A Larger Force

Healthy exercise respecting social distance in the neighborhood appeared difficult with a cluster of kids playing soccer, family groups stretching across walks and streets, dog walking people following the direction of their pets. We drove to the quiet side of a nature preserve where trails are seldom used on weekends. One car stood empty in the parking lot. Parents with a preschool child exited a different car.

We waited for them, but as shoe tying and other preparations continued we made our way to the trail map. The youngster, possibly unaware of social distancing, ran to join us and told her parents that she wanted to be lifted to read the map. Offering her their hands, they assured her they knew the way. We backed away as the child threw a hissy complete with screaming, stomping, and slapping. The right trail choice was any that would create space from the unhappy kid.

As grandparents we’ve learned about giving young children time to make wise choices instead of forcing action on them. Children of privilege are supported in making choices many times daily from choosing to wear clothes to daycare through patient questioning of resistance at bedtime twelve hours later. Family, friends, complete strangers, might be expected to wait while a child tests the limits or can’t choose. It takes a village after all.

Then comes COVID-19—no negotiations, no children making choices, no endangering strangers by ignoring social distance guidelines. The village has been forced into change.

From closed schools, to prohibited playgrounds that look the same as open playgrounds, to stores asking only one family member do household chores; parenting has pivoted in answer to the dual wham of pandemic and economic storms. Parental instincts to keep things normal for the kids are strained as jobs are lost, employers demand long work hours in the family’s home, distance learning replaces classrooms, and being homebound stretches. Hugs of grandparents, cousins and close friends disappeared with no known date of return. Parents have had little time to concentrate on adapting to new burdens, to problem solve, to explore their personal fears or worries.

Experts say our kids experience anxiety of this crisis just like adults. Some will lose a loved one or friend. The soundtrack of childhood has been interrupted to never play in quite the same way. COVID-19 is drawing new lines on the future maps of kids’ adulthood. Our six-year-old family member misses her classmates, her neighborhood friends, going places with her parents. She understands that the sickness means she can’t ride her bike with other kids, climb or swing at the park, be physically present with her friends. The sickness is beyond her parents’ control. She can make good decisions about a snack or activity, but bigger forces now set the limits beyond the front door.

Technology gives us time to talk, play games, be with family. A plate or two on the table and tiny faces on a screen may be how we celebrate this spring’s holiday and holy day traditions with those we love. Better than no connection, a card or a phone call. COVID-19 denies us the powerful comfort of each other’s warmth, smell, physical presence whether around the dining table, at a special event, at a hospital bedside. Some of us will stay healthy. Some of us will die in the company of strangers. No screaming, stomping or slapping can change what we have to keep doing. We will gather to celebrate or grieve in the future. God willing.

Stay home. Stay safe. Keep others safe. May your holy day traditions provide comfort.

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The Kids aren’t Here

Our family includes many teachers, most in public school. Our kids have attended public schools, parochial schools, private schools, been homeschooled. Homework and talking about school happens at the kitchen table, in the car, while raking leaves.

It was a surprise that a school system where I have volunteered is struggling with absenteeism of 32 to 50 percent . And that reflects the national pattern of over 8 million U.S. students missing nearly a month of school each year. At this rural school there is poverty, students are widely disbursed, transportation options are limited. There are stories about kids needed at home to help care for siblings or other family members. Anxiety or bullying issues make attendance difficult.

In general, some parents feel schools don’t meet their kids’ needs. Some parents find the public education system to be monolithic in protecting traditional, seats in the chairs methods when other models exist. A teacher I respect told me that the process of pushing bright, unorthodox kids to adjust to rules that are necessary for control in classrooms of 28 students is sad, but ultimately prepares everyone for living in the real world.

School representatives cite anecdotal reasons for kids’ absenteeism. There may not be a ride available if a bus is missed. A doctor’s appointment can be an hour drive from school. Parents don’t feel their kids miss much if they stay home. The family needs to be away to care for relatives. A child is needed to care for younger or older relatives. The parents plan an extended vacation. Some claim to intermittently homeschool. A child is being bullied and administration is not responsive. A child suffers from mental health issues with no help during the school day. Travel for extracurricular activities eats up hours. When bad grades start, kids know they’re bound for summer school and give up.

Across the larger education sector, how does a child miss 30 days of school without prompting a remedial plan? How does a school system support learning in one-third to one-half of their enrolled students who are not present? What do students need to learn today and how is that delivered? So much money and so much policy maintain traditional archetypes when other societal archetypes are adapting or falling aside.

Schools are not unlike trains running on tracks installed a hundred years ago. There are reasons old rail beds have become hiking and biking trails. Like other social systems, the pathways to completing an education relevant now, and in the future, have changed.  School buildings, curriculum, teacher preparation systems, and teaching methods need dramatic review and overhaul. Fewer test scores, more involvement in the big world.

The question is not where are the kids, but how can we be sure there are good reasons for them to be here?

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Lessons Learned on a Sick Day

She was up barfing at four. When I arrived hours later, she had pink cheeks, a kitty ears headband, and was play-ready. She assured me it wasn’t really being sick to barf, but pre-school wanted her to stay home. She was sad Mom wasn’t staying home, sad to miss her friends, but game for whatever Grandma brought to the day.

