We here at SheKnows are very anti-mom-shaming, as you probably know. But now that we are in a public health crisis, things feel different. It’s not like we suddenly want to tell people how to raise their kids, but we’re aware of the collective effort needed to flatten the curve of COVID-19 infections. (I, for one, had to bite my tongue to refrain from yelling at all the parents still at our local playground until New York City closed them last week.)
At the same time, taking care of our kids is harder than ever, and we empathize with anyone struggling to keep it together. We can’t possibly be doing it all right. To figure out if we’re doing anything right, we decided to reach out to Dr. Cara Natterson, a pediatrician and author of Decoding Boys, to ask our most burning questions about coronavirus parenting.
“The most important take home message for anyone is that the recommendations keep changing, and there isn’t really one right answer,” she said to preface all of her answers about coronavirus. “If everyone does their best and no one judges, we’re doing better than if people weren’t trying their hardest.”
1. Does social-distancing mean keeping our children in our homes or backyards, without ever venturing onto the streets or the parks?
In some cities throughout the world, only one person is allowed out of a household at a time, solely for the purpose of grocery shopping or seeking medical attention. Elsewhere, we’re still taking our children to parks or on walks through the neighborhood (while staying at least 6 feet away from everyone). When fashion writer Leandra Medine, a.k.a. Man Repeller, posted a photo of her children dressed for a walk on an empty New York City street, some commenters were shocked.
“Please this is serious… stay safe IN home,” @tamarettaa wrote.
“There are two ways the virus can be transmitted: One is by respiratory droplets, and one is by aerosol,” Natterson explained. Respiratory droplets, in which the virus is surrounded by water, transmit the virus when the droplets fly directly in a person’s face or get there when the person touches droplets and touches their face. Aerosol is when the virus floats freely in the air.
“Because of that, people have started getting worried about going on walks and hanging out outside,” she said. “It looks like you … need to actually have a lot of viral particles in order to get sick, and when you’re walking out in the open at the park, if you do come across an aerosolized virus, the viral load is very low, and so the infectiousness is also probably very low.”
So being outside at that recommended 6-foot distance from others should be fine, and Natterson even lets her own teenage kids go to the park for runs or bike rides with their friends. She does, however, advise against letting very young kids near playgrounds or in any place where they might see their friends, because it’s an awful tease for kids too young to understand.
2. I’m a single parent. Is it OK to take my children to the grocery store with me?
When you see a parent at a store with their kids, please don’t automatically assume they’re just disregarding social-distancing guidelines.
“Parents should weigh the risks,” Natterson said. “What that means is if you’re a single parent, the risk of leaving a young child unsupervised is greater than the risk of picking up infections. … Accidentally falling, turning on the oven, whatever it is — those risks haven’t gone away.”
3. My teenager is about to break down the walls to get out of here. Can’t I just let them go?
Of course, even teenagers who aren’t in a high-risk category for the new coronavirus should be participating in social distancing for the sake of others. Hopefully, by now, there are few places for them to congregate. But that doesn’t mean they need to be prisoners.
“Developmentally, [teenagers] are at their peak need for social contact, and they are being told that you have to be physically distant,” Natterson said. “Don’t confuse physical distancing with social isolation. Encourage them to connect with their friends.”
That can mean letting them walk, run, or ride bikes with their friends at a safe distance, as Natterson allows her own kids to do. If that’s not possible, this is the time to allow them to connect with friends online (albeit safely!).
4. Do my kids really need to wear masks? They hate them!
The short answer is yes, if they’re going to be near other people. Masks prevent people from transmitting those respiratory droplets to others, and children can often be asymptomatic carriers of the virus. Telling your children that they’re doing this to help others should be a good motivation, as is wearing a mask yourself. Eventually, peer pressure will kick in too.
“Kids like to do what other kids are doing … so once everyone else is doing it, I think it will get better,” Natterson said. “For the tweens or older kids who are looking for a little bit more parental feedback, remind them that a mask is a way to prevent them from touching their own nose and mouth.”
5. I’m an essential worker. Is there a safe way to hire childcare?
“You are mixing germ pools when someone from another home is coming into your home, but if you’ve got to do it, you’ve got to do it,” Natterson said. “All the same things that you would look for in someone [watching your kids] before coronavirus — quality background, their temperament, their ability to manage situations within your home — none of those things have changed.”
