Trivia: Where does the phrase, “Spare the rod, spoil the child” come from? If you said the Bible, you’d be dead wrong. In fact, when you learn where it’s actually from, you’ll probably not want to use that phrase anymore.
“Spare the rod” is a line from a 17th century poem called Hudibras by Samuel Butler that mocks Judao-Christian values. (Check out Part 2, Canto 1, line 844.) In this erotic poem, a man is trying to woo a woman who encourages him to submit to aphrodisiac flagellation. The “rod” serves a double purpose, both referring to the whipping and to his penis.
Jokes aside, I figure that’s not what most people intend when they use this humorous phrase. They’re probably referring to Proverbs 13:24 which reads, “Those who spare the rod hate their children, but those who love them are diligent to discipline them.” (NRSV) There has been much pushback from scholars who have conducted word studies on this passage. In short, reading this verse in its original language clearly indicates that the “rod” is a source of guidance and protection rather than punishment. Dr. Stacey Patton provided a fantastic overview via Facebook in 2016 and others have done similar work. This wonderful sermonette describes the purpose of the “rod” for a shepherd.
I won’t belabor this perspective, as it has been well covered elsewhere. The purpose of my piece is to talk about why Proverbs exists in the first place, with all of its apparent contradictions. For instance, in one place, we see what looks like an admonition to beat children with the rod of correction, while another verse declares that “a soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger” (Proverbs 15:1 NRSV). So, which is it? I’m glad you asked!
The book of Proverbs is the second book written by King Solomon, which is chock full of practical advice. Each piece of wisdom is intended to be thoughtfully considered and wrestled with. It is not enough to accept the surface meaning. Insightfully, Torah.org explains of Proverbs, “Much can be learned about the human mind by thinking about why two particular ideas were placed next to each other; why this verse would have been just like the last one… except for that small, almost insignificant difference and what the words actually mean. One can learn how to decide logically between two choices, how to make use of experience to avoid repeating mistakes and from what to stay away while chasing after a goal.”
The underlying mission of Proverbs is to communicate the wisdom of King Solomon, who is referred to as the wisest man to ever live and who still inexplicably fell victim to foolishness. Proverbs illustrates how futile it is to try to put God into a box or to claim wisdom unparalleled for ourselves as though we are not prone to the same faults that plagued King Solomon. Verses in Proverbs are juxtaposed in order to draw out the essence of truth, not just the literal meaning of the words. And, King Solomon utilized the same exaggeration and figurative language in Proverbs that we see throughout the Bible. These rhetorical devices serve the purpose of highlighting degree of importance, and it takes careful consideration to discern just how literal of a read we should be applying to any given verse.
It’s especially important to understand that truth and accuracy were not synonymous at the time Proverbs was written the way they are today. Take the example of the two competing creation stories in Genesis, both of which were intentionally placed together and both of which serve humanity’s understanding of the “why” behind our creation. Critics of Judao-Christian faith point to seeming contradictions throughout the Bible as evidence that the Bible is unreliable, not understanding the spiritual value imbued in these differences. Modern Christians must become comfortable with biblical truth not necessarily coinciding with a literal reading. If we fail to do this, we miss important contextual cues that the Hebrews would have instinctively understood through cultural conditioning.
If we’re going to take Proverbs seriously, we have to do so on the terms of its originating culture, which means we must consider what the Rabbis said. And, we know what the Rabbis said because we have a book of oral tradition: The Talmud. The Talmud is a compilation of rabbinic discussion on the Torah, and it is composed of two parts. First, there is the Mishnah, which is a compendium of oral law. Second, there is the Gemara, which comes in the two versions (Babylonian and Jerusalem), and is a record of rabbinic discussions around topics in the Mishnah. The Mishnah was standardized over the course of many centuries.
…are people taking this verse too literally? How do the classical commentators explain it? Disappointingly, though perhaps not surprisingly, most of the commentators understand that it isn’t a metaphor, it literally refers to disciplining one’s child. But that still doesn’t mean that one should strike one’s child with a stick. In fact, it very much doesn’t.
You see, the Torah was written to be understood by the audience that received it. It speaks about loading donkeys, oxen treading grain, and women delivering babies on birthing stools – things to which most of us cannot relate. It doesn’t talk about DNA or black holes or flatscreen TVs because these are concepts that would have been incomprehensible to the original recipients. Similarly, if King Solomon (the author of Proverbs) wanted to discuss disciplining children, he was going to use corporal punishment as his illustration because time-outs didn’t exist, and I suspected that neither did grounding or docking allowances.
