8 Things Parents Should Know About The Coronavirus: Life Kit The coronavirus is raising a lot of questions for parents, from how to talk to children about it to weathering school closures to screen time strategies when you're home with little ones.
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Coronavirus And Parenting: What You Need To Know Now

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Coronavirus And Parenting: What You Need To Know Now

Coronavirus And Parenting: What You Need To Know Now

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ANYA KAMENETZ, HOST:

Hi, I'm Anya Kamenetz, an NPR reporter and the mother of two girls.

CORY TURNER, HOST:

And I'm Cory Turner, an education reporter and the dad of two boys. And today, we're going to talk with you about really the only thing that Anya and I have been talking about for the last two weeks - coronavirus.

KAMENETZ: Obviously, right? That's what everyone has been talking about.

TURNER: So this is going to be a special LIFE KIT parenting episode about how to talk with young kids about coronavirus, how to deal with school closures. Maybe your school is closed, or maybe it isn't and you're worried about why it isn't. We're also going to talk about some screen time strategies if your kids are home and, most importantly, how to keep our kids healthy.

KAMENETZ: And because we're education reporters, we are in the privileged position of talking to experts about this. And so we thought that we would come to you, our LIFE KIT listeners, and pull together everything that is potentially useful. So here we go.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

TURNER: A quick note before we get started. This is a very fluid situation so this episode was recorded on Thursday, March 12th. And it is perfectly possible that things might have changed - our understanding of this disease might have evolved by the time you hear this.

Takeaway No. 1 - and we're going to start super basic here - is, we've said this two weeks ago, we're going to say it again - your kids need to understand not only that it is important to wash their hands, but, really, show them how to wash their hands well. Make sure they take 20 seconds. Make sure they use soap. And, you know, have them sing a song in their heads. Whatever it is, whatever it takes, this is seriously one of the most powerful things that you and they can do to protect not only themselves but all of us.

KAMENETZ: Right. So when should they wash their hands? They should wash their hands when they come in from outside, before eating. And then coming along with that - so I spoke to a friend of mine, Kavitha (ph), and she is the mom, actually, of an immunocompromised kid. He's 3 years old. He's doing pretty well. But he had - he's had a stem cell transplant in the past, so they are really, really used to all this stuff as a family. And here's some of the stuff that she told me.

KAVITHA: As soon as we walk inside, we just wash our hands for a good 30 seconds to a minute.

KAMENETZ: Do you use lotion?

KAVITHA: We use lotion because the handwashing can really cause your skin to crack. We use Aquaphor.

KAMENETZ: And things that we might not think of - don't forget to clip your fingernails every other day. Keep them short because a virus hides under there. And we've heard this thing to stop touching your face, right?

TURNER: Yeah. It's very hard for me. I will fully admit I caught myself on the metro this morning touching my nose.

KAMENETZ: Right. So something...

TURNER: Sorry everybody who saw me do it. I know it was really alarming. Sorry.

KAMENETZ: So a couple of tips - one is I painted my toddler's face yesterday and she had touched it so many times within, like, five minutes.

(LAUGHTER)

KAMENETZ: And I think it was actually a pretty good reminder for us - still spitballing on that one.

TURNER: (Laughter) All right. Moving on to takeaway No. 2 - when we're talking about coronavirus, it is really important to give them facts and be reassuring.

KAMENETZ: Yeah.

TURNER: Don't make promises, though, that you cannot keep.

KAMENETZ: Right.

TURNER: So the big thing that comes to mind for me is any parent's first reaction when a child asks, am I going to get coronavirus, is going to be, well, no, of course not, that - no, don't be silly. Don't say that because you don't know that. That is not a promise that you can keep.

And so instead - and these recommendations come directly from the CDC - talk about what COVID-19 looks and feels like, say, you know, it can feel kind of like a flu. People can get a fever or a cough. They might have a hard time breathing. You can be reassuring that only a small group of people, really, who get it actually have more serious problems. And we also know from what doctors have seen so far that kids don't seem to be getting very sick.

KAMENETZ: Yeah, that's a huge one, I think, for kids to listen to and to hear is that very, very few kids have gotten sick.

TURNER: Yeah, absolutely. And Anya, one more thing just because I don't think we can say this enough in every episode that we do for parents and kids is always double down on the fact that there are helpers out there. There are always helpers. Whether you get sick with COVID-19 or flu or you fall off your bicycle and break your arm, there are going to be folks out there who will help you get through this.

