CHICAGO — My friend had been quarantining with her family in a suburb of San Antonio for several months when she began to worry that her three young children were becoming clinically depressed.
“They didn’t want to get up and go outside, even to go for a walk,” she told me. They’d grown sick of games, arts and crafts, even TV. The youngest child was only 4, the oldest, 8. By early summer, they were having trouble falling asleep. They complained of being bored and lonely and tired. When they asked when the coronavirus would be over, she gave the only response she could: “Hopefully soon.”
But the weeks turned into months, and in July, she made a decision. She was sending her children to summer camp.
Some of her family members thought she was crazy. San Antonio was a hot spot, with deaths rising by the day. She was also six months pregnant, and studies suggested pregnant women might be particularly vulnerable. She typically considers herself a cautious parent. And she took the dangers into consideration. But in the end she decided the risk was justified. It was a small, parent-run outdoor camp — with only five or six other kids. And it would give her bored, lonely, possibly depressed children the chance to play and have normal developmental experiences.
As the first day of school approaches, many parents, myself included, are facing similar decisions. Home-school or hybrid or in-person? Public or private or pod? What kind of parents are we? What risks are we willing to take — for our community, our children, ourselves? And how do we weigh the possibility of contracting or spreading a virus against the dangers to our children of depression, obesity and various forms of regression?
We’re frightened, and not just about contagion. We’re frightened of being judged by others, especially at a time when the educational, emotional and psychological needs of our children are posed in direct opposition to the containment of a public health crisis.
In 2018, I published a book about our culture’s obsession with safety, especially around child-rearing. As I saw it, we were suffering from a kind of national parental anxiety disorder, a fixation on risk avoidance and a determination to childproof the world. Parents’ insecurities were fueled by sensational media coverage of unusual tragedies and a keeping-up-with-the Joneses educational and extracurricular race.
Thanks to the pandemic, our worst fears as parents, once inchoate, have crystallized into crisis. Americans’ anxieties about how to raise children in a country where everyone is out for themselves have reached a breaking point. Instead of ruminating on stranger danger and college admissions, parents are trying to figure out how to keep their jobs while making sure their kids learn how to read.
This has led many of us to make some out-of-character decisions. In May, for instance, I used a portion of the loan I got from the Paycheck Protection Program to build an urban chicken coop.
My 10-year-old daughter was home from school indefinitely. She hated online learning. She loves animals. So we got three hens and a month later, added some ducks. At first, we enjoyed them by ourselves, but as our city contained its outbreak and moved into Phase 3, the neighborhood kids began to visit. My daughter, who’d had terrible social anxiety at school, made friends. Outdoor tie-dye parties and evening games of ghost in the graveyard ensued. Lemonade stands were erected with the help of masks and hand sanitizer.
As best I could tell, the children were growing, losing certain skills of course but gaining others. Was there some risk to all of this? Of course there was. But the adults on the block shared enough good will and trust in one another’s caution to accept it. Even if there was risk, it felt safe.
There is a difference, of course, between being safe and feeling safe. Actual safety is a fantasy. We can take every precaution and still sometimes find ourselves in the wrong place at the wrong time. When we talk about being safe, what we really mean is taking reasonable precautions. Deciding what’s reasonable is where values and interests often clash, and where political polarization and moral judgment can make sane conversation impossible.
Feeling safe is another matter. It has little to do with risk assessment. We feel safe when we belong to a community, a group of people invested in our well-being and the well-being of our children. In America, this feeling of safety has been hard to come by, but maybe never so much as today.
As the school year approaches, American parents find themselves trapped between their children’s needs and their desire to do their part to contain the virus. Few seem able to agree on what a reasonable compromise looks like.
On one end of the spectrum, Disney World opened this summer while Florida’s hospitals overflowed. At the other extreme, I know families who have kept children inside for months on end, without exercise, without social interaction or fresh air. One woman posed the question on my Facebook feed, “How is it that parents feel entitled to take their kids to Disney World this summer when I missed my own mother’s funeral?”
There is no national consensus on how to be a responsible parent in the time of Covid-19, which shouldn’t surprise us since there’s also no national consensus on how to be a responsible person. As the sociologist Zygmunt Bauman wrote (prophetically) in “Liquid Modernity,” “‘Do not talk to strangers’— once a warning given by worrying parents to their hapless children — has now become the strategic precept of adult normality.”
Some will inevitably turn to the time-tested defense mechanisms of shaming and blaming, deluding themselves into thinking that there is only one acceptable path for getting their children, and themselves, through these extraordinary times and that anyone who wavers from this path is reckless or selfish or uninformed.
Back to School ›
Back to School
Updated Aug. 14, 2020
The latest highlights as the first students return to U.S. schools.
- From Opinion: Find out if your child’s school is ready to reopen, based on coronavirus caseloads and testing rates.
- New York City schools are set to open their classrooms in a month, but many principals fear they won’t be ready.
- Families priced out of “learning pods” are seeking alternatives.
- What’s it like to send children back to school outside of the United States? We asked parents in South Korea, Switzerland and Germany.
But there is another approach, one that gives me hope, and it has begun to take place spontaneously. Across the country, parents are working with friends and neighbors, forming small communities of support and depending on one another in ways they never have before. Many who last spring witnessed the vast limitations of online learning, particularly for younger children, are forming small learning pods. They are taking turns teaching children in neighborhood co-ops, or hiring tutors for micro-schools and outdoor learning centers.
There are valid concerns that such free-form solutions will undermine public education and widen the education gap between rich and poor students. But there are ways to make these models more affordable and inclusive. And it is low-income working parents who are most in need of an alternative to Zoom-facilitated, institutional learning.
In 1971, the social critic Ivan Illich published “Deschooling Society,” a critique of institutional education. He argued that the oppressive structure of the school system must be abandoned because it contributes to a type of learned helplessness. We depend on institutions so completely that many of us can’t perform basic human tasks — delivering babies, educating children, cooking our own food. The virus has exposed this helplessness, what Mr. Illich would call a form of poverty.
Deschooling’s core principles — that education should be self-directed rather than compulsory, that human growth and curiosity cannot be quantified and that children learn best in natural environments and mixed-age groups — have gained some recognition in recent years. But the idea of truly communitarian, noncompulsory, family-centered approaches to education were largely limited to the radical fringe of pedagogy. A lot has changed in six months.
A condition of modern parenthood I’ve often lamented, and heard other parents lament, is how hard it is to try something truly new in child-rearing without being stigmatized. For all our talk of freedom, the pressure to conform to cultural norms around children and family life remains strong. In the face of Covid-19, that may be changing.
Faced with the prospect of our children’s regression, depression and indefinite isolation, a prospect thrust on us by our government’s failure to respond to a terrible virus and an educational infrastructure already weakened by decades of neglect, many parents who might have been afraid to swim against the tide are now embracing improvisation and creative, communitarian alternatives. There is very little in the world to be optimistic about right now. But this, I think, is progress.
The Times is committed to publishing a diversity of letters to the editor. We’d like to hear what you think about this or any of our articles. Here are some tips. And here’s our email: [email protected].