Parenting in the age of social distancing

Emily Harrison/Photo by Rachael McIntosh Photography

BY EMILY HARRISON

We have all day and nowhere to go.

That’s my new mantra. I say it to remind myself to slow down with my kids; I say it with a smile on my face. Not as a “fake it till you make it” pep talk, but as a gentle encouragement to be more intentional with my time these days. Living and parenting in the age of “social distancing” means winging it as I’d never imagined.

There’s no self-help book you can pluck off the shelves at Malaprop’s about how this kind of parenting is supposed to work. (As of this writing, you can still call in, ask for recommendations, and they’ll deliver to you.)

I was talking to a neighbor (from at least 6 feet away, of course) about how thankful we are to live in a city where we can still get outside, take walks in our neighborhood and wave to friends and neighbors from a safe distance. Earlier that day I’d been walking with my kids and had found myself saying, more times than I’d care to admit: “Hurry up. Come on. Let’s go.” But then I remembered my mantra: We have all day and nowhere to go. I slowed my pace, and after I stopped nagging — I mean, yapping — we all felt more relaxed. Please don’t tell my husband (or my mother) that I fessed up to nagging.

With our usual routine having gone out the window, we’re creating our own. We start the day by getting dressed, having breakfast and taking a walk. After that we do some schoolwork. I’m not a trained teacher, but I’ve found lots of things I can still teach my kids. My third grader had already learned how to write all the letters in cursive; now I’m teaching him how to connect them to make words.

Parenting tip: Schedule snack times. Why this hadn’t occurred to me earlier, I’ll never know! The constant “Can I have a snack?” has decreased in frequency by 1 million%.

On Monday afternoons, my kids still take their scheduled piano lessons. Brian Turner has been teaching them for over a year. But instead of going to his West Asheville studio, I’m now setting up the computer near our piano, and they’re getting virtual lessons. If you have a keyboard gathering dust in your basement or a piano that serves more as furniture than as musical instrument, I’d highly recommend brushing it off and reaching out to Brian (or some other teacher you may know) for yourself or your children. It’s a great way to support our neighbors financially.

My friend Lindsay Pharr says the Mo Willems “Lunch Doodles” on YouTube enable her elementary-age children to keep their artistic skills sharp while she puts her toddler down for a nap. Not all screen time is created equal, of course, but a high-quality program that promotes engagement with the physical world is a resource worth considering.

There are possibilities for older kids as well. Our babysitter, Lucy, reports that instead of doing homework with her friends at the kitchen table, they’re now doing it together via video chat. She says it’s helping them maintain a sense of normalcy while they keep up with school assignments.

On day three of no school, my friend Samantha Erway dropped off a packet of schoolwork for my kindergartner. (We didn’t open the door, just waved to each other.) Her mom, Teena — or Grammy, as she’s known around our West Asheville elementary school — is a retired teacher who’s taking the time to send and share as many resources as she can. Having a trained, experienced teacher in our network is hugely helpful. My kindergartner stays a little more engaged in the work knowing that Grammy prepared it for him, and it reminds him (and me!) that we aren’t in this all alone.

One day, books will be written about this pandemic, some by the kids who are living through it now. Writing, even nonfiction writing, requires creativity, so I’m giving my future authors (no pressure, kids) time to be bored and get creative. We are working on building “soft skills” too, like problem-solving, emotional control and integrity. Meanwhile, we continue setting limits on screen time just as we always have. For us, this means no screen time at least three-four days a week. (The American Heart Association recommends no more than one-two hours a day of screen time, depending on the child’s age.)

I deleted social media from my phone after learning that Infinite Scroll was designed to hook us and monopolize our attention. If I want to connect with a friend, I call them: Chances are, they’re free, too. My friend Shelina Letzring has stopped checking the news altogether and says she’s sleeping much better. Getting good rest is essential for staying healthy, which is the biggest goal for all of us right now. Plus, the blue light from devices suppresses your natural melatonin and makes sleep much harder to come by.

We don’t know how much longer social distancing will be required, which means I don’t have to pressure myself to complete a long list of tasks while I wait for a return to something more closely resembling “normalcy.” It means I can breathe deeper; I can sit and do nothing and not feel guilty about it. I can listen to the birds, think deep thoughts, finish the books piled on my nightstand — and wave to my neighbors when they pass by my porch on their evening walks.

Parents and caregivers, we can do this! Let’s take a collective deep sigh, say a prayer, do some yoga, whatever keeps you sane and brings you peace.

The other day I let my kids take a stab at unclogging a drain; an hour later, it was clear. They thought the experience was fun and gross, two qualities that are typically big hits with young kids. Sure, I could have done it faster but, well, we have all day and nowhere to go.

Asheville resident Emily Harrison is mom to two boys and serves as a guardian ad litem in Buncombe County. A member of the Children’s Screen Time Action Network, a project of the Boston-based Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, she’s also an ambassador for ScreenStrong, a nonprofit working to educate the public on the dangers of childhood screen addiction and provide solutions for families.

 

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