Like millions around the globe, I’m at home these days, sheltering in place as a result of the outbreak of the coronavirus. I’ve got company — my wife, my 1 1/2-year-old son, and my 3-year-old daughter are here, too.
And like so many other parents, my wife and I are worried about keeping our kids busy and safe. It can be a challenge explaining to them what COVID-19 even is, much less life in Boston under a “stay at home” order and semi-lockdown, our new normal.
“We’re staying in our house because we cannot touch anything.”
I asked my daughter Leila the other day whether the coronavirus is or isn’t nice. “Not nice,” she replied matter-of-factly. “We’re staying in our house because we cannot touch anything.”
Leila isn’t attending her preschool, and she’s told me that she misses her friends. She’s turned that longing into making cards and beaded necklaces for her classmates. She’s worked on them for days, but for now, they’re just building up in our craft box since she can’t give any of them away yet.
Ari Daniel/The World
Watching Leila handle social distancing and noticing how I’ve been talking to her about the pandemic got me thinking about families elsewhere in the world and the challenges they’re facing with their children right now, and some of the ways that they’re all coping.
I reached out to a number of families across the globe, from Pakistan to Lebanon to Lithuania to the UK, and talked to them over Skype. Here are some of their responses about life amid the coronavirus.
Being cut off from friends
When I spoke with one parent in Karachi, Pakistan, Faiza Mushtaq, it had been three weeks since the country reported its first case of coronavirus. She told me, “The rest of Pakistan was slow to respond. Where we are, the government took quick action, so our schools and colleges and universities closed. We’re now taking more stringent measures.”
“Well, I can’t go to school. And I can’t have as many playdates as I used to have.”
Her 8-year-old daughter, Farah Husain, chimed in: “Well, I can’t go to school. And I can’t have as many playdates as I used to have.”
But three days prior to our conversation, Farah’s school initiated online classes. And her mom explained, “She and all her other friends were terribly excited, so that’s better than nothing.”
It’s not perfect, Farah is quick to point out — she’s not allowed to chitchat with her friends in the middle of the lessons.
Courtesy of Faiza Mushtaq
Stress and distress
In London, Tina Gortmans and her husband, Nigel Gortmans, pulled their son, Jacob Gortmans, out of school last week, a couple days before things were officially shut down across the UK. They’re homeschooling him now.
Without any teaching experience, they're using resources provided by Jacob’s teachers, along with additional online content.
“Just keeping an 8-year-old happy is going to be a real problem. Just the thought of months of this is very depressing. I don’t know, this is day one, really, of a very long journey.”
Tina Gortmans reflected, “Just keeping an 8-year-old happy is going to be a real problem. Just the thought of months of this is very depressing. I don’t know, this is day one, really, of a very long journey.”
She turned to Jacob and asked him if he was scared. He said, “Not really, I’m not scared.” But when she asked if he thought his parents were scared, he replied, “Yeah ... definitely.”
Translating public health messages into kid-speak
Unė Kubiliūtė is an almost 6-year-old in Vilnius, Lithuania. Her parents recently found a piece of paper where she’d scrawled half a dozen Xs, each one representing something she couldn’t do because of the lockdown. One of those things was a birthday party for her grandfather who was turning 67.
“How can he get sick from us if we’re not sick?”
When she had to stay home instead, she asked, “How can he get sick from us if we’re not sick?” It’s a good question. Her mother, Eglė Merkyte, responded: “The thing is that we don’t know if we are healthy. Maybe we also have the virus.”
Courtesy of the Kubilius family
Unė queried back, “But how can we not know that?” Another good question. Her father, Jonas Kubilius, explained, “You may be contagious for 14 days and you may not get sick.” But Merkyte gently reminded him that Unė probably didn’t know the word “contagious.”
So, the two of them explained together, finishing each other’s sentences. “You may get sick,” they said, “but you don’t know yet. And you will only know when you actually start feeling sick.”
“Try to get away from people as much as you can. If there’s old people in your house, try to get away from them.”
Still, I was impressed by just how much kids have internalized what to do to reduce the risk of getting sick. Mark Anton, a 9-year-old living just outside of Beirut, Lebanon, advised, “Try to get away from people as much as you can. If there’s old people in your house, try to get away from them.”
Jacob in London added, “When you sneeze or cough, use your elbow or have a tissue and straight away put it in the bin and wash your hands.”
And Farah in Karachi said that everyone should wash their hands for 20 seconds. That translates, as many of the kids were quick to tell me, into singing the “Happy Birthday” song at least once, maybe twice, depending on your speed. (A few were even gracious enough to demonstrate that singing for me.)
Courtesy of Tina Gortmans
Occupying the children
Parents are having to think fast to devise plans to keep their families happy and healthy. Kubilius of Lithuania suggested, “I think one major tip is having a routine, such that during the day they know what to do. It’s springtime, so it’s easier to go outside now and to spend quite a bit of time.”
“If you have a garden, a backyard, a driveway, try to structure some outdoor time into your daily routine.”
And Mushtaq of Pakistan bought her daughter a bike without training wheels. She said, “If you have a garden, a backyard, a driveway, try to structure some outdoor time into your daily routine.” It’s important to remember, however, that if your closest patch of outdoor space is a public place, you need to remain vigilant about keeping your distance from others.
Parents listed all sorts of activities they’re doing with their kids — making jigsaw puzzles, playing board games, reading books, practicing math, building things, jumping around indoors. A few reluctantly admitted to increased screen time as an inevitability.
Pamela Ferneine is a single mother of two (a 9-year-old and 14-year-old) living just outside Beirut. Lebanon has ramped up its social distancing policy in recent days. And Ferneine said for now, things seem to be under control. She’s exercising caution because she lives with her parents who are in their early 70s.
“Once in a while, whenever we get cabin fever, my daughter and I get into the car and we just drive around. And then we come back home and sit down. We’re just entertaining ourselves in the simplest ways. That’s all we can do so far.”
She said her kids aren’t too troubled by the change in routine, especially since they have access to the internet so they can still communicate with their friends easily. “Once in a while,” she said, “whenever we get cabin fever, my daughter and I get into the car and we just drive around. And then we come back home and sit down. We’re just entertaining ourselves in the simplest ways. That’s all we can do so far.”
Courtesy of Pamela Ferneine
An uncertain future
We’re all looking towards when this virus will be behind us, parents and kids alike. Faiza Mushtaq of Pakistan explained that one of the hardest things for her has been “the uncertainty and not knowing how to prepare. The other more difficult conversation which we’ve had is what happens if one of us falls sick? How it’ll be really hard to stay apart and not hug and kiss.”
“I hope that soon scientists will find out a cure. Or it might suddenly disappear.”
Little Unė told me she wished “that it would go away somehow.” Farah echoed those sentiments, saying, “I hope that soon scientists will find out a cure. Or it might suddenly disappear.” And when that day of cure or retreat of the virus finally dawns, Farah, who turns 9 later this year, simply hopes “that we’re allowed to go out so that I can have a birthday party.”
She’s not the only kid who told me they’re hoping for a traditional birthday party. And this may be the biggest irony for children: They’re singing "happy birthday" more than ever before, but they’re likely to be celebrating their own birthdays with far fewer friends in person than they’d like.
Courtesy of the Kubilius family