By Josh Straub
“Yes, dad, I know,” said our 7-year-old son with a ting of whininess in his voice. “Two times, not just one.”
So, we kept scrubbing our hands, standing together in the restaurant bathroom singing “Happy Birthday” for the second time.
Though he never sucked his thumb, he is one of those kids who struggles keeping his fingers away from this mouth.
As parents, I confess, this is one battle we chose not to fight the past few years. Other than a reminder every now and again to stop eating with or licking his fingers, our consistency in enforcing any rules and tenacity to break the habit was lacking.
When the new novel coronavirus, or COVID-19, became not only a global pandemic, but a confirmed local reality, however, we had reason to start being more consistent in how we parent our children around proper hygiene.
And I must say, it hasn’t taken that long for the healthy behaviors to stick. Our kids just needed parents who enforced habits that were good for them.
Such is where I begin pretty much every conversation when it comes to “parenting” our kids—they do as we do, not as we say.
When we study the data, we can sum up all of parenting research into one primary conclusion: Our kids become who we are.
With that said, here are four ways we can talk to our kids about COVID-19.
1. Don’t perpetuate fear.
In times of crisis, our kids’ greatest need is to feel safe.
In my book Safe House, I write that self-awareness as a parent of what we’re feeling and why we’re feeling that way, is crucial to how safe our children feel.
In other words, don’t expect your kids to remain calm about the coronavirus while you frantically try to tell them everything will be okay. Our kids feel the discrepancy.
Even worse, the fear lands on them in ways they can’t comprehend because the their parent, the one person our kids should be able to talk to about how they’re feeling, is sending the message that he/she can’t handle them anyway.
If you’re afraid of what’s happening, find a trusted friend, pastor, or therapist who can help you process your fear.
2. Sensibly make the kids part of your game plan.
About two weeks ago we stocked up on household supplies and food should we be quarantined into our home for two weeks. We told our kids this was a possibility and why.
Less than a week later, our kid’s school district shut down and has since remained closed. Were our kids prepared? Yes. Are they scared? No. Because we had a game plan.
In an age-appropriate manner, make your kids part of your game plan to not overreact or under-react to the reality of the coronavirus.
As we tell our kids, let’s remain sensible. To teach our kids the importance of not overreacting or under-reacting, these two verses have been on repeat in our home lately:
A sensible person sees danger and takes cover; the inexperienced keep going and are punished. (Proverbs 27:12)
Every sensible person acts knowledgeably, but a fool displays his stupidity. (Proverbs 13:16)
Being sensible is already having a plan for your family should you get a call that school has been cancelled, especially if both you and your spouse have jobs.
3. Teach your kids the facts.
Just as having a game plan calms our fear, so does knowledge.
We can “act knowledgeably” in spite of the impending reality of the coronavirus: Bookmark and review the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) website. They have done a remarkable job stating the facts and keeping it up to date.
Here are some facts we have found incredibly helpful to ease fears for kids.
- As of February 28, 2020, only 2.4% of total cases of coronavirus have been confirmed in those 19 and younger and only 0.2% of those cases were deemed critical. (WHO)
- For kids under 9, no reported deaths have occurred. (WHO)
- Similar to the SARS and MERS epidemics, also coronaviruses, children seem to be the least symptomatic, however, they do carry it and can infect adults around them, which is why hand washing measures are so important. (WHO)
- Most people who develop the virus experience mild to moderate symptoms and recover in a few weeks.
- Print out the step-by-step guidelines from the CDC to protect yourself and others from getting sick and post them in your house. Better yet, have your kids create their own drawings and rules for healthy hygiene.
Finally, since the “Happy Birthday” song was growing quite old in our home, we turned washing our hands into a dance routine, singing songs our family loves for at least 30 seconds.
4. Make prayer a priority.
Kids may worry about you, or even their grandparents, since they are at the highest risk for coronavirus.
When your kids worry, you should listen to their fear, seek to understand the questions they ask, remind them of what you’re already doing to stay safe, and help them regain power over the fear, either through knowledge or talking about it.
You can also invite them to pray with you and give their fears to God. We specifically pray Psalm 91 with our kids, a perfect chapter for the current pandemic.
Be sensible, put a game plan together, and know the facts. But at the end of the day, show your kids by how you pray, that you trust God to be the One in control of it all.
JOSHUA STRAUB, Ph.D. (@joshuastraub) is a professor of child development and author of two books on emotional safety in parenting, including a kid’s book called What Am I Feeling? coauthored with his wife, Christi. He is the marriage and family strategist for Lifeway.