This is not just wishful thinking on my part; let’s examine the sources.
First of all, striking another person is seriously frowned upon in Judaism. Deuteronomy 25:3 tells us that someone sentenced to the penalty of lashes may not be struck more than the designated amount (a maximum of forty lashes). First the Torah tells us that “the wicked one deserves lashes” (25:2), but then we are told that we may not exceed the court-imposed amount because if we do, “your brother will be degraded.” The Sifre, quoted by Rashi on 25:3, demonstrates that before the punishment is administered, the offender is considered “wicked.” After he has paid his penalty, he is once again called “your brother” and it is forbidden to strike him. If we’re not allowed to strike a convicted criminal more than absolutely necessary, it should go without saying that we may not strike someone who was not so sentenced by the courts – not even if their behavior bothers us!
Striking someone outside of the context of court-ordered whiplashes is actually considered evil. In Exodus 2:13, Moshe asks “the wicked one,” “Why will you strike your friend?’” The Talmud in Sanhedrin (58b) points out that the person is called wicked just for raising his hand, even though he has not yet delivered a blow.
The Talmud in Moed Katan (17a) prohibits a parent spanking an older child, based on the principle that we may not do something that will cause others to sin (lifnei iver). The child might respond by cursing the parent or striking back – both serious sins – and the parent would be responsible for provoking that reaction. The Ritva (13th century) says that “older child” isn’t exhaustive. For sure one may not strike a child above the age of bar or bas mitzvah but, additionally, one may not even strike a younger child who is likely to retaliate in words or deeds. Rav Shlomo Wolbe (20th century) suggested that the cut-off for spanking would be age three.
Rav Wolbe’s position is not a mere concession to modern parenting. Peleh Yoetz (1824) says that even in the case of a young child, if the parents know that his nature is not to accept authority, they should discipline him using calm, soft tones.
True, the Rambam writes that a teacher may strike a student (Hilchos Talmud Torah 2:2) but that very same halacha specifies that he may not use a whip or a rod, but only a “small strap.” (So much for “rod” literalists!) And how big is a “small strap?” The Talmud in Baba Basra (21a) says no larger than a shoelace.
He goes on to explain that the Talmud dictates the strict use of the “gentlest form of effective discipline” and points out that there is no Torah obligation to use corporal punishment on children. None at all. The Torah simply does not condone spanking as punishment for children. King Solomon knew that.
A weak argument can certainly be made that Bible allows for the corporal punishment of children (largely by omission of the topic in the Law), but it is a gross misinterpretation to claim that the Bible prescribes it. What Proverbs demands is that parents coach and correct their kids, so that the children are brought up with values that orient them toward God. Now that we have substantial evidence that spanking is extremely harmful, Christians should honor the book of Proverbs and exercise the wisdom that King Solomon called us to. If you are still unconvinced, consider carefully Christ’s warning about leading a child to harm.
If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were fastened around your neck and you were drowned in the depth of the sea. Woe to the world because of stumbling blocks! Occasions for stumbling are bound to come, but woe to the one by whom the stumbling block comes!(Matthew 18:6-7 NRSV)
Woe to the adult whose treatment of a child leads that child to hate their parents, their life, or their God!
But, there’s good news. We can bypass the pitfalls inherent in controlling children through violence by rejecting our modern culture’s fixation on punishment and working instead toward fostering the “pleasant words” that are “like a honeycomb, sweetness to the soul and health to the body” (Proverbs 16:24 NRSV). After all, Proverbs 22:6 reminds us that what we teach our children about godliness is what guides them for life… not how effectively we hit them.
Try my favorite solution for kids who are in the house bored!
(Shout-out to TikTok for the title.)
Got a basket? A bowl? A delivery box you can decorate? Grab it and let’s make an Activity Chooser.
Start by decorating it if you like. This step isn’t necessary, but it’s fun! Then fill your container with slips of paper that describe an activity your child can do, some of which can be mostly independent and some that should include interaction with you. Stuff your container with these activity slips and give yourself a go-to when your kids start to get active inside.
