In so many ways, this is war. We all got drafted this time, some into front line positions, others of us charged with maintaining the home front. There are no deferments. The front-line folks – medical staff, first responders, and the people that keep us fed- they are the public heroes, the elite forces. Parents are the foot soldiers, the grunts slogging through the day-to-day guard duty, maintaining morale, requisitioning supplies, containing skirmishes. Parents are stationed at home, many tele-working while being charged with keeping their kids safe, fed and occupied while pulling extra duty as teachers, recreation therapists and jailers.
Covid 19 has engulfed the world and plunged our lives into a battle on multiple fronts. There is no basic training, we all have to jump in and join the fray. Being a virtual guest in people’s homes as a Zoom-toting family therapist has instructed me. In the spirit of humility, I have a few things I’d like to share- some Covid-hacks for your parental Quaran-time.
1. Parenting as Wartime Presidency. – Like it or not, we have to lead. Some leaders are good; others, fall short. One thing that good leaders grasp is that they need to engage hearts and minds to command the actions of their charges. The best leaders find ways to leverage emotions – they convey empathy, humor, self-effacement, optimism, and a feeling of commonality and purpose. Sharing a joke or funny video (or boneheaded mistake you made during a Zoom meeting) may be effective ways to brighten the mood and mobilize your troops to get out of pajamas or clear the collecting debris in the family room. We are not just connected, we are co-creators of each others’ experience. Families profoundly affect their members’ thoughts, feelings, and actions, whether we are aware of doing so or not. During quarantine, we are more than ever living under the same “emotional skin.” If your right shoulder is in pain, it is unlikely the rest of you will be ready and willing to take on yet another mission. We are not necessarily responsible for each others’ moods, but we are active agents in their creation and shelf-life. A little change in one person’s mood is usually followed by corresponding changes in the moods or others, and then, their behaviors. Try to flatten the curve of resistance by “connecting before commanding”. Remembering to take a moment to express affection or appreciation for something can be a balm that soothes the monotony, irritability and frustration of another Blursday. Creating warm, small moments can also grease the wheels to mobilize your troops to do what needs to get done. A small shift in mood, from cool to warm can make the difference from getting begrudging compliance (minimally doing what “looks right”) to cooperation (doing it because it’s the “right thing” to do).
2.Pay Attention to “Attention”. A business dictionary defines “resource” as a “factor that is required to accomplish an activity, or as means necessary to achieve a desired outcome”. With regard to the activities and outcomes of our lives, attention is arguably our most critical resource: We don’t accomplish much, whether creatively, practically, logistically or socially, without paying attention to what we want and how we are attempting to achieve it. That just seems logical, right? However, our attention is routinely commandeered by our emotions – we tend to focus most on what we are feeling most strongly. In a period of prolonged stress, like now, our attention tends to get hijacked by feelings of anxiety – the emotion probably most closely tasked with keeping us safe. Like the proverbial tail that wags the dog, anxiety can “wag” us when we let our focus get riveted to things we cannot control, but can incessantly think about, like – “When this will end?”; “What changes will we have to adapt to in the future?”; “What will the transition to what’s next look like?”. We do a better job of managing our anxiety by thinking of it as an alert signal and a call to action. By choosing do-able actions – making masks, volunteering, planting a garden, taking or hanging a picture, calling someone- we deliberately focus our attention and direct our anxiety along paths that are manageable, constructive and creative. We thus avoid the temptation to let our anxiety set us adrift. Choosing to direct our attention to what is worth worrying about, that is, things we can do something about, is our ongoing task, particularly when there is a glut of potential threats, which a global pandemic provides in spades. There are always more things to worry about, always. Our attention, like our vision, can focus on what we direct it toward, if we remind ourselves maybe as often as we wash our hands, that we can, and should, choose our focus.
3. Not All Help is Helpful. The ever increasing number of online educational resources will confuse and confound you and most likely make you feel like you are not doing all you can. Reminding oneself that it is impossible to ever do “all you can”, which really means “everything that is possible”. For example, by picking a PBS activity for this morning’s “class”, you are forsaking a Smithsonian Kids activity. This necessary choice evokes a necessary loss, which can feel like you are missing out on an opportunity to help your kid. I sense there is an inverse relationship between the amount of “resources” we are inundated with and the sense we are doing well by our children, as well as how competent and committed we feel as parents. If not careful, you can drown in this river of stuff. Less, here, is truly more. It’s really not about the volume of content, it’s about how we navigate the river, as calmly as possible, and if possible, to have some fun along the way. Same with the news: Deliberately limit the number of information inputs and time spent “staying informed”. Try limiting your intake of news to a few planned small bites per day rather than unplanned and impulsive binges . “Breaking News” is a corporate con, a device to monetize and profit from your anxiety by keeping it as high as possible. The tsunami of ever available information creates a feeling of urgency. A feeling of urgency does not reflect actual “urgency”, i.e., “something important that requires swift action”- the vast majority of what is dumped into a news cycle is not news, nor does it require your swift action. It can and often does trigger the kind of anxiety that is not amenable to constructive action, only worry. Leverage intentionality – we are more likely to adhere to a behavioral commitment if we deliberately say it out loud, (e.g., “I will check the news twice tomorrow, at breakfast and while making dinner”) even if it is just to ourselves.
4. Structure Now, Structure Tomorrow, Structure Forever- as long as this crisis lasts, at least. With regard to the nationwide move to tele-education, I believe the most critical function of online classes and assignments right now is to add structure and a measure of normalcy to so many abnormal hours, days, weeks. Most of us benefit from a predictable organization of our days. The temptation to treat the quarantine as an interminable snow-day, that is, 24/7 pajamas, not doing things until one might feel like it, consumption of media – is a recipe for sustained hangover feelings of irritability, depression, inertia and more anxiety. Precise timing of structure seems less important than ensuring that a structure, meaning a predictable sequence of activities, occurs.