The coronavirus and parenting: A no-school survival guide

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Working from home when your kids are around is going to take patience and creativity. (Photo: Getty Images)
Working from home when your kids are around is going to take patience and creativity. (Photo: Getty Images)

As cities across the country head into some form of lockdown and school districts shutter and move to virtual learning, parents are being forced to simultaneously deal with their own fears and anxieties while also managing those of their children. The list of worries is long and seems to grow daily — about how to keep spirits up, how to keep kids amused enough not to lose it, how to deal with the depressing blow of social isolation, how to make sure there is enough food, enough supervision, enough distraction.

“Parents need to stay calm because if the parent is panicking, the kids pick up on it,” says Mary Alvord, a Maryland-based psychologist with more than 35 years of clinical experience and expertise in working with kids. “We’re the role models.”

But that, of course, is easier said than done. Here, some guidance from a lineup of experts. Feel free to pick and choose what suits you best.

How can I explain what’s going on but also keep my kids from panicking in the midst of this crisis — even if I’m about to lose it myself?

Ask them what they have already heard, and use it as a jumping-off point so as to not overwhelm, Alvord advises. “With any kind of bad news, I always ask that first, because they’re subject to misinterpretation,” she says. From there, ask, “What questions do you have?’ If you see they’re talking about it a lot and getting anxious, say, ‘Let’s talk about the facts.’”

Further, explains Alvord, who has expertise in the science of resilience, “The core of resilience is the belief that, while you can’t control a lot of things, there are things you can control. So, with parents, I suggest they say, ‘Well what can we do about this?’ You can say, for example, ‘Let’s wash your hands.’” She notes that while parents will, of course, show emotion about the turmoil in front of kids, it’s important to not be in a complete panic — for example, not going around saying, “Oh my god! I lost so much money in the stock market!” and other types of comments that can really stoke anxiety in kids.

My teenager and I are not used to being home so much together anymore. How can we deal with all the tension and not fight all the time?

The number one important factor, says teen and adolescent psychologist Barbara Greenberg, is this: “You have to respect each other’s space. Things are going to feel crowded no matter how large or small your living quarters.”

Further, she says, it’s important to try hard to not overreact. “Really choose your battles at this time,” Greenberg advises. “With tensions running so high and everybody feeling disappointed about not being able to follow their routines, I don’t think this is the time to argue about screen time.” That’s not to say let your teenager walk all over you. But a bit of leniency is called for, as is the expectation that “your kids are going to be on edge,” because, she says, “the way you act during this time is going to be a very salient memory for you and your kids. They will remember how you acted very clearly.”

With that, she suggests trying, hard as it may be, to put a more positive spin on things. “Maybe a little bit of a silver lining here is that you can get to know each other just a little bit better,” she says. “Anytime you go through a tricky time with somebody it becomes part of your shared history. So maybe set some goals about how you and family are going to get through this together? It could be a bonding experience.”

I’m working from home and my kid’s daycare is closed. How the heck am I supposed to be productive with a toddler at my feet?

“First of all, you need to be kind to yourself,” advises Lindsay Powers, author of You Can’t F**k Up Your Kids: A Judgment-Free Guide to Stress-Free Parenting (and Yahoo Lifestyle contributor). “There are not enough hours in the day to be a full-time teacher and a full-time employee. So, reframe it as being a ‘good enough’ parent and employee. If you have a partner, trade off. My husband and I have a mini-meeting each morning to discuss our busiest times of the day. We both have late morning meetings, so we designated that ‘daily movie time,’ to plug our kids in for a big chunk of time.”

Some specific points of advice:

  1. Routine: “For us, writing down an actual schedule on a big piece of butcher paper and taping it on our wall works (so far). We need a little structure. I also find that clearly labeling the two times a day my kids get snacks has saved me a lot of time – because otherwise, they would demand snacks all day,” Powers says. “Our loose routine allows me to say, ‘now it's rest time’ or ‘now it's music time.’”

  2. Flexibility: “And, of course, my 3-year-old insisted on dressing up as Spiderman, threw a tantrum, and then fell asleep on the couch — not during rest time… so we laughed and went with the flow. We are living through a once-in-a-lifetime bizarre event, so we need to smile and take breaks from the anxiety, or else it's going to be very hard to keep our heads up.”

  3. Boredom: “Young toddlers are going to be more challenging because they're harder to reason with. But older toddlers, preschoolers, and elementary school children can lean into boredom,” she stresses. “We don't need to program every single minute of their days. We can say ‘now it's time to read’ or ‘here is some construction paper and markers,’ and let them figure it out. It's a lesson in creativity and self-sufficiency.”

  4. Screen time: The judgmental conversation we have about screen time does not reflect the reality of the research, which shows it's an amazing tool when used in moderation. Think of the overall balance of a week of screens. If you watch three hours of Paw Patrol one day, try to watch fewer the next day. A couple of times a day, ask your kid about what they're seeing, and then draw into real life, like "There's a trolley just like in Daniel Tiger's neighborhood!"

Speaking of screen time… What are some of the least-egregious ways for my kids to use it?

