We spoke with a medical expert about parenting during the coronavirus pandemic, and he shared some advice for getting through this together.

by Megan Combs

Unless you’re an essential worker (and if you are, thank you!), you’re likely dealing with the reality of having your kids at home 24/7 because of the coronavirus pandemic. These are scary times, and it’s hard to know what’s safe and what you can do with your little ones out in the world.

First, a few facts about the coronavirus and children. The novel coronavirus, aka COVID-19, has a relatively long incubation period (1-14 days, but most commonly five days), during which a person can be infected and transmit the virus while not showing symptoms. For reference, the incubation period for the flu is two days and less than a day for the common cold. Although children seem to experience a more mild illness on average than older adults, they are just as capable of carrying and transmitting the virus to others. 

There is also evidence that people can be entirely asymptomatic and still spread infection. That’s why it’s so important to squirrel yourself away from the rest of the world, which — we know — is easier said than done… especially with kids who have an endless supply of energy and who are used to a daily routine with school or daycare.

Read more: Entertaining and educating kids during COVID-19

We spoke to a medical expert about parenting during the coronavirus outbreak to get answers to some of your questions. Dr. Caleb Stokes is a fellow in pediatric infectious diseases at Seattle Children’s Hospital and the University of Washington. 

Megan Combs: Can my kids have playdates? What if it’s just playing catch in the yard?

Dr. Caleb Stokes: Avoid in-person playdates. As the virus spreads rapidly across the country, it is likely being transmitted primarily by people who are not yet aware they are sick. While there are differing opinions regarding the level of social distancing that is necessary to limit this spread, I think there is good evidence that less contact means less transmission. We should be modeling the social distancing recommended by the CDC and WHO and enforcing this in our children as much as possible. 

This advice makes sense for toddlers who are likely to stick everything they see in their mouths, but it should extend through teens (who are among the most difficult groups to convince of the importance of social distancing). I think it’s good practice to talk these questions out with potential playdates or teens who want to go see their friends. How can we know we’re not transmitting the virus? How would we feel if our child developed symptoms of COVID-19 the same day she spent playing with a family friend, especially if that family friend had an elderly grandparent at home?

MC: Are playgrounds safe? (Note: Gov. Mike DeWine has ordered the closure of Ohio’s playgrounds.)

DCS: Transmission of the virus is probably more likely in the droplets directly generated by a cough or a sneeze, but we know that it can live on surfaces for at least several hours. This makes it entirely impossible to be sure that a playground is virus-free, especially in areas where there is active spread of COVID-19 (which includes all urban areas in the country at this time). If the playground is the only option, consider games that involve less use of the hands (like kicking a soccer ball), and practice careful hand-cleaning before and after using any shared equipment.

MC: How do we visit grandma or grandpa (or other relatives) if they don’t have the ability to FaceTime?

DCS: This is probably the hardest part of the social distancing process for most families. It’s important to know that the majority of transmission of the virus occurs within households. While we recognize how important it is to limit our physical contact with people who are at higher risk of contracting severe disease, it is also often these same people who have less ability to connect through digital devices.  

Photo: Kevin Richards of studiomrk photography

My first words of advice would be to go back to old-fashioned ways of feeling connected. Maybe your kids would be willing to make a card, write a letter, or even assemble a care package for their grandparents. A phone call can provide a strong connection even without video, and two ideas I’ve heard for keeping this interesting are to read a story over the phone or to use speaker mode to have a relative on the line during family time, like during a meal. Finally, never underestimate the motivation of a grandparent: This may be just the push they were needing to get out the iPad you bought them last year.

MC: Should I feel bad about extra screen time when I have to also work at home?

DCS: Nope. This is a stressful time for all of us, and it’s important to call that out and to share what we can do to help everyone in the family adjust to this temporary change in our lives. I think one of the best pieces of advice I’ve seen offered is to establish a schedule, with time built in for work/school, meals, and play/family time. 

Read more: Unencrypted | What to do (and expect) while working at home

It’s also important to try and ensure that screen time makes use of high-quality programming, and this can include online coursework or self-guided learning. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) has guidelines for screen time based on recent research showing that children less than 5 years old, and especially those less than 2 years old, are at the highest risk of harm from too much screen time. Each family will have to decide how to balance the risks of screen time with the necessities of working from home and mentally surviving the social distancing process. I think it’s an important thing to reassure everyone that this is temporary. We are altering our behaviors now to try and limit the consequences of COVID, and we will get through this together.

MC: How do we explain coronavirus and the changes it’s brought to our kids?

DCS: I’ve listed a few resources below and would encourage parents to browse these a little. One resource I particularly liked is the website from the National Association of School Psychologists (NASP). I think some key points for talking to children about COVID-19 include: answer questions honestly, be willing to look up facts (e.g. on the CDC or WHO website), provide reassurance that they will be cared for, and give them opportunities to feel in control (washing their hands, practicing good social distancing).

MC: What’s the best way to protect our kids and families?

DCS: I think two important features of the COVID-19 illness help explain the practices we think are most important for protecting our families. First, like influenza or the common cold virus, it can be stopped by washing hands with soap and water and polite practices like covering our coughs and sneezes. Second, because it can be spread by people who don’t have symptoms, changing our behavior and limiting our close physical interactions is an important part of protecting vulnerable individuals and to limiting the impact of infections on the healthcare system. 

Finally, we have to remember that children look to us and model our behaviors, so it’s critical that we recognize the risks and take these steps to minimize them. And remember that this too shall pass.

Additional resources:

We also have this amazing list of activities created by Marissa Marangoni. I can vouch for Cosmic Yoga. It’s so fun. 

Megan wonders where teachers and daycare workers get their endless supply of patience. My hats are off to you. Thank you!

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