Child Wise has engaged Dr Reesa Sorin, an international expert in Childhood, Early Childhood, Emotional Literacy and Art Play, to develop resources aimed to assist professionals, parents and carers reflect on how they engage with children and young people. Make sure to check out 'Childhood and agency in the time of coronavirus' and find out why children need to stay informed and how to empower them to be active agents of their own safety and wellbeing.
With the onset and endurance of coronavirus in the world and in world media, we are overrun with advice about guiding children through this disaster. While much of it is good advice, often encouraging adults to consider children’s feelings and viewpoints, nearly all of it puts the adult in full control of adult-child interactions.
It reiterates the responsibility of adults to provide a sense of safety and security to our children, so that they will get through these uncertain times. UNICEF writer, Mandy Rich, makes an analogy to driving a car: “Remember that they are the passengers in this and we are driving the car. And so even if we’re feeling anxious, we can’t let that get in the way of them feeling like safe passengers.”
While this metaphor holds some merit, in that as adults we come to the situation with many more lived experiences, it implies that we must put aside our own feelings and concerns in case they impede upon children’s sense of security. It also implies that children are vulnerable and unable to feel safe and secure without external models of safety and security. In reality, both the adult and the child can feel anxious, safe, secure, and many other emotions within themselves and still get through the journey by developing and sharing understanding and ways of moving forward.
Why do we need to view children as agents rather than innocents?
The coronavirus has everyone concerned and for many adults it has induced a compelling drive to protect children from the horrors of its consequences. We are advised to stay calm and explain things honestly in age-appropriate language. We are encouraged to teach children about handwashing and keeping safe distances and to develop routines to get through the day of schoolwork, chores and play within limited spaces. Some advice also includes getting children, usually older children, to help develop routines for the extended days at home.
Viewing children as agentic rather than innocent offers a broader perspective of children’s roles in dealing with disaster, such as the coronavirus. Agentic children are seen as capable and competent, actively participating in their learning and lives. This does not mean that parents/adults in their lives are powerless; rather they and their children are empowered through their interactions, negotiations and relationships with each other.
What do children bring to the child-adult relationship?
Referring to the car metaphor, the adult is the driver because of the licencing age and the fact that the adult, due to substantially more years of living, has had more experiences.
However, the child ‘passengers’ do not have to be passive observers, seeking a feeling of security through drivers masking their own anxieties. They can be interactive partners, sharing their feelings and ideas for the best interests of both children and adults; interests which both decide.
While children may lack the years of experience afforded to adults, they bring honesty, insight and curiosity to interactions with both adults and other children. These strengths contribute to shared understandings, decisions and actions to be taken at this time of disaster and beyond this, in all aspects of learning and life.
The child-adult relationship, where both are seen as co-learners, negotiating and sharing their knowledge and understanding, is the basis for the following ‘at-home’ ideas for children and parents/adults. They also extend the idea of learning beyond the school curriculum to acknowledging the learning that occurs in every aspect of life – in the home, in the outdoor environment, and eventually in the community. They highlight the need to let children listen and let children speak, and for children to allow us to do the same.
Here are six strategies we recommend to share the driver’s seat with your children:
1. Let children listen and listen alongside them.
Just as you need to access information from the most credible sources, so do children. By turning off the tv during news times, as a way of protecting children from the realities of the coronavirus pandemic, you could be denying them the right of access to information and materials that will help them to make sense of what is currently happening in the world. Children have great imaginations, and without correct information, could imagine situations even more dire than what we are currently experiencing; and from that, develop worry, fear and anxiety. Let children listen and listen alongside them to explain things they may not understand, to empathise with what they are feeling, and to share your own feelings and concerns. In your explanations, consider the language you use, which should be age-appropriate for the child.
Article 17 of the United Nations Convention for the Rights of the Child (CRC) states parties recognise the important function performed by the mass media and shall ensure that the child has access to information and material from a diversity of national and international sources, especially those aimed at the promotion of his or her social, spiritual and moral well-being and physical and mental health.
2. Speak to your children and encourage conversation.
Children need to verbalise their understanding and feelings about coronavirus. Dialogues between parents/adults and children should be encouraged and open to both spontaneity and planned exchanges. Plan to ask questions about what children are hearing and understanding and how they are feeling and give them many opportunities throughout the day to share their ideas and opinions. Let them know that no one yet has an answer or solution to the problem, but together we are doing our best to find one.
Often, particularly in younger children, they do not have the words to express what they are thinking. Offer them words, for example, “Are you feeling afraid? Worried? Anxious?” or “Do you know why people are getting sick?” “Do you understand why you can’t go to school at the moment?” If you don’t have the answers, search for them, together with your child, on reliable sources such as the World Health Organisation, UNICEF or ABC News.
Particularly in times of crises, rumours abound, and false information can escalate feelings of anxiety and fear. You will feel this and so will your child. Recognise these feelings and talk about them: don’t mask them so that your children will feel safe. They will probably sense them anyway and will feel puzzled and insecure.
Article 13 of the CRC states that the child shall have the right to freedom of expression; this right shall include freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media of the child's choice.
