Hey Parents – you gonna make it?!
Mess. Noise. 24/7. Living that about now?
In this arena, I luck out. To the dismay of those I have lived with – well, those over about 14! – I am happy in mess and noise and child-chaos. I picture the faces of my commune buddies back in 1970 – any and all of them, remembering the kitchen after one of my “master dinners,” would wince even all these decades later. In my years of teaching, others often saw messy chaos where I saw creative harmony. And now, as I spend most of my time writing, when I come to the last stages of a book, I have to spread everything out and make a total mess in order to pull my thoughts together – and since most of it is on the computer, I settle for clothing and blankets and dishes everywhere to assist with my creative organization!
That’s my happy place – really – and yet today, in the long hours caring for my two small grandsons, each mess grated on my nerves, each sound was one decibel too loud, and “will I make it?” was the tape loop running through me and breath was hard to find. Yup, one of those days. Been there? Maybe about now you feel like you are purchasing a second home there. Yeah, for me today was one where, even though mess and child-chaos are comfort foods for me, I had to struggle moment to moment to find my balance – and I certainly fell down many times.
In that struggle, I couldn’t help but reflect on all the parents out there, locked in homes and apartments with the chaos-makers. And I kept thinking about my “preparation” for this moment of lock-up in the asylum. It’s true that none of us were prepared - or could be prepared - but I do have a lot of tools to meet it, starting with the fact that I came into this life with a ridiculous affinity for noise and mess. Maybe because of that, my next level of preparation is pretty vast: I have spent the last 50 plus years working with children ages 18 months to 15 years; I have done endless hours of study and direct observation of child development, and I have almost as many years in the study of psychology and doing my own personal growth work and meditation – and I have taught all these things to adults in the Global Studies Program I developed (Enki Education). Maybe most importantly, I have three grown children and seven grandchildren, newborn to 16 years old – all masters of great mess and noise and chaos. And I love children limitlessly.
That is a big tool chest with which to meet this crisis moment – and it is not the only support I have to navigate this moment: though I have been spending four or five days a week with my grandchildren, tired as I am, I do get to return them at the end of the day and I have a couple of days a week to do my own work minimally interrupted. So I have about as much support, inner and outer, to draw on as a person in this crisis could – and I both adore and totally enjoy the two little grand-beings in my charge, to the moon and back.
AND STILL, today I barely made it through and I was resentful and frustrated and punitive and nasty. Yuck.
Why do I tell you this? It is all to say: “Parents, please give yourselves a judgment-break; you just got thrust without warning into a storm of 24/7 child-life, without support or break or light at the end of the tunnel, and with your livelihoods in flux, at best, and real health worries, if not losses.” Yes, homeschoolers are better prepared for extended time with kids, but no one was prepared for this nightmare!
My number one offering is to ask you to please, please, give yourselves a judgment-break, offer yourselves a little compassion. If with all the tools and blessings I have, I am sometimes swallowed up in frustration and exhaustion and can’t bear another minute of the wired, squealing, furniture leaping, chair flipping, whiny, clearly deaf children – even with full understanding that they are only lost to their own struggles – maybe none of us have to be quite so hard on ourselves; maybe forgiveness is in order.
That’s the most important thing I can offer, and I hope it is of use.
But what about the practicalities? How does that self-compassion help anyone make it through, day to day? How can we make those hard days – those ones where we get swallowed up in frustration and despair – the rarity?
The truth is that self-compassion lies in just taking a moment to feel the frustration and fear, and the bizarre disorientation, without judgment. And in that, everything changes - for us, and for the children. From there, we can reflect on practicalities and explore nuts and bolts issues that might make life easier and we can do so in a more responsive and creative AND realistic manner.
How? The answer will be different in each home, but as a springboard, here are some things I have found helpful. It helps to remember that on the whole, we struggle most when we think things should be other than they are, and try to control what is not ours to control. So in this case, what is the reality before us? For starters, children are noisy, messy creatures. Much as we wouldn’t resent a puppy for not yet knowing how to heel and sit and lie quietly, we will do best if we start with accepting that, indeed, children are noisy, messy, furniture jumping, half-deaf little beings – all the way up through their teens, though furniture jumping is replaced by far more dangerous stunts! Might help to picture a puppy racing around the yard and chewing the furniture as you watch the children.
