Now, more than any other generation, our nation’s children need us now more than ever, and for how long? No one truly knows . . . .
As parents and as teachers, we are all “wired” to prepare our children for the future—their tomorrow. COVID-19, however, continues to change all of what we knew—or thought we knew—to be an infallible truth. Within that truth, we have always entered freely, joyously, and determinedly into a tri-fold pact (parents, teachers, children) of surety that begins from infancy to grade 12 and beyond: our children would emerge grounded, focused, informed, discerning, ready to embark into college and career—and—be safe. The “hard conversations” as my co-author, John E. Grassie, and I describe in our work with teachers and students, for parents had been curfews, not-safe&safe touching, sex, social media monitoring and safety, cars, responsibility and civility, chores, for example, were normal, traditional.
Language TODAY: New Meanings for Old Terms; New Terms—Ever-evolving Language in the Time of COVID-19:
Each generation has coined its own language, its own terms which uniquely identified it. With our children today, Generation Z (GenZ), their 24/7 communication through social media illustrates clearly their new language and its fluid, organic nature. As parents and teachers, we, too, have adopted some of this new language in our efforts to communicate through social media. However, we did not anticipate what would be the necessity: namely, the emergency of our having to learn and adopt a new language with our children—ALL of them from infancy to their teen years. Take, for example, the now accepted and “old” term—virtual. This term, a “new” one back in the days of Star Trek with holodecks, has now evolved even beyond our contemporary use of it in social media and technology contexts. Take a look at just a few “new” terms that are now inextricably interwoven into our language and daily living and meaning, as well as the “old” terms that are at present, a new reality for our children and us:
· Touching/Not touching (i.e., your newborn, as has been reported in some instances)
· Hugs/Shaking hands
· Social distancing
· Touching your face
· Washing your hands
· Virtual work
· Virtual group activities
· Virtual birthday parties
· Virtual family gatherings and visits
· Dinner out
· Grocery shopping
· Going to the park
Of course, the list continues to grow as we and our children do our best to take it all in; process the words and make new meaning of the implications—the practical meaning, applications, and implications.
This blog addresses first, how we must join together—parents and teachers—to help our children at this most unsettling and in-real-time moment and, secondly, what we can do right now and everyday moving forward to support and help and guide our children. The two critical components in this tri-fold pact are parents/extended family and teachers. Children, regardless of their ages, observe deeply and take in their information initially from us—beginning in utero from mother and father. In the “past,” as parents and teachers we made several “given” assumptions that by grade 12, many of our children were ready to enter into a variety of facets of the adult world with less dependence and emotional support.
The COVID-19 pandemic is changing every “given” paradigm great-grandparents, grandparents, and parents knew and know. The pandemic is changing our daily rhythms within the family structures: economically, culturally, educationally, socially, and more.
COVID-19 is changing the very lens through which our children observe and learn from us: behavior, comportment, critical thinking, management, engagement, environment, tolerance/intolerance, voice, individualism, independence, visibility/invisibility, and yes, freedom. Just think, the generation of children following GenZ today, our infants, toddlers, and elementary students now take for granted daily, that not touching is the norm, that not seeing an entire face is the norm, that not hugging extended family and friends is the norm, that not having birthday or other gatherings or sports events that were filled with people is the norm, how not sitting or staying close to anyone is the norm—and the ever-growing list is just in its infancy. What will being in an elevator feel and look like for our children—in the New Tomorrow? Daunting—most assuredly. Distressing—yes. Would we rather just not have these discussions for fear of frightening our children? Of course, we fear it; we are parents and teachers.
But we cannot.
For the foreseeable future, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and National Institutes of Health, we must now reflect on specific actions we can take, must take, and sustain to be the adamantine support for our children—elementary, middle, and high school, and yes, college, too. We recommend the following with explication and rationale for parents; following these recommendations are ideas to spark family interaction for elementary-high school; a brief college section follows.
Young Children Through High School;
· Be Patient with Constructive Quiet-Times: Even those of us who feel we have unlimited patience may admit the elasticity of our patience is reaching its breaking point during this time. That said and totally understandable, for the immediate foreseeable future, parents must exhibit 24/7 patience. At those moments when your “last nerve” has been taxed, just take a moment, breathe, and be honest with children that a quite time is needed. I have practiced this strategy that I described as quiet time forever. Quiet time does not have to be and should not be long but continued/sustained to create a natural pattern of behavior of proactive coping, not punishing: 5-10 mins. If this is a new practice, children, especially elementary and middle school children will push back because the behavior is new. However, as you continue the strategy with its rationale, children appreciate it, for it provides them time, too, to recalibrate.
