Parenting during a pandemic
Anya Kamenetz
NPR education correspondent, co-host of NPR’s Life Kit: Parenting podcast, and author of The Art of Screen Time: How Your Family Can Balance Digital Media and Real Life

As parents are stuck at home during coronavirus quarantines, we’re adding a list of new jobs to our resumes: full-time remote worker, homeschool teacher, the list goes on. We’re all trying to maintain a sense of normalcy, but these are not normal times. Above all, the mental health, well-being, and education of our children are the most important. Anya Kamenetz is an education correspondent at NPR and co-host of NPR’s Life Kit: Parenting podcast. She’s written several books, and her latest is called, The Art of Screen Time: How Your Family Can Balance Digital Media and Real Life. Anya joins us to share what she’s learned from parenting and educational experts as she continues to report on this evolving story. And, she talks about what’s working in her household as a mother of two who’s navigating the coronavirus pandemic in real-time, just like the rest of us. 


Listen to this episode to learn:

  • How to talk to your kids in an age-appropriate way about the coronavirus
  • Homeschooling tips for parents, including how to “triage” subjects and encourage passion projects
  • How much and what kind of screen time is appropriate for kids right now, and how to spot the danger signs of overuse
  • Digital learning resources – like Common Sense Media and old-school Bob Ross videos – to help kids learn and play
  • Why we need flexibility built into our newfound schedules and routines
  • Ideas to help kids feel less socially isolated (video chats are your best friend!)
  • Advice for parents of high schoolers and college-age kids to help them cope with the social and educational impacts of coronavirus

For more information visit: http://www.anyakamenetz.net/

Click here to read the full episode

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Full Transcript

Parenting during a pandemic

Intro: Welcome to the equal parts podcast brought to you by Care@Work. 

Emily Paisner: Being a working parent is hard during a global pandemic, that is an understatement. Today we're with Anya Kamenetz, an education correspondent and PR and co-host of NPRs Life Kit Parenting podcast. She's also the mom of two force to stay at home right now like the rest of us. Anya has written several books and her latest is called Art of Screen Time: How Your Family Can Balance Digital Media and Real Life. Boy, screen time in our lives in a major way right now. 

During our conversation we tackled some of the big questions that are on the minds of parents everywhere during this crisis. Anya shares some of the best advice she's heard and learned from the experts as she continues to record on this evolving story. Have a listen. Anya, thank you so much for joining me today. I can only imagine how busy you are right now, so I truly appreciate you taking the time to speak with us. 

Anya Kamenetz: Thanks for having me, Emily. It's great to get to talk to as many parents as I can right now. 

Emily: Let's get right into it. Both the virus and the economy have a lot of us scared, and kids certainly pick up on all of that. I know my kids, I can sense their anxiety around it. I can see it coming out in different ways. Based on your conversations with experts and parents over the past several weeks, how should we be talking to our kids about the coronavirus? 

Anya: Of course, it depends on their age and developmental level. With my little one who's three, really it's been saying that we have to be careful of germs. There are some people getting sick and so we're being very careful, were washing our hands. We're not going to climb on the playground equipment. With the older one, she's eight. She really wants to know a little bit more of the science behind it and giving her as much scientifically relevant information that's developmentally appropriate. 

Thank goodness we can tell them not too many kids are getting very sick from this. This is really about protecting other people and being as responsible as we can. There's actually a cartoon-fed NPR put out describing this for kids. There's other kinds of similar resources. I would say look around, there's other parents sharing great resources for how to talk to kids about this. 

Emily: I'm sure you've encountered this, this week along with many other working parents, but we've all added a new job to our resume, which is being a home school teacher. My kids' school sent me huge packets to print out for both of my kids and frankly, it's a bit overwhelming to tackle this along with my workload. I'm curious what advice you have for parents who just became instant homeschool teachers? 

Anya: It's a great question. We did put out a life kit episode on this as well as there's going to be a comic out tomorrow in NPR. I would just say, take a deep breath because no one's expecting you to be an amazing teacher overnight. In fact, we're all getting so much more respect for our teachers and how hard their job is. Second to that, I would say you really have to triage. If there's a certain academic area that you are particularly concerned about your child falling behind, maybe focus on that. Then secondly, I would say, this is a great time for your kid to develop a passion project or an interest that they might not have had a chance to learn about before. 

That could be a wide variety of things. It could be shooting movies on iMovie, it could be building in Minecraft and making models of famous monuments. It could be gardening, it could be cooking with YouTube videos. Something that is going to interest them, that's going to have some educational value that will allow them to get a little more into their flow and work independently. You know what? It could be Plato, it could be building forts. There's a lot of Fort building going on in my house right now. All of this can be learning. 

We've got time for kids to catch up and remediate and we really need to figure out a rhythm that allows us to get our work done and allows our kids to get their most important priorities done. If your school is giving you what seems like an overwhelming amount of material, that's really the teacher reacting to the mandate from their principal, from their district and from states. Everybody's trying to get everyone to make this as normal as possible, but it's not a normal situation. You should really feel free to do what's right for your family. 

