To all parents out there, my main piece of advice is to practice self-compassion and lower your expectations of yourself. And please set aside all of the ambitious “suggested home schooling schedules” going around social media. Yes, a routine of sorts is important for all of our sanity, especially our kids’, but instead of cramming in science, math, history, language art and personal enrichment, you can take a broader, saner approach.
As the founder of PrepMatters, a tutoring and educational counseling company, I’ve come up with tips to help you and your children get through this time together:
· Make the plan together. Kids are much more likely to buy into a system they helped create. Give them as much autonomy as you can manage. This is a great opportunity for them to develop maturity and step up to help.
· Create consequences now, so you’re not creating them in the heat of the moment. Ideally, consequences are not punitive but embody principles of restorative justice, focusing on how kids (or parents) can make amends.
· Plan for time apart. Cabin fever is not about the cabin but the fevered pitch of too much family time. At summer camp, everyone gets rest hour. Whether that involves rest, pretending to write letters home or just looking out the window, we all benefit from time alone. If you have a kid who is an introvert or more easily stressed, or if you are, time apart is crucial.
· Eat meals together. So many of our days may feel a tad fraught, so take a break at mealtime. Consider empowering your kids to make a meal. For all of the workaholics among us who miss too many family dinners, now is your chance!
· Build in enough time for sleep and keep it consistent. You are 4.2 times more likely to catch a virus when tired. You are also less apt to sleepily rub your eyes if you are not tired. And sleep deprivation increases the stress hormone, weakening our self-control and making the world seem a little darker. The great sleep researcher Matthew Walker shares that beyond getting the recommended 8 to 10 hours of sleep per night for teens and 9 to 11 hours for younger kids, the single best thing we can do is be regular, retiring for bed and rising from it at roughly the same time daily. When we shift, we effectively jet lag ourselves.
· With input from your kids, plan for some chores. Feeling productive has its own benefits, and a semblance of order makes us feel more in control. You don’t have to go full Marie Kondo, unless that’s your thing, but it’s easier to feel like the world isn’t falling apart if your corner of it meets your standards.
· Plan virtual time with friends. My office is starting virtual happy hours. The music director from my kids’ camp hosted an online hymn sing, with James belting out songs from his living room as we gamely sang along from ours. My son and his friends spent two hours on a group call (will kids finally begin to prefer talking to texting?), seemingly debating whether smoked salmon can still be cooked. And, for every parent riled by hours spent by their kids on Fortnite, there are many grateful for the connection found in online gaming.
· Plan “radical digital downtime.” Designate times, a day, or even a weekend that will be tech-free. But don’t drop this plan on your kids without warning. Work together to limit screen time even when you’re not going offline completely. Start with yourself, because you’ll handle yourself better and conversations about their screen time better. Consider planning when you and your kids are online with friends, games and streaming shows, so they feel in control and you don’t find yourself hovering and fretting. We all benefit from time offline, especially kids.
· Have a medium- or long-term goal. Success Coach Brian Tracy suggests that commitment to a long-term goal is a great way to control short-term behavior. As this new reality may go on for months, not weeks, making a goal that is longer than the increasingly shorter news cycle may stave off the Groundhog Day-like madness that may already be creeping into your life. Learn to play a new game with your kid. (Their video games count!) Teach yourself a song or three on the piano. Use Duolingo to learn something practical, like conversational Spanish, or something a tad less practical, like Scottish Gaelic, or how to say “please, thank you, and where is the bar” in one of its 31 languages. Make this the year to grow tomatoes from seed. Again, something that lifts your eyes and spirits from hourly updates you see online.
· Acknowledge that this new normal is hard — for them and for you. I know I find my work from home harder. When at work, my family and home were not omnipresent. When at home, my work was not omnipresent. Both at once feels like madness, and the younger your kids, the truer this is. Divided attention, like multitasking, is initially exciting but quickly tiring and stressful.
Ease up on the academics. A huge part of kids’ academic development is fueled by brain development. A fifth-grade kid could work on writing six hours a day, and he wouldn’t be much better at it than if he worked for 45 minutes a day, because the brain can’t change that fast. Use this time for your kids to get enough sleep, play and spend time with their families. They won’t lose anything academically that can’t be made up quickly with a slightly more mature brain.
At some point, we will return to work and school outside our homes. We will carry with us either scars of learning in the time of covid-19 or relationships that are stronger, more adult. We can ask a good deal of our kids and partners. But, how we do it will make all the difference.