Monday, November 30, 2020

Talking to Children About the Pandemic and Everything

In a recent interview in The New York Times Magazine, children's book author Mo Willems was asked if he had any advice for parents struggling to talk with their children about difficult things, like the pandemic.

"Probably the most fundamental insight is that even a good childhood is difficult: You're powerless; the furniture is not made your size. But when parents come up to me and ask, "How do you talk to the kid about the pandemic?" they're asking me to be disloyal. They're actually asking about a form of control. "Hey, you have this relationship with kids. Help me control them." (Expletive) you! I'm not on your side."

I would have said it differently, but he puts his finger on a central challenge in the relationship between children and the important adults in their lives. Even those of us who don't believe it's right for adults to control the kids struggle with it. Of course, most of us have learned to not physically and emotionally bully children into obedience, but this drive to control them creeps in nevertheless. Willems' point, I think, is that the moment we begin to strategize about our relationship with a child we are seeking to manufacture a response that satisfies our own emotional needs, to control them for our own ends. None of us like to be manipulated. We rebel when we detect that someone, be it a salesman, guru, or lover, is using their words to steer us. It's the same with children.

When we tell ourselves "But it's for their own good" we set ourselves up as the experts on their bodies and minds, granting ourselves rights over them. It's not our job to talk to children about things like the pandemic, but rather to listen to them. It's not ours to somehow manage them through their feelings, but instead to allow them to practice managing their own feelings and the only way to do that is to set them free from manipulation and control, however well-intended. It's okay to be angry, sad, frustrated, confused, and anxious. When we strategize, when we seek to control, we tell children that their feelings are not okay. Our place is to listen, to hold them if they want to be held, to assure them they are not wrong, and to answer their questions honestly, even if the answer is, "I don't know."

It's so hard for us because our entire society is geared around telling us that it is both our right and responsibility to control the children "for their own good." We are so steeped in it that it becomes habit and we fail to see their fierce rebellions for what they are. We wonder why they won't brush their teeth or eat their broccoli or go to bed. This is their way of saying "(Expletive) you!" It's their way of taking control of their own lives even if it's not for their own good. 

It's hard for us because we live in a world in which children are viewed as "lesser," even as we strive to respect them as fully formed human beings. As John Holt wrote: "Be wary of saying or doing anything to a child that you would not do to another adults whose good opinion and affection you value." Good advice, I think, for talking to children about the pandemic and everything.

Teacher Tom's Second Book is now available in Australia and New Zealand as well as the US, Canada, the UK, Iceland, and Europe. And if you missed it, Teacher Tom's First Book is back in print as well. 

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