Let’s cut to the chase: None of us is a perfect parent, even under the best of circumstances. Right now, we’re all just doing the best we can and hoping that most days we can clear the “good enough” parenting bar.
We’ve all made COVID compromises to our usual standards and we may be required to make many more before this is all over. I’ll admit there’s a whole lot of trash TV watching and video game playing going on at my house these days, and I have given up engaging in any battles over hair (washing, brushing, dyeing, or cutting) or over whether particular individuals eat particular vegetables. It turns out, life’s too short for all that. Adaptation is the name of the game now. Our new reality requires new routines.
Your adaptations might be different than mine, but I feel certain you’ve made some. We are all looking for ways to satisfy our children’s developmental needs despite massive restrictions on our ability to do so. None of us is having fun with that. The basic social structures of child care, school, work, and community are currently non-functional for many of us. Grief and loneliness are social epidemics, caused by the viral epidemic being allowed to rage out of control. Regardless of your particular COVID story, you’re making tough parenting decisions.
Positive parenting in this day and age requires flexibility, creativity, dedication, and persistence. Educate yourself about what kids need at each stage of development, and endeavor to find new ways to meet those needs while honoring social distancing requirements.
What can you embrace now as a new opportunity, a new experience, a new skill, or a new routine? Keep trying new adaptations to find the ones that effectively occupy, educate, and entertain your particular children.
For economic and health reasons, many of us are eating at home a great deal more than we used to. Are your children old enough to learn to cook? Can you start a little kitchen garden? Including the children in household routines gives them a way to contribute meaningfully but appropriately for their age.
Getting them to help out around the house may require bribing. Take heart! Bribery, as long as you don’t give them the reward until after the chore has been performed, is what we parenting experts call “positive reinforcement for desired behavior” and it’s totally allowed! Indeed, social and tangible rewards are at the heart of positive parenting. If you want to see a child develop internalized motivation for a particular behavior, reward them for that behavior now. Reinforcing them for incremental skill improvement is a great way to teach children to perform complex tasks competently. My 9-year-old watches a lot of TV these days, but she has also been taught through reinforcement of successive approximations to competently play the piano, meditate for 20 minutes at a time, and wash the dog independently.
Praise is a powerful parenting tool that can be hard to remember to use when we are stressed. Especially in times of trouble, children need to be told that they have done a good job, that we are proud of them, that we love them and admire their strengths and positive qualities. One way to reliably pull kids out of a funk is to praise them more and offer them rewards for meeting more goals.
Aim for an authoritative parenting style. The authoritative parent is in charge, actively engaged, and providing for children’s needs, but holds her power lightly. There are rules, but there are also exceptions; authoritative parents are flexible and responsive to changing circumstances. With an authoritative parent, children are free to express themselves and are included in decision-making in ways appropriate to their age and developmental status. Sounds good, but when we are stressed it’s hard to stick to this middle-ground Authoritative style. Instead, stressed parents tend to drift toward the Authoritarian and Passive extremes of the parenting-styles continuum.
If you find yourself making a lot of rigid rules and demanding obedience, or yelling, you may have lapsed into Authoritarianism. You may wish to explore other ways to manage and discharge your very understandable anger and frustration without taking it out on your kids. If, on the other hand, you find yourself feeling down and unmotivated, you may wander into the trap of passive parenting. I feel you. It’s easier to just let them eat ice cream and watch screens all day. But we can’t just give up. They still need real meals, clean sheets, and hugs. They need lessons and playdates, with all the social distancing complications. They need time outside. They need to be supervised. Constantly, continuously, endlessly supervised. Don’t give up! Staying actively engaged in your kids’ lives is worth the trouble.
If you’re serious about making a positive home environment, you must take care of your own mental health. Self-care isn’t selfish: Parents must find patience, or everyone will be miserable. Life cooped up with children requires deliberate attention to managing our mood. Start by regaining control over your social media exposure: Yes, there’s lots going on in the world you need to keep track of, but you can put your phone away most of the time. Revisit sleep and whether you might be able to improve the amount or quality of sleep you're getting.
And be sure to treat yourself to little breaks, from the children and their mayhem, or from your work, or both: Take a solo walk around the block, savor a cup of tea, write in a journal for a few minutes. Try some videos of mind-body techniques. There has never been a better time to learn yoga, meditation, systematic muscle relaxation, or positive visualization. Kids can learn these self-regulation tools, too.
If you’re working wherever and whenever you can squeeze it in around your children’s demands, consider what you can do to reassert some level of compartmentalization on your schedule. Work with your partner and older children to adopt a cooperative family routine in which you are not the only one maintaining the household. If you do not have a partner, work to maximize the functionality of any co-parenting relationship, and enlist your kids as early as possible as helpers. Finding even a little practical help will reduce your mental load. Professional counseling can be an effective self-care option for stressed parents. And don’t overlook the power of social support: Make time for a Zoom happy hour with friends. They will remind you that if you’re not drinking before noon Monday through Blursday, you’re doing amazing.
Here's another effective adaptation: Try to soften up. Be extra gentle with your kids. Remind yourself often that they are small and young. Speak softly, forgive easily, delight in their noise and mischief. They may not seem sweet and precious when they are projectile vomiting at 3 AM, pestering you for more video, lying about having brushed their teeth, spending money you don’t have, or screaming that they hate you in front of your Zoom book club, but your children are the smallest now they will ever be. Look back at a few old photos from even a year or two ago—look how young they seem, how quickly the illusion that they are “big” recedes into the past. They are developing fast, and their formative years are right now. Love and appreciate your kids, and have mercy on them. Spare them your big adult problems. They need you to put them first and be as kind and gentle and patient and tolerant as a person could possibly be.
Perhaps positive parenting is just another way to remind us to keep our eyes on the Big Picture, on what really matters. When the chips are down and people across the land are dying alone on ventilators, unable to speak or even hold a loved one’s hand, how will we show our children who we are?
History is watching. We must seize this day and express our values: Are you anti-racist? I am. Do you believe in using science to protect and advance public health? I do. Do you care about other people, even if you don’t know them personally? I do, too. Don’t make your kids guess what your beliefs and values are. Model protective behavior, teach children to follow safety protocols, and praise them for caring about the welfare of others. Discuss what’s going on in the world in a way that honors your child’s developmental status. Their time perspective is so short, soon they will no longer recall a time before COVID. If they are to experience hope, optimism, and gratitude, it will be because we show it to them.
Trust that out of our collective grief, important social progress will come. Take heart and be brave enough to hope. If you can find a little smile, a little fun, a little sun to shine on your children, they will pick up on your cheerful mood and respond in turn with more prosocial attitudes and behaviors. A little joy often goes a long way, especially with younger children, but even teens can respond to simple pick-me-up’s.
Children of almost any age enjoy a picnic, outdoors if the weather permits or on a blanket over the carpet in the living room if it is too hot or too rainy to allow for a pleasant meal outdoors. Even a sour pre-teen melts for baby animal videos. And whether you have one child or ten children, a family dance party can chase the gloom away and replace it with moments of delight.
Your leadership is the key: Now more than ever, positive parenting means providing children with the safety of your emotional stability, the protection of your resilience and good sense. This is what will give them the mental and emotional space to cope. Your functionality and good mood afford them the opportunity for positivity in the environment that wouldn’t be there without you. Amplify your positive parenting and reap the rewards: Children, like adults, are easier to live with when they are around people who are happy.