Recently, my children and I celebrated my wife’s birthday.
I reflected on how we spent her birthday last year, and it was jolting to consider how much has changed in twelve months.
The life we are living now would have been unimaginable only 365 days ago, yet here we are, doing our best to move through the world and raise our children while the ground we walk on feels shaky and uncertain.
Parenting can be hard at the best of times, and parenting during a pandemic can leave us feeling overwhelmed and isolated. When our own lives are turbulent, we instinctively worry whether we are doing the right thing for our children. It’s also natural to wonder what impact the pandemic is having on them and how the prolonged uncertainty will affect them in years to come.
Over the past year, I became interested in what enables some children and adolescents to endure tremendous challenges and emerge unscathed on the other side. This exploration led me to the work of Dr. Ann Masten of the University of Minnesota.
Dr. Masten has spent decades examining the effects of childhood adversity, studying children who were refugees and others who faced natural disasters, homelessness, war, and poverty. One might imagine that that such experiences will forever scar these children, but that is not always the case.
A number of these children experienced post-traumatic growth, a phenomenon in which people improve their level of functioning after a traumatic effect. Others experienced stress inoculation (or steeling effects), which occurs when exposure to stressful situations teaches children how to handle challenging situations in the future.
Research has clearly shown that stressful situations do not always have long-term adverse effects on children and adolescents. That being the case, what must we do to help our children experience post-traumatic growth in response to the pandemic instead of becoming fearful and anxious?
The solution is expressed in the title of Dr. Masten’s book, Ordinary Magic: Resilience in Development
. Dr. Masten’s research has revealed that what helps children thrive despite war, poverty, and homelessness is very simple. She discovered that “the most powerful protective system for a human child is a loving, caring family.”
I found it tremendously reassuring that the things that will enable our children to manage uncertainty—and thrive despite it—are within our reach.
As parents, we need to:
Create emotional security by being sensitive to our children’s emotions and providing reassurance, hope, and optimism.
Carve out space to spend time together as a family, even if it’s only a game, dinner, or movie once a week.
Put age-appropriate boundaries around news and social media consumption.
Manage our own emotions to ensure that we are parenting mindfully.
Develop and maintain family routines.
Despite the magnitude of what our children have experienced, I believe their futures will be bright because they are surrounded by people who love them both at home and at school. As we move through this time, focus every day on the “ordinary magic.” These brief moments will give our children the internal fortitude to manage the present and thrive in the future.
Head of School