Parenting During a Pandemic

An assortment of teddy bears of different colors and sizes in a doll bed

What do you and your family need during a time of pandemic? What challenges do you face to hold your family in spiritual, physical, social, and material health? Unitarian Universalist values, practices, and virtual connections can support families in new ways at this time. Explore ideas here.

Resources for congregational leaders to support faith development at home. 

When You Can’t Supervise Your Children Online

child riding a bike with training wheels looking backwards

In the last few months, children and teens across the country have been getting more freedom than they’re used to right now. (Companion post focusing on teens)

Like the day a child is allowed to bike to the end of the street, walk around the block, or ride the local bus, this can be exciting, but also anxiety inducing. As parents and caregivers, we know there are going to be times they won't call when they're supposed to, they go further than they’re allowed, or don’t come home on time. Then we’ll need to have another conversation about trust and set some new temporary boundaries while we rebuild trust. 

From the time babies start crawling, children and parents are navigating the balance between freedom to explore and the safety of adult presence, knowledge, and experience. Trust and open communication are key to gradually allowing children more freedom. 

Trust needs to be scaffolded. One layer at a time with the boundaries we judge as best for our children now. Just as we give our children permission to travel further from home on their own as they prove themselves ready, we can build trust in their electronic and online use.

Open communication helps us have the conversations we need to have to help our children grow emotionally, understand our values, understand how to keep themselves and their friends safer, and develop their own values. When we show we care, that we’re here to listen to their feelingsincluding what they wish they were allowed to dowe’re showing we’ll be here when they have something they really need to share with us. 

So, all those conversations about the YouTuber they’re watching or the video game they’re playing is building the trust and skills everyone needs for when something uncomfortable happens. One thing I know, from conversations with UU teens, is they’ve all seen and experienced hard things online. Remember just as an adult’s Facebook feed looks different from someone else’s, the online world our children and teens see can be very different from what we see when we log in.

It can help to have a technology agreement: what technology can be used, when it can be used and for what, and what conversations need to happen before a child adds a new app or game to a device. This agreement will be different for each child; it’s not about what their friends are doing, but what they’re ready for: One child’s self-esteem isn’t bothered at all by Instagram, another wants to be on it for the wrong reasons. One teen is able to put the phone down and go right to sleep, another needs the phone in a communal basket before bed time or they’re up all night. 

Trust, Tech Use, and Faith Formation

This is all faith formation. It doesn’t happen all at once. It happens one small conversation at a time as our children grow to adults with the responsibility to navigate the world. And it’s not just their faith formation, it’s ours. Clarifying our own values, listening to their insights, wrestling with why we’re uncomfortable with something--this is how we grow, too! We say our children are our teachers, which is so often true. And also true, that because of our love and care for them, we grow in ways we might not even have chosen.

Conversations to Have and Things to Consider

Be explicit about trust. Ask them what trust means to them, then share what trust means to you. Be clear about what helps your trust in them grow. Consider what kinds of trust you’re talking about: Trust that they’re sticking to the agreement? Trust in their judgement? Trust that they’re safe? Trust that they’ll bring anything concerning to you? And think about what kinds of trust they need from you. 

Have a process for picking new apps, video games, even movies. Particularly as you build trust, download the app yourself. Read some articles about it. Play the video game with them. Talk about the content of the movie. Knowing enough about what they’re doing gives you enough information to start conversations and ask questions.

Remember to think about video games as well--many video games include in-game chat that connects players around the world.

Another reason to not allow children to install their own apps and games is to screen them for malware and viruses.

What if they see something that makes them uncomfortable?

Make sure your kids know you’re always there to talk about anything uncomfortable. Tell them there are things on the internet that make you uncomfortable and you know it’s easier to be uncomfortable together than alone.

Pornography is usually the first thing that comes to mind for parents. Remember most children see sexually explicit images and video well before adults think they do. Assume your child will see sexually explicit mediaaccidentally or on purposeonce they’re surfing the internet on their own. They may or may not find that uncomfortablethey may be curious, interested, or trying to answer their own questions. It’s better to talk about it sooner than wait until they find it.

“Pornography can confuse and misinform young teens, in part because the performers are adults paid to have sex for entertainment’s sake.” Parents as Sexuality Educators (a UUA small group ministry program for parents and caregivers)

Before you talk with your children about sexually explicit media, it can be good to work through some of your own feelings about it. The resource Parents as Sexuality Educators has some questions to consider and talk about with a co-parent, friend, or group from your congregation.

Remember sexually explicit content isn’t the only uncomfortable thing on the internet—there's also racism, violence, sexism, and more. As parents we can’t protect them from all this forever; what we can do is prepare them before they experience it and keep them company as they learn all the ways the world isn’t the world we wish it were. We know that talking about race with all our children starting from when they’re young is critical. It’s the same with all of these conversations. It’s not about one big conversation, but many small conversations over the years. And the very presence of these things on the internet gives us both reasons to talk and many examples to explore.

The more you and your kids talk together about what you both notice in movies, apps, and books and ask them what they notice, the more practiced they’ll be at noticing what’s uncomfortable and why. When you notice something, ask them what they noticed and then point out what you noticed. And if you’ve been having these conversations already, it will be easier for them to come to you. Everything from pointing out implicit racism to noticing violence is both important faith development and for building this kind of trust.

Make an informed decision about blocking software. There are a variety of blocking software for different apps, browsers, and devices. Research thoroughly before using one: none will block all content you may wish your child not to see; all will block content you do want them to have access to; none will work on all apps and platforms; children can look up how to disable them; if your child can install apps, they can install those that access the unfiltered internet; and they may also be able to get on someone else’s device, use the neighbor’s wifi, etc. 

However, such software may be a good part of your partnership with your child if your child understands why it’s there, especially if the software helps them feel safer from content they also don’t want to see. Know that these kinds of software have a history of blocking content older children and teens should have access toespecially about being queer. It’s very hard, from a technology perspective, to block porn and allow age appropriate information around topics like sexuality or even breast cancer. In addition, these companies have always been under pressure from right wing family groups to view all issues of sexuality, queerness, and any related body function as inappropriate for children.

But using software isn’t the only option. You might consider giving younger children access only to apps you can control and to save internet searches and YouTube for family time. Gaining access to new apps for slightly older children may come with the agreement that as the parent, you get to check their use of that app from time to time. 

