My favorite Christmas growing up was the year my dad lost his job. My mom told my brother and me that we did not have money to spend, and that she knew things felt scary. But, she said, “You can make it better. You can help us find a way to celebrate and feel grateful for what we have.” We brainstormed ideas and settled on a themed Little House on the Prairie Christmas. We poured maple syrup on snow and looked up old Christmas songs to sing together (sadly, none of us played the fiddle). I remember how giddy I was at my own goodness – getting excited about a single candy cane in my stocking, just like Laura felt about the one she got with a cup and a penny. I’m embarrassed to say it wasn’t until many years later that I realized the big gift my mom had given me that year. (Hint: it wasn’t the candy.)
My generation has been raising kids in a time of intense pressure on parenting. The great thing is that maybe more than any other time in history, we are rightly focused on kids – their feelings, their experiences, and their autonomy. The tough thing is that it’s easy with all the noise to miss the things that really mean the most to them.
The era of COVID-19 is bringing unimaginable loss to adults and children alike. Some are losing family members, some jobs and security, and some the beautiful normalcy of their days, friendships and routines. For a generation of parents tuned in to their kids’ pain, it hurts so much to see children bear this with us. So, in neighborhoods wealthy enough to be concerned with anything beyond survival, we're organizing parades to celebrate kids' quarantine birthdays, printing poster-sized versions of their faces to line the streets because they are missing graduations, and having long Facebook discussions of how to honor the third graders who won't get to experience their transition to . . . fourth grade. I think this is driven by love, but I also think it may miss the simplest and most basic gift we can give kids to battle suffering – to give it meaning.
Not renowned as a parenting expert, Victor Frankl, a Holocaust survivor and author of Man’s Search for Meaning, may still have something very valuable to offer us in this moment. In his iconic work on surviving tragedy, he writes, “In some ways, suffering ceases to be suffering at the moment it finds its meaning.”
Maybe the greatest thing we can do for children is to acknowledge the searing tragedy of our reality and the real loss. And then tell them that what they do matters. Even the smallest actions they take – being kind to their sibling, washing the dishes, trying to do their e-learning – these things are sacrifices to help to save each other and to build our way back to a better world. We can ask them: Who is lonely that we know who we can call? Where should we donate every day? How can we take care of our bodies and our minds so we can be there for others? What can we give up to help others get through this?
Children don't need us to celebrate them or soothe their every missed milestone as much as they need us to invite them to help us make meaning out of this mess. And in doing so together, we may just find it is what we need as well.
Hillary Bates is an employed history major (tell your folks) who lives with her 9-year-old daughter and 12-year-old son, her husband, Josh, and her mom, Barbara, in Columbus, Ohio.