Let’s start with this: Some parents, and adults in general, have not exactly been models of civil discourse, responsible citizenry and just decent people when it comes to the current mask debate. If we are going to ask our children to behave properly and in a caring way for their fellow students, friends and society, then make sure you are doing the same.
We are in the midst of an often-surreal societal problem that has taken center stage during the COVID-19 pandemic — what to do about masks, and in specific, masks in school. While school districts fight it out with the state, our children are caught in a political debate that they may find confusing and even scary at times. As parents, we must help them to make sense of the discord and guide them towards appropriate conversations and actions.
Whether you are in favor of mask mandates or not, it is important to be accepting of the views others have on the issue and help your children do the same — without belittling or aggressive behavior towards those who disagree with your stance. Here are five ways to help your child get through what will hopefully be a temporary crisis during the school year.
Listen to your child’s concerns: When it comes to masks in school, don’t forget that it’s about them, not you. They are the ones who are required to wear them, and that is not always easy, especially for younger children. Listen to what they are saying and address their concerns. Although teachers are sure to be mindful of the challenges of the current situation, they might not be aware of what students are doing and saying about the mask issue. You are their first line of defense in handling it.
Explain the situation in an age-appropriate manner: You might be tempted to delve into a civil liberty versus good-of-society discussion with your children, but take into account your child’s age. Younger children are not likely to be able to grasp the issue on its surface, not to mention its subtleties. For them, keep it simple. Masks are used to help stop the spread of COVID, but not everyone agrees with requiring them. Older children and teenagers can understand the complexities and will have their own views but when you talk about it with them, explain both sides of the argument, whatever side you are on.
Dealing with conflict: Even the youngest schoolchildren are likely to talk about mask mandates. “My dad says masks are dumb and I don’t need to wear them.” “Well, my mom says they keep us safe, and we all need to wear them.” Some version of this conversation is likely to happen and that’s OK — learning to handle disagreements is part of why school is important for children. Remember to explain to them that it’s OK to disagree and that they need to be respectful of others’ opinions.
Tone down the rhetoric: It’s easy to be passionate in this debate; there is a lot on the line. But when you are talking with your children, don’t raise the stakes of the discussion more than necessary. Calling those who oppose mask-wearing ignorant and selfish, or qualifying those who insist on their use as tyrants or freedom-haters doesn’t do much for an adult-level conversation, much less for children.
Be flexible and ready to pivot: We live in a free society and must be accepting of the concerns of others. If your child is attending a public school, that means that you must adhere to the conditions school administrators are setting. That is not always easy, especially when you disagree with them. But if you send your child to school, you should explain to them that they must follow the rules and that there are consequences for not following the rules. Also, be ready to deal with changes during the school year. What are the rules today, might not be the rules tomorrow, and that can be hard for children to grasp. When and if things change, take the time to explain those changes and what is required of them.
There are numerous challenges facing our children as they venture back to the classroom, but their enthusiasm for getting back to in-person learning and the human and social connections that come with it are equally formidable. Let’s help them on their way as they grow into the adults we want them to be.
Associate Director of Programs Bevone Ritchie, M.S., can be reached at thechildrenstrust.org . She oversees a wide range of parenting and youth development programs across the county for The Children’s Trust. For more information, visit thechildrenstrust.org .