Talk to them about who they’re communicating with. With younger children on Facebook Messenger for Kids, you can see everything about their communication. As they grow, this can be a delicate balance as teens want some degree of privacy. But just as you’d ask who they’re hanging out at the park with, ask who they’re connecting with online. Make room to care about their online relationshipsthese relationships are just as important to them as their in person ones and have as much power both to harm or heal.

Talk to them about how they and their peers are behaving. What does compassion look like online for your kids? Speaking up when someone is being harmed? Consent? Are they paying attention to “where” they are online and who is listening? It might not all be behavior that’s your favorite and that’s okay. Still, it’s one thing to make body function jokes in a group of peers where everyone agrees, it’s another to do that in a space visible to a larger audience.

We know that with so much online time, internet bullying is way up. Your child may be observing behavior that makes them uncomfortable. They may even be participating in it. Or they may be being bullied. Being bullied has a tremendous negative impact, and it has led to deaths by suicide. Children and youth need to know what to watch for and how to get help from adults.

Bullying: participating in it or being bullied is a reason to cut back on how much internet access a child or teen has. While it can feel like it’s punishing the victim to remove access, it may be needed to protect your child and help rebuild their self-esteem. It can help them be able to tell their friends “I can’t be on that because my parents won’t let me.” 

What to do if they’re uncomfortable? With an adult? With a peer?

Talk about what behavior you expect from adults in their lives. Be explicit. The UUA recommends that  UU adult leaders never be in one-on-one chats online with youth because we have seen how those chats can be a place for gradual grooming by sexual predators, even in the UU religious settings in which we expect safety. We want our UU children and teens to see what safe behavior looks like by adults.

Talk together about how they might know an adult’s behavior isn’t right: Feeling uncomfortable is a big clue. Other clues are if the adult asks them to keep a secret, or if the adult is bothering them by sending them messages. Sometimes adults will do something slightly uncomfortable and they might wonder if they're being overly sensitive, but coming to talk about being uncomfortable is still important!

This is one of those times to be sure they know you won’t punish them if they come to you having made a mistake or gotten themselves into a situation that’s uncomfortable or wrong. You want them to come get help.

To get ready for this conversation you can read up on how online grooming works so you understand the way an adult will work to establish an online relationship with a child or teen that they don't want to reveal to adults in their life.)

Remind them that saying something to you, about peer bullying or adults making them uncomfortable is important both because you care about them and want them to be safe and because sometimes taking action can protect other children or teens from going through what they’ve gone through. Ask them if there’s anything you can do to make coming to you easier. And listen. Sometimes we’re doing something, often out of our own anxiety and worries, that makes us harder to talk to.

And help them list some adults they can go to if for some reason they don’t feel comfortable going to you first. Showing your children you trust them to talk to another adult and that you trust other adults will help build the layers of trust.

What if a peer isn’t safe?

Peers are often the first to notice when a friend is at risk from self-harm, drugs, bullying, emotional or physical abuse, or grooming by a sexual predator. Remind your children and teens to tell a trusted adult if another child or teen is hurting. Tell them it's not tattling or ratting out a friend; rather, it's acting responsibly to keep their friend safe.

Nudity 

Yes, it’s time for another conversation around consent and body parts. Be clear and tell your children and teens that sometimes adults or peers, ask children and teens to take pictures of themselves naked. You can compare this to someone touching them without their consent and tell them this is important not to keep a secret. (The FBI reports an uptick in this kind of activity right now.)

Kids need to know something about sexting before a peer suggests the activity. Tell them sometimes sharing naked pictures is a part of adult sexuality and there’s nothing wrong with nudity or taking naked pictures. Except that there are laws against taking pictures of naked kids to protect kids from exploitative adults and so taking pictures of oneself or receiving pictures of other people naked is a form of sexual activity that’s for grownups.

Just like every other aspect of sexuality education, age appropriate information is key. Kids who have thought about this before it happens will be able to better respond than those who haven’t. 

Final thoughts

None of this is easy. But in my experience of parenting and mentoring young people I’ve found few things are easy. My first job out of college was as the Director of Technology for a small girls’ boarding school, so I got the task of talking about the risks online with several hundred girls. While the technology has gotten more complex in the two decades since then, the issues are very much the same. And while there are very scary stories out there, the vast majority of kids and parents manage to get through this part of contemporary coming of age with smaller bumps and scratches instead of anything traumatic. And along the way most parents find their children, teens, and young adults teach them a lot too.

Resources

Commonsense Media has a lot to offer. Here are some good ones: Commonsense Media’s App Reviews , Resources for Families During the Coronavirus PandemicGuide to Parental Controls, and How to Talk to Teens about about Dealing with Online Predators

NY Times How to Protect Your Children from Online Sexual Predators

NY Times Teaching Your Kids to be Safe Online: A Hasty Primer 

Pornography specific:

Psyche yourself up with this really fabulous and funny Ted Talk! “It’s Time for the Talk” by Julia Sweeney

This New Zealand ad campaign encouraging parents to talk with their children is both hilarious and helpful. Could even be an icebreaker to watch with your child or teen.

Parents and Caregivers as Sexuality Educators session on pornography has good questions to explore as you get ready to talk about sexually explicit content with your child. 

 

 

Is My Teen Safe Online?

a grey cat looks at a picture on a phone

Internet safety with children is complicated enough, but parenting middle and high school teens brings even more complex challenges. (Companion post for all ages of children and teens)

The question of whether your teen is safe online comes down to trust and open communication. Open communication includes exploring values together and listening to teens’ emotions and experiences. Our teens are more likely to listen to our fears, concerns, and expectations if we listen deeply to theirs first.

So, all those conversations about the Youtuber they’re watching or the video game they’re playing is building the trust and skills everyone needs for when something uncomfortable happens. And even more than with younger children, it’s likely that some of the conversations with your teen will be pretty uncomfortable for you too.

Do I Want to Know What My Teen Is Doing Online?

No, you probably don’tbut maybe you should. We know from conversations with UU teens they’ve all seen and experienced hard things online. We've heard teens tell us they’ve accidentally seen bullying, fights, self harm, drug use, and even watched someone die violently online. This can happen from what shows up in a social media feed or a link a friend shares or even an innocent Google search. Remember just as an adult’s Facebook feed looks different from someone else’s, the online world our teens see can be very different than what we see when we log in.