Emily: Some States have even announced that they're ending the school year. How worried do we need to be that our kids are going to fall behind academically? 

Anya: Not only the states, but also the federal government has said that they're going to make it really easy for states to skip testing this year, which I'm sure many will end up doing. I would just say we're not really in a mode right now to worry too much about our kids falling behind academically. We've got them all do what we can and do our best. Also recognize that if you have a child with special needs or who needs accommodations, those resources are still federally mandated. They're going to be coming literally online in different places. If your kid needs tutoring services, whether those are provided by video chat, that's going to be available, most likely for free. The resources are out there and we will figure this out over time. 

Emily: Let's talk about screen time. You've literally written a book on it. In my house, our screen time has-- Our rules have gotten a bit soft over the past week. I'm sure that's happening in millions of households right now. What's your take on that? Is it bad? 

Anya: It's interesting because, in my book, The Art of Screen Time, I really do encourage families to take more of a look at your child's relationship with screens and finding a healthy balance and less on the time itself and that has really never been more true. The screens are now our conduit to the outside world. There are our connection to friends and family. There are our connection to learning, to enrichment, to creativity, and discovery as well as entertainment. 

What I would advise parents right now to keep an eye on, definitely guard bedtime, guard family meals. Family meals are more important than ever now that we're all stuck at home, but we're all often in our own boxes. If you can do it once a day, that's great. For us, it's oftentimes breakfast so guard those times. Definitely get your kids outside every day. We're allowed to go outside for socially distance walks and hikes and in parks, so we should totally take advantage of that. 

Then the rest of the time I would say focus on your quality and your balance of screen time over the quantity. I would say seek out those video chat opportunities if it's a grandparent or a relative from far away. Someone who's willing to read your kid a book or sing to them or do arts and crafts like my mother is doing with our kids. You'd be amazed how engaged they can be in that way. 

Even some people I know if their kids' babysitters can't come in, the babysitters are engaging over video chat as well and giving you a break that way, which is amazing. If it's entertainment-based screen time, that's fine too. You really want to watch for the danger signs of overuse and that is things like very explosive behaviors when the screen is taken away, kind of that crash or that hangover that happens and we all have seen it. 

We've seen the glazed overlooks that some kids get. Maybe you have a really important conference call or a meeting or you're trying to take care of your unemployment insurance and you need that time and that's going to be fine. What you need to do is prepare for the crash or the time that you're going to need to zone in with your kids after they'd been zoned out and remedy that as much as you can. 

Emily: What digital learning resources do you recommend right now to all of the parents out there who are trying to find ways their kids to learn and play while we're all at home together trying to, like you said, make important phone calls, get some work done. Are there go-to digital resources that you can recommend? 

Anya: I just want to be conscious about inundating parents because I know there's a lot of places to live this stuff up. I know that Common Sense Media put out a specific portal for this information. It's searchable by age, which is great. Then they have a lot of great recommended resources. I would also say more and more schools are putting out their preferred materials for kids and you certainly should take a look at that, especially if it's something that your child's already familiar with. 

I would say check out those live-streamed resources. My daughter's been doing Mo Willems. He's doing Lunch Doodles every day, the beloved children's book author and that's incredibly engaging. I don't know how he does it. In a lot of communities, people that already offered enrichment to kids are all figuring out ways to do it online. It could be piano lessons, it could be dance lessons, it could be music or language lessons. Those are things that, again, with the Livestream. You get a lot more of the benefits of what face to face might be. 

Funny enough, there's one more that a lot of people I know have mentioned and that's Bob Ross, the old fashioned paint paper guy. His episodes are on YouTube, and that's been incredibly engaging for some kids I know. 

Emily: I've seen a lot of moms in particular post and schedules of daily routines that they're trying to follow. I do think there is something to be said, first, having some structure and routine right now. How important is structure would you say and what are the must-haves that we should be building into our kids' days? 

Anya: That's a great question. I'm up two minds about this because I realize all the developmental research says that kids really need that structure and that routine and predictability, especially in these crazy times. At the same time, a schedule that's too rigid or that you've adopted from someone else and it doesn't really make allowances for your own children's needs is not going to work so well. In our house, we have a whiteboard schedule because you can erase and rewrite every day. 

We have been taking time at the end of the day at dinner time to check in and say, what worked well, what didn't work that well today. We're developing our routine that way. We know from research that a lot of children, especially middle school and high school children, aren't sleeping enough during this [unintelligible 00:10:27] so this is the time to let them sleep naturally, sleep in if they want to. After that, a family meal is great. If it's breakfast, if it's a dinner, that's fine too. They definitely need some time outside and taking breaks between the screen time and the offline time alternating. 

I know that for a lot of families they find that there's more high quality concentration time among their kids in the morning. If you want to front load the academic subjects into the morning hours, I think that works well for lots of kids. Conversely, it's the four o'clock or the five o'clock hour when the entertainment screen time happens because kids aren't keeping it together as well. You may not be keeping it together as well and so saving it for them when you really need it I think is a good tip as well. 