Lemon-lime soda was no longer needed. Water was fine. Munching many plain saltines and a cup of dry cereal made up for a missed breakfast. Within minutes we were on the sofa deep in a Brain Quest card deck working through sequencing challenges, adding, matching letters and words, talking about calendars and telling time on old-fashioned round clocks.

Those clocks sparked the first pronouncement of preschool wisdom. She thought I must have had a clock with numbers in a circle because I am old. I corrected that statement to older. She didn’t buy the change. A teenager had given me the same look when I asked if the general store in a small town carried watches.

With interest in Brain Quest waning, I suggested we start an art project. She turned down the idea because she said she loved to learn things. There wasn’t anything better she could have said if she hadn’t finished with a sympathetic sigh before sharing that it was sad that old people couldn’t learn stuff. That’s not true I replied and told her about a friend who learned another language to work with immigrants, another friend attending university classes, my own tap-dancing studies. She frowned and said maybe I had special friends. That I do.

Even at her age I couldn’t do backward summersaults, so she had me at that, but I didn’t expect to frighten her when I got down on the floor to do a plank next to her. Old people could get hurt doing planks she said. I replied anybody could get hurt doing planks, but we were both strong because we could hold a plank for almost a minute. Then I sat back to watch her attempt head stands and intricate twirls.

We rounded out the day with dressing the cat, coloring paper dolls, and baking a chocolate cake. She looked tired, but happy. Her mother looked tired after an important work day. And grandma drove home, happily tired out after an unexpected play day.

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Barbie, Midge, Robin and Me

The father of my best friend Robin owned a tool business franchise which provided two young girls with opportunities to fill bins in his wonderful red truck, to bake cookies he could share with customers, and access to dozens of interesting empty boxes.

Robin attended 95thStreet School and I went to parochial school, but we had matching pencil boxes in our desks. Most kids found a source for cigar boxes, but we had decorated paper boxes not needed in his truck into unique containers with compartments for pencils, color pencils, scissors and such. We didn’t know each other’s school friends, but we shared something deeper: hours of playing with Barbie, Midge, Skipper and Ken in wonderful houses, stores, airplanes and schools constructed out of even more empty boxes.

When the weather was cold, Robin’s basement became a town for an afternoon of play. Her Barbie had a flight attendant outfit, mine had a tailored suit. We shared a plastic pseudo-Barbie car that took one to the airport and the other to an imaginary office. Neither of us knew anyone who worked in an office or flew on planes so eventually the story turned back to all the dolls sitting at little box desks with one Barbie, attired in a skirt and sweater, called teacher.

Robin had an older sister and we both had moms so we knew real women weren’t built like our Barbie crew, but we didn’t know flight attendants, nurses, doctors, brides, or girls who wore wonderful ballgowns. Our parents didn’t buy us Barbie’s plastic house or bedroom furniture, but Robin’s dad shared tape and scissors and boxes to build furniture and a variety of workshop towels to make blankets. We stood next to him in his wood working shop as he made small frames and blocks that could extend our Barbie furniture building. We learned how to sand.

Our Barbie phase lasted less than a year, a simple time when we creatively explored, built and did what kids are supposed to do. Parents helped feed our play then stepped back. And we did okay. And I wish I could say thanks to Robin’s father and all the other parents who stepped out over the years with camping trips or garden planting or an evening at the opera to expand the world beyond the girl toys of Barbie and her crew. And those who do that today as  they parent another generation of kids.

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Santa and the Spirit of Christmas (Spoiler Alert!)

We began an elaborate hoax when our sons were toddlers. Santa lived with his elves in a toy shop at the North Pole. He drove a sleigh pulled by magical reindeer. Somehow Santa brought presents for kids all over the world all in one night. Sometimes I wondered why I was perpetuating the myth, when I would just have to explain it away later.

As little guys, our sons couldn’t distinguish make believe from so-called reality. There was God, who they couldn’t see or understand, Power Rangers who got rid of bad guys, and Barney, a singing purple dinosaur. Why not Santa? Plus, the fiction was bolstered by family, at daycare, in stores, and by songs, movies, and books. The idea of Santa would have been hard to resist, especially since their friends and neighbors were also being indoctrinated. But when it came right down to it, we likedthe idea of magic and spreading joy.

So, we were committed. When the boys mentioned toys they liked, we took note and occasionally reset expectations (Santa brings presents to so many kids. He probably can’t give 160-piece Lego sets to everyone.) We hung stockings and filled them with never-seen-before candy on Christmas Eve after the guys were asleep. Along with the wrapped gifts from us, we set out unwrapped gifts from Santa. We encouraged the boys to leave cookies and milk for Santa. My husband and I enjoyed the cookies, but left one with a bite out of it along with a thank you note from Santa. Christmas felt magical.

Eventually, our sons grew older and began to wonder if Santa was real. Then I explained that Santa was make believe, but the spirit of Christmas isn’t. At Christmas, many people are more generous, more loving, and act better than they have to. Over the years, people have done incredible things in the name of Christmas, like the Christmas Truce of World War I in 1914. As part of my explanation, I also swore my guys to secrecy. They were under strict orders not to tell their friends what they had learned—they should let other kids’ parents explain it. Our sons understood the responsibility and wanted to help keep the magic alive.

I don’t know how our sons will handle the topic of Santa if they have children, but if they carry on the tradition, I’ll be a willing co-conspirator.