Such brief moments of quiet time help both you and children because it deescalates moments that can rapidly roll out of control if a “period or semicolon” is not applied (my teacherly humor).
This kind of modeling also has a long-lasting impact on children because if practiced with consistency—beginning, middle, and end by coming back together—children take this proactive coping strategy into their adult lives.
· Observe and Reflect: Children have always been keen observers; their often quiet but infinite close observations of us and family, foments their learning, their skills-acquisitions. As parents, we have consciously and unconsciously modeled for our children, observing them as they grew. Now, more than ever, however, our observing children of all ages is critical.
Let them know you are observing them, that you are interested and connect to them; they are your focus and concern. Your re-energized observation is decidedly not monitoring them, but, rather, think of it as your wanting to note any changes or differences or emotions of stress—just like teachers do in the classroom. I am always monitoring my students—looking at their expressions, listening to their intonations, how they shift at their desks or how they are sitting/fretting. I look into their eyes, making eye-to eye contact, allowing them to see that I am listening, paying attention.
Even working with students virtually, they are very much aware that my focus and attention—my eyes and ears and mind—are on and with them.
Observing how children walk, sit, talk or not talk, act, eat/don’t eat, interact/or not, tonal changes—all of these behaviors we must now take a more in-depth and active role. No, don’t maintain a daily journal or become joined at the hip with children, but do observe and then reflect on what you have seen. Note their differences and concerns.
Don’t wait to address concerns or out of the norm behavior. Children may very well balk at your added attention, but internally, we all want to think and believe that people care about us, especially family. Consistency and calm, deliberate perseverance is the key here, if you have not practiced this behavior before with your children.
· Listen and Reflect: We all want to be heard at home, at work, at school, in everyday places and spaces, But, being heard is decidedly not being listened to. Now, in the New Tomorrow, listening, really listening to our children is critical in establishing their trust and belief of support and guidance—without judgement or infringement on their individuality and voice. I continually find it wonderful when students know for sure that I listen to them; that we can disagree and not only continue the exploration but can also learn from one another. This generation of children/students especially are amenable to this kind of relationship because they are post 9/11 and post Great Recession children.
Our babies and toddlers are now post COIVID-19 children. Theirs is a world, for now, where the “old” term remote is the new 21st century term, describing daily living and interaction in every venue: remote working, virtual doctor’s visit, remote travel on public transportation [areas roped off to avoid contaminating drivers], plastic shields between checkers and shoppers, curbside delivery, for example. Our being able and willing to hear and listen to them is critical not only in their early years but also in their maturing years.
In so many ways, middle and high school students will require even more listening because their now “old” way of making and creating meaning in their way is morphing with every second of everyday. Inquisitive, doubtful, serious, voiced and identified, and inclined to pushback naturally, our GenZ students require more time, more attention and listening and patience, all within a loving environment they can trust. Fingers and eyes and brain off keyboards.
· Parse and Reflect: John often tells me I parse everything, everywhere; and as a trained rhetorician, I am sure that I do. But as a teacher, my parsing is not through my earlier parental lens nor my rhetorical lens but now through a completely different lens. Today, my lens is through that of my students: what do they think? How do they read the same text; see the same image or film; hear the same lyric or witness the same scene? Yes, scaffolded into this new lens my being a parent, teacher, and rhetorician are factors but are not the critical factors. They cannot be.
I have learned, since 2012 to read and think and listen and see through the lens of elementary, middle, and high school students—students from all walks of life: urban, suburban, rural; north, south, east, west, different classes, ethnicities, cultures, immigrants, religions—They all bring difference, writ large.
Parsing does not mean to question every word or phrase usage. Rather, parsing means to learn and understand, to hear and listen to what one says or writes in text, Snapchat, instagram, video, etc., without imposing one’s own predilections and stereotypes and notions to the utterance. Parsing in this way means to hear what is not said but intimated, as authors like Toni Morrison described.
So, listen to children: listen to what they say, how they arrange what they say, the tones they use today, and, most importantly, listen to what is not said. Then reflect: what did you learn and know now that you did not know before.
