revealing that they had also struggled to overcome a similar disability and the feeling of identification they had with the young speaker.
At this juncture in the health crisis, a primary focus is on the question of whether schools will reopen and the kinds of plans and precautions that are needed to make that possible. Parents and teachers are concerned about the health implications for themselves and their families if children return to in-person teaching and classroom settings.
Within the larger question in education about the relative merits of classroom versus remote learning, another issue has been raised about those children whose ability to learn and progress depends on special kinds of intervention. This is a question that many educators and parents of young children confront at the start of the school years when children are required to function within a group setting and to respond to unfamiliar adults in authority. It is a question that has arisen with greater frequency in recent years as children enter school and various pre-school groups at younger and younger ages.
The problem arises because when children are in group settings, expectations for behavior begin to change even though development itself takes its usual course. Unrealistically, all children are expected to follow certain developmental norms at the same time. A degree of compliance is expected with little appreciation of individual differences. Not everyone is in the same place developmentally at the same time.
The problem is that in many situations it is difficult to determine if particular behavior in question signifies a developmental delay or deficit, or simply developmental unevenness in a given child. Unfortunately, the current situation will not allow for the early school experiences that not only enhance children’s learning but also enable learning about the children themselves. Serious problems are more readily identifiable, but variations in individual behavior remains confusing, requiring ongoing observation and evaluation.
Once again, parents are being called upon to function in a multiplicity of roles that may seem daunting, or requiring special expertise. In this instance, however, a parent has the most important qualification, being the one who knows her own child best. This means, a parent is the one who can best understand her child’s mode of communication.
Having worked for many years with parents of children who had serious deficits, what stood out was the need to decode children’s often atypical means of communication, which often took the form of unacceptable behavior. It became necessary to think more about the context and therefore the meaning of the behavior for the child in order to know how to respond.
At times, what gets in a parent’s way is the anxiety caused when behavior deviates from what may seem “normal”, or desirable. An example was a child who left his group to stand by his mother’s chair, unwilling or unable to say anything. Mom, worried that leaving his group was a discipline problem, ultimately understood that the child needed the bathroom but felt unable to tell the teacher.
Although the current situation makes classroom teaching problematic, children whose behavior leads to a question mark, are often best served in small groups of even three children. There may be homes in which such small group experiences could be possible.
A possibility worth exploration.
In ongoing coverage of the pandemic, it has been noted that with most of the world having experienced major outbreaks of the virus, the United States stands alone as the only affluent nation to have suffered a severe, sustained outbreak for more than four months. When it comes to the virus, the United States has come to resemble not the wealthy and powerful countries to which it has been compared, but to far poorer countries with large migrant populations.
There has been some commentary attempting to understand how and why this has happened, considering our country’s supposed excellence in science, technology and advancement in many areas. One focus has been on the reaction of the population to the impact of the virus, particularly regarding behavioral changes deemed essential for curtailing spread.
Some comparison has been made between resistance to wearing masks and earlier resistance to using seat belts while driving in cars. It was not overnight acceptance of seat belts that produced changed behavior. Needed was major educational input, automobile manufacturers compliance, legal requirements with enforced penalties, and widespread advertising of accident consequences without seat belts.
Cited in this connection, and in understanding behavioral response to the pandemic, is the American tradition of individualism. Through much of our history, a pervasive myth dominating political thinking has been the equation of equality with freedom and of democracy with liberty. The equality of the individual in a democracy has been construed as individual freedom of thought and behavior. This produces an ongoing tension between the individual and the community or larger society.
In a very real sense the issues arising from the relationship of the individual to society are reflected in the questions parents face in raising their children. The world in which parents raise children has changed considerably in recent years producing new pressures and stresses. The nature of child-rearing itself reflects these changes.
A notable change has been the role of mothers as breadwinners. In an earlier time, mothers were supposed to put children’s needs ahead of their own. In a still earlier time, all family members were expected to work and sacrifice if need be for the good of the family or larger community. Also changed has been a view of the nature of children as requiring protection and education.
Children are no longer an economic asset, rather increasingly an economic drain. Childhood has become long and sheltered, devoted to the education and emotional growth of children. The goal of child-rearing has shifted from raising a child to be a contributing member of his family and community to a goal of benefiting the child himself. The child and what benefits him or her has become the focus. Finding a balance between one’s own needs and those of one’s children is a major challenge.
