We’re entering week two of “shelter in place” here in San Francisco. My older daughter is home from college, and my younger daughter, a high school senior, has resumed school online. We’re fortunate to have resources and support to adapt to the rapid changes in our lives. With the benefit of this gift, I took some time to consider what I hope my kids are learning in the age of the coronavirus. Here is my shortlist.
Each person’s actions affects how we all fare
The logic of this pandemic is such that each person’s actions have a major impact on the spread of the virus, and how many people will get seriously sick. Wellness is enhanced when people make choices that advance the interests of the community, even if they run up against their own personal preferences.
Isn’t this basically how kindness, justice, and hope spread? The actions of each person have a powerful effect on the well-being of the community. You don’t know when an act of kindness or a stand for justice is going to ripple out and affect a large number of people. Just as with the virus, the community benefits when you do the right thing, even when you’re tempted not to.
This is the first lesson I hope my kids are learning in the age of the coronavirus.
What’s beyond our vision is just as important as what’s within it
Imagine a baby in a high chair eating a snack. If you cover the snack with a cloth, will the baby know to pull away the cloth to find the snack?
It depends whether the baby understands what cognitive scientists call “object permanence.” Before four months, babies don’t realize that things they can’t see still exist. Somewhere between four and seven months, they learn that things can disappear from their own view without necessarily being gone forever. The game of peek-a-boo is one way they learn this lesson.
Throughout our lives, all of us are prone to believe that what we can see is more important than what we can’t, and for good reason. The world in front of us is a rich and rewarding place to live!
However, this virus is a powerful reminder that what we can’t see — or choose not to see — can be more important to our individual and collective well-being than what we can see. Living through this pandemic makes me think that it’s time to invent more advanced forms of the game peek-a-boo that help us appreciate and pay more attention to events beyond our current vision and time horizon.
There’s more to discover inside ourselves than we may have realized
My daughters are older and keeping themselves busy in this period of “shelter in place.” They’re reading and exercising more, we’re lingering longer over dinner, and we’re watching endless episodes of The Office together.
They also have more time to themselves than they ordinarily do. Unable to go to school or be with friends, they can spend more time staring at the wall, thinking, meditating, praying, or whatever else they choose to do.
Modern life is pretty hectic for most of us, including kids. Families are busy shuttling between home, work, school, and activities, without much downtime. Parents are balancing work and home life, often precariously. Everyone is distracted by their phones. Kids may not ordinarily find the time to pay close attention to their own emotions and thoughts.
Unstructured time is a gift. With more time and space, children of all ages have the opportunity to focus more on what is going on inside themselves. The greater self-awareness that results from this is likely to help children better manage their inner lives, rather than let them be managed by forces beyond their control.
This is the third lesson I hope my kids are learning in the age of the coronavirus.
How well we learn matters more than what we already know
Many children have a mental model that adults know much more than children, and adults will teach children what they need to know.
But, when it comes to this pandemic, the adults don’t know what’s going on, either. What was true a few days ago can seem obviously wrong today, with the benefit of just a few days of acquiring and processing new information.
If your children are old enough to deal with the basic facts of the situation, you may want to explain just how little adults know about this virus, and that our collective challenge is to learn as much and as fast as we possibly can.
When they come to understand this, they may be a little more willing to cultivate a curious beginner’s mindset in their own lives. While they may be concerned that adults know so little about such a serious public health threat, they may also feel liberated by the recognition that it’s normal to feel ignorant about important things; the question is how much and how quickly you can learn what you need to know.
Sometimes collective needs trump individual desires
We live in a highly individualistic culture. Children are always hearing messages about the importance of following their own dreams, and competing and winning on their own merit.
But this coronavirus will not be squelched by individuals following their dreams or by individuals competing and winning. Children of all ages can be helped to understand that this virus can only be defeated by people working together in the right ways.
I hope this idea will “infect” my children and influence the course of their lives, long after the coronavirus is gone.
To be clear, I’m not talking about a politically “left” or “right” concept. People who lean left may emphasize the importance of exercising collective will through government action, and we certainly need a lot of that at this moment in time. People who lean right may emphasize the importance of people working together in community to address the challenges in front of them, and we certainly need more of that too, both now and when the coronavirus is gone.
I don’t care which way my children lean politically. I do care that they understand that the most important victories are won by groups, not individuals. I hope their experience in the age of the coronavirus stimulates them to become leaders and followers in teams working to foster caring and connection among people, and between people and nature.
These are five lessons I hope my kids are learning in the age of the coronavirus.