Letters to the Editor • Opinion
The coronavirus pandemic is not over
Letters to the Editor • Opinion
We already know how to prevent pandemics

This story has been updated.

Alice Anderson and her 12-year-old daughter, Claire, walked maskless along an empty public sidewalk, headed home from a playground in Cheektowaga, N.Y. Without others nearby, they were following the state’s mandate. But a passerby across the street yelled at them to put on their masks, breaking the silence of their otherwise quiet stroll and jarring Anderson’s daughter.

The experience was “pretty shocking,” she said. But it also created a teachable moment for Anderson: She used the opportunity to explain to her daughter why it is important to be kind to others.

While “raising kind children has always been a focus of mine,” said Anderson, who also has a 6-year-old son, it has been even more front-of-mind during the pandemic. “There is so much division and hate going on right now,” she said, “and we each have to do our part to make things better.”

Anderson isn’t alone in her thinking. Grant McCracken, a cultural anthropologist, has been studying how the relationship between mothers and children is changing during the pandemic. He noticed a trend in his own research: Mothers told him that they have been focused on raising and launching successful children into the world. But with day cares closed and babysitters unable to work, grade schools and colleges forced online, extracurriculars canceled and tests such as the SAT postponed, many mothers have been spending more high-quality time with their children — time, he said, that has led them to re-examine some personality traits they wanted to foster in their children: kindness and compassion over competition, and empathy for those who may be struggling.

Several mothers interviewed for this article said they’re more aware than ever that raising compassionate kids is important in the current climate, too.

And while the mothers expressed a desire for all their kids to be kind, McCracken said, some mothers told him the urge is even stronger to raise kind daughters — a sentiment that experts say could stem from cultural beliefs and play into longstanding stereotypes that women should be more empathetic and compassionate than men.

Christine Carter, a sociologist at the University of California at Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center and author of “The New Adolescence: Raising Happy and Successful Teens in an Age of Anxiety and Distraction,” said that it makes sense that many mothers might be more focused on raising kind, empathetic children during a pandemic that is giving people “a sense of what really matters.”

With so much shut down, postponed or temporarily changed, “all our traditional measures of success have gone out the window,” Carter said, adding that, “it’s not even remotely surprising that we’re turning toward what else we value in a void of these traditional measures of success.”

Carter said she thinks moms’ new focus might come as a relief to young women, who “tend to be under a lot more pressure than boys because they’re expected to be successful and beautiful and smart. It’s probably a giant relief to be able to have these conversations about: It doesn’t matter if you make the varsity soccer team and look cute while doing it. What matters is that you’re nice to your teammates and that you’re reaching out to people who are struggling.”

Amelia Zamora said that shortly before the pandemic, she and her husband talked about how “cool” it would be if their 5-year-old daughter, who loves horses, grew up to be a riding instructor.

But “after this whole thing, we were like, it would be even better if she learned a trade, so that no matter what the world throws at her, she’ll be okay,” said Zamora, who lives in Sacramento. And while education is still important, “now it’s more like, as long as she’s a decent person who cares for her family and the people around us, then maybe education isn’t everything,” she said.

Renee Frojo, a single mother, said she and her ex-husband painstakingly chose the private school her 5-year-old daughter would attend not just for its academics but also to make sure its culture would help shape her daughter into a kind, compassionate person.

But during pandemic restrictions, Frojo watched as her daughter was removed from her social networks, and she grew concerned that her lack of connection was leading her to be unkind to her younger sister, who is 2. “There was a lot of hair-pulling and scratching,” Frojo, of Sausalito, Calif., said.

The experience put into sharper focus her desire to raise empathetic kids, Frojo said.

“Our sense of community has been shattered by the pandemic,” she said. “We have to fight this thing together but apart. There’s some cognitive dissonance there. And not being able to interact with peers at such a critical age for social and emotional development could really impact how my daughters treat and react to others. It’s critical that we teach kindness and work from there.”

McCracken noted that many of the mothers he spoke with faced career setbacks amid the pandemic and, as a result, were questioning the importance of their career success. “Now they were thinking, ‘maybe this means less for my daughters, too,’” he said.

In his own interviews, McCracken said, he heard mothers say they were concerned with raising “good” people, which they defined as “someone capable of understanding others’ challenges and how they can help them meet those challenges — someone who is capable of being attentive, thoughtful, caring and compassionate.” But the mothers he spoke with seemed more concerned with making sure their daughters were “good.”

McCracken said the mothers he spoke with also reported being concerned with rearing kind sons but that it wasn’t as easy to have heart-to-hearts with their boys. “In our culture, I think young men are not as good as young women at describing what’s happening in their emotional lives,” McCracken said. Carter added that, “It’s definitely true that daughters tend to have a better line of communication with their mothers than sons do. It’s a stereotype. It’s not true universally."

Anderson, who has a 6-year-old son and who did not participate in McCracken’s research, said she is concerned about raising both of her children to be kind — but that it’s easier to talk to her daughter not because of her gender, but simply because she’s older. She said her son is “a lot younger, and he doesn’t understand the way she does.”

Lin Bian, a developmental psychologist at Cornell University whose research focuses on the consequences of stereotypes in social groups, said that people have different expectations for their daughters and sons, and they talk to their children in different ways. For example, they offer more explanations to their sons than daughters, which “may shape kids’ ideas about who is really smart and who is really nice,” Bian said. Parents also frequently introduce different activities to their sons and daughters, often encouraging girls to play with dolls, which can lead girls to believe they belong in caretaking, communal — in other words, kind — roles more than boys do.

This may in part explain why mothers are more focused on raising kind daughters during the pandemic, Bian said. But this focus, she said, can have lasting and negative consequences for kids: In one of her studies, Bian presented 5-year-old children with images of males and females, and asked them to choose who was “really” smart. Both boys and girls chose their own gender. By age 6, however, girls chose the male images.

Bian said she believes this shows that parents, and parents’ expectations, can play a role in how young women come to see themselves.

Carter said she believes the shift could come as a relief to some children. “I think for a long time, kids have been struggling with undue pressure to succeed,” she said. “And I think some parents and kids feel relieved to be able to articulate that their priorities are things that really matter — the things that make life really worth living.”

Bian, however, has a different take: “I think this will probably perpetuate these gender stereotypes, and even make these gender stereotypes emerge a little earlier than what we currently find,” she said.

Jillian Kramer is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Times, National Geographic, Scientific American and more.

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