Of all the silver linings this forced shelter-in-place and remote education has offered, the plenitude of time has meant the most to me — perhaps because I had such limited control over it before things slowed down. I do not determine what time the school day starts, the amount of homework that occupies our children’s evenings, and, to a large degree, our two girls’ after-school activity schedules and demands, even though we limit them to just a few activities.
What would it take, when the pandemic restrictions ease, to be able to hold on to the precious extra hours that have expanded our days — and my children’s perspectives — like air in a sail? The time that has allowed them to wander freely and, yes, sometimes aimlessly?
I understand why many parents may feel quite differently. Parents of young children may be eager to get them back in a structured physical classroom, which benefits kids’ development and also allows adults to return to uninterrupted work. Parents of older children may be counseling them through larger disappointments, including interruptions in plans for college, graduation, internships, work or young love.
My kids are 15 and 11. Perhaps that is the sweet spot when it comes to the adjustment to quarantine: They are old enough to handle remote learning independently but young enough to still find fulfillment under our roof. And neither my husband nor I are essential workers, a situation that gives us flexibility at home as well as relief from the anxiety and worry recognized in some children whose parents face potential daily exposure to the virus.
Where have these extra hours come from? There’s no commute to school and no homework after 8 p.m. Extracurricular activities are canceled or optional. And kids have some flexibility on when they complete daily school assignments — allowing for a walk, a talk or scrolling through Instagram. But the largest boon from the combination of synchronous and asynchronous instruction comes from the extra hours gained in the morning for my teen and tween to sleep. Even when a synchronous class begins at 8 a.m., it’s possible for them to sleep until 7:55 and still be on time. Sleep is precisely what the doctor, in the form of the American Academy of Pediatrics, has been recommending for years. It contributes to what I’d call a softening of the edges in my children — they are less tired, less cranky, less rushed and less anxious about getting everything done.
They have enough time.
I have been moved by the simple changes in my children’s behavior with this gift of time, especially in my 15-year-old, who was trapped within the high school pressure cooker. The first sign of her more leisurely approach to seeing the world came in March, when she put a raisin in a glass of water and said she wanted to watch it expand. I thought she was joking, but a week or so later, when the water was brown and the raisin was plump, I finally convinced her we could end the “experiment.”
More recently, on a walk in the neighborhood after lunch, she spotted a green worm floating from a tree, dangling and spinning on an invisible thread of its own making.
“Let’s take a picture,” she said, reaching for my phone. It wasn’t a selfie and it wasn’t for social media. The photo had no purpose except to capture an acrobatic worm, displaying a type of natural magic trick.
These engaged moments pop up in unexpected places. While on the floor of the living room, assembling a wooden crate for her new record collection, she asked what I thought she might do when she grows up. In the kitchen, she wondered if time could move backward, like the countdown of the microwave while it cooked her mac and cheese. And these observations bubble up in conversations at the foot of my bed at night, when instead of being hunched over her desk doing homework into the late hours, she talks to me about what’s trending on social media, explains the slang I don’t know, or talks about politics, the pandemic, protests and race.
Is she finishing the curriculum outlined at back-to-school night? I have no idea. But I believe she has grown more in the past few months than in the previous six.
I know of other parents who have observed similar changes in their children, especially those who are more introverted or typically anxious. But I have wondered what to do with my observations — the country is grappling with larger problems related not only to the pandemic but to employment, hunger and equity. But how can I observe my kids’ expanded engagement with the world and then sign up for the old schedule again once things open? I know now what will be lost, and that science and pedagogy support the benefit of a well-rested, less anxious, and more intrinsically motivated student.
Nicole Furlonge, director of the Klingenstein Center at Teachers College at Columbia University, said that giving some students more time and space and ability to make decisions about their day can decrease stress and cultivate curiosity and ownership over their learning.
“It’s not homework or schoolwork — all of it is learning, including what you find on your own.”
As schools use the summer to prepare for a variety of scenarios in the fall, it’s reasonable they would want to learn from parents about what they’ve observed during this moment of remote learning.
“If it’s true your child is exhibiting a different sense of curiosity, lowered stress, more restful, more willing to lean into difficulty, that’s a piece of evidence taken into consideration,” she said.
Jacob Towery, an adolescent and adult psychiatrist in Palo Alto, Calif., and adjunct clinical faculty member at Stanford University, said he is seeing more depression and anxiety among his clients in the past few months. They miss in-person interactions, a natural need for all primates, said Towery, author of “The Anti-Depressant Book: A Practical Guide for Teens and Young Adults to Overcome Depression and Stay Healthy.”
But the extra time teenagers may now have can offer room for healthier habits such as hobbies, exercise, meditation, virtual connection with friends and regular sleep. Sleep deprivation can exacerbate depression and anxiety and negatively impact the immune system. Based on the biology of a teenager’s sleep needs and circadian rhythm, classes should start at 9 or 10 a.m., he said.
As I spoke with Furlonge about my fear that returning to normal, even a new normal, will take us back into a hurried pace, short on time and pulled into old patterns of business, she suggested parents consider learning as broader than school.
“What is the learning you value as a family? Not just what other people design for you?” she asked.
Like so many other situations in parenting, I realized this is not only about my children’s use of time, it’s also about mine. I am getting more sleep, staring out the window at birds and questioning the status quo, or my dreamlike memory of what it once was. This altered pace has given me the ability to be the sounding board, or at times the witness, for all these moments of curiosity in my children.
I don’t want to give back these extra hours in each day. Holding on to them seems like a fantasy. But then, reality no longer has the same clear lines it once did. Perhaps our children, and we parents, may find in this chaos, some opportunity to redefine what matters most.
Sarah Maraniss Vander Schaaff is a freelance writer and playwright. She lives in New Jersey.