Have them pick a slip without looking and then do the activity. Once they know what the activity will be, the slip can go right back into the container for the next time.
As they cycle through the ideas you’ve included, they will find some favorites which they can look forward toward in the future. Keep your Activity Chooser fresh with new ideas as you think of them.
I’ve scoured the internet for inspiration and also jotted down some of the things my own kids do. This list will give you a good start at filling your Activity Chooser to the brim. Have something to add? Please let me know in the comments and I’ll post it!
Linen Parachute: Find a flat bed sheet to use as a makeshift parachute to flutter into the air and jump underneath. (Requires at least two people.)
Balloon Garden: Blow up as many balloons as you can and play!
Crab Race: From a sitting position, lift up on your hands and feet with your chest toward the ceiling and go!
Bunny Race: Hop like a bunny all the way across a makeshift finish line.
Dance Party: Turn on your favorite song and get moving.
Old School Game: Pick a game like tag, tug ‘o war, or hide and seek.
Balance Beam: Put a long piece of tape on the ground and can practice balancing and creating a dance routine along the tape.
Long Jump: Place strips of tape on the ground at measured intervals and see how far you can jump from a designated starting place.
Wiggle Race: Hold a plastic cup in your teeth and use it to carry cotton balls from a designated starting point to a bucket at the finish line while wiggling across the floor like a worm.
Spinning: Spin around as fast as you can until you get dizzy.
Paint with Water: Using a paint brush, paint construction paper or even the side of your house/building or the sidewalk with plain tap water.
Make a Fort or Lean-To: Indoors or out, find materials to build a fort or a lean to and do all the construction on your own.
Hula Hoop: Try to keep a hula hoop going for as long as possible.
Use Your Imagination: Create a brand new game all your own and teach your family how to play.
Kids Rule: For this mirroring game, the adults are the ones taking the lead from the kids. Whatever movement or motion you do, the adults around you have to copy.
Spider’s Nest: Navigate a web of tape and string down a hallway without getting stuck or pulling anything down.
Animal Charades: Act like an animal of your choice without saying what it is and let everyone guess which animal you chose.
Follow the Leader: Follow the motions and movements of an adult.
Word Party: Use your bodies to spell out the alphabet or to spell words and have others guess what you’re saying.
Obstacle Course: Complete an obstacle course created by an adult using existing items inside or outside.
Leader Says: With an adult serving as “Leader,” follow instructions only if the adult first says the words “Leader says.”
Scavenger Hunt: Find all the items on a scavenger hunt given to you by an adult.
Carnival: Choose which activity stations you’d like to complete after an adult sets up your very own carnival games.
Bobbing for Popcorn: Eat a bowl of popcorn as fast as you can without using your hands.
Fitness Circuit: Complete each activity on a fitness circuit created by an adult.
Go Fish: Using tools like kitchen tongs or spoons, fish toys out of the water.
The Big Stretch: Follow an adult through a kid-friendly stretching routine.
Limbo: How low can you go when you have to slide under a broom without letting anything but your feet touch the ground?
Big Kid Helper: Help an adult with an activity of your choice that adults usually do on their own.
In the Kitchen: Make a baked good as a family, kids’ choice.
Bonus: If you are looking for equipment to purchase, consider getting indoor items like a tunnel, a rebounder/indoor trampoline, a punching bag/stand, a slide, a pikler triangle, or some of those foam climbing shapes, all of which are great for gross motor engagement.
I hope these ideas give both you and your kids a little break when it’s most needed.
By now, the COVID-19 crisis has touched us all in some way. In the U.S., we’ve inched into the top spot globally for confirmed infections and, I don’t know about you, but I find myself watching the trackers and praying that those “serious” cases resolve into the “recovered” column instead of the “deceased” column. People keep asking when this will be over, but that’s an impossible question to answer. Everything is different now and will never be the same again.
This is a scary time for all of us, adults and children alike. I’m not doomsdaying y’all. Not at all. There is hope and joy both now and on the other side of COVID-19. It just looks different than anything we’ve known in our lifetimes. We’ve never experienced anything like this before and we’ve got to give ourselves grace. You’re not alone. You are seen.
May I ask you about your COVID-19 experience?
Have you yelled at, spanked, or otherwise dealt harshly with your kids?
Have you cried because you’re completely overwhelmed and you can’t see the end?
