How do you talk to your children about something as scary as coronavirus?
I think it’s important that we don’t hide the truth from them. And, as grim as it is, the COVID-19 pandemic provides the opportunity for some teachable moments too.
It’s okay to be clueless
There are two attitudes in particular that really annoy me. Two traps that I don’t want our kids to fall into. The first of these is the overriding need to be right – and, consequently, for everyone else to be wrong.
There are a lot of people on social media right now proclaiming themselves as experts in epidemiology. Wherever they did their crash courses, I’d like some of that – because I will be the first to admit that I am not an expert. Sure, I have opinions. Many of them are reasonably well informed because I’ve read up on the subject and I’m used to interpreting complex sets of data. But when it comes to knowing the best way forward for containing and delaying the spread of a pandemic, I’m basically clueless.
In truth, most people are the same. ‘Dave’ on Twitter, who is all too quick to rip apart the government’s approach to coronavirus and claims to know exactly what needs to be done, is clueless. So too are all the people who confidently state that we are 100%, definitely, for sure over-reacting. Or under-reacting. We should be doing what China did. Or we must not do what France are doing. The UK government’s approach is 100% right. Or 100% wrong.
Often such views are based on an unwavering belief in one’s own ‘gut instinct’ rather than any actual fact, analysis or qualifications but, hey, I’ll take my gut feeling over an expert’s any day, right?
I think it’s okay to admit we don’t have all the answers. Or to concede there is no single definitive ‘right’ answer. Sometimes we have to make the best call we can with imperfect data and hope that things turn out better than they would otherwise have done.
This is something we’ve been exploring with our oldest, Isaac. Like any 12-year-old, he is sometimes prone to making sweeping statements that divide the world into simple black or white, right or wrong.
Of course, real life is rarely that straightforward. But rather than shooting him down in flames, we’re encouraging him to articulate both sides of the argument for himself. Why are you so sure that this is the right approach? Where are your ‘facts’ that support this? Do they come from a credible source? Are they actually facts or just confident opinions? If you think this is the right course of action, talk us through the practicalities of how it will actually work. Does the argument still seem watertight? Or is there scope for alternative and possibly better options?
Critical thinking is a rare skill, one sorely lacking in our soundbite-driven, jump-to-conclusions world. But it is not so difficult to train yourself in it. Start with a simple statement or question. For instance: why don’t we just test everyone for coronavirus? Work through the practicalities. Challenge your assumptions. Dig beneath the surface of the obvious answer.*
These are useful lessons for a child to learn. The real world is rarely as simple as it seems. Just because someone says something doesn’t mean they know what they’re talking about. Test your assumptions to see if they really stand up to scrutiny.
Never mind kids – these are useful lessons for an adult to learn.
Sometimes there is no win-win
Real-world solutions are never easy, as much as we would like to believe they are. And yet people are often all too quick to pick apart practical solutions that aren’t 100% perfect.
Over the coming days, we’re likely to see government, retailers and experts outlining new solutions for containing the spread of COVID-19. Shutting schools. Banning large gatherings. Earlier opening hours for shops to cater for the elderly. (This last one is already starting to happen.)
None of these solutions will be perfect for every at-risk group. But they will be better than doing nothing. Yet all too often you will see people who prefer to criticise a 95% effective solution for what it isn’t, rather than applaud it for what it is.
It’s human nature that we want a simple, perfect solution to our problems, with a neat little bow on top. But reality dictates this is rarely even remotely possible.
In a situation as difficult as this, it’s important to recognise a universal truth: there is no perfect one-size-fits-all answer where everyone wins, as the ‘Daves’ of this world might like you to believe with their simplistic solutions. This is what it means when you have to prioritise scarce resources, whether it’s NHS beds or toilet rolls. Not everyone benefits equally. And it can be annoying when other people benefit at your expense. But a net gain is an overall win and should be applauded for being just that, even if you’re not a direct beneficiary.
This whole situation is depressing enough as it is. There’s no need to make it worse by being negative about every little thing, as comforting as it is to get some of the anger and frustration out of your system. Why not focus on the good that ideas deliver?
This is an important lesson for kids to learn. We grow up as idealists. There is a clear right and a clear wrong. Every maths problem gives you all the data you need to find the perfect solution. There is no room for uncertainty or imperfect decision-making.
And then we discover the real world isn’t like that. You can either spend your entire life looking for a perfect solution that doesn’t exist. Or you can just make the best decision you can with the data you have available and hope that you get more things right than wrong.
Welcome to adulthood. It’s a huge plus if our children can get there. Some of us grown-ups never really do.
How to make talking to kids easier
There’s no definitive right or wrong way to educate children about coronavirus. But here are three general approaches that seem to work for us and our kids.
- Have a plan and don’t hesitate to implement it. Don’t wait for them to come to you with questions. Think about what you want to tell them and tackle it head on so you’re the one driving the agenda, rather than starting on the back foot. Better that they hear it from you than picking up all kinds of random hearsay from others in the school playground.
- Debunk the myths, stick to the facts. Explore what they have learned from the news or from other children. Help them understand the difference between fact, educated opinion and uninformed speculation or misinformation. Rather than just saying “that’s wrong”, guide them through a rational thought process that allows them to reach their own conclusions. And don’t allow their exploration to be clouded by your own beliefs and prejudices. If they end up in a different place to you, that’s okay. In fact, it’s something to celebrate if they can voice an independent opinion and back it up with a good argument.
- Different ages, different discussions. If you have multiple children and there is a significant age difference, think about what you say to each of them. There’s a four-year gap between Isaac and Kara (with Toby midway between). So we will discuss things in a certain way and to a lesser depth of detail at the dinner table for Kara’s benefit. But for Isaac, who is independently reading news websites and forming his own conclusions, we will take him to one side to have a separate discussion, or give him the opportunity to ask questions in private.
There’s no great rocket science in any of the above, but it works for us.
Nobody wants to have to talk about a topic as upsetting and depressing as this. But if we have to, we might as well make the most of it and ensure that our kids are able to formulate independent viewpoints built on stronger foundations than the ‘Daves’ of this world.
* The logical flow goes something like this. If you want to test everyone, you need over 60 million kits for the UK alone. Who’s going to manufacture them on that scale? Who pays for them, and how? How long will it take to test that many people? How many qualified staff do you need to administer the tests? What about the lab resource you need to process the results? And what are the downsides of testing everyone, in terms of impact on public morale and the risk of front-line healthcare professionals being exposed to every carrier of the virus? Oh, that’s why we’re not doing it …