By Eugene C. Roehlkepartain, PhD, Vice President, Research and Development
It has been heartwarming to watch as people around the world joined #ClapBecauseWeCare to cheer essential workers as they left their daily shifts, such as the 7 p.m. citywide cheer in New York City. Ever since this well-deserved ritual began in Wuhan, China, in January, it has reminded us of the health care workers, grocery store clerks, delivery drivers, and many others who not only put their lives at risk, but also keep life going for the rest of us.
We should keep cheering them and thanking them.
I propose that we also need to cheer and thank another group that is essential during this crisis: Those parenting during a pandemic. They, too, are “all in” during this pandemic (and, frankly, all the time):
When 7 p.m. rolls around each day, these home-bound essential workers don’t leave their shifts so we can collectively clap for them. They’re just getting started. They’re on 24/7, and there aren’t any days off.
So if a 7 p.m. collective clap won’t work, what might we do instead? I propose three things: A boost, a break, and a bravo for those parenting in a pandemic.
Parents may need to be reminded that they’re not alone and that other people go through, and survive, what they’re going through. Almost 20 years ago, Search Institute completed a study of parents of teenagers that found that about half of all parenting adults didn’t have anyone outside their family they could talk to about parenting issues. Whenever we talk with parenting adults who participate in our Keep Connected workshop series, they say one of the most important things about it is that they learned they were not alone in some of the challenges they were dealing with. A 2019 FrameWorks study for the National Association for Family, School, and Community Engagement suggested comparing family, school, and community partnerships to a space launch in which everyone plays a critical, but different role. Right now, though, parents are playing too many!
Parenting during a pandemic is hard—really, really hard. It helps to be able to talk to someone else who’s going through it, too. One way youth workers, parent educators, teachers, and other family-serving professionals can facilitate these kinds of connections is offering a virtual space where parenting adults can connect from time to time, share their highs and lows, and talk a bit about what they need to talk about.
Digital Check-Ins to Keep Connected, Search Institute’s new, free online resource, is designed to make it easy for you to create opportunities for parents to connect with each other. It consists of 30-minute facilitator guides for online conversations with six to eight parenting adults. The first six sessions focus on developmental relationships. The remaining sessions focus on other topics on KeepConnected.info.
Each session stands alone, so you can do as many or as few (in any order) as you’d like. Parent participants check in with each other via videoconference or phone (whatever works in your community), then you lead a brief discussion of the session topic. Finally, you introduce the activities they can do at home. Which brings us to giving parents a break. . . .
One of the most disturbing side-effects of the stay-at-home orders has been a spike in domestic violence likely caused by, among other things, increased stress and constant contact within families that had strained relationships. (If you know of families where domestic violence is a concern, contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline.)
For most families, however, the increased stress may just shorten fuses or cause family members to feel less well-connected to each other. The lack of regular routine may leave them exhausted, so they eat dinner in front of the TV instead of together. Or they may have had their best conversations when they were out and about . . . which they can’t do now.
How might you prompt or encourage people parenting during a pandemic to find space, an oasis, where they can slow down, take a break to just do something they enjoy—not trying to get something else done? Maybe have a meal together. Maybe take a walk or play a game or tell stupid jokes or read aloud a book. Something they can do just because they want to.
The new Digital Check-Ins to Keep Connected resource offers a curated set of short activities for families to do together that are specifically aimed at reflecting on and strengthening their relationships. We picked some that don’t require any supplies families won’t have on hand and don’t require leaving home or the neighborhood. Additional family activities are available on KeepConnected.info (free; no registration).
Finally, as I’ve talked with youth workers and teachers in recent weeks, they’ve said they’ve often had more contact with people parenting in a pandemic than they’ve ever had. Some have found that to be enriching and rewarding. Others say it’s terrifying because they don’t know what to say or do. I suggested that they may not need to say much at all, except maybe asking some open-ended questions to help you get to know the parenting adult and child a little better. Give them a chance to get to know you too as a person.
Just as important is to do what many youth workers and teachers already do: Start with specific things you notice that you appreciate about them or their children. Regardless of their specific situation, parenting adults with children or teens at home could use a “good job” or virtual pat on the back from time to time. They mostly know when they’ve flubbed; they’re their own worst critics. Building trust starts with them knowing you’re on their side and that you care about and value them.
In the dominant U.S. culture, we’ve made what happens in families mostly an individual, private concern. It was their choice to have kids, so they have to deal with whatever it is.
The reality is quite different. As a nation and a society, we collectively depend on parenting adults to nurture each new generation of citizens, workers, and leaders. Families, in all their rich diversity, are one of the vital building blocks of our society.
Perhaps, then, we should plan on holding a Ticker Tape parade down Broadway in New York City to honor parents after the promised parade for the healthcare workers and first responders. After all, they are playing thousands of vital roles—many that we don’t even know about—that are carrying us through this pandemic.
There’s only one problem: They’ll already be on to the next thing, whatever it might be. After all, they’re on 24/7, and there aren’t any days off. They don’t mind, though. They do it because they love their kids. So maybe the parade isn’t practical. But we can say “Bravo,” offer our support, and remind them that we’re on their team, so they don’t have to do this alone.
Nurturing the youngest among us is our shared responsibility. We can thank parenting adults, give them a break, and do our part also to connect with young people so they experience the many strong, well-rounded relationships they need to learn, grow, and thrive, even in challenging times.