HOW TO COMMUNICATE TO YOUR CHILDREN ABOUT THE CORONAVIRUS
Every time we turn on the news we hear about another case of the coronavirus both abroad and at home. Our local and federal government officials are advising us to prepare by stocking up on food, toiletries, and medicines in anticipation for a disruption to our typical schedule. We’ve heard it’s not a matter of if but when the virus will reach our community. Let’s be honest, this is scary.
So how do we communicate to our children information about the coronavirus in a way that does not cause them anxiety?
As a former Montessori teacher with 32 years in a preschool classroom, 45 years as a head of school, and as a mother of two and grandmother to four, I would like to share my thoughts on this important topic. As always I lean on Montessori principles at times like these and remember that our children and grandchildren will learn more by how we conduct ourselves than what we say. In short, if I panic they will panic.
How and what we communicate to children depends on their age.
CHILDREN AGES BIRTH TO 6
The First Plane of Development
The first plane is the period of the “absorbent mind,” as Dr. Montessori said, and simply put, children absorb everything in the environment unconsciously. It is the adult's job to prepare the environment for the child in this plane of development. Specifically, it is the adult’s job to prepare the environment with all the extras the CDC is recommending, most notably plenty of opportunities for hand washing.
Children at 1 ½ and 2 years of age LOVE TO WASH THEIR HANDS! They are at an age when they can receive short lessons on how to wash their hands, and they learn best by having you show them, not lecture them.
One of the earliest lessons we give our students in Montessori schools is hand washing. We analyze the steps, then show the children how to wash their own hands, which includes wetting the hands, soaping, scrubbing to “happy birthday to you,” rinsing, and drying.
At home be sure to have a little stool in front of the sink and plenty of soap and paper towels that your child can reach as well as a wastepaper basket nearby. This is the age of HELP ME TO HELP MYSELF. Don’t miss this “sensitive period” for hand washing.
LESSONS IN CARE OF THE PERSON
Other favorite lessons for children at this age include what Montessori called care of the person and care of the environment. These lessons respond to the child’s inborn need for independence, self sufficiency, respect, and sense of purpose. During this outbreak be sure to guide your child to master the following tasks:
How to blow your nose
How to cough in your sleeve
How to wash your face
How to button, snap, buckle, tie, and zipper
LESSONS IN CARE OF THE ENVIRONMENT
Children also love to take care of the home. Present the following lessons and give them opportunities to practice:
How to rinse and put dishes in the dishwasher
How to sweep
How to mop
How to wash a table
How to clean surfaces
I could go on and on, but what I want to emphasize is that children between the ages of birth to 6 are in a “sensitive period” for learning self-help skills. They are more capable than many realize, and we want to capitalize on the fact that they love having us acknowledge that we know they can do many things by themselves. Let us provide them with opportunities to clean the environment and keep themselves healthy.
CHILDREN AGES 6 - 12
The Second Plane of Development
Children at this age work with their conscious and reasoning mind. At around 6 years of age, children want to understand the whys and wherefores. Given this developmental change, we can speak to them about the coronavirus and in simple language explain to them what is happening and why it is more important than ever to wash our hands, cough in our sleeves, and practice good hygiene.
It is extremely important that you monitor what your children watch on T.V. and listen to on the radio, as the news about the coronavirus can be overwhelming and scary. It is best that your children hear about the outbreak directly from you, and you can speak with them honestly but also reassure them that you love them and will take good care of them.
At this age children love heroes, not simply comic book heroes but real life heroes. This is the perfect time to talk to them about the doctors and scientists around the world who are working on a vaccine for this virus. You can get books from the library and teach them about great doctors and scientists over the years who have cured diseases. These are real-life heroes who continue to inspire us and bring us hope for our world.
Children at the second plane of development have what Montessori called the “herd instinct.” Their peers are extremely important to them, and they are concerned about what is right and wrong, what is just and unjust. This is a wonderful time to introduce the fact that we can all be helpful in our community. This is a good time to take their outgrown clothes and toys to a homeless shelter. Or perhaps, as you stock up your house with supplies, you and your children could take supplies to the needy.
At this age we should teach children that they have a very important role in their family and in their community. They are growing up now, and the more you can instill the values of hard work, courage, compassion, empathy, and kindness for others the better. They can help protect others and can look outward rather than inward.
CHILDREN AGES 12 - 18
The Third Plane of Development
This period of development mimics the first plane. It is characterized by a strong need for independence. Age 12 is the end of childhood, Dr. Montessori said. The child at this age goes through hormonal changes and makes dramatic changes physically and emotionally. They must do the work of separating from their families in order to become truly independent and self sufficient. This is not always easy and can be manifested by a lot of emotional ups and downs.
It is important for parents to recognize that more than anything their children need love and respect, even when, especially when, they make mistakes along the way. Unfortunately, we are seeing a lot of anxiety in children in this age group today. It is extremely important, therefore, that we check our level of anxiety around such things as the coronavirus. We are adults and our children take cues from us. It is just that simple.
Just as we need to do with the children in the second plane of development, we must talk to our children who are between the ages of 12-18 about what is happening in the world. Guide them to be mindful of their responsibility to self and community. At this age, they are very aware of their bodies and their appearances. Talk about the importance of good hygiene, including not sharing food or drinks with others. Remind them that our cell phones are like petri dishes and should be disinfected daily. This is a great time to talk about healthy foods vs. junk food and why it is important to build up our immune systems. Talk to them about their responsibilities at home, in their communities, and in the world at large.
Our goal is always to build resilience in our children. Life can be hard, but let's remind our children that they are strong and capable. Our older children may have to make sacrifices by not going to games, concerts, and other public events. They may have to miss going on the trips they have been planning for spring break. Yes, this is disappointing, but let’s remind our children that this is not a death sentence, nor is it forever. This is a teachable moment. If we throw our hands up in despair, they will.
So look for the opportunities to help our young adults to look beyond themselves. Look for ways they can do something at this critical time to help others, and sometimes it is just by bringing a positive spirit into their schools and into their homes.
Parenting is one of the hardest jobs, particularly at times like these. It is important we as adults remain calm, cautious, and positive. This does not mean we ignore what is happening in the world nor that we shield our children from the realities of the coronavirus. It means we give our children agency. We teach them important lessons in how to minimize the chance of getting sick and encourage them to look out for others. We model a positive, proactive outlook and we help them stay strong, self sufficient, and healthy.