Note: I wrote this piece a few weeks ago. Some of my thoughts have shifted since the reopening. That said, I still feel like kids are being left out, especially as running mundane errands continue to be stressful. I decided not to revise it to preserve my unsettled nerves of the moment.
“Stay back! Stay back!” An older man said sternly to my 11-year-old several weeks ago, as she calmly pushed the grocery cart about 8 feet away from a “t” in the store. Nora brushed off his comment, and I redirected focus to our list. Inside, though, his recoil startled and upset me. I know that he was just trying to safe. At the same time, when did children become the enemy?
Past epidemics restricted the activity of minors, primarily when they were the most susceptible. In the polio epidemic of 1916, New York restricted traveling for children. The fear of later outbreaks prompted the closing of pools, beaches, and other places that attracted groups of kids in the summer. But these responses matched the fear of children contracting disease, not harboring and transmitting it to older adults, which we have seen with the current pandemic. Media stories emphasize how children typically have only mild symptoms, but can still pass COVID-19 to the adults around them. This discourse may help assuage concerns about sick children. At the same time, it stigmatizes and dismisses them in our coronavirus discussions.
Omitted from public spaces and conversation, children have been left out of this new reality that divides between the essential and non-essential. Let’s face it, everything they do is non-essential. Childhood is about toys, frivolity, and spontaneity, not n95 masks, R0 factors, and restrictions. It’s hard to fit kids into this new grim reality, in which every move feels so predictable and deliberate. Don’t touch your face. Remove gloves inside out. Have you scrubbed your phone? Wash your hands. . .no, wait, longer. Follow the arrows in the store. Is this six feet of distance?
This pandemic is incredibly tough on children, many of whom are experiencing the impact of their parents’ unemployment or fear for their safety on the job. Not to mention kids in abusive homes, thosewithout enough to eat, or without a safe place to be.
Even in the best circumstances, children are still contending with stressed-out parents attempting to both homeschool and work at the same time, while voicing their own concerns about the illness and death, the economy, food shortages, canceled appointments, and distanced loved ones. Kids don’t fit within the melancholic cloud over our pandemic reality. Day-to-day, they cannot stay in crisis mode.
Children’s experiences in epidemics have been historically ignored. We know little of their actions or feelings during yellow fever of 1793 or in the Spanish Flu. Even in polio epidemics, in which children were at the center, their voices and experiences were seldom shared, except for a sound bite or a choreographed March of Dimes poster. Only decades later did oral history projects capture adults’ recollection of surviving polio as kids.
But children do matter in this pandemic. Like all of us, they feel lonely, isolated, agitation, aimless, unsatisfied, worried, sad, and afraid. Removed from grandparents and other relatives, favorite teachers, peers, coaches, and other special people,they are experiencing a true sense of loss. Much of what structures their lives and brings them joy has been removed. Social distancing is difficult to explain and justify, even to older children, who might understand the risk, but emotionally struggle with canceled sleepovers, field trips, and competitions. Kids need to be included in the conversation. We can’t ignore the impact of quarantine, their fears of disease, or frustrations. Instead, children’s roles in this pandemic need to be considered and shared, with their experiences recorded and preserved for future generations.
After the grocery store incident, I stopped bringing my children to the store just so they wouldn’t have to experience the anxiety-ridden climate of fear. Many don’t have the luxury of shopping alone. Single parents have been cut off from their social networks, therefore, may need to bring kids along to get food or pick up prescriptions. We shouldn’t be quick to judge or ridicule children just for existing in a public space. They are not incubators of disease, but people also living in this world of uncertainty.