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.”





Three Families. Nine Weeks. ‘Things Are Getting Annoying.’

The lessons they learned while parenting in place.

There we go. Good. There we go. Yay. Yay. [MUSIC PLAYING] We’re the Pauls. We’re the Orangos. We are at the Carter-McLaughlin-Milstein family. Or Mill Carterstein McDonlaughlinsons. We spent the first three weeks just butting heads. I don’t keep track anymore. Everything’s blurred together. Being a naturally rather bossy person, like, I was looking to control what I can control, and so there is, like, it sets up an inherent conflict. At this point, things are getting annoying. I’m a single dad. I’m a chief revenue officer in a technology company. Yeah, that sounds — that sounds good. I’m sort of applying what I would in terms of management at work into my home structure with my kids, who have never seen me in that mode before. He thinks we are his team, but we’re not. You are my home team. Yeah, and we’re not used to it. You’re my home team. But this is not how — OK. This is not we work. No, no. I know. I know. So so — We can’t work like this. He thinks we’re not during our work and we’re just reading when we’re really reading for school. I’ll see her sort of lounging back on the couch. What are you doing? Reading. Reading a book. She’s doing what she’s supposed to be doing, but to me visually it sort of looks like she’s just lounging. He doesn’t know what we’re doing at all. I look at your agenda every morning. No, you don’t. Most of the times. No. OK, fine. Before quarantine, our dad would do this thing where he would live his life with these three principles — honesty, integrity and purpose. Honesty, integrity, purpose. Meaning, like, he wants to do meditation. Now we get dragged into it. This is, like, a goal that I want for them. But we don’t have any interest in this. No, we don’t. No shared interest here. I’ll tell you what, I do have a swear jar, and there’s way, way more money in that swear jar than — Oh, you’ve kept up with that? Yeah. Yeah. There’s a lot of cash in there now, because I don’t know what you guys are hearing anymore. Most of the fighting that went on in this house was the boss and my son. My son was away in college, and I think he didn’t understand the severity of the situation. Kind of a hard adjustment. Like, I had a lot of freedom and independence. I could what I want, when I wanted, whenever I wanted, and then, when I came home, it was kind of like going back to listening to Mom and Dad. I want to go out. You can’t go out. Why not? We’re in a global pandemic. I was like, maybe it was better when he was back in his dorm. She’s the boss, so I’ll follow the rules, too, you know? I’ve been following the rules for 20 years now. The first rule is, we all have to have dinner together. We’re your typical New York family. You know, everybody is sitting at the table with a little frown on their face. Since we’re all together in the house all day, like, there isn’t really much to talk about. She’s like, watching, like, TikToks, because she’s obsessed with the app. I don’t watch TikTok at dinner. Very [INAUDIBLE]. My second rule is — more pertains to Skye. She does remote learning in her bedroom and I do teaching out in our living room space, and so I ask her if she needs any help to come into my space. And it’s so funny. Sometimes I will walk by her room and she’s like, Bro, you just walked past my door. Why can’t you just come to me? But she doesn’t realize that it’s, like, either I quickly took a bathroom break, I quickly went to get something from my bedroom, but I need to get back to where I was at. So I’ll make her come out, and she’s literally like — Why can’t you just come over to me, and why do you have to make this rule? My mom has a rule that nobody can come into her space, but she comes into my space all the time, unwanted and unasked for. What are you doing? Stop. So I’ll come in the room, and then I’ll sit. And he’s like, whoa, whoa, whoa. What just happened? Why are you sitting down? What you, like, what, wait, what, what? What’s happening? She’s always like, smiling, wanting to, like, kiss me and hug me all the time. I’m like, yo, Ma, like, get out. What are you doing? Let me look at that face. All right, but like, get out. This is absolutely just a parenting nightmare. I’m Christine, and I live with my daughters Amalia, Fiona and Macy. Macy’s my stepdaughter. You can cut my hair after, if I can cut yours. Stepson Tanner, my husband, Mark. This is actually not Mark, this is Mike. Mike is my first husband. And I live within a mile down the road with my wife, Tanya, and my stepdaughter Sophie. So because there’s four parents and five kids, it has really complicated how we shelter in place. So we’re always dealing with new things that the kids are always bringing up on, how about if I can do this? How about if I can do that? First, a kid will come forward with a proposal. We actually call them proposals. It did remind me of when I was in middle school and I had to, like, ask my parents’ permission before I could go anywhere. You know, it really could have been the four parents against the five kids. I have this idea that my family doesn’t understand when they do understand, and so I just kind of take it out on them. It was like, you don’t get me. I think it was a lot harder at first to really be empathetic and to listen to the kids’ concerns and to sort of see that the ways in which they are suffering are really different than the ways that we are struggling. The first time that I had my best friend over, we had set up this entire protocol. I was all the way over here, and she was all the way back here. So we were pretty far apart. And my brother Tanner, who is 17, he sits directly next to her. They had made, like, a big case that they didn’t need to be watched or policed, but then, there I was watching them, and I saw it happen and came out. She’s super mad and is saying, you’re not six feet away, and everything, and got so mad. It was quite a scene. I really had the time to come around and realize that my actions will affect people in our joint family who, you know, I never really see on a daily basis. You know, I’m taking care of them, and I’m still working, so I’ve kind of had to lay off of myself and not put external pressures to be some type of, I don’t know, Betty Crocker quarantine mom, because I’m not, at all. Mm-mmm. Even though it’s been, I think, more work up front to come together, it’s resulted for us as a family in a lot less conflict. And the truth is, I’ve also really put to the test, like, how patient I am, how patient they are with me. How was that noodle lunch? What’s another word for disgusting? Disgusting? And I think we — again, nine weeks into this quarantine, I think — It feels like — I don’t even know. It feels like a lifetime ago when I could actually have a sleepover with my friends. Like that’s — Yes. So it just boils down to sleepover. I don’t think they heard a word I just said. [MUSIC PLAYING]

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The lessons they learned while parenting in place.

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.

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.

Kim Brooks is the author of “Small Animals: Parenthood in the Age of Fear.”

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