I've lived through many crises, but coronavirus is the hardest – I'm going through it as a parent

At first, I was cautious about even explaining the concept of a pandemic to my kid. But after her school was shuttered three weeks ago, a conversation became unavoidable

 

Borzou Daragahi
Sunday 05 April 2020 16:09
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I was eight years old the first time the world came undone. I was playing with an electric toy racecar track when the lights went out. I worried at first that I had caused the outage with my refusal to go to sleep that hot July night – but this was no blown fuse. It was the Great Blackout of 1977, the systemwide collapse of much of New York City’s electrical power grid.

Within hours, the looting and fires started. Darkness, flames and chaos engulfed much of the Brooklyn neighbourhood where we then lived. There was no internet back then, but there was radio. My parents stayed calm, and answered my questions to the best of their abilities. The following day, my father took me for a walk through the neighbourhood, reassuring us that despite the crisis, the world wasn’t ending.

I have since lived through many such unravelings, including the September 11th attacks. But for me, the coronavirus pandemic poses a whole new challenge – it’s that I am now the one attempting to navigate a crisis while parenting a precocious eight-year-old.

At first, I was cautious about even explaining the concept of a pandemic to my kid, even as I urged her to wash her hands after every outing and avoid touching her face when outside the house (another parent told me she asks her three-year-old not to embrace her parents when they come home until they’ve washed their hands). But after her school was shuttered three weeks ago, an explicit conversation about coronavirus became unavoidable.

“Always answer their questions truthfully,” say the Unicef guidelines. “Think about how old your child is and how much they can understand.” Children understand quite a bit. Recently, the Australian broadcaster Lisa Wilkinson interviewed a group of kids about coronavirus. From the origins of the disease in the open-air markets of China to the broad outlines of the public health debates, the children have a surprisingly strong grasp on the pandemic.

“Be willing to talk,” advises Unicef. “Silence and secrets do not protect our children. Honesty and openness do.” In general, we’ve struck a balance between positivity and honesty. We talk about the cool things we’ll be doing once the crisis is over; about the heroic medical staff fighting to keep people healthy. That said, I have slipped up a few times – like the time I said I’d like to do something in a few months “if the world doesn’t come to an end.” Nowadays, she rolls her eyes whenever we talk about coronavirus, with the same disdain as when we talk about Middle Eastern politics.

As well as speaking to your children in a considered way, you also need to give your children an opportunity to speak to you. “Your child may be scared or confused,” say the Unicef guidelines. “Give them space to share how they are feeling and let them know you are there for them.” My daughter keeps a coronavirus diary, which began with depictions of the thorny virus itself, but veered off into drawings of unicorns and cats.

There are some practical tips for overseeing children confined inside a small space. Maintain strict sleep routines; consider investing in a small trampoline; organise video playdates with friends and relatives; incorporate screen-free activities, including arts and board games, to keep kids busy. Most importantly, avoid any crafts that involve glitter.

And yes, despite the restrictions, every now and then take your kid for a walk through the neighbourhood – to smell the fresh air, but also to reassure them that whatever you might accidentally say, the world isn’t coming to an end.

Stuck at home with their parents, forced out of the rituals they’ve known for years, coronavirus could forever alter our children’s perceptions of their health, safety and future prospects. As parents, this is a risk; but it’s also an opportunity to teach our children how to adapt to a rapidly-changing world.

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