Engage your children in conversations during these times to tease out more detail and their analyses. No interruptions, or “But, you don’t understand,” or “You are too young…”. Conversation—give and take—while listening. Effective and lasting conversations are not had in a short period of time; rather, effective conversations occur over untimed periods—brief and extended, providing each participate time to reflect and digest and come back to the issue with a different understanding than before.
· Pace: Yes, we are a digital-age society, one that can often overwhelm even the savviest among us. Parents and teachers, however, do not have this privilege of being overwhelmed. Today, engaging with children as parents and teachers, but especially with parents, requires that the adults pace the rhythm and tone of every conversation. In other words, as we talk, we must also process, evaluate, recalibrate—quite similar to what we do in the workplace. Over-talking, interruptions, shouting, shaming, turning a deaf ear—not any of these “conversation-interrupters” helps parents and children engage in meaningful exchanges. Breathe, and if necessary, suggest a quiet time so that you—as parents—can gather your thoughts. Your tone and demeanor in doing this conveys to your child that you are not running away nor dismissing the conversation but that you need time to process. I often tell students that I need time to process a question or comment when they have surprised me with a query or a perspective that I want to consider and then respond effectively and accurately. I also share with them that in following this pattern, I am learning and exploring and discovering with them.
· Be Honest and Inclusive: Never-ever avoid the truth. By parents’ very nature, seeking to protect and shield children from harm and the realities of “the real world” is prolific. The pandemic has changed all of that and essentially, has fast-forwarded our need to be honest.
Remember, children from very young ages see and hear and are in their own way perpetual recorders. When they ask questions or look quizzical, they need to hear their parents explicate and contextualize. As for when and where to be honest—EVERYWHERE: Grocery stores, standing on corners, at home, various media, centers of any kind, public transportation, and in communities we think we know so well. Always, always, ALWAYS include their voices and thoughts. Really think about what children are expressing and feeling.
· Be Clear: Never obfuscate. Direct, descriptive language with examples always works.
· Acknowledge Your Own Fear and Don’t Be Afraid to Say—I Don’t Know: There is power in a parent’s or teacher’s admitting I do not know. Doing so makes us all human and subject to fallibility. While we may want to think we can protect our children from everything, we cannot. We have never been able to do so. Allowing our children to see us admit that we have limited knowledge and have to have time to find an answer—if there is one—in so many ways brings our children closer to us and further foments trust.
· Give Extra Home-Hugs: Human beings touch by nature. This element is being reshaped as I sit and write this blog and will continue to morph long after it is published. Our children, all of them, need hugs and loving touches, even if teens seem initially distant. Our teens and college students are caught in the nether world of wanting to be independent adults while yet knowing beyond a shadow of doubt they still want to sustain the parental tether. When in trouble or in fear, children instinctively reach for parents/extended family when a situation warrants.
This pandemic necessarily has seasoned adults—workers, politicians, all fields—discombobulated, with feelings of isolation and fear of the unknown.
Hugs, an I love you, holding hands, doing something together, for example, all help our children feel and later know they are not alone and set adrift.
· Flexibility Is Now Our Constant Companion: For the foreseeable future, flexibility is the watchword. And, ironically, while they would never admit it to themselves nor to us, our children are not as emotionally flexible as we tend too think they are. Too often, we may conflate children’s’ embrace and mastery of technology and digital platforms with their emotional flexibility and dexterity and deftness. Our children, however, are just as vulnerable as are we when thrust into ever-changing environments and conditions. Children will reflect how we manage and control an ever-moving reality that includes measures of confirmed cases, deaths, tests, no tests, social distancing, no social distancing, vaccine, no vaccine, and so it all continues.
More than anyone else, parents are the key for children, their lynchpin. This is a critical time for parents right now to shore up and support and protect the children—in utero and in schools.
· Read Alouds: Elementary-high school, this activity can be fun. Children’s reading what they like to you and your reading what you like to them. Excerpts accepted, as well as stories, events, articles, fiction, and nonfiction. The aim with this activity is not only for family time but also to interact and engage with written text—hard copy and digital. Discuss ideas; ask questions; share thoughts. Agreement is not required; rather, learning from each other occurs naturally and in fun.