Hardest of all in this situation, children’s wellbeing (and therefore behavior) depends on a lot of very active, outdoor time that they can’t have now. And some are cooped up alone, some with siblings, and either one has a clear curse – as well as its blessing. So the demands of their bodies and their hearts are pulsing hard and pretty much hitting a brick wall. Given all that, the ear-torturing chaos that was once your home does not mean you did anything wrong. It also does not mean the children did anything wrong; really, there is nothing wrong - this is just who they are, and it is exaggerated because they, too, are under strain from every corner now.
Can we make it survivable, maybe even enjoyable? Okay, let’s reframe that: can we make it such that the ground of our days is survivable and enjoyable, and the complete collapses (ours) and screaming fits (ours) are the exception? I think so, as long as we remember that we are human and we will fall down. Let’s start with that saying so often passed among parents? “Choose your battles!” Never has that been more important. Specifics:
- Don’t worry about accomplishments, or meeting some external expectations, or lost “learning time.” The most important thing they can learn now is how to navigate a crisis with an open and compassionate heart. Settling into play, helping with family chores, making cards for first responders, spending time in family games and singing, making creations out of whatever is available – for my grandkids tape and toilet paper rolls is the favorite - those are the things that teach them what is important. Any academics they really need, they can catch up on another time.
Still, some children will be comforted and anchored by having some dependable academic or artistic expectations kept. What matters is that you decide how much or little to require based on what your child needs in order to feel grounded, and not based on some outside measure of accomplishment that is never going to matter anyhow. With 50 years of teaching under my belt, I can promise you, 100%, that in the years ahead, no one – not one single person – is going to care what algebra test they completed during the COVID lockdown or if they learned fractions in fourth or fifth grade! It really doesn’t matter. But what kind of care and creativity and responsibility they shared in with their families and communities will be a part of them forever.
- Ear-plugs and conscious ignorance – that sounds like a joke, but it really isn’t. We all have different nervous systems. Some of us are at home in noise and mess, and some are not. What matters is that we face who we actually are and find ways to work with that. So, if we are not comfortable with the chaos, how do we survive when locked up with the wild people? Ear-plugs and ignoring. If you are someone whose nervous system is disturbed by noise and mess, look for ways to block your own intake. Ear plugs can actually help – yes, you need to make sure you can hear or see if someone gets seriously hurt, but short of that, make their wildness tolerable to your nervous system by dampening the squeals and crashes and looking the other way. Take up something you enjoy like baking or reading or crafts, and look the other way while your living room becomes a battle-at-sea or a three ring circus.
Then there’s the mess. It helps to start by taking a step back and noticing the tremendous creativity in that mess that was once your living room or kitchen. Tell yourself some stories to fit the scene – tsunami survival? Shipwreck? Mad Bakers at work? A Jackson Pollock? A laboratory curing cancer – or creating a COVID vaccine!? Look with an eye for detail; what brilliant creativity is this particular artistic endeavor – a.k.a. mess – revealing? And then remember that it is, in fact, revealing creativity in crisis!
Now to function: ask yourself what your absolute bottom requirement is. For me, it is an issue of whether or not I can safely get to the bathroom in the middle of the night! But you might want to ask, “Can I relax if the house is cleaned once a day before the kids go to bed, so I have some time in a clean space?” Or do you need to shoot for twice a day? Any more than that is a set up for misery for all. Hard to accept the mess? Look for a place in your home that you can make off limits. Confining the children’s mess to their rooms will never work with this extended quarantine, but making your room or your office or a space in the garage off limits, just might. Face the reality of who you are and how your nervous system works; choose your battles from there.
- Media! Let’s get real. Unless there is an aunt or grandparent living with you – and really even if there is! – the kids are going to have a lot more T.V. and screen time, and time with recorded stories. HAving the media option is one blessing of this time in history – we have to shoulder the curses, let’s make use of the blessings.
And I say this as an educator and parent who is downright anti-media! But there is a time and a place for all things. Many years ago my oldest grandchild, then a toddler, developed a very rare illness that meant lots of hospital time and lots of poking and prodding and chemical infusions. His “relief valve” was watching Disney’s Pocahontas 43,000 times. I, who absolutely hate all Disney, now love the Pocahontas cartoon like she was my own. There is a time and a place for everything; Corona-confinement is a time for welcoming media support.
AND, short of a specific medical problem, don’t fret over how close they sit to watch or how much they jump around or chatter through a show. Forget about control; find your inner Pocahontas and enjoy the break.
