Commentary: Act like your kids are watching; because they are

Young minds are like sponges, absorbing how we handle uncertainty, tumult and a loss of control.

By Michele L. Norris / The Washington Post

A pithy little exercise made the rounds on Twitter recently that went something like this: Your quarantine name is the last thing you ate plus the last name of the author of the book you are currently reading.

My quarantine name? Bacon Bundles.

That is funny but it’s also ironic because, when I fried up the bacon that morning, I counted the slices carefully. Two pieces for everyone. No complaining. Be happy. If you take your time and savor them, you can trick yourself into thinking you’re eating more.

I have indeed become my mother. This is a good thing, especially now. She is what sociologists call a “depression baby,” born in 1931, just as the nation crashed into rubble, and raised by parents who were trying to find their footing in a world of bread lines, broken banks and rationing.

The things she saw and learned growing up stayed with her a lifetime. Years later, almost everything that came in our house had a dual purpose: The brown paper bags and the coffee tins. The pantyhose and toothpicks. The little wire twisters and the bag the bread came in; that is, when she wasn’t making her own bread.

Some of this was instinctive but much of it was behavior learned literally sitting at her own mama’s knee.

And now my children are watching me. All day. Every day. All our children are watching us. And because we know kids are always learning, they are picking up lessons that will stick with them and shape who they become.

Young minds are like sponges, absorbing how we handle uncertainty, tumult and a loss of control. Everyone in the family is working from home, which means the kids now have a front-row seat to who we really are as we spar with co-workers, yawn through Zoom sessions, and try to remain civil with the person answering questions on the unemployment helpline.

We no longer have the end-of-day buffer where the subway ride or commute provides a long exhale so we can arrive home with a clearer head and a wide smile. Now, the commute is the distance from the coffee table to the fridge.

Our kids are watching us reinvent ourselves — or not — and if we are fortunate enough to lean toward renewal, this is a chance to demonstrate new habits that could strengthen our relationships with each other and the world. It is an optimistic aspiration but it is going to be tough and let’s just admit that because this will strain our relationships and our finances and our physical and mental health.

We’ll need to cut through a lot of noise just to hear our better angels: the alarms clanging in our heads about jobs and bills; the news from the TV and radio about the numbers of the sick and dead marching upward in an escalating spiral. But this is where we need to remember that while we are watching the deluge, our young people — whether they are in college or kindergarten — are calculating how we watch and respond to this moment.

It starts with little things like patience and generosity; are we gentle with ourselves and each other? It continues with the way we order our steps: How did we educate ourselves about something no one really understands? Did we parrot people who used the phrase “Wuhan virus” or call the bug by its real name? Who did we blame for the sudden change of fate? Did we look outward or inward to find resilience and strength? Were we inventive in finding ways to check in on grandparents and elders we could no longer visit or hug? Did we rally the troops to spend time in nature? Did we find a way to say “I love you” every day?

Did we figure out how to demonstrate in the most manifest ways that each minute is a blessing and that gratitude is a verb?

There are indications that Covid-19 has a minimal impact on children and adolescents, but young people are certainly not immune from the nation’s sudden plunge toward uncertainty, grief and financial instability. A generation fed on a steady diet of dystopic fantasy in movies, video games and kid lit is now caught in a real world drama from which there is no escape. The closest thing to superheroes right now are the medical professionals who are begging for masks and protective material so they can save our lives while protecting their own.

Every parent remembers when a child stumbles or takes a bad fall on a bike. Before the child decides whether to open their mouth and wail to the heavens, there is this little pause where they first glance at an adult, as if to ask, “Am I OK?”

In that moment, the adult holds the key. Calm may not take away the sting, but it can dial down the response. We are all in that moment right now and yet calm is perhaps too much to ask for. We must find something to give to our young people, something that will steady them for the terrain ahead. If there was ever a reason to find that best version of yourself in this terrifying moment; look into your child’s eyes. That’s where you will find it.

Michele L. Norris is a contributing columnist and consultant for Post Opinions and founding director of The Race Card Project.

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