By Maya Schenwar
“Are monsters real?” asks my three-year-old, sculpting one with horns out of hot pink Play-Doh.
“No,” I say, “monsters are imaginary. So, they might sometimes be scary, but you can feel reassured because they’re not real!”
“So scary things are imaginary. And not-scary things are real?”
“Not exactly; some scary things are real.”
“Give me a minute,” I say, and attempt a round of deep meditative breathing, but he’s still babbling full steam.
“Are elephants real? Are dinosaurs real? Is a ghost real? Are clouds real? Is lightning real?”
And then —“Is the pandemic real?” asks my three-year-old.
There’s good advice out there about how to discuss hard things with your preschooler. In Mary DeMocker’s Parent’s Guide to Climate Revolution, she writes that we must “try for truth, emotional support, and empowerment without either overwhelming your kids or pretending everything is fine.” Janet Lansbury tells us that talking to our kids about heavy topics like death are “precious conversations that I wouldn’t try to rush through, that I would not want to discourage in any way. In fact, the opposite.”
I believe them! But over the past 20 months, I’ve found it difficult to apply any of these wise words. When the lockdown hit, my kid was just 22 months, not old enough to comprehend the gravity of the virus. As the pandemic has dragged ceaselessly on, he’s grown into a thoughtful person who hears everything and wants answers.
This group of children—babies and toddlers who grew into inquisitive children during the pandemic—know something’s up, no matter how much (or little) we parents have endeavored to explain.
But the answer isn’t simply honesty. It’s hard enough to talk with our young kids about tricky subjects that we adults feel confident in understanding. (As prepared as I thought I was for “Where do babies come from,” I froze when the words came out of his mouth.) What to do with a subject whose realities, dangers, and reassurances are ever-changing, shifting with the daily news?
From the start of the pandemic, we’ve been told to refocus young kids on what they can do—wear their masks, wash their hands. It makes sense; why not redirect their energy toward things that will actually keep them safe? At the beginning, my partner and I fixated on finding just the right face shield for our nearly-two-year-old (and later, just the right mask), getting him to wear it any time we set foot out of the apartment, dispensing too-generous globs of hand sanitizer at every turn.
But now that my kid is a little older and wears his mask like a second skin, he recognizes a diversionary tactic when he sees one. So the questions persist—particularly, this question of reality.
The fact is, my three-year-old knows the pandemic is real. For nearly all of his conscious life, this child has been told he can’t—or must—do a vast range of things because of the pandemic. And the reason he’s home right now to ask about the reality of monsters is because his preschool class is quarantining, after a positive test.
For my child, it seems, “Is the pandemic real?” doesn’t just mean, “Is the pandemic really happening somewhere right now?” (He’s not a Covid denier!) Instead, it means, “How scared of it should I be?”
He’s trying hard to believe us when we explain that monsters and zombies and dragons are figments of our collective imagination—while processing the ongoing lurking presence of a phenomenon that even a three-year-old realizes is scarier than all those things put together.
I try to keep it light-hearted, though am unsure of whether my grimace is successfully masquerading as a grin.
“Yes,” I say, “the pandemic is real.”
“But it won’t come inside our apartment?”
I’m about to offer an automatic “no, you don’t have to worry!” just as I have when he’s asked about whether dinosaurs, thunder, or big trucks will break through our walls.
But at this point, three of his friends, whose parents were being just as meticulously cautious as we have been, have contracted Covid.
Although cases around the country are dropping and people are breathing sighs of relief all over cable news, 100 percent of three-year-olds are unvaccinated, and children currently make up about a quarter of reported Covid infections. Though they thankfully tend to contract mild cases, we can’t reasonably reassure any kid that they don’t have a chance of catching it, as around 6.3 million children have since the start of the pandemic.
“Well,” I say finally, “we’re doing everything we can to stay safe. You’re doing great. And I love you. We’re here to take care of you no matter what.”
At “I love you,” his brow unfurrows, and he picks his play-doh back up, murmuring, “I forgot about my monster.”
I grab my own clump of Play-Doh and think, I’d forgotten something too—the fact that usually, the main thing my child wants to hear is that he’s not alone. That his grownups are accompanying him, no matter what scary, unexpected, and sometimes very real things are waiting around the bend.
This won’t solve every problem—not by a long stretch. But in this 20-month-long uncertain moment, just reassuring my child that I’m here seems to be the closest thing to a “right” answer.
Maya Schenwar is the editor-in-chief of Truthout, the author of two books and many articles, and the mom of a vivacious three-year-old. She lives with her family in Chicago. You can find her on Twitter at @MayaSchenwar.
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