In the 1980s and ’90s, it was common for television and radio stations to broadcast the time between 9PM and 11 PM, followed by asking parents if they know where their children are. Today, that question is more urgent than ever. While COVID and lockdowns have given parents increased opportunities to be home with their children, there was never a greater need to know where your children are emetically, socially, and yes, spiritually as well. Reports of depression, suicide, disassociation, and all too many troubling threats and challenges are too common among young adults.
So, what can we do about that? Here are some suggestions:
While there vast amounts of online articles written by the brightest psychologists on how to help children during these times, those won’t make a difference unless we ask the question. The question of how children are doing is not one that can be asked by parents, teachers, rabbis, and community organizations. Unless we openly and collectively recognize the need to ask this question and make it a priority, we will not be able to properly address it. Of course, parents are primary caregivers and should be the first in line to check in on how their children are doing, yet children are far more likely to be responsive if they recognize this is part of a communitywide effort.
It is time for synagogues, schools, extended family, parents, and old siblings to make this our top priority. As a rabbi, I will confess we did not do enough. As COVID broke out, our top priority was to check on the oldest and most vulnerable in our community; we should continue to do so. Yet as vaccine rollout begins and covid solutions become more common, checking on our children needs to be our first priority. I say our children because properly addressing this crisis will not be effective if we address it narrowly—we must all address the question of how the children in our communities and families are doing. Together we must make sure we properly attend to those needs, assess the damage that was done, and compensate for whatever we can. When doing so we must focus on 3 main fields—
Physical emotional- this past year placed children in situations where they often had decreased physical activities, decreased social interactions, increased internet, and social media exposure, and often parents working longer hours. As if all these were not enough, in many cases, children also had to face their family’s financial uncertainty, illness in the family, loss of life, and in the case of 300,000 New Yorkers, geographical relocation. More than anything, now is the time for families and communities to place at a top priority to assess children’s physical and emotional wellbeing.
While there is no question most parents have been doing this assessment, it is essential we put this forward as a community platform. Organizations, synagogues, social circles, and other forms of community must prioritize resources and programming to make sure our children are okay. Physical and emotional wellbeing must be at the very top of communities’ public agenda. We need to normalize the possibility that when parents do check on kids now, the answer is “no, I am not okay”, and have a proper response to that. If parents do not know what to do or do not have resources when they find out that the answer is “no, I am not okay”, then checking in does not really do much.
Parents need to be able to assess their children’s state and have accessible solutions and leads of what to do to support their children. Furthermore, as the father of modern-day positive psychology professor Martin Seligman put it, we cannot only ask ourselves how to cure problems, we must ask what it is that we can do to make children thrive; often the very cure to a lack of wellbeing is inspiring a positive goal of thriving. These goals must be on the tip of the tongues of parents, educators, and community members.
Social- all children have now been socially isolated in one way or another for more than a year. For many of them, it is more than 10% of the lives that they lived. For some, it is more than 20%. This is true regardless of the family, community, or state you live in; social interactions have not been the same since the pandemic has begun. Needless to say, this places a huge toll on children’s social life. Parents and communities must do all they can to increase healthy social interactions as well as making individual assessments of children’s social wellbeing.
This does not only include positively increasing a child’s social circle but also examining possible poor social choices. Questions such as: “has my child found refuge from social isolation on the wrong corners of TikTok, Discord, or other places that are not safe for them? What social substitutes have they found during the pandemic, and is that best for them? Have they been losing contact with a friend who has been a positive influence on them due to a physical distance?” all these questions and more should be on parents’ minds.
Spiritual- there is so much that is social that goes into raising Jewish and spiritual children. From synagogue to playgroups, Hebrew and Day School, summer camps, and so much more. Many if not most of these forms of interaction, inspiration, and education, have been altered over the past year. In that case, we cannot assume that children are where we had left them off. Just as we would never assume a child who missed a year of math classes might be exactly where we had left him off, we cannot assume that children’s Jewish identity is where we left it off in March of 2020.
Extended absence from extended family, summer camp, day school, Hebrew school, synagogue, trips to Israel, or anything else that has contributed to your child’s Jewish and spiritual identity has not been there the same way it has in the past. Parents, communities, schools, and organizations must make the most extraordinary efforts to supplement and do our best to make up for all children lost during this past year.
As we approach Passover, we are once again reminded there is nothing more sacred in Judaism than to communicate our values to the next generation and to put children’s education and wellbeing at the epicenter of our communal priorities. After a year of having to address so many different crises, our top and most urgent priority should be to find out exactly how our children are doing, what challenges they are facing, and what it is that we can do to help them overcome and thrive.