What’s a Parent To Do With a Pandemic Summer?

Camps are closing and fairs and family reunions, and the playground down the street seems fraught with hidden danger. Even that golden feeling of freedom on the first day of summer has been tarnished. Away from their friends and go-to-school routines for several months now, kids have already been languishing around the house wondering what to do next. And now the long summer looms.

How can you help kids make this summer good—to reach toward goals and to fight monotony? Here are two strategies that can help:

  • Routine—It may seem counter-intuitive, but daily habits can set kids free. Routine makes kids more efficient, bringing order to their surroundings. But it does more. Regular, repeated practice strengthens the brain. Kids play violin better, read faster, and solve problems more quickly.

I liked to tell hard-working students about the layers of myelin they were building up on the brain pathways.

“The more layers of myelin you put down, the easier it will get,” I’d say, “At first it’s like you’re traveling a muddy road. After a few more tries the road will change to gravel and then to pavement. And after a while, it will feel like you are gliding on ice.”

“If I could convince parents of one thing,” I’ve heard math teachers say in repetitive litany, “it would be to have their kids practice math facts every day all summer.”

Fact fluency, these teachers said, was a huge predictor in later math success. After all, students didn’t have to slow down complex problem solving to figure a simple math fact. And ritualistic practice was the only way to get there.

  • Novelty—If routine makes us strong, change brings the spark. Novelty wakes the brain, releasing dopamine, the feel good hormone. Usually summer comes with novelty tied up in a package—going other places with other people doing new things. But this summer is a chance for a homemade version of novelty, to show kids how to change things up in small ways that don’t take money or travel. Here are some examples:
    • Play a different genre of background music every day.
    • Reverse the order. Eat dinner and then lunch and then breakfast.
    • Put a new person in charge. Kids cook and parents do dishes.
    • Have reading suppers once a week.
    • Have a no-talking morning. The only communication is by writing and gesturing.
    • Sleep somewhere new.
    • Walk in a different neighborhood.
    • Start a family book club.

I’ve found that, when kids understand the benefits of routine and novelty, they can help make it all happen. These skills can fortify them for life and take the dullness out of a stay-at-home summer day.

What’s Good About Being Bored

My mom had a one-word fix for boredom—work. So when we had nothing to do, we didn’t bother her. Having seven children, this tactic may have been based more on self-preservation than on an understanding of the brain. But whatever the motive, her refusal to cure our boredom was a gift.

Because she didn’t rush to fill our emptiness, we learned to look to ourselves. We came to see that we, not adults, were the makers of fun. During long summer evenings in Flint, Michigan, for example, my brother and I devised our own adventure. We turned into spies. Hiding behind parked cars and dodging from bush to bush, we’d spend the entire evening trying not to be seen as we stalked our siblings and trailed our neighbors up and down the street.

Other times, boredom turned our thoughts inward. On the eight-hour car trips from Flint to Maryland to visit our grandparents, we had no electronic games and no movies. I remember pressing my face against the window as I tried to work out who I was—how living in the city was making me a different person than if I still lived in the country near my grandparents.

And every single evening, the mound of dishes to be washed and dried and stacked in the cupboard gave me a chance to choose between grumpiness and flights of fancy. With my hands in the dishwater, my mind had nothing to do but wander. As I ranged from one random idea to another, I began to make connections. From these dish-washing sessions came the first stories I ever wrote. This is the kind of imaginative thinking that comes from a mind in low-gear. No wonder some of my best ideas still come as I fold laundry or just as I’m drifting into sleep.

It’s not that my mom never played with us, never plunked paint or pipe cleaners or clay in front of us. But this was a treat, not a daily practice. Most of the time, if we even hinted of having nothing to do, she’d point to unfolded diapers, unswept floors, and unpeeled potatoes.

Pandemic Learning—How to Help Stalled-Out Kids Step Up

In some ways this pandemic has put kids more in charge.

“The cat wakes me up early,” my granddaughter told me. “So I just look at my list of schoolwork and get it done.”

As classroom learning came to a screeching halt, some kids figured out that they had more agency than before. They could use the restroom when they wanted, right in the middle of math, and without asking. They could do the hardest subject first or put it off until last.

They could take a spin on a scooter between math and spelling and eat their lunch while they read the next chapter in history.

While they wanted to be with friends and see a teacher once more at the front of the class, they had this one thing—a chance to be in charge. The executive functions of their brains were working like an air traffic control system at the airport, assessing the big picture, making choices, and ordering tasks.