Emily: I feel like we're just getting into the right flow around what works for us and what works for our kids and it's still requiring some daily adjustments. I feel like we're almost in a good groove. In addition to kids' days, what should we parents be doing right now to ensure that we are staying healthy both mentally and physically? I know that I am getting up and hopping right on my computer and trying to cram everything into the day. What should we be considering? 

Anya: That's such a great question. I'm trying to take at least one meeting a day while walking around the park. Getting those steps in really helps me focus. I definitely am trying to enjoy a little bit of time with my husband after the kids go to bed and have an hour where we do put our phones down. We don't look at the news as hard as it can be. When it comes to our kids, thinking of activities that we can all enjoy together, whether it's cooking or having a little dance party or even watching a movie together or something that you actually truly as an adult can enjoy, I think is really key to getting through these days. 

Emily: I've said to my kids, one of the beauties of this is that we're able to sit down as a family every night and have dinner together, which is something that we typically aren't able to do. It's been really nice. A lot of kids are probably having a hard time with this concept of social isolation. They don't understand why they can't see their friends or their grandparents. You mentioned earlier that some of these things you need to think about depending on the child's age. How do you explain this in a way that they'll understand and how can we help them to overcome that? 

Anya: It's really heartbreaking. My daughter, my three year old's been asking systematically, she's like, well, can we go to the zoo? Can we go to the museum? Can we go to the ice cream shop? It's really hard to have to tell her not right now and not right now and not right now. The video chat is really the lifeline right now. It's something where kids are trying to figure out different ways that they can be more interactive and there's been a lot of growth just in the first few days with this, whether it's scheduled or unscheduled dropping in various social times. 

They're finding their groove with that. Again, having a shared activity on the video chat, whether that's Legos or whether it's drawing can make it a little bit more engaging, especially for younger kids. The guidelines and [unintelligible 00:13:37] back and forth but really kids need to be able to maintain a social distance of at least six feet and that's extremely hard for our little ones. You have to trust and then know your child, whether or not that's permissible or allowable. It's not something we've done yet, but I anticipate within a couple of weeks perhaps meeting up with another family and keeping that social distance is a possibility. 

Emily: What about parents with older kids at home? Maybe they have high schoolers or college kids who have been forced to come back home. What are some of the challenges that they're facing and how can parents help support them during this time? 

Anya: This is such a great question. Obviously, when you have these older kids, they are more peer-oriented. They're really feeling the fact of being cut off from their communities and from their peers. We have to be understanding of that, be understanding of the fact that their online world is their social world now more than ever. Even as we're trying to put in balance in screen time rules, just realize that this is them with their friends and that is really their lifeline right now. That's something that they need. 

On the other hand, what we're also seeing is if you have a middle schooler or a high schooler or a college student who's come back home, they're really concerned about their future. They're concerned about their transitions, about graduation, about high school applications or college applications. Making sure that you give them as much support as you can and this is really a growing up moment. 

This is a time when kids that are a little older are coming of age, they're getting to understand the world. They're going to have a lot of questions. I think we owe it to our older children to discuss what's going on in the most clear terms that they can handle and help them come to terms with it and give them a little more responsibility and autonomy to go along with this incredible growing up moment that they're going through. Figuring out if there's a way that you can ask them to step up around the house, ask them to be a part of your decision making to the extent that that's feasible. 

For example, I talked to a 19-year-old college student the other day and she had gotten really engaged in helping her fellow students when the campus closed down and doing mutual aid and support. She said I talked it over with my parents, they're nervous about having me stay on campus to help hand out food at the food pantry. I told them I'm an adult now and this is what I want to be doing. I just had so much respect for that and for her parents making that decision together. 

Emily: It's so incredible that regardless of how old your children are, this moment in time is really going to define a generation. 

Anya: Absolutely. One thing that I am talking to my daughter about, even though she's young, is the idea of journaling. I'm writing about this moment and processing that way I think could be really helpful for a lot of kids and understanding that this is a historic moment. 

Emily: Based on the short time, you've been living with and reporting on this story, which seems to change by the minute. What would you like to leave our listeners with in terms of tips and strategies that you want to pass along? 

Anya: The thing that's keeping me sane right now is the ability to connect with people and to support others and to see how I can be helpful and of service. I know that the people that are part of your community are already in service because their parents and that means that they're helping others every day. The more that we can all do that, this can be a time of incredible social solidarity and incredible coming together and that's what I find the most hopeful and optimistic. I would just hope for your listeners that they're able to find those ways to be in service and help others as well. 

Emily: Anya, thank you so much for joining us today. 

Anya: Thanks for having me, Emily. 

Outro: Thanks for listening to this episode of Equal Parts. See you next time. 

Emily: Wait, before you go, I just want to tell you a little bit about carework by care.com. They work with some of the world's largest companies to offer family care benefits to their employees. If you're one of the lucky ones who already has care benefits at work, use them. If you don't, ask for them. It's a real lifesaver. To learn more, visit care.com/careatwork. Again, that's care.com/careatwork.