The Kids of Corona: Cultivating Character

In recent weeks, we’ve gone from seeking out whatever morsels of information we could find about a little understood contagion to being flooded with a deluge of content on what is now a global pandemic. For the aspiring epidemiologists among us, there have been pieces about the genome structure of the virus and infographics demonstrating how long a sneeze lasts on various surfaces. For the politically-minded, there has been no shortage of profiles on the failures of leadership and the futility of borders. The economists have had their say (and surely will continue to), as have the environmentalists, the faith leaders and the union organizers. In my tiny corner of the world—the world of education, child development and family cohesion—I have been delighted to witness the proliferation of educational technology, pedagogic innovation and a temporary but dramatic transfer of focus from school to home.

There have been important articles, posts, videos and memes that all give voice to different approaches to helping children, adolescents and families survive this turbulent time.  Some have illustrated the value of having the adults in a child’s life help articulate and validate their complicated emotions. Others have pointed to the need for those same adults to model empathy as their children experience inevitable disappointments. And still more have highlighted the benefit to all when we establish boundaries, routines and expectations.

All of these, and more, are essential components for easing our children (and ourselves!) into this new, unanticipated chapter in our collective lives. But our job as the important adults in their lives is not only to help our children survive, but indeed to help them thrive. It has been established that learning and growth come more tangibly in the uncomfortable moments than the comfortable ones. So the question is, how do we harness the potential of these uncomfortable moments in a way that nurtures character development and growth within our children? How can we go beyond these important foundational ideas and practices in order to guide our kids towards perspective, empowerment, altruism and resilience? (I’m so glad you asked… let’s take a look…)

In a recent New York Times piece focused on parents handling their children’s disappointments when everything seems to be getting cancelled, the author ends with a critical thought: “While some kids have a glass-half-full outlook naturally, others need to develop that over time, and these kinds of disappointments are great opportunities to do that.” And herein lies the secret to how we get our children not only to survive, but also to thrive, during both this unprecedented pandemic and during the many challenges and disappointments that are sure to come.

THE ART OF PERSPECTIVE TAKING

First, we ought to acknowledge that this is not limited to kids. We all know plenty of adults whose glass-half-full outlooks haven’t “developed over time.” In these moments of uncertainty and disappointment, it’s not enough to articulate and validate and create routine. It is our job, as those responsible for crafting the character of our children, to teach them the skills of perspective taking. “Of course it is heartbreaking that your school play has been cancelled. Can you think of something that might be happening in someone else’s life that might be even harder than that?” Help guide them toward answers that are age appropriate and relatable. Or, “of course it is heartbreaking that your graduation has been cancelled. But can you imagine how awful it would be if the school allowed the graduation to take place, and then hundreds of kids in your school got sick? We are so lucky to live in a place where the people in charge really care about our health enough to make very hard decisions.”

Yes, the cancellations of annual school trips, family smachot and important milestones are crushing to those involved, and to those who love those who are involved. It is important to allow time for the jolt of the disappointment to reverberate and settle, in some ways allowing the child or adolescent (or adult) to experience the various stages of grief (shock, denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance.) But at a certain point, this is the very moment in which a responsible adult can gently help a child understand the value of acceptance, that we don’t always get what we want, that life isn’t always fair, and that disappointments—great and small—are an inevitable part of the human experience.

It is also an opportunity to reflect on the many blessings in life, and to remind your child that they still have much for which to be thankful. These conversations are not the seeds of anger or depression, but rather a long-term antidote to them. We learn a great deal in hard moments. This is one of them, and the potential life lessons are limitless.

ACCOUNTABILITY AND RESPONSIBILITY

Beyond perspective, there is enormous value in holding children responsible for the needs of others. In a moment during which there is a sense that all control has been lost, making a commitment and sticking to it can empower a child to feel the sense of control that s/he misses so much. It might be as mundane as being in charge of watering the house plants or making sure all dishes are cleared after every meal, to somewhat more significant responsibilities like helping younger siblings with schoolwork or teaching them a new skill every day.

Young children could take upon themselves a commitment to making cards to send to nursing homes where visitors are no longer allowed, or to recording themselves reading children’s books in funny voices and loading them onto YouTube for home-bound children to watch, or to drafting a list of different friends or relatives to check in on every day to make sure they’re not feeling lonely.

The list of possibilities is endless. To varying degrees, we all crave a sense of control, especially when control feels lost. Encouraging responsibility facilitates the opportunity for a sense of control, of ritual and routine. More than that, though, empowering children (of all ages) to be responsible to someone else sends the message that they are not a powerless victim, that they have strengths and capabilities that are useful to others, and that in order to get through this troubling time, it requires the energy and efforts of everyone, including them.

We are living in categorically unprecedented times, and enormous uncertainty abounds. Nobody can predict how or when this current public health crisis will end. Where we do have answers, however, is in the nature of the human condition. We know a great deal about cultivating character, about the power of perspective, and the benefits of taking responsibility. We know what happens when we are allowed to feel sorry for ourselves for too long, and what happens when we are empowered to think positively, to act proactively, and to make life-enhancing lemonade out of pandemic lemons. Let’s teach our kids to make lemonade, and then let’s enjoy it together.

About the Author
Dr. Aviva Goldstein is an educator, lecturer and family counselor with a private practice based in Jerusalem. She occupies the space where the worlds of positive psychology, parenting, child & adolescent development and Judaism come together. The common thread throughout her work is the desire to bring research findings and insights about children to the people who raise them.
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