The challenge of the needs or rights of the individual to those of society has been cited as a major factor in the American failure thus far in combatting the spread here of the pandemic. Various groups and individuals have asserted their rights within a democracy to refuse wearing masks and social distancing. The areas where the assertion of individual rights has predominated are those with rising hot spots of the virus.
Another way has been noted besides the scale of the continuing outbreaks and deaths in which the United States stands out from other high-income countries. In no others have the messages from political leaders been so mixed and confusing. This too, suggests the lessons of child-rearing: the role of parents as educators delivering clear messages about expected behavior.
And rule enforcement when needed.
I plead guilty to being of the pre-tech generation, so that may be the reason I had a hard time learning about apps for new mothers designed to make it easier during the first few months of sleepless nights and days spent cooped up at home. Of course, these days many mothers have been cooped up at home with children who have also been kept home from school and other activities that previously filled their days.
One app promotes a baby duster – a mop like item attached to a crawling baby that will dust the floor while baby is crawling. There are also more apps that do still more things – too numerous to mention. Perhaps the most useful are the website links for companies that deliver diapers and other necessities often overnight. Also, what sound like some gourmet meals, in case you are too tired to cook.
The life constraints brought about by the pandemic have intensified the focus on the so-called giants of Silicon Valley, namely the four tech companies that have increasingly flourished at this time. The inability to move around freely has increased dependence on shopping online, meaning search engines, apps, web sites in addition to a greater use of social networks to lessen the feeling of social isolation.
Several things strike me about all this, aside from what seems to a non-techie like the insurmountable complexity of using all these apps. Somehow, in promoting the utility of these apps, motherhood begins to sound rather grim. Unquestionably, this has been, and continues to be a difficult time for parents, and tools that enable a support system can be most welcome.
A magazine cartoon shows a frustrated mother telling her children in censored language to use their inside voices. An apt commentary on the situation in which many mothers find themselves. Perhaps no one can be truly prepared for the unexpected experience of full-time child-care along with work commitments and household responsibilities. But the issue that is most significant – and not solved by apps – is the dependency we confront in a new way as mothers. Aside from the sleepless nights and resultant fatigue, which are certainly there, is the feeling of responsibility for the life and well-being of one’s children.
A question confronting mothers now, one that no app can answer, is that of whether to send children back to school if it reopens. There is no question more basic than your child’s health versus educational needs, your child’s well-being versus your own dependence on child-care to work outside of the home. Is there anything more basic than the feeling of responsibility for a child’s life?
The other thought I had reading about all these supposed motherhood apps, is that the intrusion of technology into interpersonal relationships that has been noted and discussed so much, is reaching down into the most basic mother-child relationship. An app promoting reading a Kindle while nursing seems to turn the whole experience into a mechanical feeding operation, with no reference to the opportunity for communication between mother and child. In the description of the functions of the apps, the feeling one gets of motherhood is all about obligatory things to get done, with no awareness of the baby, the developing child, and his or her emerging self and increasing connections to the world.
Perhaps this is a reflection of the loss we are experiencing in many relationships and in the pursuit of meaningful life activities. But this also may be an opportunity to know our children in more meaningful ways.
Or will life begin with apps at birth?
What story can parents tell their children to help them make sense of the changes in their lives during this time? Children are being restricted from what had been the major ingredients of their lives, school, playmates, park activities. How do we explain this to them?
Part of the problem is that we ourselves are not able to make much sense of it. The media gives us statistics about illness, death, hospitals, and testing; changing time lines about the course of the virus in various parts of the country; various theories about possibilities and timing of a vaccine. Finding meaning usually means finding some central coherence to events, which is absent for many of us right now.
As parents, we are the ones responsible for imposing the various restrictions of which we are not the cause. From insisting on mask wearing to prohibiting play dates, children experience this as parental rule making creating a familiar rebellion scenario. A serious problem is parents being put in the position of decision maker about something as central as whether to send children back to school in order to return to work, or to stay home out of concern for children’s health.
How to talk to a child about these disturbances in life depends on the age and developmental stage of the child. The nature of time plays a major role. So many adults express the feeling of living in a time bubble with the same routine one day after the next making the passage of time remote. For young children who have not yet mastered time concepts, basing explanations in terms of time is questionable. Restrictions of two or three days can seem forever to a young child.
