Cooped Up with Kids?

During this time of pandemic sequestration, I’ve heard many parents say they’re loving the opportunity to stay home and spend time with their kids. Even some parents who are now unable to earn any income are savoring the slowdown, aside from the financial worry. The other day, a couple with several kids passed by our porch, amid a gaggle of big dogs on leashes. “We’re having so much fun!” they shouted when I asked how they were faring with school at home. “There are so many cool free educational resources online!”

But I’m also hearing from plenty of parents who are going stir-crazy with the additional responsibility of having to keep their kids schooled and entertained all day, every day, on top of all their usual parental responsibilities (and in some cases on top of their professional jobs, if they are working from home). Their kids miss their playmates; the parents miss the company of other adults. And adding insult to injury, a lot of parents right now are getting chastised for having these perfectly natural human feelings. I’ve seen Moms getting shamed online for saying they could use a glass of wine. Please!

My take on the “kids at home” struggle is the same as my take on other challenges that the pandemic has brought. My take is that the pandemic, besides being a crisis in itself, has exposed cracks in society that have been there for many years or decades.

Now, before I go any further, let me say I’m well aware that some parents feel that if a person is not a parent, that person has no business commenting on child-rearing issues. And I am not unsympathetic to that viewpoint, especially when the commenters are trying to shame people or tell them how to raise their kids. But my take is 1) Parents are emotionally enmeshed in the high-stakes, stressful task of raising kids, and it could be helpful to get support from someone who’s not as emotionally involved. And 2) It is impossible to solve, or even fully grasp, any major problem in society without looking into how that society is bringing up its children.

So, in that spirit, here are some of my observations based on a combination of things I’ve observed myself, or heard from older relatives, or read in books and magazines. I realize I’m speaking in generalities here, but generalities have their place, as they can help us see more clearly and get to the heart of things.

There’s a wealth of articles out there offering tips on how to keep kids happy and engaged at home. If I find some particularly outstanding ones, I’ll post them in the Further Reading section. But there are lots online that you can find easily. For now, I’m giving you two main takeaways:

1. Community, Community, Community. By now, pretty much everyone is familiar with the saying, “It takes a village to raise a child.” Isolation is one of the two biggest culprits of parental overwhelm. The nuclear family, detached from the old hometown and extended family, is a modern experiment that just hasn’t worked out well. The other day in a “Coronavirus overwhelm” discussion thread online, I was happy to see a couple of Moms, whose kids are playmates, talking about the possibility of living under the same roof. What a great idea! I hope it catches on. The truth is that living alone or in nuclear families is expensive, and raising kids is way too much work for one set of parents alone. Part of the original motivation for the emergence of the nuclear family–a trend that accelerated after World War II–was surely the lure of independence from “the old hometown” and its bossy elders. But nowadays, with so many people learning how to set healthy emotional boundaries and tolerate differences, it seems feasible to have the best of both worlds: the ability to be true to oneself, without having to disengage from extended family. In general, over the past few years, it’s been good to see more people living in multigenerational households again, even if a lot of the motivation is economic constraints (young adults not able to afford their own places because of school debt, etc.) This is one case where all the arrows (economic, social, division-of-labor, and ecological) seem to be pointing in the same direction: Live with other people if at all possible! (If you are living alone and it’s working out great for you, disregard this bit of advice.) This is true whether or not you have kids, but if you have kids, it could save your sanity and make life a lot more enjoyable for you and the kids.

2. Instead of being overwhelmed by kids’ energy … harness it! In permaculture design, we have a saying, “Turn problems into solutions.” Most of us have had the experience of being overwhelmed by a kid’s energy. For a long time now (for my whole life, really, which is almost 60 years) I’ve observed parents feeling overwhelmed by dealing with kids, especially young kids. And recently, my observation has led me to ask, “Is there anything we can learn from people in other times and places? How did people in the old days cope with an exhausting toddler? How do people in indigenous cultures manage to look after their kids on top of foraging for food, gathering firewood and all that?” In a nutshell, very young kids want to help with household tasks, and want to be near their parents. When we try to get kids to stay out of the way, “go play,” etc., we create stress because not only do we create a situation where kids get bored and come back looking to the adults for ideas on what to do, but also, we push away a whole bunch of really robust energy that wants to help! The ideal is to start engaging kids while they are still toddler age. But I think there’s hope at any age if the parents make it clear that they really need their kids’ help; that the kids are indispensable to the household economy. As kids get older, their creativity starts to shine, and if you ask kids for ideas on how to solve household problems, they think of amazing solutions that you or I might never have thought of.

From everything I’ve read and observed, kids are happiest and least overwhelming when they know that their labor and creativity are needed for real stuff that the household depends on. Cooking, shopping, running the cash register, designing a logo for the family business, greeting store customers or hotel guests, feeding farm animals, collecting eggs, watering plants, even laundry and dishes and what have you. (By the way, as a kid I hated yardwork. But if we’d been growing food, as opposed to toiling in the service of suburban standards of neatness and conformity, I might have felt differently.) And, when they know their parents really want them around (which is more likely to be the case if the parents aren’t constantly getting interrupted for entertainment while the parents are trying to get work done)!

