The Elephant in the Room

I witnessed two things on my walk this morning that got me thinking. The first happened early on when I saw an EMT leave his ambulance and head into a house. He was wearing gloves and a mask which is probably standard right now, but could also mean that someone with Covid-19 was inside. The second thing I saw occurred much later on my route. Two neighbouring groups of kids, aged from about 5 to 9 years old I would guess, were out playing on the sidewalk while the mother of one crew and the father of the other stood supervising from their front walks. I’m not exactly sure why parents feel the need to hover over their kids in this manner, especially considering how truly deserted the streets are during this crisis, but that’s just the way things are now. At one point a girl came riding towards them from the end of the street, and as she approached her mother called to her,

“Slow down now. There’s a bunch of kids ahead of you.”

I’m pretty sure she could see the five children gathered on the sidewalk directly in front of her, but again, parenting is different now. So the girl slowed down and broke before she got to them. She then turned her bike around and headed back the way she had come. As she passed her mother said,

“Awesome! Great job, Brittany!”

Full disclosure – I didn’t actually hear the girl’s name, but it was probably Brittany. Also, I’m not sure I got the spelling right out of the myriad ridiculous derivations that now exist, but it’ll have to do.

This girl was well past training wheels and clearly a competent rider, yet her mother felt her ability to not hit the group of people right in front of her and then to turn her bike around was, “Awesome!”.

So here’s the question which formed at the intersection where these two incidents met in my mind; what is going to happen as a situation which is rightfully causing dread on a global scale collides with a generation of children who are already exhibiting all the symptoms of anxiety because they’ve been both shamelessly coddled and diagnosed as having it by their parents?

About twice annually in each of the last several years of my career we would have staff meetings with the following theme: kids today are experiencing more stress than any previous generation, and how are we as educators going to meet the extraordinary needs caused by this reality? This assertion always made me crazy! Have you ever read a “Little House” book or seen a movie based on anything by Charles Dickens? Children throughout all of history have had to face hard work and uncertainty every day – deadly diseases, famine and poverty were the norm. More recently I had aunts and uncles who began working after school and on Saturdays in the local textile mill at 8 years old, performing dangerous jobs with no safety equipment. My mother told me that during her childhood in the midst of the Great Depression she saw homeless men frozen to death by the side of the road on more than one occasion. Even during my relatively idyllic childhood I had friends whose home lives were made unhappy and traumatic by addiction and/or abuse. There’s no way in hell children are more stressed now than they have ever been. What’s changed is that no one is teaching them coping mechanisms or resilience.

There is a very strange phenomenon happening at the moment wherein children are being alternately coddled and ignored by their parents. They are kept in because there are so many threats out in the big bad world, and yet no one is playing with them in the house. They all have devices to entertain them with every app imaginable, but good luck to any child who wants attention from a parent because they are as deeply addicted to screens as their kids are. Very few parents talk to their kids anymore; a fact I am sure of because I asked this very question of various classes in the library, and every time the majority of students assured me that they never converse with their mom or dad. They also never sit down and have meals together because their schedules are so full.

This is another current trend which is putting children at a disadvantage – the bulk of their free time is planned by their parents and led by adults, leaving them virtually no time for unstructured play outside with their peers. This means they are missing out on the exercise and restorative time in nature outdoor play provides, as well as situations which encourage risk taking and opportunities to develop negotiation and problem solving skills. Children who are constantly being told what to do have no time or space to master the traits which will allow them to become competent, confident and independent adults.

The lack of these abilities partly explains the current explosion in “anxiety” among children, but equally to blame are parents who diagnose their children as having it without any professional consultation. There certainly are children who suffer from anxiety disorders, but truly, out of the over three hundred students I encountered in the library every week, I could count on two hands the number who showed signs of anxiety when no one was looking. Part of the problem is that so many people mistake stress and excitement, common human feelings which happen in response to everyday stimuli, for anxiety which is born in the brain and often has no discernible external cause. Kind of like Alanis Morrisette confusing coincidence with irony, or sports commentators who think literal and figurative are interchangeable, but with more dire consequences. Stress is what propels humans to act while excitement helps us look forward to future events with happiness and anticipation. To conflate these with anxiety is to do your child a disservice. Many parents also use anxiety as a ready excuse for their child’s misbehaviour – easier to put a label on it and make it the school’s problem then to take it in hand at home.

All of this goes some way toward explaining the current so-called anxiety epidemic amongst children, but none of it truly gets to my initial concern as to how they are going to cope with the pandemic. I would imagine even the most avid screen-watcher has to get bored at some point, and now that they are housebound with their families the sheer number of hours in a day might force adults to spend extended face-to-face time with their kids. Perhaps conversations will blossom in which parents will share words of comfort, explanations, and most importantly strategies for coping with this legitimately stressful situation. Maybe a renaissance of communication and guidance between parents and their children will result from this crazy time. One can only hope.

3 thoughts on “The Elephant in the Room

  1. Amen, sister. I’ve been thinking the same thing. Kids are over scheduled and devices are so ever-present that kids have no free time to explore and play freely and creatively. And when they do, they get no interaction from their parents because their heads are ever bent to their phones. We’ve all forgotten how to play. And you’re right, praise kids for every little ordinary thing.

    My advice…. Send them outside.

    My daughter asked my Mom (mother of eight) for parenting advice and the first she said was, “Ignore them!”We all laughed but she was partially right. All eight of us survived our childhoods without anyone hovering over us.

    I think this social isolation will be good for families, as you said. It’ll force them to spend time together and they’ll need to come up with some fun stuff in order to stay sane. Looking for the positives here. Fingers crossed!

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    1. I loved your mom’s advice, but the 8 of you had each other to play with and probably free range outside. Today kids are ignore to their faces: a very different proposition.

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  2. Haha. I see I made some typos in my comments. That’s because my 4 yr old grandson was at my feet, wanting me to play Park Ranger LB. (He hunts dinosaurs with his sleepy dart blaster). He’d been happily playing with play dough in the next room while I wrote. I felt so guilty then having to ask him to wait five minutes while I typed away on the phone. Sheesh. Guilty!

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