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A Pandemic Lesson: Family Togetherness Makes Children Happy

The lockdown provided children and parents time to learn they like one another.

In April and May of 2020, one and two months after schools were locked down, the nonprofit organization Let Grow conducted surveys of children throughout the United States, ages 8 through 13, and of parents of children in that age range. I already reported on many of the findings from those surveys, here and here. To review, the surveys revealed that, overall, children were actually less anxious during these months of lockdown than they had been prior to the pandemic. They were finding interesting things to do, sleeping more, communicating with friends online, helping out at home, and gaining new respect and appreciation from their parents because of how well they were managing themselves. By their own and their parents’ ratings, they were far more likely to be happy than sad. I recently conducted further analyses of some of the open-ended questions in the children’s May survey and discovered something that has opened my eyes to the importance of family togetherness for children’s well-being.

Pixy Creative Commons CCO
Source: Pixy Creative Commons CCO

One open-ended item asked the children to complete the sentence, Something I like about this time is _______. To get an overall picture of how the approximately 800 children responded to this, I sorted the responses into various categories based on their contents. Prior to this analysis, I had expected that the most common category might be the one I labeled as Time to Pursue My Own Interests (because of the free time they had after schools and other activities had shut down), or More Sleep (because of not having to get up early for school), but it turned out that these ranked only second- and third-most-common: 30 % of responses fell into the Time to Pursue My Own Interests category and 16% into the More Sleep category. By far the most frequent category of response, encompassing 47% of the responses, was More Time with Family (often stated as more time with my mother, or father, or both; or as more enjoyable time with them).

I also reexamined a report of another survey, conducted by Jean Twenge and her colleagues (here) of about 1500 teenagers, also in the Spring of 2020. Twenge and her group found, as did we, that in many ways these young people were doing better psychologically during the pandemic than they had before. Most notably, they were less likely to be depressed, by the measure of depression used in that survey. The researchers also learned that the teens were getting more sleep, reported themselves as becoming stronger and more resilient, and—á propos of my theme here—reported that their families had become closer and were more likely to eat dinner together than before the pandemic. Remarkably, the teens also reported themselves to be less lonely than they had been before the pandemic. That makes sense if we assume that the reduced loneliness was because of the increased closeness of family.

So here is a lesson from the pandemic that I hope will stick: Prior to the pandemic, children and teens were kept so busy with school, schoolwork, and extracurricular activities, and parents were so busy with their own work and with carting their kids from one activity to another, that kids and parents had little opportunity to really get to know one another. They were so busy achieving, in the narrow ways we have defined achievement, that they had little chance just to be, just to get to know one another for who they are rather than what they are doing. But then parents began to see their kids through new eyes, and, for the most part they liked what they saw; and children began to see that their parents really cared for them—as people, not as grades on a report card.

I hope that we, as a society, use this lesson to change some of our ways as we emerge from the pandemic. Let’s reduce the schoolwork, reduce the formal after-school activities, reduce some of parents’ concerns with their out-of-family professions, reduce everyone's concern for external marks of achievement, and provide more time for families to just enjoy one another’s company. A good way to start is to have dinner together regularly—nice, leisurely dinners, in which the primary aim is to enjoy one another. Then, maybe, some fun family games, not to compete but to laugh.

Some of the children’s responses to the open-ended questions were quite poignant. I conclude, below, with one from a 9-year-old, which caused a tear to run down my cheek:

“Everyone is home and for the first time in a long time I am happy. I get bullied in school, this is so much better and everyone is happier. My mom smiles more now, we are not yelling at each other anymore (my fault). She has helped me with my bug project and now everyone is happy to help me identify bugs. I found out that my mom knows a lot about bugs too. In fact my mom is really smart and I am glad that we are having fun again and I realized I was just angry at everyone because I was taking my frustrations at school home and dishing it out on them. After I told mom what was happening to me at school, she asked me why I didn't tell her sooner so she could do something about it. I apologized and she cried a little and told me how much she loved me, then I cried too. Then my little sister saw us crying and she cried too, which made us all laugh. I feel so much better now!

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