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Perspective: Helping your children see things from another point of view

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By Julie Miley Schlegel, MD, FAAP

Photo by August de Richelieu

If you are reading this, you probably have children. And if you have children of a certain age, you probably know about the game “Would You Rather?” I have heard my kids asking each other such questions as:

“Would you rather have your feet never stop growing or your nose never stop growing?”

“Would you rather eat six worms or a pile of dirt?”

And what follows is an actual conversation about why it is better to have an infinitely long nose (you could smell better) than infinitely long feet (you would trip all the time). And why it’s better to eat worms (they could be nutritious) than a pile of dirt (no taste, grit in your teeth). There usually follows discussion about why one perspective is wrong and another is right.

If you don’t have the game, you should get it. We’re all at the point in quarantine where we could use some conversation-starters in our house. But then again, maybe we don’t need a game to give us “would you rather” conversations in 2020. Maybe we’re living the game this year.

Would you rather work from home with your toddler needing you all day? Or send your toddler to school to risk catching coronavirus? Would you rather go stir-crazy staying in your house all the time? Or try to go on a vacation and risk getting sick?

And finally: do you send your kids to in-person school, socially distanced, wearing masks, separated by plexiglass, and risk their getting sick or getting others sick? Or do you do online school when you’re at work and have no idea how your kids will stay engaged online and socially isolated for hours a day? Just like eating worms or dirt, we all see this year from our own perspectives. And just like eating worms or dirt, neither option is that great.

A person may have 100 reasons they are sending their kids to online school this year. Another may have 100 reasons they are sending their kids to in-person school this year. For better or for worse, our children repeat what they hear us say, so how can we guard our words to help our children understand both sides of the coin? And what can I say to a friend who made a choice that’s different from mine?

As I write this, my sister just made her school choice. It’s been an arduous decision-making process, as she has three children in three different schools, as I do. Modified from a post I saw this week by @MrsAndreaBuck, all I can and should say is, “I’m glad the decision is made. I know it wasn’t easy.”

We can help our children understand that some families have a member who is immunosuppressed and is at higher risk for complications from COVID, so they need to do online school. Some families have a multigenerational household and want to protect the elders in the family. Some parents are scared out of their minds because they have lost friends or a spouse to COVID.

Some children have special learning needs and learn better online. Or in person. Some teachers don’t mind going back and some are fearful that the risks inherent in the career they love could make them sick. Some homes, unfortunately, are not a safe place for children. Some homes don’t have enough food for three meals a day. Marriages could be falling apart. Finances could be crumbling. Some parents might be dealing with mental illness or childhood trauma themselves.

I have no idea what all is contributing to my friend’s 2020-21 school decision. I cannot 100% understand another’s perspective unless I am living her life. But making an effort to pause and try to understand before I mouth off will hopefully teach my kids to do the same.

If I say, “parents just want to send their kids to in-person school to get them out of the house,” I should expect my kids to repeat that line. If I say, “what’s good for us might not be good for everyone; we all have to make the best choice we can for our family,” hopefully my kids will repeat that instead.

I’ve spent a whole lifetime seeing things from my perspective, and I’ve gotten really good at it. Nobody’s perspective is as clear to me as my own. I’m also old enough, though, to know the value of seeing a situation from another perspective, and the value of teaching my kids to do the same. Just because I think it would be better to have my feet never stop growing and to eat a plate of dirt, I can at least listen to why you think it’s better to have a long nose and eat worms.

This is an unprecedented year, and it’s a year that magnifies the differences in our perspectives. But of all the people I’ve talked to about the school year, childcare, and the choices we all have, I’ve talked to very few who feel 100% confident in their decisions.

I have, however, talked to some pretty awesome kids, as young as six, who say “I’m mad at coronavirus. I miss my friends. I don’t like wearing masks.” Out of curiosity, I ask them, “Then why are you wearing one?” “Because,” they say, “I want to protect people who might get sick.” Now that is a child who has been taught perspective.

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