6. I still have to work. How am I supposed to keep up with all of my child’s homeschooling?
Every class has a few parents who seem to be taking to this online schooling like they do everything else, with picture-perfect visual aids and philosophical quotes about the meaning of life and family. The rest of us feel like we’re drowning.
“I was asked by my children’s teachers and principal to prioritize their education over my job during the pandemic,” one SheKnows reader who works in the health-care industry told us via Instagram. “I am still coming home after a full day of work to do schoolwork with my kids … This is hard and very unexpected for everyone, so the shame is not needed at all.”
If even moms like this can’t get a break, are our kids doomed?
“Just remember that this whole humblebrag online with homeschooling is no different than it is with any or sort of overly precious social media share,” Natterson said. “Nothing’s ever that perfect. You do the best you can do.”
For Natterson, that has meant she’s not the best at teaching her kids every academic subject, but she’s finding ways to teach them life skills, like how to clean the toilet. For anything we really can’t teach our kids, she recommended Common Sense Media’s new Wide Open School portal, which features a number of online educational resources.
It may also be comforting to remember that every child is missing out on their in-school education right now, so all standards are going to have to be adjusted accordingly later on.
7. How much screen time is too much? Can we get rid of the rules for a bit?
Now that kids are at home, there’s no one “screen-time” monolith. You’ve got to distinguish between TV shows, games, education, and socialization. Because of that, screens are becoming something of a necessity.
“Every single family is going to come to a different conclusion about how much screen time is too much,” Natterson said. “If you notice there is a point at which your child turns into a monster because they’ve been on a screen all day, then that’s too much screen time. If there is a difference in your child between school screen time and gaming, then you may set different limits for different types of screen time.”
One limit Natterson suggested you keep in place is to turn off screens one to two hours before bed, because the light can inhibit the production of melatonin, which helps us fall asleep. She also reminded parents that we should still supervise our children, especially young ones, when they’re watching a screen.
8. How do I protect my kids from accidents and injuries while they’re at home?
We certainly don’t want to be venturing into any emergency rooms for stiches or broken bones at the moment. There are some ways we can lessen the chances of home accidents.
“For toddlers and preschoolers, you have to mitigate the risks for them,” Natterson said. “You have to essentially baby-proof to the next level, and move things around the house and out of their reach in a way that is maybe different from what you would have done three months ago.”
For older kids, this is going to be an opportunity to teach them about your reasons for saying they can or can’t do something.
“You have to really to be able to say not just, ‘Hey, you can’t use the pogo stick,’ and instead to say, ‘The reason I don’t want you on that pogo stick is because I don’t want you to break your front teeth, and to take you to a medical center where there could be coronavirus,’ ” she explained, adding that kids who learn how to think about consequences now can face tougher decisions about sex and drugs later on, too.
9. How do I keep my kids safe from each other and themselves?
This is a very tough one. While many siblings are bonding extra hard in the absence of other friends, some are fighting nonstop. Some with impulse-control issues might even be a danger to their siblings or themselves. This is when Natterson said the best answer might be to put work on hold.
“That is where I think the work-life balance really gets tricky, because your first job is to keep everyone under your roof safe and healthy,” she said. Still, there’s no right answer for this problem, particularly when parents have to figure out how to make ends meet, too. Our hearts go out to anyone facing such a dilemma.
10. I’m depressed, anxious, angry, and scared. Do I have to keep on a brave face for my kids?
“What kids have told me over the years is that when they see their parents being human, it’s a relief,” Natterson said. “I’m not saying you want to be unstable and fall apart in front of them constantly. But to let them know that this is taking a toll on you too, and to let them see a little bit of your stress and worry, and to talk to them a little bit about it is also OK.”
There’s a balance to achieve between being a source of stability for your kids but not an unachievable pillar of perfection and stoicism. They should see from your example that it’s normal to be sad or upset by these strange and frightening circumstances.
“Tell them when you don’t know all the answers, because that actually makes you a more valid source of information,” Natterson said.
Some of us may feel guilty about our emotions, especially when we consider that so many are fighting for their lives, losing loved ones, or facing extreme poverty. That’s not necessarily the right message to give our kids either, because it would invalidate their own feelings. Natterson suggested that you can carefully point out how lucky you are, however.
You can say, “This is hard. I don’t feel like I’m balancing it very well, but compared to other people who might have lost their jobs, I feel really lucky, and I’m trying to figure it out.”
And if any other parents shame you about that, send ’em to us.
Need some new ideas for how to occupy your kids? Here are some ways to keep their minds busy when school is closed.