Many of them don’t share what they see online with adults in their lives because they know that knowing will be hard for us. They know that we may be angry, sad, even grieve when they’re hurting. But if we don’t know, we can’t keep them company. Further, some teens do end up in harmful situationswith someone older pressuring them sexually or an adult using the online world to abuse them. 

What Can I Do?

Talk to your teenagers. Listen more than you talk.

Let them know you are truly there for them. Ask them what would help them feel more comfortable coming to you. Acknowledge your discomfortthey can tell anyway. And reaffirm that you won’t punish them if they come to you having made a mistake or gotten themselves into a situation that’s uncomfortable or wrong.

I have read the text strings where an adult gradually steps across the line of what’s acceptable, where at first a teen might not realize anything is wrong, until the teen feels embarrassed for their parents to see. And that is exactly what a sexual predator is trying to do.

Things to Consider and Conversations to Have

Here are some areas to talk abouta small amount at a time, repeatedly over the years. The way you talk about them with your middle schooler will be different than with your high schooler. The repetition is important for many reasons: to build relationship and trust, to make sure they remember what you said, and so you can add things you forgot to say earlier.

Safe Adult Behavior 

Talk with them how to recognize when an adult is safe. Ask them what makes them feel safe, what’s uncomfortable, and then share with them what you know. Talk about teachers, coaches, youth advisors, folks from church. Instead of asking them directly what they’ve experienced, you can start by asking what their friends and peers have experienced. As you build their trust in you, you can ask if they’ve had similar experiences. Be prepared to feel angry and sad: Teens, particularly girls, have probably already experienced sexual harassment, cat calling, and other creepy things not only from peers but from adults. 

Remind them that there are adults online who are predators and that this makes you anxious and afraid. Conversations like this go better with a little adult vulnerability. They’ll listen better if they’re doing so to help you feel better than if they think you’re lecturing. And it’s okay to admit you’re afraid for them or anxious because you don’t know what it’s like to be a teen now. Remind them to be careful about what information they give to people they haven’t met in person and to never to meet a stranger before telling you about it. 

Help them identify the safe adults in their lives whom they trust and whom they could go to if for some reason they feel like they can’t go to you. Reassure them it’s more important for them to seek a safe adult than to come to you first and you’ll understand. (I know you’ll probably have some feelings about this, but your teen doesn’t need to be burdened by them).

Privacy

In some ways teens understand online privacy better than adultsit’s adults who take the seemingly innocent online Facebook quizzes that give companies like Cambridge Analytica data about them and repost Facebook posts giving answers that could give away passwords.

Teens value their privacy so much they gravitate to platforms with disappearing and secret messages. This is why Instagram has added disappearing messages! They sometimes keep two accountsone more public and one more private where they can be their real selves without the pressure of looking like they have it together.

But it’s always a good idea to have a conversation about what personal information to share or not share online and that anything one posts can hang around forevereven disappearing messages. But especially if your teen is older, it’s probably worth having a conversation where you ask your teen’s advice too. They may surprise you about how much they can help you.

Can I Look?

With younger kids, I think parents should be watching young children’s internet explorations and looking at older children’s online activities at least occasionally. This is part of supervising them and part of building trustthat they are behaving well online and they’re sticking to the family agreement; and seeing what conversations to have about what they’re watching, playing, and talking about.

As they grow, this can be a delicate balance as teens want more privacy. The ongoing family conversation is: Where’s the current balance between ensuring your trust and avoiding things that feel invasive of their need for privacy?

This works best as an ongoing evolution with conversation rather than a fast change. If you’ve been having conversations about which app they install, who they’re talking to, and what they’re doing, you’ll be gaining a good sense of their discernment and building trust that they’ll come to you if they need you.

But, if they’ve had trouble telling you about something that’s happened online, whether something they did or something someone did to them, you may need to do more looking for a little while.

Teens do need and deserve privacy to talk with their friendsthe challenge is to help them create safer spaces in which to do that. Having a parent read some of what they’re doing online would feel invasive, like letting you read their diary.

But, if your teen is working overtime to find ways to have secret conversations that are hidden from you that’s a sign to stop and do some talking. Maybe with a therapist. Are they not getting enough privacy? Have you been invasive in ways that eroded their trust in you? Or are they involved in unsafe activities they know will worry you? 

I Have No Idea What That App Does…

It is a good idea to know what apps they’re using and to research them, especially together. Read the reviews, know what’s possible, and talk together about what your teen might do in response. And know there are lots of apps that look like one thing but are not, like photo organizers that hide private messaging functions.

Remember to think about video games as well--many video games include in-game chat that connects players around the world.

Sexting and Screenshots

Talking about sexting with your teen is a good idea. Exchanging nude pictures can be a healthy sexual expressionmany adults engage in this.

However, in the United States the legal landscape often treats teen sexting as child pornography rather than respecting the consent of the young people involved. Check out the laws together (https://www.bark.us/blog/state-by-state-differences-in-sexting-laws/) to talk about what the risks are where you live.

And it can be risky in other ways. Remind your teens that even if they feel it’s safe to sext with someone they know and trust, like a significant other, that there’s a chance their conversation or photos could be recorded, stored or shared long after they would have considered it consensual. This can be especially likely after a break up when a formerly loving and caring partner is really angry. Even photos shared as a “disappearing” message can be saved as a screenshot and live on in internet servers. It’s also a sign of an unhealthy relationship if someone requests a sexy photo as “proof” of your love.

As your teen gets close to adulthood, it may be helpful to have a harm reduction conversation with them about how to reduce the dangers should they choose to sext once they turn 18. This resource is from Canada (which doesn’t have the same punitive laws) can be a helpful start to a conversation.

Sexually Explicit Material

If you haven’t talked about sexually explicit images and videos on the internet, especially with younger teens who haven’t yet taken Our Whole Lives for grades 7-9, it’s a good idea to do so now. We know kids see sexually explicit media well before parents expect them to. It could happen accidentally, or they may be curious.

“Pornography can confuse and misinform young teens, in part because the performers are adults paid to have sex for entertainment’s sake.” Parents as Sexuality Educators (a UUA small group ministry program for parents and caregivers)

Before having this conversation it can be good to clarify your own thoughts and feelings about sexually explicit media by having a conversation with other parents from your congregation or your co-parent or friends.

Are Their Friends Safe?