KAMENETZ: Yeah, totally. You know, we have a whole LIFE KIT episode on talking to kids about scary stuff in the news. But just in a 30-second recap, ask what they have heard, what rumors they may have come across, ask how they're feeling, make sure that you check in and limit the flow of information in your house. And honestly, this really goes for parents, too. You know, no screens in the bedroom at night. Don't play the news all day. We all need to take a lot of breaks from what's coming in at us.

TURNER: Absolutely.

KAMENETZ: So our takeaway No. 3 is that we should all try to reduce any stigma or misinformation or xenophobia around this virus.

TURNER: Yeah. You may have heard politicians talking about the Chinese coronavirus. You know, it's been kicking around. It's very important, especially when you talk to school leaders, educators, social workers - it's very important when talking with kids especially about this outbreak that we don't try to assign blame because this disease affects all of us, and we all need to help protect each other.

KAMENETZ: Our takeaway No. 4 is about closing schools. And, you know, Cory's been reporting on this. It's really a complicated decision.

TURNER: Yeah. I think we're really just at the beginning of a wave of closures. And there are a couple of things that I really want parents to understand here. I know there's been a lot of clamor from parents to close schools now. And there is research - Anya, you and I both know this. There is research out there that says that closing schools proactively - doing it early - does help slow the spread of disease. It is effective.

But the thing I want parents to understand is there are very real public health concerns and risks that come with closing the schools. So think about it, in this country, we have nearly 30 million kids who depend on schools for free or reduced-price breakfast, lunch, sometimes even dinner.

KAMENETZ: Yeah. And we have a million and a half kids, sadly, that don't have stable housing. So I guess the take-homes here are just to know this is a very complicated decision. Obviously, authorities are making it. Understand the pressure that they're under and figure out ways that we as communities can pull together and help the kids that are needier in our communities when it comes to this. And I've already heard of really creative thoughts around that, sort of extending meal distribution in communities, for example. So we should all be on the lookout for ways to help, I think.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

TURNER: Takeaway No. 5 now is if school does close, you still have options.

KAMENETZ: OK. This was a key question for me, which was, is it OK to have playdates or to trade off for child care if you need to?

TURNER: Yeah, yeah.

KAMENETZ: Basically, the science of this is the idea with closing schools is to limit the number of social contacts. In an ideal world, you would limit social contacts just to the people in your immediate family. That's what's most effective in slowing the spread of the disease.

TURNER: Yeah you need to be able to practice social distancing. Think of it as a good opportunity for a one-on-one hangouts.

KAMENETZ: Definitely.

TURNER: The real key here is avoid larger groups - anything 50 people or more, which is why we're seeing so much guidance now canceling everything from public sporting events to church on Sundays.

KAMENETZ: That's right. And so when you do get together, you know, you need to be able to practice social distancing and that means elbow bumping, waving. It's really, really hard if you have a young, young child. This might be off limits, right? It might be hard to get them to understand that.

And then we also - and I put you in mind to the fact that we need to be extra careful of our grandparents, older folks, anyone who's immunocompromised, has respiratory issues, those are our most vulnerable family members. And you know, it's hard. They want to see their grandkids. But that's the most dangerous.

TURNER: Yeah. And I want to say one thing on that count because my parents live about 45 minutes away from me. And I'm going to take this as an opportunity to really improve my FaceTime game with them.

KAMENETZ: Perfect timing. Create that...

TURNER: (Laughter).

KAMENETZ: ...Screen time. And, you know, that's kind of my thing. So our takeaway No. 6 is that, actually, there are better ways to do screen time. You don't have to be 24/7 Disney Plus...

TURNER: (Laughter).

KAMENETZ: ...And nothing else. I have a bunch of tips on this. Some schools are going to be sending home online homework while some will not. There's equity issues involved with that. I would encourage people to kind of think creatively about this because it's going to get really old after a couple days. Common Sense Media has put out a bunch of quality screen time recommendations - both free and paid - including privacy tips, which you want to think about if you're downloading a whole much a new apps.

So let's think really creative about what you might be able to do over video chat. Could you do your piano lessons on video chat? Could you do Sunday school on video chat? And then socializing - right? - so playdates, grandparents, like you mentioned, Cory. So you can read books over video chat. You can play hide and seek by carrying the laptop around the house. And...

TURNER: You could cook together.

KAMENETZ: You can cook together, totally. You could have a dance party together.

