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KCUR's Gina Kaufmann brings you personal essays about how we're all adapting to a very different world.

No Sharing And Other Pandemic-Era Rules Create An Upside Down World For Small Children

Photo Illustration-Carlos Moreno/KCUR 89.3
In the pandemic era, childhood isn't as messy, interactive or touchy-feely as it used to be. But kids' emotional needs haven't changed.

With community spread of the coronavirus remaining high in Kansas City, rules parents once thought would be short-lived now account for a huge chunk of kids' formative years. Can the lessons be unlearned?

Being a very small child in a pandemic has its advantages. My son recently turned 4. He gets that germs are spreading, but he thankfully doesn't grasp the magnitude of the world's problems. He likes costumes, so masks are fun. Give him a stick and a patch of dirt and he'll be happy for an hour, maybe two. It's good to be 4 right now. Truly.

On the other hand, the pandemic has been going on for one-eighth of his life. His memories from before are getting hazy. And that makes rules put in place for safety in strange times not so much a blip on the radar as a formative stage in his development. Rules like "no sharing" — now standard in schools and daycares — are the exact opposite of what we would normally instill (in case this is news to you, small children now put toys they've used in special bins to be sanitized before other children have a turn).

Not long ago, he referred to our extended family as his "old family," telling me nonchalantly that his old family was big, but his new family is small; this has since been cleared up, but that's how he was interpreting our social distancing practice early on. At the park, he wants to play with other kids, something I was once teaching him how to initiate for the sake of his happiness as an only child. Now I simply remind him we don't do that. Because of germs.

Will growing up in a no sharing, people-are-scary, family-on-Zoom world shape who he becomes? It's painful to consider.

My son plays alone with a world map from camp-in-a-box, a subscription service that delivers activities to children at home. It includes monthly letters from fictional pen pals.
Gina Kaufmann
My son plays alone with a world map from camp-in-a-box, a subscription service that delivers activities to children at home. It includes monthly letters from fictional pen pals.

Lauren Ballard is in the same boat. Her daughter, Mae, is 2-and-a-half. Right before the pandemic, Mae was mastering the art of greeting people. "So, the pleases and thank you's and nice-to-meet-you's," as Ballard puts it.

"She has a very bright and social personality on her own, but she also comes from two very social parents," Ballard explains. "Before this, we were out and about a lot in Lawrence and Kansas City, so she's used to seeing people."

Some of Mae's pre-pandemic lessons about greetings can be practiced at home.

"She gets in her Fisher-Price car and she drives around, but before she gets in, she gives kisses and goes around saying, 'Goodbye, goodbye, goodbye, I'm going on a drive,'" Ballard says. "And she started shaking the dog's hand saying 'nice to meet you.' Instead of, like, 'shake,' she'd say 'nice to meet you.'"

But when Mae tries to greet people outside the house, it's a disaster. People ignore her at best, and physically recoil at worst — understandable from their perspective, but a crushing rejection for Ballard to witness.

Ballard grew up in Lawrence and recently moved back from Kansas City with her family for the tight-knit community, as well as the Lawrence traditions that had been so important in her own childhood.

"I had all these big dreams, thoughts of all of these things that we were going to finally be able to attend," she says, "I went to Haskell, my dad went to Haskell, my grandpa was a dean there. So taking her to the powwows and getting to introduce her to everyone was a big deal. And when she got to the age where finally it was like, you know, we could do some of that stuff, it all shut down."

Her daughter's daycare is part of that.

"I went there as well," Ballard explains. "So some of this is loaded with my expectations."

Ballard's memory of the Montessori school she attended is very different from what her daughter is experiencing at the same place, but in the midst of a global pandemic. Traditionally, Montessori schools have kids doing everything communally, including serving each other family-style meals at lunchtime.

"They have outdoor decks, so now they eat outside two by two," Ballard says, expressing full appreciation for the safety measure while also recognizing how different that makes things. "Nothing is communal."

The Ballard family is a social bunch of huggers and greeters, including the youngest of the crew, whose love of shaking hands has sadly been discouraged throughout the pandemic.
The Ballard family is a social bunch of huggers and greeters, including the youngest of the crew, whose love of shaking hands has sadly been discouraged throughout the pandemic.

But the hardest part is drop-off. Mae tries to greet other families on her way inside.

"Parents are really just moving very fast. They're ushering their kids and they're dropping them off. They're dropping their eyes. They're not making eye contact," Ballard observes.

She doesn't blame them, of course.

"They're scared. They're also respecting your space. And she may not even notice it. I mean, it breaks my heart because I want her to be able to make those connections. It's my fear that she's being conditioned to think that's something we don't do, we just need to keep our heads down and walk."

Fortunately, experts aren't as worried as parents are.

"It can be undone," Jennifer Copeland assures me. She's the division chair for the Early Childhood Education and Development program at Metropolitan Community College Penn Valley. "Kids are so resilient. They really can bounce back in amazing ways."

But it's important to be conscientious about how we handle this unusual moment, she says, which runs counter to the whole spirit of childhood in so many ways.

"We need to do our best to explain. So that's part of our job as a responsive caregiver, even if it's a concept that's kind of over their heads," Copeland instructs. "You never know what's going to really stick with them, but if we try to kind of gloss over it or, you know, rush past it, that tends to make an impression."

That means telling children—and telling them often—that we understand how they feel and that they will someday get to do the very things we're telling them not to do for now. "It's not going to be forever," she notes. "So we do have to kind of reiterate that. For ourselves, too, right?"

She also urges parents to carefully choose the language they use in communicating about these temporary rules. A word that needs to be used with caution is the word safe.

"It is one that we tend to overuse a lot in the early childhood, period, because it's a simple word that young children can grasp and understand," Copeland says. But overuse of this word can create also anxiety, which she's seeing a lot right now in particular. "You can say, you know, 'there's this virus' or 'there's this illness' and that's why we have to keep our distance. Or, 'it's not safe to be closer than six feet.' Just be sure you're being really specific."

As for no sharing? Copeland isn't convinced that's such a terrible thing for the early years. She says adults have unrealistic expectations for sharing at that age.

And we're all going to have to relearn social skills when this is over, no matter how old we are. "There's going to have to be a lot of intentional teaching around it," Copeland says. "Social skills are not innate."

Maybe the kids who are learning not to share for now will be really into sharing later, with all the fervor of a kid from a no-sugar household devouring candy at a friend's house. A parent can dream.

People don't make cameos in news stories; the human story is the story, with characters affected by news events, not defined by them. As a columnist and podcaster, I want to acknowledge what it feels like to live through this time in Kansas City, one vantage point at a time. Together, these weekly vignettes form a collage of daily life in Kansas City as it changes in some ways, and stubbornly resists change in others. You can follow me on Twitter @GinaKCUR or email me at gina@kcur.org.
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