Talk to your teens now about what they’d do if a friend is in an unsafe situation. Almost every single time I have learned of a youth harming themselves or being harmed by someone else, it’s their friend who either comes forward first or helps them come forward. This includes abuse at home, abuse from other adults, suicidal thoughts, and self-harm.

Ask your teen who they’d go to for help if they felt like they couldn’t tell you. Ask them what would help them tell you. Tell them you know they care for their friends and you would want to help.

Talk to your teen about cutting and self-harm. This is not the same as suicideit’s a cry for help. Talk to them about suicidal ideation. Sometimes people feel so terrible that they want to kill themselves. If they wonder if a friend is feeling that badlythey shouldn’t feel afraid to ask. “Do you want to kill yourself?” and if the answer is maybe or yes they should get adult help fast.

Talk to them about how they and their peers are behaving.  We know that with so much online time internet bullying is way up. Your child may be observing behavior that makes them uncomfortable. They may even be participating in it. Or they may be being bullied. Being bullied has tremendous negative impact, even leading to suicide. Children and youth need to know what to watch for and how to get help from adults.

Bullying: participating in it or being bullied, is a reason to cut back on how much internet access a teen has. While it can feel like it’s punishing the victim to remove access, it may be needed to protect your child and help rebuild their self-esteem. It can help them be able to tell their friends “I can’t be on that because my parents won’t let me.” 

Talk about Values

Our teens are being targeted online by those who want to influence how they think and what they believe. In particular our white teenagers are being targeted by those who would like to pull them into the alt-right and then into white supremacy movements.Yes, this is happening to our UU teens too. 

Our world is profoundly unsafe in many ways and our teenagers are growing into adults who will need to navigate and act. As much as we want to protect them from all that’s there, developing enough trust to talk about it together will help them more. Even if it’s hard for us.

The Internet Does a Lot of Good Too!

Especially right now while we’re all home physically distanced, we’re grateful for the ways the internet connects us to friends and loved ones. This is particularly important for teenagers who are busy becoming their own people, and connecting with their friends is vital for that.

The internet also allows youth to connect to other teens like them. Like how our queer and trans youth find each other and connect, even if they’re isolated. It allows them to connect with queer and trans elders and mentors like Kate Bornstein. 

Final Thoughts

I started my adult career as a 21 year old Director of Technology at a small girls boarding schoolin charge of the computer labs, the servers, the internet filter, and the annual internet safety presentation. And now I’ve been in UU youth ministry one way or another for more than a decade.

I want to offer both the hope and sober reality of what I’ve seen. I’ve seen UU teens targeted by older people online. I’ve seen the online sexual grooming from an adult they know in real life. And I’ve seen how they’ve bullied and hurt even each other.

But mostly, I’ve seen how much they love and care about each other and use the internet to amplify that love. And now more than ever they need that love and connection. I am so grateful this pandemic is happening when we have an internet to use. And even though there are dangers, the world has dangers too and this is a time our teens can keep learning, growing, and getting better at navigating the world we’re handing down to them.

Resources
 

Platforms and Apps

As UUA staff we have been assessing which platforms are ones which are safe(r) for youth ministry and which ones are less ideal.

Commonsense Media’s App Reviews

Sex Ed during a Pandemic

Your OWL program is on hold, yes, but your child’s sex education doesn’t have to be on hold. 

Resource list 

Parents and Caregivers as Sexuality Educators is a small group ministry program to help parents and caregivers talk together so that we can be better sexuality educators with our kids. Because we are our kids’ primary sexuality educators. You could ask your congregation to help you set up a group or you can use the questions to talk with your friends and co-workers. The sessions on pornography and social media may be especially helpful now!

Wondering How the Alt-Right Targets Young People?

Great observations and advice on how to have conversations with white teenagers

Andrew Mckay breaks in down in his blog A Unitarian Universalist Pipeline to the Alt-Right 

NY Times blog The Daily features one young man’s experience in “The Rabbit Hole” 

A parent shares her experience in “What Happened After My 13-Year-Old Son Joined the Alt-Right

Parenting with Heartbreak

three houses in silhouette on a hill at night, windows lit and stars above

In a pandemic, amid outcry over police murders of black people, how can a mother address the gravity of these traumas without sending children into despair?

I often go to bed during this pandemic wondering if my heart can hurt anymore. Then I wake up and see the news and my heartache continues. I wonder what to say to my children.

What do I say to my little one, versus what I say to my teens about the state of our country? How can I keep some sense of normalcy in their everyday lives when I just want to scream and shout and cry in pain, sadness, and anger? And how can I explain to them the gravity of our current state without also sending them into despair and hopelessness?

My five-year old is autistic and has more love and life and laughter than anyone else I know. How do I share things with her without snuffing out her light? I’ve chosen to call this time of COVID-19 as “the sickness” with her. We also refer to it as “the time of sickness.” When she asks about going to the beach or wonders why she can’t go inside grandma’s house, I remind her that it’s “the time of the sickness” and we will go when it is safe to go. We talk about keeping our loved ones safe and healthy and how we all make sacrifices so that everyone can be safe. We honor her frustration and we do fun activities and that is as much as I chose to share with her at this point because I feel that is enough.

The other two in my house are thirteen and sixteen. I want them to understand the full gravity of the pandemic and the race tensions. I want them to understand the police violence and the injustices. I want them to know how the pandemic affects communities in different ways. I share with them my hurt and my pain and my anger. I let them see my tears. I ask them to think and reflect and share their own feelings. We talk about what they might share with their grandchildren when they reflect back on 2020 years and years from now. We talk about where they see us going as a country, as a family and as part of the Unitarian Universalist faith.

Some nights I sit in my yard at my fire pit and stare at them through the window. Not in a creepy way but in admiration. We can have these difficult conversations and, moments later, they’re engrossed in a video game or laughing on the phone with friends. We also sit around the dining room table playing games and laughing so hard our stomachs hurt. And yet, inevitably, one or the other will crawl in my bed late at night, the tears streaming down their face. Sometimes words come with the tears and other times we sit in silence with the weight of it all pinning us to the bed.

These times are tough. I want to live fully and presently in the moment. I want to understand and embrace. I want to challenge and love. I want to be present for the full complexities we are facing right now and I want to press on. I want to have hope. I so desperately want to have hope. And I feel spending all day, every day in the house with my three kids, allows me to go to bed each night with a glimmer of hope as I kiss them all goodnight. With all that is pressing down on us, they have hope. They share their dreams for our country and our world. They believe in humanity and in our ability to come together and I hold on to their hopes and dreams in my own desire to one day have hope again myself. But for now, I kiss them, I hold them tight and I am grateful for the gifts they give me.