It seems reasonable to try to explain to children the need to prevent contagion. We don’t want them to get sick. Children have experienced staying home because of illness, or schools cautioning about an outbreak of contagious diseases. However, as concrete thinkers, young children point out that they are not sick. After several days it seems reasonable to them that any danger has passed.
Teen-agers accustomed to greater physical independence, may assert themselves in decision making regarding health rules set in the pandemic. Here the familiar dynamic of the adolescent rebellion against parental supervision comes into play. However, the possibility also exists for enlisting the young person’s interest in taking a more adult role in social responsibility.
Numerous parents have spoken about their children’s interest in the larger social issues receiving attention, such as the protests for racial justice and the role of the police. Some young people may become interested in the story of how Covid19 was identified and in learning about the current search for a vaccine. Others might become interested in keeping a diary about life in the pandemic to look back at in the future.
The best way to know what is on a child’s mind and how to respond is by listening to his questions but also by asking for his story of what is going on. In that way you can correct any distortions and supply a simple story in its place. Many images appear on our tv screen, some of which may be frightening to a young child. Children react to events in ways that may be different than we imagined. Hearing their version of events helps us know how best to respond.
We can’t protect children from life’s stressful experiences. We can only listen and respond to their concerns, helping them develop the mental and emotional muscle they need to confront whatever life holds.
The question about finding the balance between freedom and authority seems to strike a chord for many parents. When it comes down to the issues that arise with children, the answer to “where do you draw the line?” can become quite murky. And parents struggle with this question.
The question is particularly resonant right now as it is being raised between government authorities and constituents around issues related to the pandemic such as wearing masks and social distancing. There are those who consider such orders an infringement on their freedom, defying authority in their behavior and challenging the potential for enforcement.
On the home front, parents are similarly challenged in myriad ways. Little children present one kind of rebellion described by a mother as, “keeping a mask on a four-year-old is beyond challenging.” Each developmental stage presents its own issues around compliance to more than mask wearing, with adolescence perhaps being the most challenging for parents.
The father of a teen-ager already having a driver’s license, reported the challenge involved in not only monitoring activities but also having to decide about permission to use the car while relying on the girl’s assurance about heeding mask wearing and safe modes of social interaction. Beyond that was concern that the parents of the several friends with whom their daughter interacted were not as concerned about following safety health rules as these parents are.
This pointed up the complexity of being necessary to be mindful of the behavior of others as well as one’s own, the essence of social awareness parents try to instill in their children. As parents, we often feel conflicted within ourselves about whether we should be giving our children the freedom to make choices, or should be asserting our authority as parents in the decisions to be made. We are not always sure where to draw the line between freedom for our children and our authority as their parents.
Part of the difficulty lies in the question itself. Drawing the line sounds like drawing a line in the sand. “Don’t cross that line or else…” Asserting authority seems to suggest a big stick, or dire consequences. Is there another way to assert authority besides threatening with a big stick?
Part of our problem comes from thinking there is a right answer to every situation. If we think of finding the right balance instead of the right answer, that means using judgment. Of course, as parents we are responsible for our children’s health and welfare. Some things are more clear cut than others, but we shouldn’t get mixed up about things that are real choices and those that are our responsibility as parents.
The difficulty is that responsibility as parents has many aspects. In the example given the parents felt responsible for the child’s health but also for supporting her own sense of responsibility and judgment in making decisions. At times parents are clear that there are things children should not be deciding for themselves, but want to avoid the conflict that ensues when either they, or their children, dig in their heels.
When we feel clear within ourselves that we are in charge, that feeling of confidence gets communicated to our children in our voice and manner without our sounding like a dictator or making threats. Also, when we feel confident about our expectations as parents, we can be much more open to hearing, not capitulating, to our children’s point of view even when they don’t get what they want.
Perhaps the line is a wavy line that allows for some give and take
A bible story tells of King Solomon. Asked to decide on a conflict between two women each claiming to be the mother of the same child, he suggested splitting the child in two giving each woman half. Thereupon one woman protested, saying the child should be awarded to the other rather than being destroyed. Solomon proclaimed her the true mother, more concerned about the plight of the child than herself.
Mothers today are in need of a Solomon to make the decision confronting them in the choices they are being asked to make between their children and themselves. As the pandemic continues to ravage the economy while threatening health, the pressure increases for children to return to school, both for their own needs and so that mothers can return to work.