But some kids have struggled. Nothing in their brains seemed to be directing arrivals and departures. They’ve needed help to develop the regulatory skills that come naturally to others. So how can you help stalled-out kids take charge of their own work?

  • Help them see it. Kids with low executive function struggle to complete tasks, but they also struggle with the stage before that—figuring out what needs to be done. The to-do list helps. It’s simple, it makes work visible, and crossing off items one-by-one feels good.
  • Help them say it. With hard tasks in front of them, kids can get lost in a sea of emotion. Self-talk, though, brings what they feel into consciousness, changing emotion into thought.

“This is hard,” they can learn to say. “But I’m going to take it step-by-step.”

  • Help them move. Quick bursts of exercise increase oxygen in brain cells and create new connections between neurons. So teach them to establish a pattern: check off an item on the list and do ten push-ups or jog around the block or jump five minutes on the trampoline. These brain boosters will help them focus on the next task.

Giving kids strategies to use on themselves helps them grow from the inside out and makes them less dependent on you. We don’t know what forms school might take for the fall. But it could well be that kids will have additional chances to regulate more of their own learning.

What To Do With a Clammed-up Kid

Just when some kids need to talk most, they clam up. When they sense danger, they retract to somewhere inside. And the more you probe, the tighter they lock their shells. And this isn’t good.

Like you, even small kids can have big feelings. Threats cause fear or embarrassment or anger to sweep over them. And the amygdala in their brains triggers their first instincts—to flee or fight or freeze. This all happens to you, as well. But you have something kids don’t have—a fully-developed frontal cortex. Here’s where reasoning and decision-making and planning happen. This part of your brain helps you talk down your fear and bring logic into the mix.

This is why your kids need you. To do for them what their brains are not yet ready to do.

If kids aren’t the clamming-up type, you don’t have to guess their feelings. You know they’re mad. They’ve got plenty to say, and they stand there and fight. By keeping cool and playing it right, you can gradually bring some sound thinking their way.

But the clamming-up kind flee into their shells and then freeze. You’re left only to guess.

Poking around doesn’t help. Like the clam, they tighten their locking muscles. So how can you find your way into the shell?

I’ve found it works better to go in the backdoor than to pound on the front door.  My favorite strategy is called joint engagement, which is just a fancy term for sharing a moment where you focus on something together. Maybe it’s a jigsaw puzzle or a bike ride. Maybe it’s doing the supper dishes or weeding the garden.

“I remember being full of dread once,” you might say as you pull out a dandelion root. Without looking at the kid, you tell a simple story. Then, just let it sit.

Or read a book aloud together. Books like Roll of Thunder and Number the Stars and the Narnia series show kids who have at the same time deep fear and strong resilience. In someone else’s story, kids can discover themselves. They are given a vocabulary to express their own embarrassments and fears and angers. With the focus off them, they might relax enough to open their shell.

“It was a bright, cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen,”—Orwell

They were the last class I taught—the Class of 2020. And the other night London City Schools lit up the stadium in honor of these students who won’t be wearing caps and gowns to march down the aisle.

“Drive to the football field,” the Facebook posts said all day. “Turn on your lights and honk your horns and show these seniors you care.”

The weather that day reminded me of the beginning of Orwell’s book 1984.

“Listen to this opening sentence,” I’d tell students when I introduced the book: It was a bright, cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.”

“Something’s wrong there, Mrs. Swartz,” they’d say.

And all day as I thought about going to the stadium, I too felt that the clocks were striking thirteen.

These students were wearing masks instead of mortarboards, distancing from grandparents instead of inviting them to open houses, wondering if college dorms would open in the fall instead of going to college tours, and fearing that a collapsing economy would rob them of careers.

And all this happened just as they were on the cusp. All year, as they checked out my groceries at Krogers or when they stopped by my porch, they had been telling me their hopes—to be an engineer, to play for the Ohio State Band, to teach, to get accepted into medical school, to play college football.

They were also vulnerable. I knew their middle school wounds—one had been beaten by her dad, another one bullied by his classmates. For one the letters had danced on the page making it impossible to decipher a sentence. Another had been on a lonely search for friends who could appreciate his sharp and quirky mind. One had stuttered and another ticced and yet another had been so shy she could barely lift her eyes to mine.

Throughout that bright, cold April day, I thought about these students.

And when the sun set, my husband and I joined the caravan of cars driving around the football field. Our lights were on and our horns blaring. I smiled and waved and tried to convince myself this wasn’t a funeral.

