Jordan Shapiro, PhD is the author of The New Childhood: Raising Kids to Thrive in a Connected World. He is a world-renowned thought leader on kids, parenting, education, and technology.
He recently answered our questions about screen time, online learning, living in close quarters, managing your kids’ anxiety, or just general childrearing during unprecedented times.
How much do you tell your kids about what’s happening during the coronavirus crisis?
Unless you’re going to turn off the news and never talk about it on the phone or during a video conference, you can’t hide what’s happening from your children. They overhear everything and they jump to their own conclusions. They’re also experiencing the coronavirus crisis in their own very real way. With school, extracurriculars, and playdates disrupted, they need help interpreting this weird situation. Therefore, it’s best to be honest and straightforward with your kids. But of course, do it in ways that take your child’s age and unique disposition into account.
One of our jobs, as parents, is to teach our kids how to construct meaningful narratives about their experiences. We’re doing this all the time—so often that, in most instances, we’re rarely considering the cognitive messaging that we’re modeling. Think about when your kid trips and takes a tumble onto the ground. They may scream and cry. But you project a cool, calm demeanor. You say, “Oh no, that must have hurt. Ouchie!” You don’t panic, you don’t rush to get an X-Ray. You demonstrate the appropriate level of concern for the situation, teaching them how to evaluate the nature of a boo-boo and how to regulate their reactions properly.
The same logic applies to a global pandemic. It is appropriate to feel a lot of anxiety about the level of uncertainty we’re all currently confronting. This crisis is real, and the tragedy we are witnessing is intense. As adults, our challenge is to frame the situation in ways that are meaningful and compassionate. We need to acknowledge the reality of crisis and come to terms with our personal responsibility for social distancing. Moreover, we need to do it without feeling debilitated or emotionally paralyzed. We also need to teach our kids to do the same; the best way is to talk openly and honestly about what’s happening.
Of course, if your kids are very young, I wouldn’t tell them the statistics about how many people will suffer. But if you’ve got a teenager, talking about real numbers might help them make sense of how much panic is reasonable. You’ve got to evaluate what’s fitting on kid-by-kid and a fact-by-fact basis. For instance, even older kids probably aren’t ready to confront the heartbreaking stories of people dying alone in quarantine. And I’m not sure any kids need to know about the difficult ethical dilemmas our doctors and nurses will face during the coming weeks and months.
But parents can still try to talk about these issues in simple age-appropriate language. You might tell your young child, “A lot of people will get sick and the hospitals are very busy. We need to make sure we wash our hands so that we make it easier for everybody.”
Remember, your job is to provide your children with a narrative that helps them make sense of their current shelter-in-place experience. Some kids will want to know a lot. Others can handle hearing about the traumatic aspects of the crisis. Some won’t want to know any details. You know your kids best. Deliver the truth through a suitable, personalized filter.
What tips & tricks do you recommend for keeping your kids as accustomed to their normal routine as possible?
It’s true that kids need structure. However, unless you were already homeschooling, you won’t be able to maintain the “normal routine.” There’s nothing normal about this coronavirus situation. And kids know it. Some routines might stay the same. But ultimately, parents should really focus on creating new routines, aligned with the unique spirit and character of your family, that bring a sense of order and stability to your household during these uncertain times.
You can absolutely identify some things that stay the same. For example, even before coronavirus, I almost always served dinner to my kids around 6:30 or 7pm. After we eat, they get their last dose of video games while I do the dishes and clean the kitchen. Then, we all watch television or a movie together. Nothing about his has changed now that we’re sheltered-in-place. Sure, it’s shifted to a little later in evening, but mostly, we’re keeping that routine the same.
Alternatively, the mornings have completely changed. Now, there’s no rush to get everyone dressed and out the door for school. My older son needs to be on a school Zoom call at 8:30am on weekdays, but the younger one has an asynchronous distance learning plan. Each night, I remind the older one to set an alarm. In the morning, I help him get out of bed in time to brush his teeth and be in front of webcam at the correct time. For the younger one, who sometimes gets a lot of anxiety about completing his schoolwork, I spend some time each afternoon helping him map out a plan to get his work done the next day.
Beyond that, there’s no daily agenda in our house. I didn’t pin a rigid schedule to the refrigerator because that would be entirely out of character for us. My kids would be freaked out and destabilized. They’d ask, “Dad, what’s wrong with you? Why are you acting like this?” On some level, they’d recognize immediately that it’s more about compensating for my own sense of uncertainty than it is about theirs. In other words, a strict schedule would be so abnormal that they’d experience it as the exact opposite of maintaining normalcy. Be mindful about keeping things calm, but also remember that what matters most is that parents maintain an attitude consistent with kids’ expectations.
One more thing: recognize that your children probably have a great deal of their own routines. It’s likely you’re unaware of most of them. When they pick up a tablet, turn on the XBOX, or log into Roblox, they have a habitual way of organizing their time. You know how you check your social notifications, read your email, and browse through the news in the exact same way every day? Your children also have their own patterns. You don’t want to inadvertently disrupt the very things that bring your kids comfort, so stay open minded about accepting the things that matter most to them.
Should I be setting boundaries on screen time during the coronavirus?