Have you felt your mental health slipping and/or are you on a medication that no longer feels like it’s working?
Have you backed off limits that you never meant to release and now feel your kids are overrunning your boundaries?
Have you snapped at other people because the situation with your kids is sending you over the edge?
Have you had thoughts about your kids or being a parent that secretly embarrassed you or made you feel ashamed?
Have you voiced any of those thoughts in front of your kids?
Have you become super strict or super lax or some confusing combination of the two?
Have you, at any point during the COVID-19 crisis, felt like a bad or failing parent?
If you answered yes to any of those questions and you’re feeling bad about yourself, I’m here to tell you that you are loved and worthy regardless.
I’ve got some ideas I hope will help and support you, but I truly do want you to give yourself grace. If something doesn’t resonate, please move on and release it. I’m hoping to refresh you, not bog you down more. And, I’ll be very honest. I’m feeling completely inadequate right now in terms of helping y’all when I’m right in the midst of this mess myself. We’re in this together, friends.
This post is separated into two big sections which you can jump to or read straight through. I know we’re all a bit short on time, given the circumstances, so take what you need.
It’s ok not to be ok. It’s ok not to have it together. It’s ok not to feel like your normal self. It’s ok to need more support than usual.
If you’re feeling more tired and unmotivated than usual even though the outside world seems to be slowing down, know that you are under an incredible level of constant stress. There will be moments of happiness, of course, but that overwhelming feeling of just not being able to manage runs like a dark current underneath everything you’re trying to do. It’s all real. Nobody was prepared for how much time and effort it would take to get through the pandemic. We have no experience on which to base our thoughts going into this.
In this incredibly vulnerable experience, you may feel your life resetting. Let it. Some good may be taking place in the background. Even as you worry for your kids, they are experiencing a desperately needed course correction. You are gaining insight into the things in the background that have been draining you. And, you are experiencing what people have experienced throughout time and catastrophe: a readjustment of values. It’s a necessary part of the human condition. As a result, you are bound to be exhausted and jittery and done. None of this is easy and you can’t just relax the days away. No, there’s still much to do but, please, take care of yourselves as you go.
To the essential workers out there, you are profoundly appreciated. We see you on the front lines. We know you can’t slow down and we pray that you remain strong. Bless you all!
You ARE Being Crushed Right Now
Don’t let anyone tell you how you feel or how your family has been affected. What you’re experiencing is absolutely real. I want to acknowledge that at the top and validate your suffering. We’re all struggling, some so much more than others. Some were struggling intensely before this crisis hit and, now… it’s utterly disastrous. There may be plenty of love to go around, but not quite enough resources or energy, so no one (including you) is getting everything they need.
In particular, if you’re a career parent, please understand, you may be feeling like some sort of combined Stay-at-Home/Work-at-Home/Teacher parent. But, you’re not. You are something way beyond. Something that defies definition. You aren’t meant to handle everything all at once like this plus all the emotional turmoil of a global crisis. I admire y’all so much.
I’ve seen some shaming messages floating around social media about how domestically productive we should be right now. Ignore all of it. Who could have anticipated this intense psychological burden, the loss of familiarity, or the feelings of walls closing in on us? Now’s the time to celebrate what we can do and brush off what we can’t.
A special note to my Asian American friends. Your experience in this crisis is different from that of others. Your heightened stress and fear are real and valid. Check out this piece from therapists who have been supporting Asian clients for some ideas on how to manage. If you need to take someone along with you when you go out, DO IT. Please, be careful out there.
Get Your Basics Covered
Prioritize filling your belly, bathing your body, and getting rest. It’s so easy to put our needs to the side when we’re so focused on our children. But, we can’t maintain this workload without making sure our basic needs are met.
If you’ve lost income and are concerned about making sure your family is protected and fed, do what you must and make no excuses for it. Here’s where to go get help:
This situation is directly challenging the American values of consumerism and capitalism. It’s revealing bleak disparities between the haves and have nots. And, it’s making us seriously consider our needs versus our wants. These are extraordinary times. We are face to face with a pivotal moment in history, and it’s painful.
There’s so much worry in the world as it is. Try not to get caught up in the fervor and hypotheses around COVID-19 if they negatively impact your mental health in any way. I encourage you to cut out the areas of social media that cause you distress, at least temporarily. Focus, instead, on what you can do and make that your goal.