The Class of 2020 is beginning adulthood in strange times, when the clocks seem to be striking thirteen. This is not the time I would have chosen for them.

But I’ll be interested to see what they do with it.

One of My First Friends Has Died

One of my first friends has died. And because of the pandemic, Nathan’s burial was private—with his wife and children and grandchildren. So his family and his friends have missed the comforts of the usual mourning rituals.

At my home in Ohio, I followed posts about Nathan’s diagnosis of an aggressive lymphoma, his move from the hospital to hospice at home, his swift decline, and the last vigil his family held. And one morning I read that Nathan had died in the middle of the night.

That day my mind went back.

As children, Nathan and I had seen each other six days a week—at Yoder School on school days and at Sunday school on Sundays. When we could, we sat by each other at church and at school. And more than once we found ourselves in trouble for whispering . . . or worse. I never saw Nathan’s citizenship grade, but I had some explaining to do for my report cards. And when we learned that my family was going to move far, far away to Flint, Michigan, we fell into a mutual sorrow.

But we grew up. We each found spouses and established our own families. And through the decades we found occasion to see each other.  Once when Steve and I were college-poor, brand-new parents, and living on cornbread and beans, Nathan and Mim shared our table when they traveled through Flint. Just a few years ago, we stayed at their house in Virginia. Photos of grandchildren were scattered all through their house.

I last saw Nathan at a funeral home, next to his father’s coffin. Nathan was a history professor and archivist and had written a book. His mind was as sharp as ever, but Parkinson’s disease had weakened him, so he sat on a chair. His hand trembled when he reached out to shake mine. But his eyes still held the same spark that I remembered from second grade at Yoder School. That’s what used to get me in trouble—his eyes signaling he had something compelling to say.

My last conversation with Nathan was by telephone. The publisher of 𝘠𝘰𝘥𝘦𝘳 𝘚𝘤𝘩𝘰𝘰𝘭 wanted me to clear a scene I had written about him in my memoir.

“Read it to me,” he said when I explained.

And after I read, he said, “That will be fine, Phyllis. That will be fine.”

I’ve often heard my parents talk about their friends dying. So far, this hasn’t happened much to me.

But now it has.

The Guy I Saved from a Paddling Teaches Me a Lesson

In my book 𝘠𝘰𝘥𝘦𝘳 𝘚𝘤𝘩𝘰𝘰𝘭, I used a fake name for Lee Beachy. I had lost track of Lee, and he’d probably never read my book. But what if he did? And how would he feel about people knowing that back in second grade I saved him from a paddling? So in my book I called him Amos, just in case.

And wouldn’t you know! A few weeks after Yoder School was published, Lee found me. He read an interview my son David wrote for the Anxious Bench blog. Lee contacted David, who forwarded his email to me.

Lee and I began chatting by email. He reminded me that he had broken his left arm on a playground sliding board. He told me that he’s a father of four and a grandfather of one, that he works for a global bank, and that he has an idea for writing a book.

And he told me how he had spent a recent vacation day—reading Yoder School. He liked the book, he wrote. But he said nothing of the scene about him.

“If I catch you one more time sitting and staring,” the teacher told Lee one day when he kept leaning back and staring at the ceiling, “I will paddle you.”

I’m in the front row, wearing a blue dress. Lee is directly behind me, wearing a striped shirt.

I still remember the horror I felt that day. I had never seen anyone paddled at Yoder School, and I thought a paddling would dirty the school forever. So I made Lee my project. I scooted my desk closer to his, and every time his eyes strayed from his books, I poked him with a pencil. He didn’t like it much, but he also didn’t want a paddling. So after each poke, he obediently turned back to his work. The day was everlasting, but finally the yellow school buses pulled up under the classroom windows, and school was over. I had saved Lee from a paddling.

But even though Lee had read all this, he said nothing about it.

Just last week, Lee wrote again, this time about the coronavirus. His son, he said, was getting married that day—a field wedding with only immediate family and adequate social distancing. And he had some advice for me: Tell your grandchildren to write about their experiences with the virus. This is the stuff that makes up the fabric of history.

Good idea, I wrote back. And then I gathered up my courage.

“Did you recognize yourself in Yoder School?” I asked. “You were the kid I saved from a paddling.”

Lee didn’t remember that afternoon. But he could easily imagine it happened. From a very early age, he told me, he avoided using paper to tackle a problem. He didn’t like using an eraser. He preferred to do math in his head, without recording each and every step. And when he wrote a sentence, he liked to edit with his mind, before he wrote.