Find more UU wisdom for parents and caregivers in this time of pandemic and racial trauma, in the UUA's LeaderLab Library.

Afrocentric in Two Pandemics: Covid and Racism

A Black daughter sits on her mother's knee in a grassy park under a tree

In April of this year, in Washington DC, my Aunt Mae learns that she has to fight an aggressive cancer that is overtaking her blood system. She is shipped to a low-standard hospital, rather than to the better hospital closer to her home. Her three daughters, all essential health care workers reliant on public transportation, now have an extra stress as they must get their Mom safely and as comfortably as possible to each of her appointments on time.

The specter of the COVID-19 virus hangs continuously in the air and challenges my ability to have my worth and dignity honored. In this pandemic season, we can ill afford to lower our defenses. We must remain crystal clear about the disparities affecting the lives of black and brown communities of which we UUs of color are a part. While I live in a mostly economically secure New York City neighborhood, in the ethnic richness between my Asian and Hasidic neighbors, I share community with the people of color who make a majority in the city’s less comfortable and less well-served neighborhoods.

Folks believe that this pandemic is impartial to race. Really…? Not true. Not at all true… People of color are amongst those who work tirelessly. Recently, I heard that a custodian of color at my UU congregation spoke of having lost 5 of his “homies.” By now, I suspect that the number has at least doubled.

As a parent of color, it’s always been especially important to me to give positive messages to my child, messages strong enough to counter the narratives received outside of my sphere of influence, concern, and care.

I ensure that my home reflects me: My love of my familial arc across the generations. My unapologetic Afrocentricity. My unshakeable commitment to building the Beloved Community. My Unitarian Universalist faith.

I ensure that I continue to model these values for my five-year old granddaughter. We are not able to sit side by side. She’s in Baltimore; I’m in New York. We Zoom as best we can, enjoying our Mima and Simone time. She dances for me, we read to each other, we share memories, and we share stories. She’s looking forward to our visit to the Motherland within the next five years.

It’s important to me that we share rituals, too. We light our UU chalices near the start of our time together and extinguish them as we bid each other goodnight. We share images of our current altars and recognize that although life seems hardly to move, our altars remind us that little changes happen daily. Simone finds a beautiful leaf on her walk in the park; it rests on her altar reminding her of her love for nature. My sister Hope and I receive wonderful homemade gifts from two dear young friends, and now a candle and scroll reside on my altar, reminding me of love across distance.

A generation ago, I swam against the tide helping my daughter Lehna and niece Jova unlearn lies, sometimes gently named as “untrue facts,” in order to strengthen their sense of worth and dignity. With Simone’s generation, I am again swimming against the tide. This time, I do so with a growing sense of urgency. I do not have the luxury of time to ensure that Simone belongs in her communities—whether at home, school, or at church. 

Across all manner of difference, the question of belonging comes to the fore. Who is ready for a gifted student who is trans, an electrician who is a lesbian, a man who is a nurse? A non-threatening black boy? Societal stereotypes die hard. My Unitarian Universalist faith demands that I continue to counter unhealthy, unsafe, and untrue narratives that hurt us all.

The COVID-19 virus has given us the opportunity to make real our commitment to justice across all barriers. May we take the baton and carry on.

Parenting Children and Youth With Special Needs

Sarah Lammert

The Rev. Sarah Lammert

I’m a parent of a 21-year-old living with autism.  We are getting along OK in this pandemic with online college for her, and more opportunities than usual to practice life skills like cooking together. I’ve been talking with some of you who are parenting children and teens with special needs at home, and I’m hearing that the standard parenting advice out there (Do More! Do Less! Allow screen time! Limit screen time! Do crafts! Have dance parties!) doesn’t feel relevant and even feels shaming and harmful. 

I want to say this to you: 

  • First, I say all this with so much love for you! 

  • You know your child best, and you know your own limits. 

  • Do what you think is right.

  • Do what you are able to sustain.

You are parents who know this pandemic is not hitting all of us in the same way – there are all sorts of in/justice factors here and we aren’t all resourced in the same ways. Some of us have medically fragile kids who also have cognitive or other challenges, and just managing their basic needs and providing some movement, care, and calming techniques comprises excellent parenting right now. 

Some of us have kids who are emotionally or otherwise unable to connect to online learning, kids who need some space and understanding from us more than enforced routines. 

Some of our kids need routine more than air almost. A wipe-board schedule with snack time, and craft time, and get-outside time and learning time (and blessedly, bedtime) is really the only choice even though it means you have little down time for yourself. 

Keep breathing. You are enough even when you don’t feel like you are.

  • It is enough if you don’t do any cleaning because you are juggling a paying job and time with your kids. 

  • It is enough to manage getting by with half or less of your previous household income right now rather than attending to the full educational needs of your child this week. 

  • It is enough if you have to resort to having cereal for dinner some nights because you don’t have the time or energy to cook. 

  • It is enough to sit outside your front door for a time out, and it is enough if you need to cry. 

  • It is enough if burn-out overtakes you; it is enough to recognize burn-out coming and take the break you need.

  • It is enough to take joy in the simplest things, and to mourn all that is lost.

Finally, it is more than OK to ask for help. 

What is helping you manage right now? Where else can you turn?

Some school districts and social service providers are going above and beyond right now, while others are really not. I’ve always found other parents of special needs children to be the best sources of information about where to turn for advocacy, fulfillment of IEPs, assessment for services, and now online support. 

We’ve posted a few helpful links below. Feel free to send us suggestions you’d like us to share.

More importantly, what is feeding your spirit? 

  • Do you have time to take a deep breath?

  • Look out a window?

  • Listen to some music? 

  • Take a brief pause?

You are a good gift. You are enough. 

The Rev. Sarah Lammert is the Co-Director for Ministries and Faith Development at the UUA.  She is a divorced (and recently remarried amidst COVID!) parent of two young adults, the younger of whom lives with autism and social anxiety disorder, and lives at home. She hails from Northern Vermont, and is amazed at the resilience and creativity of special needs parents and caregivers.

