It just so happens that I have been re-reading one of my favorite parenting books in preparation for a talk I was scheduled to give at my alma mater next month. I don’t know if the talk will actually proceed as scheduled now, but the book, fortunately enough and so fresh in my mind, has so much excellent advice to parents on what and how much to share with your children about Covid-19.
The excellent book is titled Simplicity Parenting: Using the Extraordinary Power of Less to Raise Calmer, Happier, and More Secure Kids by Kim John Payne. He has been a school counselor, researcher, and educator, and a family counselor. In the book, he discusses how he had worked with children living in refugee camps in war-torn countries who, with little surprise, exhibited many signs of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. After this time, he then spent some time in a school with children in London, and began to see some surprisingly familiar behaviors. Payne writes:
I had been trained to associate PTSD with very large wartime events, with life-changing traumas that leave their victims shaken in no small measure. My work over the last twenty years has taken me to many war-torn areas: Africa, Israel, and Northern Ireland, as well as to Russia and Hungary during and just after perestroika. I didn’t expect to find “War-torn” children in this relatively affluent area in England, but sure enough, that’s what I was finding. What struck me first were the similarities in the problematic behaviors adopted by these seemingly disparate groups of children. After so many instances of clinical deja vu, I couldn’t ignore my instincts. Certain of the symptoms and behaviors, I was becoming more and more convinced of the cause. And as I looked more closely at their lives, I realized that for both groups the sanctity of childhood had been breached. Adult life was flooding in unchecked. Privy to their parents’ fears, drives, ambitions, and the very fast pace of their lives, the children were busy trying to construct their own boundaries, their own level of safety in behaviors that weren’t ultimately helpful. The children were suffering form a different kind of war: the undeclared war on childhood. (8)
Payne goes on to explain that the first-world children, though never having experienced the horrors of the refugee children, nevertheless, experienced such a consistent threshold of small stresses, and rarely dissipating, that they developed a form of PTSD, that Payne coined, Cumulative Stress Reaction, or CSR for short.
The cause of CSR was too much. Children’s lives are often led at the same pace as adult life with too much information, too many possessions, too-filled schedules, and too few grounding rhythms. The rest of the book is dedicated to explaining how many families have been able to reduce or entirely alleviate their children’s behavior problems by implementing a program of simplification.
Although I recommend the whole book, the one aspect I’d like to discuss in this post is Payne’s advice to protect our children (and their childhoods) by being careful of how much information is presented to them. Payne describes how one couple was so proud of their “citizen of the world son” who was incredibly well-informed about the issue of climate change and seemed to be on his way toward becoming a little activist. Payne writes, “James’s understanding of global warming seemed to rival Al Gore’s. That much was apparent. James was also, clearly, becoming a very anxious little fellow.” (4) Payne advocates treating childhood as a sacred time to be safeguarded and protected which allows for the slow development of identity, well-being, and resiliency.
One aspect of children is that they exist so effortlessly fully immersed in the present moment. The younger the child, the more “in the moment” they are. However, not having lived life long enough, children don’t have the perspective of adulthood that comes with time. We may have learned that there are times in life that can be really challenging, but the difficulty doesn’t last forever and things can get better. Children may not know the human history of survival. They may not know of past generations surviving war, threat of starvation, plague, natural disasters, and all the other things anyone’s ancestors are sure to have experienced. For children, when the “now” is scary and uncertain, it can be so much more stressful than for an adult.
The solution then, is to protect childhood. Don’t give your kids all the information. Tell them what they really need to know. Obviously probably nearly every child in our country has been affected by the pandemic, there is a certain amount of information they need to know. Don’t lie to them, but don’t make them privy to too much information. They don’t need to hear about the coffins piling up in Italy, the numbers of people dying around the world. They don’t need minute-by-minute updates from the constantly-on news channel on how fast the virus is spreading and if its getting ever closer and closer to you or spreading there. Tell them the necessary information, but strive to make your home a safe place, safe from Covid but also safe from the stress of too much information.
In this time when so many adults must be feeling enormous stress and many must be facing the real possibility of losing their livelihoods, protect your children from these fears and burdens until they need to become informed of them. Confide your fears, worries, and stresses in other adults, and protect your children’s childhoods. Of course children will experience some stress—it is part of life—but by safeguarding childhood from the constantly encroaching adult world, we are actually wiring them for resiliency.
Payne, Kim John. Simplicity Parenting: Using the Extraordinary Power of Less to Raise Calmer, Happier, and More Secure Kids. (New York: Ballantine Books, 2009)