Take Inventory of Your Stressors
And, put them in their proper place for the time being. A friend recently posted about no longer being able to hide from fears and stressors, because of the conditions under which we’re currently living. From her own experience, she writes,
Maybe being alone is uncomfortable for you and you’ve always avoided that feeling by socializing with others.
Maybe there are inequities in your domestic partnership that you normally brush under the rug but that aren’t sustainable now.
Maybe there have always been boundary issues with a person in your life (like a parent) that you can normally tolerate but that’s becoming increasingly untenable.
Maybe the ways you normally cope with an [eating disorder] aren’t available to you right now and you need to find new, more evolved methods.
Maybe slowing down is really difficult for you because momentum and adrenaline are how you’re able to get through the day and feel like you did enough.
As you encounter unavoidable, mental health-killing circumstances, take a few minutes here and there to write out what’s happening so that you can deal with these issues when you’re not in the middle a crisis situation. If there is any silver lining to this terrible cloud, it’s that we’re being brought face to face with all the things we’ve been running from. So, fortify your boundaries as you need and prioritize yourself. There will be time to tackle all of these things in the future. Now is the time to pare down and deal with what’s right in front of you.
If you know someone who is in danger due to the spike in domestic violence, the national hotline number is 1-800-799-SAFE (7233). And, the child abuse hotline is 1-800-4ACHILD (422-4453).
Lower Your Expectations
No matter how prepared any of us might have thought we were for a major disaster like COVID-19, no one was actually prepared and nothing that’s happening is normal. If you’ve been beating yourself up because you haven’t been able to keep your house clean or because your children are spending too much time indoors on screens, stop. Stop right now. Do whatever must be done and let the rest go. If it would improve your mental health, consider planning out how you can accomplish the things you want to do, keeping in mind that your plan can include getting things done after the crisis is over. You don’t need to be everything and do everything right now just because the country is at an apparent standstill. If your mental health is off, and you can’t handle any more than you’re already doing, it’s ok. Ask for help where you can and let the rest go.
By the same token, do what you need to do in order to feel more in control. You may need more structure and routine or you may need less. Don’t feel guilty for scrolling right past all the advice for how to better organize your time or pandemic school… er “homeschool” your kids (Sidebar: No one is really homeschooling right now. Homeschool is an academic and social venture. What we’re doing is something much more strained.) Do whatever it is you have to do in order to get by.
Find An Escape
“Silly” self-care ideas like bubble baths and long walks may actually be exactly what you need. And, for the record, they aren’t silly. You may be craving a long, hot shower. Take one after your kids go to sleep. Do it and don’t worry about anything else for a few moments. Just focus on yourself. The shower is a great place for a good cry if you need that emotional release. After all, tears can be healing. The same goes for taking a walk, meditating in nature, reading a book, taking a short drive, baking some cookies, and so on. Whatever small things you can do each day to stop hyperfocusing on what’s bothering you even if just for a few minutes can be the refresh that you need.
YouTube is rich with hundreds of thousands of hours of practices that can help improve your ability to manage your stress and anxiety levels. Here are just a handful of those videos:
This escape could also come in the form of therapy. So many therapists are doing telesessions right now. It’s entirely worth the effort to get real help from a real person. And, realistically, your therapist can do a whole lot more for you than I can in this little blog post.
Our children all know something’s up by now. Some seem mostly oblivious. Some seem curious. And, some seem concerned. These are all natural responses to such big changes. As parents, we can help our kids navigate this challenging time with some kid-friendly psychology in mind.
If you have about an hour to listen to a talk, I strongly recommend checking this one out. Otherwise, read on!
Turn Your Attention to Healing
You’re going to mess up with your kids right now. I can’t imagine a way we wouldn’t while our brains are swimming in a sea of stress. So, apologize. Often. Let your children know you will make mistakes and they will make mistakes and you can love each other through it anyway. Voice it. Tell them how important they are to you and how glad you are that they’re in your life. Tell them how much their presence lifts your spirits and that you’re grateful to have an amazing family like yours. Try to find moments to build them up because, in doing so, you will build your relationship and provide them with the connection they’re craving right now. And, perhaps, you’ll even soothe some of those big emotions that are responsible for the blow-ups you and your children are experiencing. There’s no downside to telling a child how much they’re loved. And, please remember, children are resilient and traumatic stress is not a given. So, if you’ve been worried that you’re “ruining” your kids during this difficult time, let those concerns go and look for ways to connect and restore. Heal together.
