Guiding Your Kids Through Their COVID Return to School
I have had the privilege and joy of teaching and walking alongside a lot of adolescents as a middle school teacher for seventeen years. I am also a mom of a middle school boy and an upper elementary girl and the wife of a youth pastor. Here is the truth: in a pre-COVID world, we already saw kids who were at an all-time high for anxiety and pressure and at an all-time low for self-esteem and self-awareness. Now, our kids are even more emotionally vulnerable as we find ourselves enduring a pandemic in a racially-charged country approaching a contentious election season.
If 2020 was a Bingo card, the squares may be filled with some of the following cliched terms: “unprecedented times,” “the new normal,” “remote learning,” “in this together,” “social distancing” and so many others. And yet, these already overused phrases don’t really get to the heart of our experience. If we are being honest, our Bingo cards might be filled with these truer, more vulnerable terms: fear, anxiety, racism, politics, loneliness, isolation, and uncertainty.
As Christian parents prepare to send their children back to school, it may be helpful to take a moment to consider our kids’ Bingo cards. How would our kids fill out their cards, and how can we as parents ease their transition back to school?
Communication is our best tool. Ask questions and genuinely listen. Many of our children have not been back to school in more than six months. September is looming over them with a strange mix of fear, trepidation, and excitement. They might feel guilty for wanting to return so they can see their friends and regain a sense of normal in the center of this storm. They might be afraid to share their excitement or fear with us. It is common for children to keep their thoughts to themselves. Help them know that it is good to talk, to share, to discuss. Asking appropriate questions and listening can help them find their voices.
Maybe you take turns at dinner asking the whole family about highs and lows or questions about the opening of school. Include kids in conversations about what their school opening might look like and how to best prepare for these strange changes. Emphasize the positives – seeing their friends, getting back into a groove, challenging themselves. In the midst of anxiety about returning to school, don’t let them be silent – let them know you are a safe sounding board for their thoughts.
Validate their feelings
Regardless of the ages of our children, they have feelings and those feelings need to be validated. Assure them it is ok to be nervous, and it is also ok to be excited. Share your fears and confusion too. I want my children to know that they can come to me with their worries and questions without fear of judgement or mockery. Try not to explain away their feelings with simplicity, as none of this is simple. Now is not the time for the quintessential Sunday School answer. Do not placate your kids with comments like “Don’t worry so much” or “Everything will be fine.” Do not underestimate what even our youngest children can understand. Isaiah 41:13 tells us, “For I am the Lord your God who takes hold of your right hand and says to you, Do not fear; I will help you.” Our kids can relate to the feeling of having their hand held when they are scared. In the same way, we can assure them that our Heavenly Father is holding their hands as they work through these feelings of anxiety. And he will continue to hold them as they return to school.
Protect them from the media and be present
Yes, we want to be informed. Yes, we need to know the latest news. However, having the news running in the background of our homes is not always healthy for us or our children. More than ever, media is capable of inciting fear through crazy statistics, images of bedridden hospital patients, discussions of political blame, replays of violent protests, and rampant finger pointing. Our kids are vulnerable enough. We do not need to deepen their fears. I am not suggesting we lie to our kids or hide truths from them. But not all eyes, ears, and hearts are made for the 6:00 news.
In our desire to know everything that is happening, we run the risk of being absent from our kids. I have found myself checking social media more than ever. I am watching school committee meetings, sending emails, on the phone with other moms about their plans for school this fall. In my attempt to make well-informed decisions and stay abreast of the rapid changes, it is possible to be more distant than ever.
Being quarantined has fooled us. We like to believe that we are “with” our kids all day, every day. But just because we are home together does not mean we are really together. Kids thrive on stability, familiarity, and routine. They need our help to get back into it – to set alarms, get dressed, pack lunch, and turn on their “thinking caps” again. They will need our help to balance school work, schedules, and remote classes. They will need us – just us – to be present and involved and to acknowledge that they cannot make this transition alone. Let’s get our moody kids out of their closed bedrooms, to take a break from their devices and just be together.
Model Respect for Authority
Our kids are watching. Inevitably, our fears often become their fears. When we verbally badmouth those in authority, our kids are sure to follow suit. As a teacher, I have often seen this. Students come in with very distinct political viewpoints, spewing back words and phrases that they are obviously overhearing at home. In this strange time, it is especially important that we set a good example of compassion towards families whose comfort levels are different from our own. When we get caught up in judging other parents for COVID choices – whether we believe they are too lax or too free – this sets a poor example to our children.
You may be ready for a full return to school, but do not judge others who are not there yet. We are in unfamiliar waters, and everyone is rowing at a different pace. That is ok! Instead of sowing seeds of bitterness in our children’s young hearts, let’s model Christlike compassion and selflessness towards those with whom we disagree.
I believe that Jesus’ interactions with lepers and others who were sick have much to teach us in a time of COVID. Obviously, we aren’t Jesus but we are called towards Christlikeness, and he put himself into risky positions in order to love those who were labeled “unclean.” Additionally, he refused to get embroiled in the political debate of his day between the Pharisees and Sadducees. Instead, he gave generous amounts of grace and compassion to those who were outcasts. And he called his followers (like us) to do likewise.
We are here to worship the Lord, to love others, and to live in his kingdom. Kids need to see us living out these priorities. True security doesn’t come from hand sanitizer, but by the hand of God. His kingdom is not shaken and his grace has not wavered. He has us in his precious grip. Our kids are his kids first. When our kids are fearful and anxious, help them remember that they have a Heavenly Father who is with them. And we as parents really can entrust our kids to God’s care. Not one moment of 2020 has been surprising to him. None of this is outside of His will and His glory.
Here is my prayer – that our Bingo cards be full of the fruit of the spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Our calling to raise our children in the faith isn’t on pause because of this pandemic. COVID lives in tricky territory, but with faith and intention, we really can weather this storm together.