As a former principal who teaches child development at the college level, I agonize for children experiencing school vulnerable to the Delta variant and adults across our country who do not put them first. The mark of advanced civilizations is that above all else, the old protect the young.
We are failing this test.
Adults are fighting among themselves — leaving the voiceless, our children, without grown-ups united to shield them. It is time to send politics to a time-out and think first as parents, grandparents or anyone who has ever loved a child.
Preventing even a small number of children’s severe illness or death requires adults to get vaccinated and wear masks. If this seems too much, who is willing for their child to suffer or die? Adults stepping up is the only way children can safely go to school, childcare or most anywhere else. Adults can prioritize minimizing children’s risk, even at some perceived risk or inconvenience to themselves.
The choice is stark: Do we want to kill COVID-19 or kids?
As someone who has worked with many children, what they most need is to feel safe. We give them this security and space to just be kids when adults signal through similar actions across communities that we’ve got this.
When adults are matter-of-fact about wearing masks to help one another stay healthy, children are too. Moreover, these actions are powerful lessons in the empathy essential not only for human kindness but humankind, pandemic or not.
In human development, survival and progress rely on empathetic self-regulation. Currently we are seeing what happens when empathy lags. Youngsters pay the price until enough adults are adult enough to compassionately put them first.
Children also often have surprising ways of viewing situations that adults tend to see negatively. Wearing a mask intrigues many children who enjoy wearing costumes at Halloween or when playing. While adults should be straightforward with children in age-appropriate ways about the pandemic’s seriousness, children feel safe and hopeful when adults step together to model empathy and agency at an otherwise scary time.
What scares children more than a pandemic is when adults are not getting along. No matter how much we think children do not notice, or that we can shield them from metastasized grievances in communities, adult turbulence bleeds through and stains children’s lives.
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Whether children are traumatized and suffer long-term harm depends on the event — in this case, how adults handle the pandemic — and especially children’s experiences during the event. The more people who brutishly disagree, get sick or die, the more likely children will experience trauma’s toll of chronic anxiety and dimmed learning — not to mention joy, the birthright of every child.
Yet, there is still time for better outcomes. Between event and effect are the experiences adults collectively choose to give children. We can agree to disagree civilly and put children’s health and well-being first. If we err, it can be to that end. We can get vaccinated and wear masks, maybe even with the words, “For Kids,” printed on them.
The question for all adults at this critical moment is: Are we big enough to do it?
Kellye Wood is a former elementary principal and early childhood director who teaches child development at Michigan State University in the College of Social Science’s Department of Human Development and Family Studies.