Further Resources

Creating Family Covenants

Stuck at home together, every family member’s behavior affects others some exponential degree more than usual. Families may wish to try making a covenant together. 

Rev. Jason Seymour serves our congregation in Springfield, MA. During the pandemic, he and his wife are working from home and parenting two elementary school children. He wrote this note to his congregation: 

Hi, all 

I know that we Seymours are in a similar boat as some of you. Jen and I are trying to each telecommute full-time, while also parenting - and now home-schooling - our grade-school-aged kids. We're grateful for the flexibility, but that flexibility has meant that we're all on top of each other all the time. It's a bit nuts, but we're getting there. 

We needed some more structure in our house so as to minimize the endless tug-of-war and so that the adults could get our work done. So... on Tuesday, I put on my small group ministry hat and we created a family covenant and a schedule. The covenant has given us a great framework for reminding one another about how we'd like to live together... especially since we are together a lot more now!! Really, we should've done this a while ago... but 'social distancing' - and the resultant 'family squishing'! - has made this need all the more apparent. 

Anyway, I thought I'd share with you the covenant that we came up with collaboratively. We all talked; I took notes; Jen wrote it up; and then we all signed it. Has it solved all of our issues? No, but at least now we have an agreed upon framework by which to call one another 'in'... instead of mom & dad calling the kids 'out' all the time. 

With love, and with a prayer of peace & health, from our home to yours... 

Rev. Jason

More About Covenants

A covenant is a promise between members of a group on specific ways they will behave to show mutual respect, kindness, and acceptance and to express their shared goal of right relationship. Covenanting is a grounding practice in Unitarian Universalist faith tradition and it is central to who we are and have been as a people of faith: Our UU congregations form our Association by covenant. Most Unitarian Universalist small group ministry programs and many children’s and youth programs create covenants as part of the group process so that everyone has a say in guidelines for a safe, supportive space. 

A family covenant is NOT a way to get your kids to behave as you wish. However, it provides a respectful, open forum for all ages to reflect and express what they need from one another. Creating a family covenant together, leaning into it, and revisiting it when a change is needed can be a meaningful religious education activity all generations can explore. 

Tapestry of Faith children’s religious education programs often engage the group in making a covenant for their time together. To create a family covenant you can turn to online activities such as one from Love Connects Us, a program for grades 4-5.

a list of agreements made by a family
  • The Seymour family covenant: 
    • respect one another’s time 
    • choice to participate or not; be on time 
  • Respect one another’s space (bedroom & belongings) 
    • ask to borrow; don’t just take 
    • give space, respect requests for privacy 
  • Respect shared space (everywhere else) 
    • finish tasks, clean up after yourself 
    • leave spaces ready for others; ask if you want to leave a project out 
    • do chores joyfully 
  • Respect one another’s voice & choices - listen 
  • Solve problems collaboratively 
    • no bullying, no tantrums 
  • See possibilities, no harassing on mellows, no riding 
  • Practice self-awareness 
    • honesty 
    • take breaks 
  • Golden Rule 
  • Resist the rush 
  • The time is always right to do what’s right 
  • Have Fun! 

Dear Parents: It Will Be Enough

Little bundles of flowers wrapped in or placed upon leaves and placed upon a toddler toy kitchen. This is what my children call "making sushi" and they used to do it when they were little. It's made a comeback in these days of regression.

Little bundles of flowers wrapped in or placed upon leaves and placed upon a toddler toy kitchen. This is what my children call "making sushi" and they used to do it when they were little. It's made a comeback in these days of regression.

Hey parents who now have kids underfoot, I want to say something that might be shocking. I want to give you permission to NOT DO ANYTHING ACADEMIC with your kids. I want you to know that whatever you need to do to get through this slow moving crisis, it will be enough.

You don't have to become your kids' teacher. You don't have to do any of it. It's okay. Really. Especially those of you who are also still working, from home, trying desperately to do all the things while keeping the children occupied and not fighting.

First let me tell you about bringing kids out of a formalized school environment. Then. I'll talk about trauma and reducing its effects on children.

(And if you need my credentials, here they are: I've been raising children for thirty years. I am an ordained minister, a religious educator, and I am a former homeschooler, of the radical unschooling variety. I have homeschooled at almost all grade levels. And I have more than once in life had to suddenly start homeschooling a kid who had been in school for years. I have had kids in public school too. Yes, I have raised plenty of children.)

It is important to understand that when you remove a kid from a classroom environment, there is a long process of decompression for them. They might sleep a lot, or want to watch too much t.v., or (like my youngest two right now) have their nose in books well below their grade level for a week or two.

It's all okay. Let them detox. In all likelihood, in most locales, this school year is effectively over. And you know what, that's going to be okay too. Schools will figure out what to do with this year, how to bring the kids forward down the road. Don't worry about that now.

What I do want you to think about right now is that we are undergoing a collective and slow moving disaster. Yes, that's what this is. The amount of anxiety and trauma we are all experiencing is very large. The dread alone is a weighty thing to bear. Our lives have been disrupted, and it will be a long time before things right themselves.

What children need in times of trauma is comfort. If we had just survived an earthquake or a hurricane, we would not be worrying about the kids getting their online lessons (if you even have those in your district). They need extra snuggles, they need free play (that's where they work out their fears and questions), and they need permission to regress.

Thumb-sucking, bedwetting, clinginess—these are all normal. Outbursts of tears, fighting with siblings-also normal.

The toll falling on you, as parents and caregivers, is large. We are all exhausted and worried. And the most important thing in this disaster is mitigating its impact on our bodies and psyches. So, as we practice staying inside, please, please go easy on yourselves. You do not have to concern yourself right now with lessons and academic progress. We are now concerned with surviving a disaster.

Let's talk about trauma. Trauma is exhausting to body and mind. I'm having trouble keeping my thoughts in order. I am deeply tired. I'm alternately panicked, tearful, and very angry. Other times I'm zoned out and numb. I have no appetite, except for jelly beans.

Our kids are in the same state too. They might seem like clingy jellyfish or grumpy bears, but they are feeling the anxiety of the adults around them and they are also trying to adjust to the complete disruption of their daily lives.

