(RNS) — The elderly are apparently at higher risk for COVID-19, not children. But any crisis heightens the vulnerabilities that already exist in society, and it’s no wonder that in this pandemic anti-child sentiments have emerged.
As we hunker down in response to social distancing protocols and families confined to close spaces, child protective service workers are on high alert for incidents of outright child abuse. But even in warm and loving families, parents seeking solidarity and camaraderie have been populating their Instagram and Facebook pages with posts and memes expressing frustration about life with kids at home. These laments ignore children’s own fears and anxieties.
When I posted a tweet challenging parents to examine the narrative, some responded with positive moments they’ve had with their kids. Others inevitably jumped on the defensive.
Is the world anti-child? Ask yourself how many memes you’ve seen of parents lamenting #QuarantineLife with kids compared to how many amplifying the voice and feelings of children during #QuarantineLife ?
— Cindy Wang Brandt (@cindy_w_brandt) April 1, 2020
Parents often deflect with their good intentions. They love their children with all their hearts, but they just need to vent because this is a really hard time. Mothers especially have pointed to the patriarchy, pointing out that for too long mothers have had to bear the physical and emotional labor of child-caring in silence and submission. They no longer want to be silenced for voicing their frustrations.
Others say they are simply de-stressing with humorous memes so that they can get back to their children without transferring their anxieties. Often I’ll hear “the jokes are harmless.”
We can spend time dissecting whether jokes are indeed harmless or not. I would argue that images of children tied up as hostages with tape over their mouths cross a line. I also cannot appreciate joking about how spanking is legal in school again. Other memes are less nefarious. Regardless, I’ll be glad if we become more conscious of whether our parenting humor is appropriate and just.
But instead of analyzing parenting humor memes, I want to disrupt some larger assumptions about parenting, childhood and what it means to live intergenerationally.
First, liberation for women does not have to come at the expense of children’s agency.
Feminism is for children as well. In my book, “Parenting Forward,” I argue that the best way to topple the patriarchy is for us to raise empowered girls and to raise boys without internalized sexism. Domination, power-over authoritarianism is the tool of the patriarchy, and yes, women can wield it too. Mothers can exert power over children and often they do because it’s the only space in society that they have power.
Our children’s right to human dignity does not have to come at the cost of a woman’s power; it bolsters it.
Caring for children’s emotional needs, listening to their voice, giving them fair representation in the larger narrative even in the midst of this pandemic does not hurt the mother or the parent; it helps.
Before I show you how, let’s disrupt the notion that the job of the parent is to protect and to teach children. Glennon Doyle calls it the memo our generation of parents received, that we are to protect our children from all harm, even when we know that going through hard things is what will build resilience and character.
Our children are not fundamentally different from adults. In responding to this pandemic, many adults are scared and anxious, while others spend their time researching the virus and analyzing graphs; yet others are optimistic and carefree in spite of dire predictions.
Our children’s reactions are similarly diverse. Brother and Mom may be the anxious ones curled up in the corner in the family, while Sister and Dad cope by making YouTube tutorials on hand hygiene. The differences in how we face a pandemic do not necessarily fall along a supposed adult-child divide, but have more to do with temperament.
We are all just human beings facing a really hard thing together. Parents do not have to shoulder all the burden of this crisis and protect their children from the realities. Our children pick up vibes and energy not just from their parents, but from their social feeds and peer connections. They know what’s up. Don’t assume they’ll just be scared little fragile beings who can’t carry heavy news.
To be sure, we can and should use our adult privileges of information access and life experience to help them process their emotions, but children, too, can contribute to our mental well-being. And not just by being cute and delightful, but by their ideas and creativity, their love and truth.
I appreciate world leaders’ holding press conferences to speak to children about the sacrifices they will need to make in social distancing. But, as impractical as it sounds, we might all benefit from a press conferences in which children tell us how they feel. It would demonstrate, if nothing else, a willingness not to dismiss, erase or invalidate the humanity of our children in this crisis.
Listening to children is important because, as Jeffrey Olrick, co-author of the soon-to-be-published book “Growing Connected,” reminds us, children are less apt than adults to talk about stress directly. The child who is driving her parents up the wall may be acting out her anxieties about COVID-19 by spreading glitter and Legos everywhere. We need to give children room to express their disquiet with equality and mutuality.
They are not brittle, fragile beings we have to protect from the harsh realities of life. Nor are they blank slates we fill with our ideas absent thoughts of their own. They are dynamic human beings with a full range of emotions to receive and to contribute to family life. Parents, you don’t have to carry it all; you can carry it with your children. You can allow them to serve you as you serve them.
The last thing I want to do is take away coping mechanisms for parents facing an indescribably difficult time. It is my vocation to serve parents and I will do all within my power to provide resources.
Right now, one of the best resources I want to offer parents is the small human beings you are spending life with every day. Listen to them. Be with them. Solve your problems together with them. Let them partner with you as you go through this time.
May we all come out of this crisis with a deeper sense of mutuality and justice for kids.
(Cindy Wang Brandt is an author, podcaster and host of the virtual conference “Parenting Forward.” The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)