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'Don't Lick That!': Parenting During The Coronavirus Crisis

Parenting in a pandemic has many challenges, but one of the first it presents, and the one that will set the tone for many of the others, is how to actually talk about it with your kids.

As difficult parenting conversations go, this one is up there with the toughest.

I have had to have a number of difficult conversations with my almost two and almost four year old recently. In the past few months, I’ve had to explain the climate crisis, bushfires, and how babies are made and birthed to my inquisitive son (his sister listens, but tends to just repeat key words and phrases at socially awkward moments, rather than actually understanding the information).

And, this week, I’ve had to explain to my son that we have to cancel his birthday party. This was met, understandably, by floods of tears and disappointment. He has been excitedly planning this birthday party for six months (yes, seriously!) and has strict instructions about the cake he wants to make with his dad, and what he wants to wear, and the games we should play. Just a couple of weeks ago he gleefully gave invitations to his friends. But this is how it has to be.

I firmly believe that we should be as honest as possible with our kids in a way that is age appropriate. Conversations about COVID-19 are no different. Kids have a sixth sense for knowing when something’s going on and when we’re hiding something. Just like the public, in the absence of clear information, kids will make up their own.

“We know that secrecy actually breeds anxiety in young people, so we need to be transparent and age appropriate,” says parenting author and educator Dannielle Miller. Of course, this looks different depending on the age of your kids. "With younger children you might just say something like we have to be really careful about germs at the moment and we have to do a really good job of washing our hands," she adds.

For my own kids, I’ve told them that there is a virus that is like a really bad cold that can make some people very sick, and some people could die. I’ve told them that we need to do everything we can to try not to catch it and not to spread it. That means we try not to see lots of people, we try not to touch other people or get too close to them, and we make sure we’re doing lots of handwashing. And, when I tell them not to lick the handrails I mean it!

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We need to explain to little kids why they’re missing out on the activities and the places and the people that they love, and why they need to be more careful. But with older kids and teenagers the conversations are quite different.

“As children get older we can give them more open and honest information because they’ll be accessing a lot of information online,” says Miller. “And even we adults are feeling swamped by the number of posts on social media, and the fact that often they’re very contradictory, and they may contradict the information that we’re being given formally from the government. So it’s really important to help your child learn to critique some of that messaging and help reinforce their research skills by understanding what kind of sources we can rely on and what kind of sources we need to be more suspicious of.”

The teen years are already a time where life seems full of uncertainty, often for the first time. It’s our job as their parents and teachers to try to lessen this anxiety, not add to it, even when we’re feeling quite uncertain ourselves.

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While Australians have been told there is no need for panic around COVID-19, the complexity of the disease and its community impacts can be difficult to comprehend for adults let alone for young children.

The thing that stuck with me most from my conversation with Dannielle Miller was this phrase: “It’s okay to be scared, but not to be scary”. I think we’re all a little scared, but we have to be careful to be honest without being scary.

Practically speaking, Miller has lots of great ideas for how to let kids get a sense of connection and control back. Getting kids to show appreciation to their local supermarket staff by making cards or artworks for them at a time when a lot of what they’re getting is just hard work and abuse. Planting flowers or veggies so kids are able to watch things grow. Talking about a time when you were brave and getting kids to tell you when they were brave. “We become what we’re told we are,” Miller says, so get your kids to see that they are brave.

It is hard for our kids to not be able to see their friends and family, and to not be able to kiss and cuddle them when they do. But that is just how it has to be for a little while. I’m trying to keep things as normal as possible and not to show them my own stress or worry, while also not hiding the truth from them. We have to keep our kids in the loop. We have to talk to them about what’s going on and let them talk about it. Even when it makes us uncomfortable. We need to give them some credit and respect, and recognise that kids are actually hardwired to manage difficulty and be resilient. And we have to find lots of 20-second songs for hand washing ("Rock-a-bye Your Bear" works great for the little ones!).