Some helpful activities for working through emotions in times of trauma:

  • Clay and playdough are very useful in emotional regulation. Salt dough is good too—and very easy to make.
  • Painting and other art helps kids work through things they can't express verbally.
  • Playing with stuffed animals or dolls, working out feelings. Let your child do anything in their play and don't interfere, even if it is things like violence or death. This is how kids work through the things that scare them.
  • Large motor activity--a dance party, a yoga session with the whole family, a race on the sidewalk (if you are allowed out)
  • Writing down forbidden words and shouting them all together (if your family is okay with that)
  • Getting outside, even if for a walk around the block
  • Planting seeds if you have them, and in egg cartons if you don't have a garden (growing things is a practice of hope)
  • Singing together. Now's a great time to learn all the old folk songs or musical numbers that you learned as a kid. It doesn't matter if you sing well, or terribly—singing has physiological benefits rooted in breathing, and singing with others has psychological benefits that are good for repairing brains.
  • Praying or meditating together. If this practice is new to you, you might feel a little awkward at first. That's okay. If it comforts you, it will comfort your kids. For Jewish and Christian families, the 23rd Psalm might be familiar. If you do not belong to a particular tradition, you might read comforting poems.

One of the biggest things we can do to reduce the harm of trauma is to be of service to others. Feeling useful helps mitigate the worst of our distress. Look for ways your kiddos can help others:

  • Call or video message grandparents and older friends who are alone
  • Write thank you notes to caregivers and mail them to local hospitals
  • Put together zip loc bags of snacks for an adult to give out to people living without shelter
  • Organize an online fundraiser for your local food bank or relief efforts

Finally, gratitude practices help us grow spiritually in times of crisis. In our family, every night as we begin to eat our dinner, each of us is saying one thing we are grateful for. This is immensely healing for our spirits and our bodies--because concentrating on gratitude activates different parts of our brains than our lower brain stem "fear and threat" zone.

Modeling service and gratitude, instead of concern about whether we will "keep up" with the old normal, will teach your child a lot about how to be a leader in times of crisis, too.

Mostly, just be relaxed together as a family as much as you can. If you do not have to work to feed your family (or keep your job), then maybe you can reduce your time spent on the computer. It's okay to watch movies every night. It's okay to stay up late and sleep in even later.

And if you must keep working, and you are scared you will never make it through these days, just know that however you get through will be good enough. If your kids run wild and naked through the house while you are on Zoom calls, it's okay. If your second grader wants to read Warriors books all day and night, and will only eat cold cereal for every meal, it's okay. (Hello, that's the situation at my house.)

It's all okay. The most important thing is to be good to yourself and the people in your circle of care. If what you need to do is plant your kid in front of Netflix for three hours so you can finish that project for your boss, that's okay. Really. If you need to let them dig a giant hole in your lawn, hey that's okay too. My children destroyed part of my small flower garden yesterday to build a fort. Whatever, right? We can always repair it later.

If you need permission to stop trying to keep things normal, here it is. I give it to you. Just do your best to keep yourself and those around you in good mental health, and you will get through this.

Take good care, beloveds. You can do this. You are doing this. And if you reach a breaking point, reach out to a friend. We can get through this together.

Much love,
Cecilia

 

Parenting During a Time of Physical Distancing

Two children in the woods playing with bug boxes

Children spending time in nature.

As a parent of two young children, our looming school closure is on my heart and mind. It may be on yours too. Here’s some advice I've compiled from religious professionals for all of us!

Set up a Routine.

Routines Help Children Feel Safe

They help us fit in what we need to for a balanced day. And it will be much harder to impose a routine a few days in. What to include?

  • Keep bedtime and wake up. A steady sleep schedule helps everyone.

  • Exercise and fresh air! Get outside every day if you can for fresh air and to move your bodies--away from playgrounds (virus can live on the surface) and large groups (stay 6' away from others). If you can, garden. Dirt is good for everyone’s mental health and tending to a garden is a good way to cultivate hope in hard times. 

  • Include education. The more life is “normal”, the less traumatic this disruption will be for your kids. Focus both on your children’s interests and places they may need a little help. Do some social justice education the school hasn’t done. Have your kids keep a journal--they’re living history right now! Do some science. Research viruses. Take an online class. Practice second and third languages. Don’t forget the arts, music, and recess--all the things our schools have cut back on! 

  • Connect. Our children need to connect and need to have this part of their routine. Plan to connect online with your family, people from church, and your children’s friends. Have play dates on video chat. Show each other art. Read to each other. Teach your family members how to connect with your kid via video: toddlers love silly songs and finger plays, preschoolers love to be read to, elementary students can tell jokes, read, play their instrument, sing, listen to a chapter a day. 

  • Sibling Rivalry. Some of the sibling stuff is going to be no joke. Plan for it by making one on one time with your kids part of the day.

  • Include your kids in the chores. Teach them to cook (practice fractions!). Have them do laundry and cleaning. Feeling accomplished and competent helps them feel less powerless.

  • Include rituals. Now is a good time to do your meal blessings, light a chalice, and create other family rituals. Rituals ground and center us and we'll be missing the embodied rituals that are part of church in person. Here's a video of Annie Scott singing a song for your families as a possibility as a home chalice lighting ritual.

  • Adult routines. All of this goes for adults too especially if you're working from home. Structure will help you know when you're paying attention to work, to home, to children.

Resources for Education at Home

Find Things to Look Forward To

Even if this isn’t the family time we’d choose, we are getting to be together as a family. Find some things to look forward to about this.

  • Brainstorm together all the things you could do. Your kids probably have a lot of ideas.

  • Encourage each kid to pick a “passion project” -- something they really want to learn about to research and teach the whole family about. 

  • Take on some projects that need doing--spring cleaning, garden start up, etc. Accomplishing big things makes everyone feel good.

Take Care of Yourself and Other Adults in Your Household

The more grounded and resilient you are, the more grounded and resilient your children will be. 

  • Make plans to regularly connect with adult friends

  • Make plans to connect online with parents from church.

  • Set aside at least a little time each day to be alone.

  • Set aside a little time each day for the adults to be adults together.

  • Know the signs when you need help--and reach out to friends and to your congregation.

  • If you're sick and having to care for your kids too, be patient with yourself. The routine and whatever the usual limits on screen time might go out the window. That's ok.

Structure Your Space and Limit Your Electronics

  • Help each member of your family create a space in the house that is theirs that they can go be alone in. Use noise canceling headphones or music on headphones to get away from everyone else.

  • Staying on top of the clutter and chaos is probably well worth it even if like me you struggle.