Hear What Kids Are Saying
Don’t be afraid to talk with your child. Listen to what they’re saying. Sometimes we can project our own fears onto our kids and misinterpret what they mean. Right now, we need to be listening carefully to what our kids are actually saying and asking us. When they ask questions, answer only the question that’s been asked. Listen and get at what fears underlie the things they say.
A friend recently told me about how her children were talking about their own illnesses from a few months ago. This is called generalizing which is when humans take a new piece of information and apply it more broadly to enhance understanding. If children don’t have a great deal of experience with sickness, they may try to recall the last time they or a loved one fell ill. Don’t be alarmed if your child does this. They’re likely trying to fully grasp what’s happening and you can use it to help them by letting them know that, yes, they were sick so they know what it’s like not to feel well.
Hear What They’re Not Saying
Children’s anxiety tends to manifest in ways that do not involve them saying frankly, “I am anxious.” Here are some of the things to watch for that could signal anxiety if they seem new or especially enhanced right now:
Appearing afraid in everyday situations where they didn’t before
Refusing to communicate
Refusing to eat or becoming neurotic about food
Stomachaches, headaches, and/or elevated pulse
Unusual irritability or lashing out
Increased question asking
My son’s energy level has been off-the-charts for the past few weeks. He knows something is amiss but doesn’t understand what’s going on. Last week, we had a moment. He was spinning out of control and I had to catch him before he fell apart. I offered him a hug, which he accepted. Then, he began to push and pull me as though he wasn’t sure whether he wanted to stay or go. I asked him if he needed me to squeeze him and he did. He squirmed and giggled and fussed. So, I asked if he needed to lie down and he did. So, I carried him to the couch and held him close to me as he vacillated again between pushing me away and grabbing me around the neck. I could see how tired he was and how fast his poor mind was churning. I told him I’d hold him until he fell asleep. Not soon after, he burst into tears and cried for 20 minutes. Then, he promptly fell asleep. He needed to get those big emotions out and didn’t know how. I can imagine that many of the children in the U.S. have similar emotional blockages. They need us now perhaps more than they ever have.
If you aren’t a mental health professional, don’t worry. You can help counter some of your child’s anxiety at home. And, if it gets to be too much and you’re concerned for your child, many therapists are doing televisits, so you don’t have to leave your home to get help.
If you’re not already in a new routine, try getting your family on a schedule. For some families, an hour by hour schedule helps keep a good rhythm going. For others, the thought of a strict schedule shuts you down. Don’t panic! General guidelines for when the family will wake, eat, and do everything else in between would be perfectly ok. The goal is to develop a cadence to this new life we’re living temporarily. It’s important to maintain boundaries and expectations, and it’s also important to be flexible and understanding.
As for school, I absolutely encourage you to make sure your kids are keeping up with expectations especially out of respect for the work your children’s teachers are doing in the background, but I can’t stress enough that other things are also important. While the world is on pause, you may have a greater opportunity to connect with your kids (and other members of your family) in a way that you’ve literally never had before.
Get Them Connected and Proactive
I’ve seen some wonderful memes recently that remind us that we’re not socially isolated but rather physically isolated. Try to find ways to get your kids connected to trusted adults and their peers. Phone calls and video chats are great. Gaming that involves interacting with other players is another option. Your kids may have some ideas you haven’t even thought of, so ask!
And, remind them that they can help defeat this viral foe. We’ve likely all seen those memes about handwashing to various songs. They’re funny AND TRUE. Teaching kids about hygiene (handwashing, sneezing into the elbow, sanitizing doorknobs, and the like) is a great way to give them something concrete to do in response to feelings of helplessness.
Choose Family-Based Solutions
If your kids are at each other’s throats and angry with you at the same time, call upon the strength of your family to make a way. I was speaking with a friend who has really been struggling to meet her children’s needs. They all seem to need her at once and they’re taking out their pent up anxiety on each other in the form of aggression. She feels outnumbered.
We talked about this situation offering a chance to teach the kids about graciousness and empathy, not just for her as their mother, but also for each other. I suggested working with the kids to come up with a code phrase, like “Activate Empathy!” which would be a signal for everyone to either look around for someone to help or to stop where they are and ask their mother how they can help. Whatever works for the family.