- Rhythm. Yes, we need the support of all the media at our fingertips. But that said, endless chaos and T.V. will cause a dysregulation that leads to insanity with its resulting explosions or depression! While loosening expectations matters a lot, so does establishing a rhythm to your days, a rhythm that feels safe. Rhythm – just the word makes many shiver in terror and feel they are doomed to failure. But a true rhythm is not a prison, or a guard barking marching orders. Rhythm is a dependable flow, much as nature gives us. If suddenly the sun rose at midnight followed quickly by another sunrise, we would all panic. But the fact that the sun is rising earlier and earlier as we head toward summer, always followed by midday, dusk and night, reassures us. So it is the dependable flow that matters, and, for the most part, we do that naturally. Here I am talking about noticing the flow of the major anchors of the day, keeping them in a dependable sequence, and letting the rest be relaxed space.
I am talking about simple dependable rhythms: meals, sleep, outdoor time, story time, and rest, all happening in a dependable order – the simple anchors that give the day a feeling of safety. The children don’t need the most exciting projects or social zoom time or some outside demand for accomplishment! They need meals and snacks to be reasonably dependable, and lots of space to play and explore and create and make a mess.
Within that, they do need this punctuated by a dependable connected time, like reading a story together – and if you are too tired, hold them while you listen to a recorded one. Same with songs. Maybe for the big ones it is a game time; something that assures them of your real presence. And when you can, let them join you in cooking and setting and clearing and gardening. Do the things you love or the things that must be done, and don’t waste energy on “should.”
Within this simplified schedule, in many ways most important of all, is a separated quiet time mid-day – no matter how old they are. Trying to survive 24/7 for who knows how long without a structured break, is insanity. Don’t have enough separate rooms? Make rooms with sheets over the tables or chairs – now it’s your turn to play “demolish the house” – go for it!
Recorded stories, building toys, print books, crafts – even a new toy each week can help! One good trick for the little ones is to get a new building or art toy that is only brought out, only allowed, at quiet time. Whatever it takes, find a way for everyone to separate for about an hour in the middle of the day; it will change your lives.
So, pulling it all together, a sample day with little ones (under pre-adolescence), really amounts to: eat, play, go out, eat, rest - repeat! But more specifically, it might be:
- Leisurely wake up – put on some music to signal that breakfast is coming.
- Very leisurely breakfast.
- Outside walk, or put on music you like, and dance around like lunatics. And think about those ear-plugs! Seriously, figure out when they would be of help.
- The children play, a.k.a. take apart the house, while you escape into work or fantasy or just breathing!
- Leisurely snack.
- Read to them or put on a recorded story and snuggle. For the elementary children it often helps to hear about the hero’s journey. On the Enki education website you can find books for elementary school children that speak to navigating challenge (http://www.enkieducation.org/html/event_alternative_education.htm).
- Play more or walk again – and, ONLY if it serves to ground them, do a little school work.
- Lunch prep and eat
- REST – separate everyone, use ear plugs as needed, ignore all that isn’t causing a blood tsunami, and rest, rest, rest!
- Walk again – if you can’t, just let them play or watch T.V. there are suggestions for “zoom-games” on the Enki Facebook Page. Ignore the children and do more of your own work or fun.
- Snack again.
- Some cooking or craft time or watch T.V.
- Clean up
- Time for parents to breathe, weep, fanatically watch the news, talk with friends, sleep!
For the teenagers, we can do the same, but just let them start the day at snack time and know they will be doing phone and computer after the others are in bed when you can ignore them. But even for the teens - maybe especially for them - some dependable moments of connection matter: a shared walk, baking together, something that says “I am really here.” They are the ones most likely to suffer from the loss of connectedness on a deep level – and their development makes them more susceptible to stress. We can’t replace the budding communities they have come to depend on, but we are the ground community they know – just a regular space to connect in a non-pressured way can make all the difference. The teens need something periodically that touches the deep existential questions they are tackling at this age. Hoping to help with this, Enki Education is offering a special COVID program for adolescents, see our Special Events page on the website.
If we want the children to grow up to face reality, let’s model that now: this is not an ordinary moment, this is a crisis; let’s not pretend otherwise. Basically, we want to survive this adventure as a loving, playful team, and anything that doesn’t serve that should be kicked to the curb! That has to begin with accepting your own fears and frustrations and finding practical ways to limit the stress. On this ground, charting a course will be easier. This is going to be a long haul. Blessings to us all!