The extraordinary events of our childhoods stay with us forever. They have a special status in our memories. We remember the day we moved out of the house we loved, the day we first drove a car. And we remember the “larger” events, like 9/11, Hurricane Sandy, the day Obama was elected, or—for some of us old timers—the day JFK was shot.
This pandemic—more than most events any of us can remember—will stay with our children forever. It is taking place over weeks and months, and it is changing every aspect of daily life. It is more like wartime than anything in our collective memories. And we know from history and social science that children remember the way war changed their lives. What will our children remember of this time? What will their story of COVID-19 be? Will it be a story of things breaking apart or of resilience?
We hope they will remember that we held things together, that even though life was different and hard, everything was OK (enough). Children rely on our stability, our emotional presence, and our reassurance. Even when we do fall apart, we get back to being ourselves. We repair. That way, they don’t have to add “losing” a parent to the list of things that changed with COVID-19.
We’d like them to remember that we never gave up hope. Now, none of us can see how this is going to end. We are all afraid of what the new normal will actually be. But children do not have the bandwidth for any of this. They need to know they will go back to school, they will see their friends, they will see Grandma, go to the petting zoo at Stew Leonard’s again, and have a hot chocolate at McDonald’s. They just have to wait. (Sigh.)
We want them to remember that even though they missed Grandpa’s birthday and couldn’t have a sleepover with their cousins, they talked to them all the time. They even learned how to FaceTime on their own! In this time of disrupted connections, they need to know that everyone that matters to them is fine and right there.
And we want them to remember some of the good surprises that came with COVID-19: more time with their parents, the big cake Dad baked, the pancakes they made for the first time, the way Mom let them help with her paperwork (and even say hi on work calls), the time spent watching movies altogether, the pillow fights, the very goofy games they invented while cooped up together.
Remember how much fun it was to make a tent out of chairs and sheets when you were little? This is the time to make a few tents, to take a camping trip in your living room. The tent may leak, and the dog may crawl in and make a mess, but we have a tent, and we’re in this together.
Arietta Slade, PhD, is a clinical psychologist, and a professor of clinical child psychology at the Yale Child Study Center. She has been working with parents and children for over 40 years.