Of course there is more to life than chores. Creativity is another way for families to spend time together, while also making the world a better place. I’ve heard/read of many families doing creative and compassionate activities during the stay-at-home order. One neighborhood has started a “teddy bear hunt” to entertain little kids who are out walking with their families. People put teddy bears in their windows so as to be visible from the street, and kids see how many bears they can find on their walks. I also read about a 17-year-old girl who did a ballet performance at her grandparents’ nursing home; residents could watch from their balconies. And a friend of mine, a Dad, dressed up in drag (a powder-blue ballerina costume complete with tiara, to be exact!) and went walking through his neighborhood with his young daughter, who was also in some sort of costume (the Facebook photo was too small to see clearly). This kind of playful spirit is all too absent from most people’s everyday lives, and the enforced slowdown seems to be really bringing it out. Here’s hoping it’ll continue even after “normal” life resumes!

Besides those two main points, a few other things.

One, It’s OK to want wine (or whatever you enjoy: eating chocolate; reading a novel; painting). Assuming you’re not harming yourself or neglecting your family, it’s actually healthier for all of you if Mom and Dad get to have their fun too. I grew up in the 60s and 70s, when it was still OK for parents to go out to movies or cocktail parties and leave the kids with a babysitter (or let the oldest child be the babysitter for their younger siblings). Nowadays it’s more popular for parents to hang out together while their kids play. Either way, you’re not a bad parent for wanting a treat.

Also, get to know your neighborhood and neighbors; a neighborhood with a web of social connections is more resilient in any possible circumstances than one where neighbors don’t know each other. Many of us find that our best friends (and/or our kids’ best friends) are widely scattered, requiring a car trip. But it’s not sustainable for parents to constantly have to drive their kids to a playdate. The stay-at-home orders affecting most of the population are highlighting the unworkability of that setup. Walk around your immediate neighborhood with your kids, meet your neighbors. And keep in mind that your kids, even young ones, are their own people; the friends they choose for themselves won’t necessarily have parents that you’d choose as your friends. And that’s fine!

Finally: A major factor in parental overwhelm is economic anxiety. See if there are some household expenses you can cut, so you can slow the treadmill down. Ditto for household tasks; see if there are any you can ease up on a bit. Do you really need to have perfectly square shrubs? Does the laundry need doing right this minute? It might be worth trading some niceties for just plain ol’ free time for each other. There’s no point in having a family (and no point living on planet earth, really) if we can’t all take a deep breath and enjoy each other, listen to the song of a bird, watch the sunset, learn the names of the wildflowers growing right around us.

On a personal note, today when I got home from the farmer’s market with my groceries, it felt like it was taking a long time for me to get things put away and stow the reusable bags. I found myself wishing there were a toddler in the vicinity! I would have enlisted the little one’s assistance stashing the bags in the milk crate where I keep them. I had the same thought later, when I needed to wash some clothes. I always hand-wash my stuff in a tub, then pour the water on whatever area of the yard needs a bit of water. What a perfect job for a little kid to help with!

If you’re a parent (or grandparent or other relative in close proximity with kids), I’d love to hear your ideas on this topic. What, if any, aspects of working with kids do you find overwhelming? What’s worked for you? What hasn’t? Or if you’re from another country, whether or not you’re a parent — How are things different in your country? What tasks are kids expected/allowed to do at each age? Same question for people of older generations, wherever you’re from. What household tasks were you required/expected to do as a kid?

Further Reading:

• Maybe the single most illuminating resource I’ve found on the “kid energy problem” so far is this short article from npr.org, on how to get kids to do chores. It gives impressive examples of how people in other cultures harness the “power of toddlers.” In a nutshell, toddlers naturally want to help (in one study, 20-month-old children stopped playing and crawled across the floor to help adults pick up dropped objects), and by being willing to spend extra time even though the toddler’s involvement slowed things down or makes a mess, parents invest and end up with kids who continue to love to help even as they get older. Typical parents in modern Western culture rebuff a toddler’s offer to help, and send them off to play. But mothers from indigenous cultures will invite the child to stay and watch, and participate. The article also cites a book that sounds like a must-read: Anthropology Perspectives on Children as Helpers, Workers, Artisans, and Laborers, by David Lancy.

Childlike Innovation: Parents Find Creative and Fun Ways To Keep Kids Busy and Happy. (Daytona Beach News-Journal). Even very young kids can start learning a valuable skill like gardening or cooking, and can collaborate on a wall painting or other house project. “We just involved her in everything we do,” one couple said of their 2-1/2-year-old daughter. She’s interested in practical life skills, so instead of trying to keep her out of the way while they get stuff done, they involve her in cooking, seed-sprouting and other tasks. It sounds like it’s a lot more fun and less exhausting than the other approach!

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