TURNER: (Laughter).

KAMENETZ: It doesn't mean, however, that you can't do enrichment.

TURNER: No.

KAMENETZ: That you have to just, you know, resign yourself to totally entertainment-based time. I mean, there's Khan Academy if they want to do different kinds of math. There is Tynker and a lot of other tools for practicing coding online. So you know, you might want to divide your screen time into vegetables and dessert and not just let them do entertainment all day, every day.

TURNER: (Laughter).

KAMENETZ: I want to think about the physical screen time options. So GoNoodle is something we use in our house. It's free videos with dances and also there's meditation videos and yoga videos on GoNoodle. Cosmic Kids Yoga is another video channel on YouTube that's all, like, yoga videos that work with even very young kids. It's also a really good time for everyone in the family to learn the Renegade...

TURNER: (Laughter).

KAMENETZ: ...And other viral dance crazes on TikTok. Like, make it active, right? It doesn't have to be a totally solo pursuit.

TURNER: Right. I'm going to state the obvious here, too, y'all, if this isn't already kicking around in your brain right now as we're talking, which is even though coronavirus is out there, it's still OK to go outside.

KAMENETZ: Yes.

TURNER: Go in your yard. Go to a park. Go for a walk. As long as you're not holding hands in a human chain of 50 or more people, it's OK. And we know there are very clear mental health benefits for kids and adults alike - getting out, getting some sun. So shut down the screens consistently and get out.

KAMENETZ: I just want to mention, you know, that for teens in particular this is a little bit different, right? Online spaces often are their social spaces. So if you're going to be spending time at home with your teen, it's a good idea to respect that. And really, this is an opportunity for you to learn more about their online worlds. Help them bust rumors and disinformation. Don't shut off the screens entirely because this really is their lifeline to the outside world for a lot of teens.

And at the same time, kind of an overlooked activity for your kids is chores. Yay.

TURNER: (Laughter).

KAMENETZ: You know, a lot of us are doing more cleaning than usual. So we - you know, we can involve our kids in that. I asked Kavitha about how she keeps her 3-year-old, now, busy when he has to be home almost all the time. And she said he loves helping her clean the refrigerator - no lie.

KAVITHA: Like, I wipe down the refrigerator shelves and all of the bottles in the refrigerators every two days. And so I give him just a wet wipe and then I'll use a disinfecting wipe, and then he will do a shelf and I'll do a shelf. You know, he likes to do those kinds of things with me.

TURNER: Oh, my goodness, I need a child like that in my house.

KAMENETZ: Cory, should we try to do a recap?

TURNER: All right. This will be fun. Let's try this.

KAMENETZ: Takeaway No. 1 is wash your hands.

TURNER: Wash them well. Wash them for a while. Make sure your kids know to do the same. Also, stop touching your face.

Takeaway No. 2 - when you're talking with your kids, be sure to give them facts. Don't make promises you cannot keep, and be reassuring. Remind them there are helpers out there.

KAMENETZ: And takeaway No. 3 is about stigma. We need to remind our kids that anybody can get sick, that the illness doesn't come from any type of person. That's our job as parents to reinforce that moral point.

TURNER: Takeaway No. 4 - closing schools is a really complicated decision. And it's important for all of us to understand that there are public health risks, not only to keeping schools open but also the closing.

KAMENETZ: Takeaway No. 5 - when schools do close, it doesn't mean kids have to be totally socially isolated. Get creative with video chat and social games like Roblox.

TURNER: And takeaway No. 6 - screen time can be your friend...

KAMENETZ: Yes.

TURNER: ...As long as you listen to Anya's great suggestions to keep kids active mentally and physically.

One more thing parents - just a reminder - take a deep breath.

KAMENETZ: We're going to get through this.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KAMENETZ: For more NPR LIFE KIT, check out our other episodes. We've got a great one on coronavirus from our science reporters.

TURNER: Yeah. And we've also obviously got plenty of parenting episodes when you're done with the coronavirus episode. You can find all of them at npr.org/lifekit.

KAMENETZ: And if you love LIFE KIT and want more, you can subscribe to our newsletter or you can drop us a line at lifefit@npr.org.

TURNER: Meghan Keane is the managing producer, and Beth Donovan is our senior editor. I'm Cory Turner.

KAMENETZ: I'm Anya Kamenetz. Thanks for listening.

TURNER: Go wash your hands.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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