3. Develop routines and include children in decision-making.
By this time, most of us have had our daily routines disrupted. We are used to getting up early, eating breakfast and heading out to work or school, where we spend 8 or so hours before returning home for dinner and evening routines. A system that worked like clockwork in the past is no longer feasible in these changed circumstances. However, routines are important for both children and parents/adults. Decisions need to be made to establish new routines, and these decisions should not be adult-led, but rather negotiated by all family members. Consider the key activities to be undertaken each day, such as:
- Meals – When will they occur? Who will prepare them? Who will clean up?
- School or work activities – This is no longer an 8-hour work or school day, so which activities will occur? When and for how long?
- Household chores – All household members need to pull together during this time, so itemise the chores, when they will occur and who will be responsible.
- Physical activities – Gyms and sporting activities are shut down and our time outdoors is restricted largely to our own property or at safe distances in the immediate neighbourhood.
- Play and media time – In these changed circumstances, a lot of time each day will be taken up with play and media. It is important to note that both play and media provide numerous opportunities for learning – both for children and for adults. They also offer a time to be together to interact, develop shared understandings and ultimately to have fun. Value these times as much as more formal school or work activities.
- Sleep time – Sleep is always important, but during stressful times is even more important. Yet worrying can prevent or impact on the quality of sleep. Now is the time to meditate; try mindfulness activities that you’ve always meant to try; learn to really wind down in the evenings. There are many websites and YouTube videos that can assist you.
When you view children as agentic, and parents/adults as co-learners and co-collaborators, it naturally follows that decisions are made together. Ask children for their opinions and share your opinions and together make choices about how days will unfold and what each person’s responsibilities will be. Become a ‘team’ or ‘tribe’ as you work together to stay safe, stay healthy and stay informed. Your teams or tribes will endure long after this disaster passes.
Article 12 of the CRC states Parties shall assure to the child who is capable of forming his or her own views the right to express those views freely in all matters affecting the child, the views of the child being given due weight in accordance with the age and maturity of the child.
4. Learn in and outside the home
We are all lifelong learners, so don’t assume that your learning stopped when you left school. Happily, opportunities for learning and demonstrating your learning are everywhere. Each room in the home and outdoor space presents multiple learning experiences, depending on children’s ages, stages of learning and interests. For example, the kitchen can be a learning space for:
Mathematics: following recipes and measuring and quantities; counting supplies and determining what you need to buy; categorising items, such a perishable/ non-perishable, legumes, vegetables, fruit, carbs, protein, baking supplies, cooking supplies.
Literacy and language: discussing which spices you have and what are each used for; reading instructions and recipes; writing shopping lists; deciding what to cook and cooking together.
Music: use pots and pans for percussion, containers of rice, salt, nuts for shakers; wooden spoons for drumsticks and cutlery for bells. Sing your favourite songs or make up songs – a good way to express your feelings about the pandemic, and sing as you wash your hands.
Geography: try recipes from around the world; use them as an opportunity to discuss different places and cultures.
Art: cereal box sculptures (which can be dismantled and returned to the cupboard; drawing: the kitchen can provide all sorts of still life materials, such as fruit and fruit bowls, bottles, interesting containers, etc.; painting with food colours on paper towels or light paper; colour mixing with food colours (yellow and blue to make green; yellow and red to make orange and red and blue to make purple)
Health: hand washing practice; hygiene practices around cooking and eating; creating and making healthy meals; using cooking ingredients in different and unique ways.
Science: Websites such as ThoughtCo describe numerous science activities that can be done in home kitchens. One is the Rainbow Density Column, which uses sugar, water and food colouring to create colourful layers in a glass. Science also comes into cooking: observing yeast rising the dough; changing ingredients from solids to liquids, cooked to frozen or from frozen to defrosted.
Each room in the home presents multiple opportunities for learning, such as the ones described above. Outside the home offers a plethora of learning experiences, one of which is gardening. With so much time at home, you could plant seeds or seedlings, care for them and watch them grow. You and your children could create a visual diary, monitoring the growth process. A visual diary includes both images and words and is a great way of expressing ideas. Done collaboratively between adults and children, it is a way of making meaning and sharing important experiences while strengthening the adult-child relationship.
5. Distractions can prevent feelings of being overwhelmed.
Distractions – How many times have we been told, and have we told children to focus, focus, focus and not become distracted? While this advice may be applicable to some situations, a whole-day focus on coronavirus can do no one – neither adult nor child – any good. It will lead to feelings of being overwhelmed, frightened, anxious and helpless. As long as both you and your children keep an awareness of local and world events, a bit of distraction can be a good release. Do some things just for the fun of them, such as: dance, karaoke, paint your nails, make a YouTube video, have an indoor picnic or watch a funny movie. The relief you get from distractions will help you to deal with the reality of the situation in which we now find ourselves.
6. Look beyond: how can you help others?
Although you may not have the capacity to stitch face masks for health workers, there are many things you can do for people around you, who may be in need. You can see if any of your neighbours are incapacitated or unable to get staples and offer your assistance. You can stay in contact with family and friends through the phone or social media; even contact people with whom you haven’t had contact for some time. Send virtual smiles, photos from home, words of support. In this time of need, everything counts.
Whatever you do during this time, remember to include your children as partners in decisions and actions to be taken. They might not yet have the capacity to drive the car, but they are active contributors to the journey.
You are not alone, we’re in this together
If you’re feeling uncertain about how well you’re negotiating agency with your children, you are not alone. Browse our news stories and blog posts for guidance on a range of child-related topics. We’re in this together.