There are competing issues at work here on several levels but underlying all is the question of whether a mother is willing to risk the health of her child by sending him to school in face of the potential for contagion. School boards across the country are searching for ways to address that risk by devising plans for split schedules combined with remote online teaching.
Such an approach alternating school attendance with weeks at home, while barely meeting the educational needs of children also does not allow for parents back at work as the economy reopens. As one mother writes in despair, “In the Covid-19 economy, you’re allowed only a kid or a job.”
The current crisis highlights an ongoing issue that has never been adequately confronted, much less solved. Since mothers have entered the workforce in significant numbers, the question of childcare has been caught in the culture war about the role of women and the traditional obligation of mothers to care for their children. Obviously, if care must be provided for large numbers of children this requires some form of group childcare such as currently exiting daycare. This has been challenged as threatening the traditional pattern of family care.
Apart from a never-ending controversy about the importance of mother care as contrasted to group care, the cost of “quality care”, meaning a high adult to child ratio and well trained child care teachers, requires government funding in some measure. This has added fuel to the conflict over government role in education and child-rearing.
The cost of day care centers that currently exist has been prohibitive for many families or of questionable quality. The reality for many mothers working out of the home has been a patched-up system of child care involving family members for those fortunate or a random system of part time caregivers employed in the home.
For some mothers who now are self-employed, working at jobs while at home, the current situation of fathers and children at home while increasing the stress level has also afforded an opportunity for sharing of child care and household responsibility. As businesses plan to reopen, the repercussions on families with school age children is untenable.
The economic fall-out of the pandemic has put a spotlight on the pervasive unspoken assumption that child care is primarily a mother’s responsibility. If fathers are called back to work it is the mother who is expected to care for the children without reference to her employment or the family reliance on her income.
Within all the issues raised by the pressure to open schools so that parents can return to work, a basic unanswered question is what the quality of education will be under the reopening conditions currently being considered. And even within those conditions, how safe will it be to send children to school?
No King Solomon has yet appeared to answer these questions.
The mother of a young adult asked me how we can teach young people to be mindful that their behavior has an effect on everyone. This is the same question being asked by the infectious disease experts and various state governors given the spike in Covid following young people’s disregard for masks and social distancing after the relaxation of restrictions.
The question is made more vexing by the fact that young people are putting themselves as well as others at risk by their behavior. The spike in cases appears to reflect a surge in a younger population. Adolescents and young adults are known to be risk takers, a characteristic expressed in other worrisome behaviors as well. The current behavior seems to reflect a feeling of invincibility, indifference, or in some instances, defiance.
Very young children are known to express their feelings through their behavior. A familiar event is a child striking out in some way, either physically or verbally, because another child has taken something he was playing with, or because the other child won’t play the game the way he thinks it should be played. It is a common reaction to feel that a child must be chastised and corrected in order to be taught appropriate social behavior
A familiar response by a parent is to try to resolve the situation by having the “attacker” apologize to the “victim”. “Say you are sorry!” is what you may hear, especially if the parent of the striker-outer is the one on the scene. Our goal is to help children learn how to express how they feel about something in a way that does not hurt or offend someone else. The question is whether being made to apologize helps children learn what we want to teach.
An apology empty of genuine feeling is quite meaningless. To mean it requires empathy – the ability to know and identify with how the other person feels. Empathy, like many other abilities, develops as children mature. We play an important part in that development by helping children become aware of the feelings of others. But first, we have to show empathy for their feelings.
A child whose own feelings have not been addressed is not ready to think about how someone else feels. It is by understanding and clarifying for our children what they themselves are feeling that they can begin to identify with what others might be feeling.
Of course, in addition to developing empathy the expectation is that children are also learning how to control their behavior. The gap between their ability to exercise controls and the resulting impact on others, can lead to the establishment of external controls. Within a family, parents may use rules or punishments and the withholding of benefits as a means of regulating unacceptable behavior.
In the larger society rules with the force of law are instituted as a means of regulating behavior and keeping social order. Age requirements for driving and alcohol consumption have been established in recognition of the external limits needed for the developmental limitations of the young.
The restrictions established in response to the pandemic have been difficult for young people, who have been unable to attend school, socialize with friends or engage in physical activities. The rule makers have shown an understanding of the feelings and needs of the young. Perhaps underestimated has been the impact of peer group association on young adults which resulted in socializing on beaches, in restaurants and bars with little regards for masks or social distancing.
Apparently, doing unto others needs external enforcement beyond what they might do unto you.