This is how it feels after getting my kids — a son in eighth grade and a daughter in sixth — to the bus every morning. It hits, and then I have to start work.
It wasn’t always so hard, but as so many other parents understand too well, this has been the longest, most brutal, school year of our lives, and we’re all frankly just spent.
It’s been a struggle to adapt to distance learning (September), then partially in-person instruction (October), then back to full distance (November), then one kid distanced and one in person (January), then both in person but only some of the days of the week (since March), and that’s not even going into the special-education related battles with the school district over supporting my son. We are so tired and short-tempered — and in ill-shape to learn or to parent any more.
But by the end of the first full week of June, a miracle will happen and the school year will end. For parents in the US with kids old enough for vaccines, this will be an actual post-pandemic summer.
Before the conversation becomes all about summer camps or sports or vacations or making plans to do all the many, many things at last that we’ve been unable to do, let’s take a moment. Recognize that it’s been hard on even the luckiest kids to live through a global mass death event like this one. A lot of adults have failed them. They are attuned to the chaos, more than they are ever likely to disclose to you (or even understand themselves).
We’re just beginning to assemble data on the mental health consequences of the pandemic on kids, but the leading indicators are worrisome. From April to October of last year, mental health emergency cases for children aged 5-11 rose by 24%, according to the Children’s Hospital Association. Even in resource-rich places and even for children who have not experienced illness and death from the pandemic directly, school closures disrupt routines, access to food, and correlate with rising levels of stress and anxiety among children.
Research shows that childhood trauma, especially when it goes unaddressed, correlates with long-term physical health concerns as well. And even if a child doesn’t meet the official clinical definition of experiencing “trauma,” most of our kids have been through traumatic experiences without a doubt. Since the very beginning of the pandemic, experts have been preparing for the effect of trauma on children. But as parents, what are we going to do? What can we do next week? In the hot days of summer?
What I worry about, in part because I feel the instincts myself, is that we’ll try to fix something that can’t be fixed with overscheduling, overplanning and filling up the days with the kinds of activities we had to eschew last year.
This summer, to the extent possible, lighten up, slow down, and let your kids be kids. Let them breathe and find their own way before you try to make up for lost time.
Here’s why I’ll be trying to follow my own advice. Back in December, at an especially low point for my family, I started referring to kids old enough to remember this year as “Gen C.” I hope the appellation doesn’t stick, but I can see signs of burnout among my middle schoolers everywhere I look. They are sharper with their parents, less likely to listen (my son is non-verbal, my daughter hyper-verbal, but both communicate quite effectively), butting heads in ways that are new. But 16 months of intense focus on our families, in our homes, as the world reeled, will do that. If we want to move our kids out of Gen-C and back into the wild world of “zoomers,” we’re going to have to be intentional about it.
Over the past month, there’s been a lot of writing about work culture and burnout. Charlie Warzel, who is co-writing a book on the future of remote work, wrote an important essay calling on bosses to give their employees a “summer slowdown.”
As parents, we need to give our kids a slowdown too. Don’t flood your children with extra programming, extra schooling or otherwise trying to at once give them everything you want for this year and restore everything lost during the pandemic. Let them breathe, and if they need to, grieve. To be uncertain or angry. Try to create the space to ease the struggles of this year, to let trauma-related anxieties go, to watch for trouble spots where we might need to provide more direct support.
I’ve had to accept that lost time is in fact lost. It’s incredibly hard to process that. So I want to let my kids take it slow. My daughter wants to pick up a sword and learn to fence. My son wants to swim. She wants to veg out with Minecraft and they both want to do so with YouTube.
But not everything about last year for our family was so bad. Even as we struggled with restrictions and fear (and eventually both my wife and son did get Covid-19), we came together as a family. We took more walks. We played more games. I bought a 1985 battered 12-foot aluminum boat (A Montgomery Ward “Sea King,” though it’s hardly a monarch’s ride), and took my kids out fishing
on the many lakes dotting the Twin Cities’ metro. I taught my daughter to make pasta from scratch. My wife and I tried to shield the kids from unnecessary anxiety while telling them what they needed to know at an age-appropriate level.
Still, kids pick up on things, so even at the best of times, last summer was no vacation. And then the school year unfolded, along with the winter spike of infections.
This summer will end and we can get back to work. I remain as committed to fighting for equitable education as ever as my son heads to high school and my daughter will hopefully get her first year of “normal” middle school, whatever that means. I’m especially ready to fight new battles on accessibility and distance education.
But maybe if I can let my kids relax, I might be able to as well, because they aren’t the only ones carrying the trauma of the last year and a half. We all have a lot of healing to do, if only we can find the time.