I complained about the term “screen time” even before coronavirus. Why? Because all the research has consistently shown that there’s nothing toxic about screen exposure. You don’t turn into a zombie. Your brain doesn’t rot. Therefore, the question of duration is not really relevant.
It’s much more important for parents to be concerned with how their kids are engaged with screen-based media. Are they just binge-watching YouTube videos? Or are they involved in something creative? Are they playing alone? Or are they involved in online, interactive multiplayer activities? Are they composing electronic music? Or are they scrolling mindlessly through TikTok? It’s much more important to consider how the screens are being used than it is to consider how much they’re being used.
The truth is that even before social distancing, screen time wasn’t really optional. Adults already used it for professional, social, romantic, and even spiritual interactions. Children are the same. They’re not only required to use digital technology for schoolwork, but also, it’s the platform for social connection; it’s how they hang out with their cohort of peers. Screen time was already part of most children’s normal routine. Let’s not disrupt that now.
Is there a time limit I should be placing on TV time, like try to limit to 10-minute batches of screen time? Or does it not really matter, like in for a penny, in for a pound?
Don’t feel guilty about the amount of time your kids spend on any screens! Instead, ask a lot of questions about whether your children are doing enough other things. Are they reading books? Are they getting exercise? Are they doing creative projects? If the answer to all these questions is yes, then you’ve got nothing to worry about. There’s no bad amount of screen time, but there is such a thing as being narrow minded in your interests.
It’s also important for parents to remember that in during this crisis, screens are offering many of us our only opportunities for human-to-human connection. My kids are video conferencing with their cousins and grandparents. They’re also meeting up with all their friends to hang out in digital spaces—they’re using online multiplayer platforms like Roblox to have virtual playdates.
But the biggest benefit I’m hearing about is that there’s a lot of family screen time happening. Families are viewing videos together and parents are playing video games with their kids. My kids have finally convinced me to watch Stranger Things with them. They love watching my reactions to their favorite scenes. Experts call this “Joint Media Engagement,” and all the research has shown that this is the best way to amplify the positive aspects of screen use, while mitigating the potential negatives.
What kids really need right now—as they confront the anxiety of social-distancing—is for parents to ask about what’s already their screens. Talk about and engage in digital play with your children. Just listen and ask questions without goals, objectives, or intentions. You don’t need to make sure every moment is enriching and productive. You don’t need to worry so much about academics and homeschooling right now. It might not be helping. Instead, let the digital world be a space for a kind of “play therapy” that gives kids a chance to articulate—through imaginative, symbolic play—their worries and fears. Parents don’t need to diagnose or fix anything. In fact, they shouldn’t. Kids just need a place where the authority figures in their lives witness and validate difficult and confused feelings.
More than a century’s worth of child psychology research has taught us that tense emotions are best expressed in safe and familiar play spaces. Don forget that for today’s kids, those spaces are digital.
How do you juggle parenting kids at home with a full-time WFH situation?
This is such a hard question. I’m sorry to say I don’t have an answer that’s likely to be satisfying. I remember when my kids were really little—infants and toddlers—I trained myself to wake up at the wee hours of the morning just so I could get two or three hours of quiet time to focus on research and reading before they woke up. And that wasn’t even a full-time work from home situation!
I guess, you can try talking to your kids about how important it is for them to be quiet for a little while so that you can focus, but in my experience, that rarely works. I sometimes tell mine that I need to do an important Zoom call and they think that means they should whisper, or hold up a misspelled sign, whenever they need my help. They imagine that if the people on the other side of the call don’t know kids are in the room, everything is good. It’s inconceivable to them that Dad can’t instantly shift his attention to them in any circumstance. Sometimes, I’ll intentionally schedule meetings right at lunch time, giving them a plate and putting them in front of a video while I do the call. That keeps them occupied and quiet for about 30 minutes.
One trick I use is getting them involved in my work. My older son (14 years old) made the images that accompany this Q&A. I talked to him about the financial hardships we might face as a family, since I make a lot of my living by speaking at large public events, and I asked him if he could help me get some work done. This not only kept him busy, but also gave us a chance to discuss the very serious, potential economic ramifications of this coronavirus crisis—in a way that maintained my son’s sense of agency (he didn’t feel helpless).
My younger son (12 years old) has been helping me make videos for my Temple University classes. So far, he’s just been the audience, sitting next to me as I explain the ideas, nodding and asking questions. But now he’s interested in learning about video editing, so I’m hoping to put him to work making my lectures soon. They’ll be as cool as his favorite YouTube videos! Of course, if you have little kids, this advice won’t really help.
Another thing that works well is to get the whole family doing the same things at the same time. For example, in our house, we’ve always had a ‘family reading time’ on the weekends. Now, we’re doing it every day. We all sit at the table together. They read books for pleasure. I’m often doing research, reading reports, or grading student papers. But we’re all engaged in the same kind of quiet focused time together. Remember, older kids can do this for much longer durations than younger kids. And don’t get too ambitious, otherwise it will end in frustration. Try starting with a 15-minute reading time; make it longer after they’ve grown accustomed.
The good news is that we’re all in the same boat. So far, nobody has judged me harshly when my kids walked into the frame of my webcam.