It’s been more than seven months since New Jersey went into a near-total lockdown to keep the spread of the novel coronavirus at bay, and my 4-year-old daughter Autumn still asks me multiple times every day, “Where are we going today, Daddy?”
“We’re going to stay home and play today,” I reply most days, as gently as I can manage.
She’s old enough to know, but not quite understand, that we’re probably not going anywhere “fun,” yet she still continues to ask. Like the relentless and hopeful kid that she is.
My 11-year-old daughter Skylar has mostly stopped asking where we’re going on any given day, resigned to the fact that the answer is likely going to be “nowhere.” She’s retreated to her bedroom, iPad in hand, to jam out on another Roblox session or play Among Us while video-chatting with her friends on FaceTime or Houseparty, the only way to “see” her fellow preteens now.
With covid-19 cases surging across the United States again, a return to normalcy seems distant. Although Skylar seems to fully understand the situation, my wife and I haven’t had the heart to tell Autumn that the novel coronavirus isn’t going away anytime soon.
But the guilt of wondering whether that’s the right approach has become heavy. Do we break her little heart by sitting her down and telling her that this is going to be her life for at least another year (if not more)?
“Oh, and by the way, Sweetie . . . Santa isn’t real, Mommy and Daddy hide your Easter basket, and we’ve been hoarding your baby teeth. Have a great day!”
“There is a difference between believing in Santa and not knowing about the pandemic,” Catherine Pearlman, a clinical social worker and author of “Ignore It!: How Selectively Looking the Other Way Can Decrease Behavioral Problems and Increase Parenting Satisfaction,” told me recently. “Even for young children, the pandemic is changing their lives, and not for the better. Santa comes in and brings presents. That’s a joyful lie. Pretending that everything right now is perfect is confusing for children when life is showing them that it isn’t.
“Without some kind of explanation, kids may worry and become anxious. Additionally, kids may also imagine something far worse than what is happening.”
There are, however, some helpful ways to go about telling your little ones about the situation.
“Kids can benefit from a practice called temporal distancing,” said Jessica Lahey, author of “The Gift of Failure” and the forthcoming “The Addiction Inoculation: Raising Healthy Kids in a Culture of Dependence.” “Research shows that it reduces emotional distress. The classic examples are ‘this too shall pass’ or ‘time heals all wounds.’ These techniques help us to gain perspective on distressing events such as covid-19 by thinking about the fact that they won’t last forever and that there will be an endpoint. Making an uncertain future seem a little more certain can really help kids gain a sense of control and perspective.”
Another suggestion came from Lisa Damour, psychologist and author of “Under Pressure: Confronting the Epidemic of Stress and Anxiety in Girls” and “Untangled: Guiding Teenage Girls Through the Seven Transitions Into Adulthood.” Via email she wrote: “In times of uncertainty, the most effective communications —especially for younger children — focus on what we don’t and what we do know.
“For instance, I think it would be appropriate for a parent to say (in a direct and reassuring tone), ‘We don’t actually know how long the virus will last, or when things will get back to normal. I promise to keep you posted as we find out more. But here’s what we do know: We’ll keep staying safe while finding ways to make this a special time in our family. You’re going to keep learning new things and gaining new skills, and there will be lots of ways for us to have fun while we wait for things to get back to normal.’ "
Pearlman offered this tip: “If a child is constantly talking about what she would like to do when this is over, I’d just make a list,” she said. “Then when more freedom is safe, parents can go back to the list and start living again.”
The routine for our family, and for many like us, has become, well, routine. On Tuesdays and Wednesdays, Autumn goes to Grandma’s house. On Mondays, Thursdays and Fridays, she stays home with me and her sister. (While I work, Skylar attends virtual school and Mom goes to work as a nurse in a clinical setting.) And usually at least one day over the weekend she goes to see Grammie and Pop-Pop.
(We’ve enacted strict rules in our home, and both sets of grandparents have followed along, joining our tight “bubble.”) Sprinkle in a few masked trips to the playground (when no more than one or two other children are there), a quick jaunt to Target, a car ride to pick up drive-through fast-food, or an early-morning ride to the Halloween store (hot tip: it’s nearly empty when it first opens), and this has been Autumn’s life since March.
And we’re one of the fortunate families that hasn’t had to deal with the loss of life, health, home or income like so many others over the past year. I’ve knocked on wood so many times since March that my knuckles are covered in callouses.
Of course, every family is different and no two situations are the same. “Parents can and should always decide what’s best for their children,” said Pearlman. “It’s important for parents to consider how much detail to give children about the pandemic. However, I don’t believe any child older than 3 should be completely left in the dark. Parents should moderate the information as appropriate, but they should talk about the situation in some way.”
Hearing those words was, for me and my wife, a huge relief. While we’ve been straightforward with both of our children about many of the realities of the pandemic (and taught them about mask-wearing and hand-washing), keeping the whole truth from Autumn was eating at us. The validation that we didn’t need to tell our kids everything was welcome news.
So the onus still falls on parents to decide how much information is right for their children. We’ve decided to let our little one believe in Santa and the Tooth Fairy a little bit longer, but in 2021 it will be time to have a talk about the possible future of the pandemic.
“Where are we going today, Daddy?” I hear as our 4-year-old emerges from her bedroom, wiping the sleep from her eyes.
“Nowhere today, Honey,” I say, tapping the bed next to me for her to come lie down. I need a hug and a quick snuggle this morning. “Nowhere today.”
“Awww,” she says as she nestles her head into the crook of my arm and I brush the hair away from her face.
“But don’t worry,” I tell her. “It’s almost the weekend, and you know what that means, right?”
“Grammie!” she says with a smile. “I get to go to Grammie’s!”
“That’s right,” I say. “And let’s get started on your Christmas list tonight. We want to make sure Santa knows what you want most, right?”
Now that I’ve made my decision, I am hopeful. And I am happy to let her have this one, for now. I want her heart to soar and her mind to believe that things will be like they were, at least for the moment.
There’s plenty of time for reality, but I’m choosing to let her be 4 just a little longer.
Scott Neumyer is a writer from New Jersey whose work has been published by the New York Times, Rolling Stone, Sports Illustrated, ESPN, GQ, Esquire, Parade magazine and other publications. You can follow him on Instagram and Twitter @scottneumyer and find more of his work at scottwrites.com.
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