One morning in February, as I sat in a peaceful house plunking away at my laptop, my husband walked into the doorway of my room and said, “Babe, this coronavirus thing is going to be a big deal.” I was so not here for that conversation. No part of me opted into considering that my life would be significantly affected by a virus that felt so far away. He persisted, “If the schools aren’t shut down in the next few weeks, we should consider taking our kids out ourselves.” Um, that was a hard pass for me. I said, “Wow, okay,” but inwardly I thought he was out of his mind.
Since that day, I have morphed into a different person. Bit by bit, that virus crept closer to my life, and I became the person who stays home, does grocery pickup, hardly runs errands, and conducts meetings from my computer.
And cancels my son’s birthday party.
And declines playdate invitations.
And ushers my kids indoors when neighbor kids emerge to play.
And, the most crushing blow, withdraws from family vacation.
There are two really heartbreaking aspects to these choices I am making. For one, my kids have missed out on innumerable fun, memorable, playful activities. And two, I am setting myself in a parent category marked by caution, or as I am told by some friends and family, fear. I want to talk about both of those consequences of my actions.
Missing Out on Fun
There is an invisible boulder planted on my chest as I write this next part. I am not finished with the grief cycle caused by taking away my children’s week at the lake with cousins. My wonderful parents paid for a week for our whole family to enjoy a lake in a beautiful home, playing games and sharing food. My 6 and 9-year-olds have looked forward to this trip for more than a year. After weighing all the factors, my husband and I agreed to compromise our hard-line cautious approach to virus exposure and go on this trip.
And on the day we were to leave, we discovered that some family members had been exposed to someone who is symptomatic. We decided to wait for test results, which didn’t come until the end of the week. I went for a walk where I could cry in private while my husband did the hard work of informing our kids that they couldn’t have vacation. We were all devastated.
Losing vacation is a big picture loss, but our kids are missing out on fun and even normalcy in little ways every day. Chances are, gathering in the kinds of ways we did in 2019 will not become safe again anytime soon. So how do we mitigate this loss for our kids?
Acknowledge the loss. It can be easy for us to downplay our kids’ feelings, especially since they seem to have so many of them all the time! Giving appropriate space to our kids’ feelings can exhaust us, but they need us to respect and receive their grief. When kids overreact to little, seemingly-unrelated things, or ask whining questions about COVID-19 and quarantine, or suggest fun activities that we don’t believe are in their best interest, we need to name the sadness and loss underlying all those signals.
“This is really hard, huh?”
“Do you miss being able to do that stuff?”
“We can talk about all of these things.”
“The way you’re feeling is totally normal. It is okay to be sad, angry, and frustrated right now.”
“ Let’s make a plan to do something that is fun and safe, okay?”
Give kids options. Come up with a variety of fun options that you are comfortable with—this will be a different list for each household! Some things our family has thought up are:
Eating outdoors at a restaurant
Talking with friends on a video call while playing Roblox together
Backyard playdates with friends
Setting up a slip ‘n slide or sprinkler in the yard
Going on walks
Getting a new pet
Watching a TV series or movie marathon together
Whatever options for fun you come up with, let the kids choose from the list. Giving them some sense of control is a wonderful gift to them in this season of swirling, nebulous danger and loss.
- Tend to kids’ spiritual care. With the obliteration of routine and social engagements, it has been too easy for my family to just wander aimlessly through each day. Without the weekly spiritual education provided by in-person children’s ministry, my kids are not participating in worship, prayer, and biblical education the way we were before. This is the time to pray more as a family. This is the time to read Scripture together, do a devotional together, and talk openly about how God is with us through this pandemic. Find ways to serve others as a spiritual discipline. Focus on the disciplines of solitude and meditation together, practices we often overlook when we’re consumed with gathering and activities.
Just like recovery groups have told us for years, the first step is to admit we have a problem. Well, friends, being in quarantine is a real problem! Talking to our kids about it and allowing those conversations to move into a plan of action is one way to shepherd our kids’ hearts through this difficult season.
Understanding One Another
I imagine that some of you reading this consider me ridiculously cautious, while others of you may relate to the limitations my family has adopted. Either way, I appreciate your sticking with me so far! There’s one phenomenon I haven’t written about elsewhere, but I think it’s helpful (for me, at least) to name.
It is this: whether you follow safety guidelines strictly or are living life with more of the normalcy we all need, the most painful aspect of those choices is the feeling of being misunderstood and judged. I frequently feel that others think I’m taking this virus way too seriously, that others think I’m crazy or put me in a various category that is not of my own choosing. I also find that because I abide by strict safety measures, those who don’t fear judgment from me. If a friend tells me about their week and mentions a playdate or running an errand, I’ve seen stricken looks of fear as they wonder what my reaction will be. That is an awful feeling for me, and for them too, I would think.
It is essential that in our churches and ministry environments, we always consider safety first. But a close second to safety considerations is the reassurance, expressed frequently and clearly, that we respect one another’s needs. If a family needs to maintain a strict quarantine, or get a COVID-19 test for peace of mind, or wear a mask, or wash their hands after each contact, we respect that need and honor them for caring for themselves. If a family needs to send their kids to daycare or join with other households for social purposes or run errands inside a store or go on a vacation, then we respect that family’s needs as well. And respect only counts when it is expressed! Silent respect can easily be interpreted as judgment.
Of course, if a loved one violates a clear safety mandate from the church or the state, we can express concern to them and for them. But aside from actual concerns about someone’s safety, it is in the best interest of our kids, ourselves, and our communities to trust that others are doing what they believe is best for their households. Friends, be free to care for yourself and your family in the way you believe is right, and encourage others to do the same.
2020 has elevated all sorts of insecurities, trauma, and painful experiences that live beneath the surface, and if that’s true for you it is likely true for others as well—including the children. Let’s be sure to name our losses, make the most of the fun that is still available to us, and nurture the hearts and souls of our children along the way.
Sarah Flannery is the author of the Children and Family Ministry Handbook. She has led ministries for children and families for the past 15 years, both as a church staff person and a volunteer. After graduating from Asbury University with an English degree, Sarah earned her master's degree in Family Sciences from the University of Kentucky. She currently serves as Assistant Pastor at First United Methodist Church in Lexington, KY, where she leads in children's ministry, supervises other ministry teams, and provides pastoral care to church members. She and her husband, John, parent two boys, Thomas and Jack, and live with an alpha cat named Annabelle and a goldendoodle with zero chill named Ripley. Sarah hopes anyone reading her books will find that in her stories of hit-or-miss ministry experiences, they also can discover new ways to live out their callings to serve and disciple families.