· Exercise (outside and inside): As we now know exercise is critical to our remaining healthy during the pandemic. Regardless of where we live, we can exercise. For example, using music your children like, get up and challenge them to a “moves” activity. Exercise does not have to be long and exhausting, but it does need to be consistent and sustained.
Taking walks may not be possible for everyone, but walking is good; even walking around inside your home is exercise: challenge how many times can you and children walk around inside before one “gives in!” The winner receives your praise to family members and keep a chart to chronicle “the best walker.”
If you can walk outside, allow children to use your smartphone or their own to take images they and you find interesting as you walk. Then have a parents/children-share with each other, family, or even on community websites. If you really like your photos, you can reach out to community papers and ask if they’d be interested in posting your images. This strategy allows you and children to participate imaginatively in an activity that allows others to see—this activity becomes a way of privileging your children’s voice and perspective.
· Vlogs and Blogs and Podcasts: Ichat, Snapchat, FB, Twitter, Instagram—are among the many digital platforms students use and rely on daily to communicate. Leverage this use and create a family blog or vlog to share different activities, chronicle how you are dealing with the pandemic, and other activities. You may even ask family members or neighbors who would enjoy having you and kids interview them during this time and post. Identity and images can be concealed if neighbors want to participate but do not want their names or faces displayed.
· Virtual Gatherings: These gatherings have taken on a 21st century look during the pandemic. I have seen several birthday celebrations with a caravan of cars decorated with balloons and streamers and signs wishing the birthday person a happy birthday. Some parents also place banners on fences or doors or on social media to celebrate. Some towns are allowing volunteers to create holiday caravans to drive throughout communities for a whole day, rather than have people compromise social distancing: So far, I have seen Easter, Patriots’ Day, and a classic car day.
· TV/Tablet Share: Well, this one could be a bit of lively contention. But I have found that if I watch some of what elementary, middle, and high school students like on television, I learn so much about them. As a parent, you and your children can learn much from what you watch together and separately. Tolerance, patience, non-judging are critical, here. Being open and in the mode of discovery can be fun with kids.
· Music Share (Videos, Lyrics, Images): I am constantly amazed at the music, videos, and lyrics students today prefer. I listen because I must if I am going to collaborate and work with them from their perspective. Again, for parents, such times as these can be moments of being together, allowing our children to share their expressions and thoughts without fear of being countered or chastised. Yes, some of the lyrics are rough. That said, some of the words we hear outside of homes and within are rough, too. This sharing could be revealing and helpful to both parents and kids.
· Outside Excursions: Always be prepared for the unexpected when you and children are outside or are watching the outside on television: grocery stores, department stores, gas stations, anywhere. Because of the stresses of the pandemic, we can never ever be prepared for how any one or more persons may react to a word, the mask requirements, even something as simple as stopping at a stop light or one’s crossing into another person’s lane. These and other similar events are teachable moments that are themselves learning activities. Take the time to listen to your child’s questions, take the moment to inquire what your child thinks about the event, have conversations.
College and Career: College and career students have returned home. For them, life as they knew it will be a significantly adjusted Fall 2020. Yes, technically, they are adults. Realistically, they, too, seek home and parents, while at the same time, they are tacking against this need and keenly feel, at times, resentful. Most of the recommendations above apply to our college kids, as well.
But...our college/career students are on the road to becoming adults who will enter the workforce and who will be expected to assume the mantle of responsibility: jobs, civic and social duties, self-reliance, for example. As parents of these children, yes, children, we may very well need to put more than just our “listening-ears” on. For this group, especially, what was an IS just a few months ago is virtually no more. As I mentioned earlier, what John and I describe as “the hard conversations” will take on deeper, more resonating tones and real truths than any of us would rather have with our children. In so many ways, parents/extended family are so very much important to this vulnerable group. Yes, they are vulnerable. COVID-19 has not asked but rather, has demanded that our college/career children grow up, become sober and deliberate in their actions and reactions in less than 5 months. Think back: could any of us have done so when we graduated from high school?
So, the recommendation for our college/career parents is to listen even harder; be patience even longer; resist having THE answer and seek to work through the moment and time; don’t shy away from the hard conversations about money, space, expectations—all the new reality. For this group, no one strategy or idea works. As their parents, you must now get to know them in a way you may have never known them, for they need you now, more than ever, in what is most assuredly the New Tomorrow.
Together, we can move forward, helping each other and our children.