Pondering the Pandemic: A Year In and Five Takeaways for Parents

It’s been one year since we all downshifted into various levels of quarantine—an anniversary we may not want to celebrate, but one worth noting. Although (and especially because) we’re still waiting for life to return to some semblance of “normal,” this is a good time to pause and reflect on the past twelve months.

For parents, a look-back includes considering how the experience has affected our kids. None of us will forget it, but for kids especially the pandemic will leave an indelible impression. It is their generation’s universally shared experience that will lead them as adults to ask one another their version of the familiar question, “Where were YOU when…?”

But what are kids themselves saying?

Throughout the past year, Highlights has received many letters, emails, drawings, and poems from kids who want to share their thoughts and feelings about the pandemic. Their correspondence reveals worry and concern, as well as remarkable resilience. We recently revisited our reader mail to glean a few reminders of ways grown-ups can help shore up kids’ well-being through what continues to be a challenging time.

 

  • Kids want and need to talk about what they are experiencing.

Most kids can sense when something big is going down, even when their grown-ups are trying to protect them by distracting them or withholding information. Many have questions and crave a listening ear. Exactly how much information they want or need depends upon their developmental age, but rarely do young kids want to hear detailed answers to their questions. More often, they want to share their thoughts and feelings (both!), feel heard, and know that they are not alone. Like many of the kids we heard from, ten-year-old Nick was dealing with a tangle of emotions. He wrote, “Ever since this COVID19 stuff started, I’ve been feeling a little scared, worried, impatient, sad, and mad. I just want it to stop. ”Eight-year-old Owen admitted he was mad and scared. “How should I feel?” he asked.

And when they ask for information, kids expect truthfulness. One reader was explicit about this in the email she sent, writing, “I need an HONEST answer. Are we gonna go back to school before the end of the year? I am 11, and I really want to finish 5th grade. Can you give me an honest answer, please?”

 

  • Kids can accept disappointment, but they don’t want to feel helpless.

Kids have had to deal with all kinds of disappointments. They have written about missing friends in and out of school, canceled holiday gatherings with families, low-key birthday celebrations, and more. Some of kids’ disappointments may seem small to adults but loom large to kids, such as Charlotte’s disappointment that the early closing of school meant she was unable to ask friends to autograph her kindergarten yearbook. Another reader, a candidate for class president, was deeply disappointed that he didn’t get to deliver his campaign speech because school closed abruptly.

But most of these kids aren’t simply complaining. Nearly all their messages suggest they are looking for a call to action. “Can you help me?” “What can I do?” “Do you have any ideas for me?” They may look to others to spark some creative thinking, but they are ready to put their problem-solving skills to work to regain some control and make themselves feel better. Luke, for example, was eager to lean into his own creativity to create an at-home sports competition when his parents wouldn’t let him participate in a public event because of the virus. Some kids found positivity in being productive. Nine-year-old Corbin wrote, “The whole world is shut down and being home is boring.” But he added, “There is always something to do. Read a book, do the dishes, and, if you live on a farm, milk cows. (I do.)”

 

  • Kids don’t want to simply look for the helpers; they also want to BE the helpers.

Kids are watching and listening to us, catching more of the news than we sometimes realize. And when they see the suffering of others, kids lead with empathy and try to help.

Eleven-year-old Beau in Tennessee wrote, “The coronavirus virus is a tough time for many people. I want to do something to help people in need. Do you have any ideas?” An eight-year-old from Massachusetts wrote to ask for help in making his brother “feel good” as he celebrates his birthday in quarantine. Another eight-year-old, Troy, asked us to help him spread the news about the “daily challenges, tricks, and comedy” he created on YouTube for kids “stuck inside during this scary time.”

Seeing need all around them, kids become opportunists in the best possible way. And they discover that providing help to others also helps themselves.

 

  • I’m OK, You’re OK: Parents Are a Barometer for Kids

It bears repeating: young kids look to adults for clues about how they should feel. If kids see parents managing their emotions well, those kids are more likely to be successful regulating their own complex feelings. They’re more likely to comply with mask-wearing and social distancing—to accept the things they cannot change and work to change what they can.

Julia wrote to say that her father, a doctor, insisted that she stay home with the family to be safe. She missed spending time with friends, “But sometimes we ride bikes with masks,” she wrote. “And we can still play. It’s fine.”

“It’s fine” is something kids have told us in different ways. “You might think school will never reopen; And you might just sit around moping / But I know better / Nothing lasts forever,” one child wrote in a poem. “We’re in this together,” kids have said, repeating what others have said to them and working hard to believe it.

 

  • The Key Ingredient in Pandemic Fun Is You

A year spent staying safer at home has recalibrated our excitement meter, arguably for the better. Unable to plan a special day trip, an elaborate birthday party, or an extraordinary vacation, we had to fall back on the simpler pleasures in life for entertainment. Both kids and parents have told us that a possible silver lining to the pandemic may be a newfound appreciation for the slower pace it forced and for the abundance of small moments it provided that helped families feel close and offered a surprising dollop of joy.

From backyard scavenger hunts and stargazing to cooking and reading together to snuggling on the sofa with popcorn and a movie, young kids seem to appreciate almost any activity they engaged in with a parent who was fully present in the moment. True, some families committed to bigger efforts, as seen on social media. But for most kids, it has been more than enough to have a parent who, perhaps unwittingly, made kids feel safe and who strengthened the family bond by simply making low-key family time a priority.

What has been your family’s experience during quarantine? Are you concerned about your child’s well-being? How are you hoping to help your family see this experience through? I’d love to hear from you. Send comments to: Christine@highlights.com.

Christine French Cully

Christine French Cully is Chief Purpose Officer and Editor in Chief at Highlights for Children. As Chief Purpose Officer, Cully’s focus is on growing awareness and implementation of the Highlights purpose, core beliefs, and values—to help actualize the organization’s vision for a world where all children can become people who can change the world for the better....