Be Honest and Age Appropriate (But Don’t Reveal More Than Needed)
Make sure you know where your kids are getting their information about COVID-19. If they are becoming consumed with the news, try to find ways to reduce their information intake. For some kids, it may decrease anxiety to keep an eye on things. In such a case, you can work out how that’s going to look and what they should do if something scares them.
If you’re struggling to find the words to respond to your children’s concerns about COVID-19, start by trying to ascertain what your child already knows. From there, encourage your child to ask questions. Check out this video from the Child Mind Institute:
Work Toward Empathetic Reframing
If you’ve been practicing Peaceful Parenting techniques, you’ve likely had some exposure to offering empathetic reassurance without making promises you can’t guarantee. If not, click here to read a brief overview of how to provide reassurance in a healthy way. It may feel easiest to tell our kids they have nothing to worry about, but the reality is that they do. We all do. And we can do something about it! When your child gives you their version of a doomsday scenario or asks a difficult questions, reframe and de-escalate. For a fantastic explanation of this concept, check out this message from Dr. Tina Payne Bryson.
With her message in mind, let’s try fielding a few questions. Remember, there are no perfect responses. Just answers couched in our best effort to give our kids feelings of safety rather than fear.
For Younger Children: First ask, “What do you think is happening?” and see where your child stands. If you can use the information they are able to articulate, you’re well on your way to helping them understand. If you need a quick script, try this. “There’s a teeny, tiny little germ that’s making people sick with a cough, so everyone is staying at home to be safe and not get sick.”
For Older Children: If your child is ready for more information, I recommend choosing an existing child-friendly video to explain what COVID-19 is. Brain Pop has a section on their website that presents information about COVID-19 in the form of a school lesson, complete with vocabulary and a quiz plus other cool features. Allowing an older child to view this information in a simulated school assignment may provide some distance so it’s not as scary.
When will this be over?
For Younger Children: It won’t last forever! We’re going to do our part to be safe, so we can get back to normal very soon.
For Older Children: By keeping ourselves clean and giving people six feet of space from us whenever we go out, we’ll be able to conquer the sickness and this will be over very soon.
Is school closed forever? Are all the teachers sick?
For Younger Children: School isn’t closed forever and your teachers aren’t all sick. We’re staying home so we can keep ourselves safe and help doctors and nurses do their jobs.
For Older Children: The people who run the school have closed the building to make sure students stay safe right now. Some teachers might be sick, but not all. For now, we’re going to keep doing schoolwork assigned by your teacher to make sure you know everything you’re supposed to know.
Can I go to the park?
For Younger Children: Response: (Depending on your area’s social distancing requirements…) Sure, we can go to the park and walk around! The playground is closed, though, so let’s go see if we can find some ladybugs.
For Older Children: (Depending on your area’s social distancing requirements…) Yes, walking around outside is ok. You’ll see some areas sectioned off, since the city wanted to keep everyone safe from sharing germs on the equipment.
Why can’t I see my friends?
For Younger Children: I know you miss your friends a lot and you want to play with them. Just like us, your friends are safe at home for a while. How about we find a friend to video chat with?
For Older Children: I know it’s hard to be apart from the people who make you feel your best. In order to keep everyone as safe and healthy as possible, it’s important for us all to stay home for a while. How about reaching out to them?
If I hug you, will you get sick?
For Younger Children: Come get a hug! One of the reasons we’re sticking to ourselves right now is so that we can talk and cuddle as much as we want to.
For Older Children: You can have a hug any time you need! One of the benefits of staying home and practicing social distancing is that we protect ourselves from the virus, so we can stick together.
Is everyone going to die?
For Younger Children: Absolutely not. Everyone is not going to die. We’re helping everyone keep safe by staying home. Can you think of someone you love very much to call and talk to?
For Older Children: Absolutely not. Our entire country is taking steps to protect as many people as possible. Would you like to make some calls with me? I’m going to check in on family.
The goal here is not to lie or overflate any promise of safety, but to reduce fear by focusing on what we can do to be safer.
Some awesome folks have done a lot of the necessary footwork to help kids understand sickness and COVID-19. Check out these episodes for a positive spin on how to tackle this coronavirus, one kid at a time.