Jenny Radesky, MD, lead author of AAP screen-time recommendations and expert researcher, referred Yahoo Lifestyle to the guidelines she wrote on this topic for Common Sense Media, answering the question: Are some forms of screen time better than others?

“For sure,” she writes. “There's a huge difference between an hour spent shooting zombies in Zombie Duck Hunt and an hour spent learning vocabulary from a smartphone app or composing music online. That's not to say that everything has to be stamped ‘educational’ to provide an enriching experience. With any screen media you choose for your kids — movies, games, TV shows, and apps — you want to look for how it engages your child. And, although there's nothing wrong with a little mindless entertainment, you can maximize your kid's screen time if you consider the ‘four C's.’”

Those, she explains are connection (are they engaged? Engrossed on a personal level? That’s important); critical thinking (look for media that deep dives into a topic or skill or requires strategizing); creativity (allowing kids to create new content); and context. That last one, Radesky writes, will “help your kids understand how their media fits into the larger world. For younger kids, in particular, the discussions and activities surrounding games or movies are key. Being with kids while they play or watch, asking questions about what they're taking away, and doing related offline activities can extend learning.”

We relied on the public school free-meal program. What are our options now?

While many school districts have immediately replaced full-day school with limited meal pickup services, that may not pick up all the slack for everyone, particularly if working parents have no way to get there, pick up the food and bring it and their child home and then still make it to work on time. That’s why some folks in some states have launched crowdfunding campaigns — such as those in Los Angeles, New York City, areas of Virginia and Charlotte, N.C. For those in places where services are falling short, however, there are a few national websites offering guidance about where to find local food pantries:

Can’t we at least join forces with a handful of other working-from-home families for study groups and play dates?

The simple answer is no, says Verizon Media medical consultant Kathryn Jacobson, PhD, MPH, and a professor specializing in global health epidemiology at George Mason University.

For background, Jacobson points out that the CDC is asking parents and schools to “discourage children and teens from gathering in other public places while school is dismissed to help slow the spread of COVID-19 in the community.” Further, the CDC explains (under the “What can I expect when arriving in the United States?” tab), “Social distancing means staying out of crowded places, avoiding group gatherings, and maintaining distance (approximately 6 feet or 2 meters) from others when possible.”

Jacobson’s interpretation, she says, is this: “Public health officials across the country – at national, state, and local levels – are asking Americans to practice social distancing. School closures and extended spring breaks are not supposed to be a time for families to go on vacation, visit grandparents or make other travel plans. Scientists do not yet fully understand the role children may be playing in spreading the coronavirus within communities. It is possible that children may become infected and have no symptoms or only mild symptoms but still be able to transmit the virus to other people. In a few weeks, CDC will be able to issue more precise guidance about when it is safe for children and adolescents to participate in playgroups and study sessions. For now, the best option is to limit non-essential contacts with people who are not household members.”

What are some ways to keep kids stimulated, either with or without a plan for remote learning?

“In terms of what to do, this is where the stress comes in. How can you balance your work with taking care of your kids? It’s hard to say how much online learning is going to happen, but they’re going to gear up for it,” Alvord says. “Figure out who is in charge of the kids when, and structure it so that you vary the activity. The great thing is you can take kids outside and do fun things — maybe explore a hiking path. You want physical activity because it helps with mood. Assuming we can still go outside…”

“Think about crafts, baking… inevitably they’re going to do some online, but say, ‘You have to do XYZ first, and then we can do XYZ. We call that contingency management.”

Adds parenting influencer Laura Funk, “General advice: Have a shortened schedule and interact with your kids. Kids are used to schedules and contrary to what they may say, they do better with one. In addition, do not just give them free range of the technology, actually interact with your children, tell them stories, take walks, teach them real-life skills. Not every lesson has to be content-driven. Each day set a goal or an activity and do it and do it.”

For at-home activities, Funk suggests, “Take a walk, go geocaching, play Pokémon Go or [read] Harry Potter as a family, do board games, teach your kids to bake.”

This general schedule has been circulating on social media. And it’s helpful for those who want to get a grasp on some sort of structure.

But what about more specific lifelines? Various companies and individuals have been offering some specific online distractions, from free concerts and book readings to dance and theater and music and drawing classes.

Great Schools offers this guide to worksheets, book lists and other online resources. Scholastic announced on Friday it was offering three hours of online learning per day, for grades pre-K through sixth grade, through its Learn at Home platform. KiwiCo is offering online science-project ideas for kids of all ages.

Mil’s Trills, a Brooklyn-based children’s music project, is offering virtual lessons and has pulled together a very handy spreadsheet schedule of live streaming shows for kids. Find kids’ workouts on this YouTube channel to keep their bodies moving, and free learning websites include Starfall and PBS Kids for little ones, and Math Game Time and Science Kids for all ages. Finally, do some virtual traveling by “going on” Disney rides and experiencing the exhibits at these museums around the world. Because really, it’s not a bad time to pretend you’re somewhere else.

For the latest news on the evolving coronavirus outbreak, follow along here. According to experts, people over 60 and those who are immunocompromised continue to be the most at risk. If you have questions, please reference the CDC and WHO’s resource guides.

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