How I'm Talking to My Children About What's Happening on the COVID-19 Front Lines | Opinion

After some brief discussions with my 8- and 11-year-old children, I made the decision to sit them down to watch this video of an ER nurse in Michigan who speaks about what she is experiencing on the "front lines," as her hospital has run out of ventilators, masks and such basic medications as Tylenol. She talks about her feelings of suddenly being forced into making life and death decisions she'd never signed up for.

My kids had an immediate reaction: a moment of mouth-gaping astonishment followed by a joint conclusion that they didn't want me to drive them to the Starbucks drive-through after all.

"That's called increasing your chances for good luck, with good judgment," I said.

My pillow talk with my 8-year-old son did include death: "Are you going to get the Coronavirus, mommy? If you get it, are you going to die?"

Kids are faced with death in many other contexts, from grandparents dying naturally to the suicide of peers—and I'm okay with keeping the blinders off. I don't see any benefit in shielding children from the truth, including worst-case scenarios that would directly impact them. Instead, I view this as a time to arm them with the communication skills and emotional tools to process unsettling information in a way that leaves them feeling more empowered than scared.

As a former investigative reporter, I was sent a video of body bags lining the halls of what appear to be a hospital in the aftermath of COVID-19. My 11-year-old daughter snuck a peek at it as I was studying it on my phone. She demanded an explanation of what I was looking at. My first reaction was to shut it down; it was hardly G-rated.

But my second reaction was to allow it, with plenty of explanation. "First of all," I explained to her, "we don't know if it's real. It could literally have been staged. That's called a hoax."

I then walked her through how an investigation might work: following time stamps on Twitter photos, contacting friends of potential victims online, searching the web for photos of various potential hospitals to see if they match up with the video.

This led to questions and conversations on careers: What do EMT workers do? Nurses? Doctors? Scientists? Journalists? It even led to a conversation on human psychology: Why might someone create or edit a video in order to trick people?

She started ruminating out loud about all the ways in which she might spend her life, from investigating medical mysteries to working with victims of trauma; even at this peculiar moment in time, her future seemed to be unfurled in front of her like a red carpet.

If there is any revelation I've come to, it's that now is not the time to stress about business as usual. Instead, I'm shooting for relevance. This means turning a math lesson into a conversation about statistics, a science lesson into a conversation about how viruses spread, what an immune response is, or how the scientific method originated. It means turning a history lesson into a conversation on the real story behind the legendary Typhoid Mary. It means punctuating our domestic pandemonium with short but deliberate moments meant to tease out empathy, creativity, and intellectual curiosity.

Midday, we'll go out for a jog, a game of gaga or hoops, or a bike ride. We'll allow our kids to watch the news with us, but keep it to small doses in the morning (no need to infringe on their dreams), and follow up with an emphasis on what we can control.

In the afternoon, the kids will take a short online class.

At night, we'll read a book or play a game and talk about the power of storytelling and connection to shine a light through even the darkest of times. We keep notebooks in which we jot down a few things: things we're worried about, things we're grateful for, and some goals we have for the following day. This seems to work in terms of getting everyone to bed with a clear-ish mind.

For those of us with children, we are tasked not just with navigating this deranged experience for ourselves, but shepherding our children through it as well. We're not going to get it a hundred percent right, because there is no hundred percent right. What feels right to each of us is going to look very different.

For me, this is a time to set lists aside and to let some boxes go unchecked while taking an opportunity to address the "why" behind learning—being able to adapt and contribute, especially in uncertain times. Addressing the elephant in the room also helps alleviate my children's fear and anxiety by balancing it with openness, understanding, and historical context.

The house will get messy, the hair will get tangled, the piano will go unpracticed, and the spelling words will, for a few months, go unlearned. We'll survive. The most important thing I can do as a parent right now, both for my children and myself, is to embrace this disruption in our plans and routines and remain open to the lessons it has to teach us.

Leelila Strogov is a graduate of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and the CEO of Brattle Street, an educational consulting firm that serves students in the U.S., Asia and Europe.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.​​​​​