  • Have a conversation about screens. Screens are good for entertainment, education, and connection. But they can also take us away from the present moment, feed us stories of despair, and over-stimulate our brains. Be honest with your kids about your own challenges with screens. Talk together about what good boundaries are and help each other use your screens in ways that enhance well-being.

Care for Bodies, Minds, and Spirits

  • Let it be okay if your children (or yourself!) are feeling loss, frustrated, sad, or worried.

  • Recognize those moments when kids are struggling are natural and will pass. Don’t pressure them to “snap out of it” or “stick to the schedule.” Instead, slow down, get quiet, and be a non-intrusive, non-anxious, loving presence as they ride it out.

  • Music can shift moods especially when we get cranky--play music, dance, sing!

  • Remember laughter is good for all of us. Silly books, jokes, and funny movies are good medicine.

  • Help yourself and your children name their feelings. Naming feelings helps tame them. 

  • Be clear with yourself and your kids about when you need to pay attention to work. Make some time each day when you are really present to them.

  • Move bodies! Have a dance party before some school work. Include proprioceptor stimulation as breaks between activities: balance on one leg, walk like a crab or bear, stretch! Let your kids have a turn to lead you in exercises.

  • Resources for talking about COVID-19 with kids

A Few More Thoughts

It’s likely that you’ll be talking about death with your children sometime in the near future. If this feels hard, set up a time to talk with your religious professionals and other parents from church. Here is a resource that may help and “Breaking News” and “A Terrible Thing Happened” to listen to with your kids. 

I know it's hard to be so isolated. Our role in slowing this virus down is to stay away from public places, resist dropping our kids off at other people's houses, and severely limit who we come in physical contact with. Most of us are only seeing older family members over the internet. It's hard. There will be another side to this.

Look for something to be grateful for every day. Even if it’s just that you don’t have to rush the kids out the door. Breathe. Notice the world’s beauty. Remember you love your children and they love each other even when it doesn’t look like it.

Additional Resources

Tips for Talking with Children About the Pandemic

Silhouette of a adult and child in front of a sunrise/sunset
Michelle Richards

Take care of yourself. Take care of yourself so you can take care of your children. Be a model for your children on how we experience fear, stress, and anxiety over issues we have no control over. Just like we are always reminded to put on our oxygen mask before helping others, we need to engage in self-care and spiritual practices to sustain ourselves so we can be present for our children.

Talk with your child. Talking to your children about their fears and anxiety is the first step to help them feel safe and begin to cope with the events occurring around them. What you talk about and how you say it depends on their age, but all children need to be able to know you are available to listen to them and that it is okay to raise their issues of fear and anxiety.

Help them understand that it is okay to be frightened. Communicate that being courageous does not mean being without fear. Acting in spite of that fear is what makes someone courageous. Remind them of a favorite superhero or someone they admire and share how they acted courageously, despite their fears. Read storybooks about being brave and courageous and overcoming fear.

Find out what they want to know and need to know and keep the rest out. If they are not asking about elderly family members who may be affected, don’t bring this topic up to them (or within their hearing). When working on these issues with a child, try to find out as much as you can about what they know and understand or are struggling to understand. Base your responses on what you find out.

If they don’t bring it up, start the conversation. Everyone’s lives are being disrupted by the pandemic and social distancing, so they are well aware of the circumstances of the world right now. Bring it up to let them know you are interested in them and find how they are coping with the information they are getting.

Reassure your children. When children hear about something scary or disturbing, they often relate it to themselves and start to worry about their own safety. Given that their lives have been disrupted along with everyone else’s, they will definitely be concerned about their safety. For example, you might say, "That shouldn’t happen to you because we are doing everything we can to keep each other safe.” This kind of reassurance is what children most need to hear.

Answer questions and clear up misconceptions. Don’t try to give children all the information available. The best guide is to follow the child’s lead, giving small pieces of information at a time and seeing how your child responds before deciding what to say next. This is especially true if your family is being hit economically during the social distancing. It is easy to add to their fears if these issues are not addressed, so answer honestly and compassionately while clearing up any misconceptions the child has.

Look for times when they are most likely to talk. Children often bring up serious issues while you are riding in the car because you are a captive audience. You can use this technique, too. Other opportunities might be before dinner, but avoid unpleasant conversations at bedtime unless your child brings it up. Ideally, send them off to sleep with reassurance and comfort (even if you are not feeling this yourself).

Listen to their thoughts and point of view. Don't interrupt—allow them to express their ideas and understanding before you respond or correct them. Express your own opinions and ideas without putting down theirs; acknowledge that it is okay to disagree. Remind them you are there for them to provide safety, comfort and support. Ask them if there is something they can do to help them feel safer and, if possible, do it.

Give them extra hugs if they are comfortable with it. Other reassuring touches might be squeezing a shoulder, rubbing their back, or cuddling together.

Do your best to keep home a safe place. Children, regardless of their age, often find home to be a safe haven when the world around them becomes overwhelming. During this time of crisis, your children are probably at home because of school cancellations. Help make home a place where your children find the solitude or comfort they need. Plan times for participating in a favorite family activity or use this opportunity to create family activities to help you have fun while you are together. Play board games, watch a family movie, or listen to music together.

Watch for signs of stress, serious fears or anxiety. It is typical for children (and adults) to experience a wide range of emotions, including fearfulness, shock, anger, grief and anxiety. Your child's behaviors may change because of their response to the events happening around them. They may experience trouble sleeping, difficulty with concentrating on school work, or experience changes in appetite. This is normal for everyone and should begin to disappear with the passage of time. Encourage your children to put their feelings into words by talking about them, writing about them, or play-acting them. Some children may find it helpful to express their feelings through art or dancing to music.

Take breaks from news and social media. Teens especially may want to keep informed by gathering information about new events from the internet, television, or social media. However, it is important to limit the amount of time spent watching the news and engaging in social media because constant exposure may actually heighten anxiety and fears rather than alleviate them. There is also a lot of incorrect information floating around the internet about the coronavirus, so if your older child or teen is looking for practical information, help them find reliable sources such as the World Health Organization (WHO) or the Center for Disease Control (CDC).

Further resources:

Protecting Our Children's Mental Health During the Pandemic

UUA compilation of resources for talking with kids about COVID-19

 

 

Resources for Talking with Children about COVID-19

Handing a sick person a thermometer

Talking with kids about the coronavirus can be hard. Here are some places to start.