“What are we doing tomorrow?” my seven-year-old asks me each night before bed.
Before the pandemic, there was a long list of things—school, extracurricular activities, birthday parties, family outings, and errands. But a month ago, when school shut down, a lot of us treated it like a series of sick days. We ate junk food and watched movies and stayed in our pajamas and had plenty of extra screen time. Everyone was frantic about what would happen next—with school, with jobs, with Boomer parents who were failing to heed public health warnings, ahem—and we felt like we couldn’t focus on the kids.
Now, as it’s become clear that this current situation is going to last at least until the end of this school year, possibly well into the summer, and maybe even well into next year for some parts of the country, the time has come to quit “emergency parenting.” Unless you or someone in your family is actually sick, a first responder, or has lost a job, it’s time for most of us to get things back to normal—or at least to a new normal. Our kids deserve the kind of rules and routine that make them comfortable and that afford parents some degree of sanity.
I don’t say this as a helicopter parent, but rather as an advocate of teaching kids how to play (and even work) independently. Doing so will make their lives happier and our lives easier. When kids are small, it means showing them how to bang pots and pans or rip up newspapers and then letting them do it by themselves for a few minutes. When they’re older, it means giving them glue and markers and letting them have at it. It means leaving nap time in place even when kids aren’t really sleeping because they learn to play quietly in their rooms for an hour. It means hanging with them outside for a little while and then encouraging them to make up games with their siblings—how fast can you run around the house? How many baskets can you make in a row? How many times can you flip over on the monkey bars? How many different rocks can you find? Great, now paint them and name them. It means not being too angry when they make messes but instead teaching them how to clean up.
With long, structureless days ahead of us, it is tempting to rely on screens. They’re clean and easy and have endless content. Especially if you’ve helicoptered up until now, things are going to get really hard. One mother told The New York Times that she “wrote up a schedule geared at keeping [her 8- and 9-year old] off screens. ‘By Day 3, I had given up,’ she said. ‘I think the fact that it rained on the first weekend broke my spirit.’”
If you have to write up a complete daily schedule in order to keep your kids off screens, then you probably haven’t taught your kids how to entertain themselves. Not surprisingly, she handed over her phone. And while she happily reports that some of her kids’ phone time is spent creating videos of themselves making Jell-O, one suspects that there’s plenty of more passive consumption going on as well.
The best part about video games and movies is that they make time fly. But the worst part about them is also that they make time fly. If things don’t get back to normal for possibly several months, do we really just want to distract kids from boredom, day after day? That is an awfully big fraction of a seven-year-old’s life.
Remember before the pandemic when we were all running around like crazy, trying to get kids to all their different activities and having to get on phone calls for work, and every time our children would interrupt, we would hand them a phone or a snack because, well, it’s an emergency? In retrospect, maybe it wasn’t always an emergency. Maybe we just felt like we didn’t have the time or the energy to ask kids to read a book or play quietly while we had to make a quick phone call. Or maybe the phone call wasn’t for work at all, and we could have first asked the kids to read or play for a few minutes while we talked to a friend or relative.
A lot of parents are understandably frustrated with the current situation—particularly when it comes to schooling. How can I do my work and also supervise my children’s education? Some parents have thrown in the towel, telling teachers, as one parent tweeted,
No, we will not be participating in her ‘virtual classroom, and that he was done with the 1st grade. We cannot cope with this insanity. Survival and protecting his well being come first…. School doesn’t…matter right now.
You may decide that your child shouldn’t have to do “crappy math worksheets” or that it is more important that he read and play outside, but you should also understand that in a few months, you may want your child to spend a few minutes doing something he doesn’t really like on his own. This experience may influence the likelihood that it will be successful. If you plan to take the “school doesn’t matter” approach now, don’t be surprised if kids internalize that message. In another few months, this will not seem like an emergency to kids. And as parents, we should plan for that.
Naomi Schaefer Riley is a senior fellow at the Independent Women’s Forum and a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.