Parenting in the Age of the Coronavirus

By Eric Segall

Like millions of parents here and abroad, my wife and I are trying to juggle our work responsibilities (Lynne is a business school professor) with our parental duties while we are effectively home bound other than walks around the neighborhood with our dogs and occasional trips to the grocery and pharmacy. Our daughters are Sara, 12 and Katie, 11 (I also have a 29 year old daughter Jessica who is safe and sound elsewhere).

It appears that this is going to be our way of life for a while so I thought I would share a few thoughts and questions about what Lynne and I are going through right now to keep our children safe, sound, and sane. If you're looking for clear answers to the issues I am going to raise, you might want to stop reading now. Also, I am not claiming any special expertise regarding parenting but writing this in the hopes of, maybe, making other parents feel not so alone when essentially, other than our immediate families, and communicating via various technology, we are mostly alone.

One of the hardest decisions parents have to make in good times and bad is whether to employ clear rules or flexible standards (an issue also of course facing legislators, executives, and judges as well). "Never jump out your third story window," would be an example of a clear rule (with an implicit emergency exception built in), whereas "eat a reasonable amount of ice cream," would be a fairly flexible standard. Because anarchy is not a realistic option for most (maybe all) households, we, like all parents, have to communicate to Sara and Katie a laundry list of rules and standards.

During normal times, we have a no desserts during the week rule, and we limit screen time Monday through Friday  (except for homework) with different approaches on weekends. In addition, all electronics are supposed to be downstairs (girls' rooms are upstairs) after 9:00 at night.

These were designed to be actual rules in the pre-virus era. We had evolved to allow dessert for special occasions during the week, and sometimes even "just because," but we did pretty well with that one, and it came reasonably close to being a rule with occasional exceptions, even if the exceptions were not well defined.

Now, however, without really discussing the question, we have become far more permissive, and my trips to the grocery store have somehow resulted in food  (if you can call it that) being brought back into the house that we normally never buy--food like Pop Tarts, Lucky Charms, and ice cream. I really don't remember putting those things in the cart. But since they are in the house, a weekends only rule for their use seems like cruel and unusual punishment. Moreover, because I'm a lawyer and a law professor I always have a rationalization handy. We are eating at home exclusively now, and our meals are healthier than they were pre-virus when we ate out at least several times a week. So take a little and give a little seems okay during a pandemic.

On-line behavior is much more difficult to regulate in normal times than sugar consumption as I'm sure all parents understand. Our school provides computers to our children and 12 year old Sara also has a smart phone.  As of this writing, 11 year old Katie does not have a smart phone. Twelve years of age was going to be the minimal age for smart phones, but alas, I believe that rule will soon end up having a pandemic exception implicitly built in as well.

When the kids are in school, we generally try to enforce the no screen time during the week rule. We cannot look over their shoulders at all times, however, so we have accepted that Sara and Katie will occasionally socialize virtually while they are working or Sara, whose phone is full of apps, will play a game from time to time. We do the best we can.

These days, however, when the kids are home 24/7, we have had to make different decisions. They have on-line classes and then on-line homework, and they only communicate with their friends on-line (apparently because talking on the phone, even a cell phone, is no longer a thing they do). Limiting their screen time during the day now, is very, very hard and, as we old folks used to say, the game might not be worth the candle.

So instead, we take mandatory family walks, and when we watch television (or eat meals of course) phones aren't allowed. However, the following scenario is about to occur. My 91-year-old dad is in a retirement home outside Boston and basically in lock down. He used to go out to play bridge and poker, but no more. He also can't eat in the group setting anymore either so he is truly alone much of the time. I suspect we will start having virtual meals with him. But Sara has excellent critical thinking skills, and I have no doubt she will ask something along the lines of, if we can visit with Grandpa virtually during meals, why not our cousins in Boston or Los Angeles, and from there it is just a stone's throw to friends, and, well, you get the idea.

We will likely have more family reading time and family games when the phones will not be in sight. But absent such group activities is it a good idea to have a no screen rule which we probably can't enforce and will make our kids more lonely during this hard time period when they can't see their friends physically? I'm guessing there will be more give than take in the weeks ahead.

Sara and Katie normally go to bed around 9:15 during the week. What that really means is lights off except for the flashlights they use to read their books under the sheets. Fair enough.

There really is no legitimate reason to alter their bedtime but nevertheless it appears that we have done just that this week by inaction. I think we are going to try and enforce this rule (with a flashlight for reading exception) in the coming weeks, however, because one of the things definitely worse than pre-teens home all day and night is tired pre-teens home all day and night.

Overall, I am pretty sure we are going to be less strict in general given current living conditions. We are surely going to relax our already permissive standards for appropriate movies, television shows, etc., on the grounds that watching entertaining and smart but possibly inappropriate media together is more sensible then letting them watch mindless entertainment apart.

That's about all I have for now. There are of course many other issues with sisters only sixteen months apart, but we will respect their privacy and not discuss their relationship. Unless and until they drive us crazy at which time the pandemic exception might be employed to avoid that rule as well.