On Talking to Children About Social Distancing

Harnessing the Intrepid

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We’ve had school cancellations for inclement weather and other unforeseen crises or incidents but we’ve never had cancellations for social distancing purposes. The concept of social distancing has taken some time for us adults to wrap our minds around and for some has posed additional dilemmas in this balancing act we call parenting. But the recommendation is clear and the research is sparkling: we need to sacrifice our social routines in order to do our part for our neighbor, our community, and the larger globe.

Children will have a more challenging time understanding the recommendation of social distancing because, for one, we have never had to enact it to such a degree. Yes, the stay home and no visitors when you’re sick may offer a nibble of what the next couple of weeks will resemble but for most of our children this is far more abstract, because, well, many of them are well (thank goodness!). And the messages we convey as we try to contain and seize this situation can either elicit more anxiety or spark a different awareness or hope. So, we as parents and caregivers have to exercise caution in the language we select when trying to convey the sensitive nature of our collective distancing efforts.

No kids, you can’t go to the movies, or to dance class, or to sporting activities, or engage in many of the other routines that may have served as the highlight your academic week. And no, you can’t go to Johnny’s house or Sally’s birthday party. And yes, this will make life your “boring” by your standards.

There is no doubt that these precautions will inevitably cause dissonance/confusion in children. After all, we are creatures of habit and some of us even cling to routines as the centering force of their existence. And here we are called to disrupt routines and suspend familiar ways of living and doing. But don’t be fooled—children are resilient and adaptable. They will complain and nag and then they will move on to the next idea, activity, or thing. And with the right help, they can come out discovering a new version of themselves for which they are satisfied and proud.

Disruption is a vehicle for stillness–it forces us to pause and recalibrate what we “think” we know vs. what we “know” to be of essence to us. It distills for us (and rather quickly) what is most fundamental. The rest is frosting and sprinkles—it’s merely how we “dress” the fundamentals. But take away the dressing and the fundamentals are still there.

There is still so much that we can convey, uncover, and grow and as a family and a community during this time. I have a feeling our children will surprise us and that we can surprise ourselves.

So, don’t be afraid to suspend routines in order to create new ones. Don’t be afraid to talk to your children about their role in this society; that we are engaging in this effort so that we can keep everyone safe around us and so that those who have been called to serve during this time (our researchers/scientists, healthcare workers, and educators, clergy) can step up and do what they need to do while we do what is within our own calling.

There is no one script for conveying this information or reframing nonproductive thoughts. However, feel free to use the following language as a basis to redirect thoughts that may be commonly expressed at this time (just be sure to scale down or scale up depending on the age of your child):

1. This is temporary. We need to do our part for now because we love and care for our society and we need to let those who can help take care of this do so with as much ease as possible.

2. This is an opportunity to grow and discover. Although there are certain things we need to accomplish during the day (i.e., your academics) you will also have more time to do things that you may have not had the time to do before. Think of something that has been in your heart and let’s do it together.

3. This may feel boring but it is also a “challenge”. What activities/project can you do or think of that can help you (or your friends) help others during this time? Let’s all be part of the solution and support one another: kids supporting kids, adults supporting kids, kids supporting adults, and any constellation thereof.

4. I value our time together. Even though we are going to be doing things a little bit differently, we are still doing them together—and that is what is most important to me.

5. I love you and am so grateful for you.

6. I am proud of you.

I have no doubt that our children will surprise us. They are tremendous in their capacity to adapt, re-evaluate, and create. We just tend to muffle this ability by scheduling them up the wazoo and restricting their ability to discover their multidimensionality by themselves. This is an opportunity to give them a break. And sit back and observe. I have a feeling will be in awe of what we discover.

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