Parenting, Risk and the Pandemic

How to speak with a child about risk.

Posted Jul 06, 2020

Photographs in the Carol M. Highsmith Archive, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division/PICRYL
Actual Skateboarders Mimic a Mural
Source: Photographs in the Carol M. Highsmith Archive, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division/PICRYL

My patients talk to me about issues with their children. As life now turns toward some semblance of the normal, they want to know, “How do I teach my kids about risk, even while I let them make their own judgments and act independently?” Indeed. How do parents honor a child’s right to grow up, while still ensuring that experience and wisdom will keep them safe?

The short answer is that kids should make their own mistakes, but not when it might kill them. They have to be taught to respect risk, especially when our new normal is a very long way from risk-free.

Take, for example, my patient Rachel, who fretted over her daughter’s desire to socialize again with her friends. Dawn is 12 going on 21, fiercely proud of how nothing can stop her. She makes stunning videos on TikTok. She aspires to be an influencer on YouTube. Her motto: “I know what I’m doing!” Predictably, she chafed at her parents’ reluctance to allow anything beyond Skype, FaceTime, and Zoom. A remote birthday party she attended was “odd.” Today, she wanted to meet a friend at her house, though Rachel said, “Maybe soon. Let’s see.” 

But Dawn did not want to see. She thought her mother was being irrational and, in fact, unfair. (In Dawn’s hierarchy of values, fairness outranked thinking straight, since brains were a matter of luck but morality is a choice). In fact, during the past few months, her family had sheltered in place. They’d had virtually no contact with anyone. Her friend’s family had done the same. “So, we have a de facto ‘bubble,’” Dawn asserted, “I read about bubbles. They keep you safe.”

Oh, dear. How do you answer a smart kid when logically they make sense? 

Rachel had encouraged Dawn to keep in touch with friends and thought she was in sync with the other mothers in prohibiting any physical contact. But now Dawn’s friends were starting to meet up, and Dawn wanted to also. Desperately. She told Rachel about her fear of being “left out,” even of becoming the object of helicopter-parent jokes.

I wondered whether Dawn wanted to make Rachel feel guilty. Maybe Rachel already felt guilty and was trying even harder to explain her thinking to herself.  

Dawn had called her mother “risk adverse,” “overcautious,” and “fearful,” citing several distance biking and swimming examples that had gone off without a hitch. Dawn may make a good lawyer someday. 

Still, Rachel was uncomfortable with the idea. I suggested that in approaching it, therefore, there should two levels to her decision — the practical and educational. That is, after making her decision, she should share her thinking and how she came to it with Dawn.

Rachel reminded me that she had already talked at Dawn. However, since Dawn did not accept that decision, the point was to explain it in terms that Dawn could appreciate, following up on desiderata that Dawn herself had raised. Why was it not irrational? (Her friend was planning to have other friends at her house, and who knows where they have been?) Why was it not unfair? (Because rational decisions can be justified on their own terms, without making comparisons to the results of possibly other, irrational decisions.)

I suggested that Rachel talk with Dawn as if she were an intelligent person, not just a pre-teen concerned about her reception by other kids. “Look,” I said, “it’s not too early the teach Dawn about the pernicious effects of peer pressure.” While it’s rage-inducing to pull rank with your kids (“I’m your parent, so do it”), it’s important to impress on them the value of your experience. 

But it wasn’t easy. Dawn suggested that if she and her friends got together outside, wore masks and maybe just played volleyball, everything would be fine. It sounded okay, but still... Rachel was sure that no one would stick to the rules. Was there going to be a parent present? When she had asked Dawn, Dawn groaned, “I can’t ask them that” (as if she feared being thought of as her mother’s wooden dummy). 

So, you just have to set boundaries, allowing some leeway but not so much that you find the risk intolerable. When my daughter wanted to go skateboarding, we allowed it, but not without a helmet. When she balked at the helmet, we cited a talented skateboarder who’d refused a helmet and ended up the hospital. She wore her helmet. Boundaries that make sense to kids — that stand up against a demonstrable risk — will usually be accepted.

Usually, but not always. Rachel said she told Dawn that whenever she goes to her friends’—tomorrow or in the next couple weeks—she’ll need to wear a mask. Dawn said that her friends did not wear masks, and to just forget the whole thing.

But Dawn did not forget. 

After a pause, Rachel shared what she called Dawn’s “ultimate try”: Tears, with Dawn exclaiming, “You don’t trust me.” Rachel was taken by surprise—what to say, what to do—because Dawn is treated as the most responsible, careful child in the family. So, Rachel responded, “No, dear, that’s not true, you have our full trust and confidence.” But, she added, “It’s not only about trust. It’s about knowledge and experience.”  

Ultimately, reasonable people can disagree, and parents are entitled to say, “I trust you to understand that.”

Each of us makes a calculation as we venture back into the world. We ask in meeting with others—friends, family and loved ones—how much risk we are we imposing on them and ourselves. Each person we expose or are exposed to can potentially be infected; without knowing they’re infected, some people are “super carriers,” able to infect many more. For most of us, no symptoms will mean no infection. But at this point in the pandemic, without universal and frequent testing, you can’t be sure of anyone.

Parents need to explain that to kids.

So, parents’ concern is not just paranoia. As the government allows us to remove our masks and resume hanging out in public, there will inevitably be some uptick in cases. We have to balance that risk with staying cloistered forever. 

For parents, the question is how to accommodate oneself and one’s child to each level of risk as it presents. Each situation will be different, though there will be some common questions: 1) Who is the person venturing out; whom are they meeting with, and how at risk is that person? 2) What is the situation (e.g., Will there be social distancing, masks, indoors or outdoors)? 3) Why are people getting together, and can the function be carried out remotely? 

As Rachel and I talked, and as I reflected on my own daughter, I realized that setting community standards may become increasingly useful — no one child will feel “different” or left out. But the main consideration must be to talk to children, not as adults but in terms that make sense from their perspective. Children need to feel that parents respect their ability to assess and assume risk. Parents need to start from the assumption that children can, in fact, evaluate risk provided that it is carefully, respectfully explained.