Back in second grade, Lee’s teacher had thought he was shirking when he stared at the ceiling. And so had I. Actually, though, I could see now that he had been working harder than I was.

I needed this lesson from Lee.

Daydreaming can more than a pleasant pastime. Daydreaming can produce innovative ideas, bring breakthroughs, and develop problem-solving strategies. In their minds people can not only set goals but also imagine the steps they would take to meet them.

Problems arise, of course, when daydreaming overtakes daily functioning. Lee had to learn, he told me, to do more than provide the “final answer.” He had to learn to show sequence and process.

Still, I’m glad Lee had a rich life of the mind back in second grade.

And he’s glad I saved him from a paddling.

“My back-side thanks you,” he wrote, “for your compassion and care in my tender years!”

Why We Played Cooties

When I was a kid we played Cooties. By that time, kids had already been playing this game for decades, ever since the 1918 Pandemic.

“Cooties!” we’d yell as we tagged someone on the playground.

And all the rest of recess that person tried to infect the rest of us. But sometimes we’d have mercy on our friends.

Clicking a ball-point pen on their arms, we’d chant, “Circle, circle, dot, dot, now you’ve got your cooties’ shot.”

We were, after all, the first of the Round-Scar Generation, sporting dime-size scars from small-pox vaccinations on our upper left arms. And we had grown up with the fear of small pox and polio and whooping cough, which meant you couldn’t catch your breath.

Cootie GameBut my favorite Cooties game came from a box. With this dice-rolling table-top game, we tried to be the first to build a cootie—on purpose and piece by piece. Our cooties, when built, had heads, antennas, eyes, mouths, and six legs each.

Cooties from WordKids played the earliest version of cooties during the 1918 Pandemic when perhaps a third of the world’s population was infected and children were particularly vulnerable. They played later versions during the last smallpox outbreak in the United States in the late 1940s. And like me, they played it in the 1950s when the polio epidemic put their cousins onto crutches and into iron lungs that kept them breathing.

Kids have always played out their fears. This is why I stabbed my dolls with needles before getting vaccines and why I played No Bears Are Out Tonight, an evening running game that pushed me into the dreaded dark. And this is how the cooties games helped me explore fears of infection that lurked in my mind.

During this coronavirus shutdown, my eight grandchildren have been on my mind. And I’ve decided to send them a new version of Cooties. And in true coronavirus form, I’ll order a set for myself so we can play it together via Zoom.



A Coronavirus Kind of Spring Break

“Guess what Grandma,” my oldest grandson said on a Zoom visit last night. “I’m stuck at home with the coronavirus, so I’m reading your book.”

Joel and I had thought we’d be together this week, that he’d come to Ohio from Illinois to spend spring break with me.

But instead of talking as we rode the bike path or grilled hamburgers or played ping pong, we met virtually.

“What’s really cool,” Joel said, “is that I was just learning about your time in my modern American history class.”

His teacher, Joel told me, had covered Sputnik and the polio vaccines and the Cuban Missile Crisis and Civil Rights. And just when school closed for the pandemic, they were talking about the Vietnam War.

“That was a bad time, Grandma,” Joel said, “a really bad time. And you lived in it.”

And, he continued with the hint of a snicker in his voice, “You lived during Flower Power, with the hippies.”

Joel wants to go back to school. Mr. Kauffman just talks to us, he said. He makes history alive and interesting. I want to hear more.

In my book 𝘠𝘰𝘥𝘦𝘳 𝘚𝘤𝘩𝘰𝘰𝘭, Joel is at page 70, just ready to read about the afternoon my teacher Mr. Deaton dumped a stack of Orwell’s book 1984 on top of his cluttered desk. I still remember that afternoon—how Mr. Deaton raked his long hair out of his eyes and perched on the edge of his desk. He sat there in his leisure suit with bell bottom pants and no tie, regarding us for a moment like he was trying to decide what to say.

Mr. Deaton was, after all, about to introduce us to a new and troubling world, a dystopian novel that warns about what happens when times turn bad.

“What I like about reading your book,” Joel said, “is that it puts history into a story. I like to know what you were thinking and feeling.”

And what I like about Joel reading my book, is that, perhaps in some way, I can give him company for his journey.

I’m disappointed that Joel and I didn’t spend spring break eating dinner together every evening. But in a new dystopian kind of a way, we are spending spring break together.