There were many things I didn’t see coming during the coronavirus pandemic; among them, that human hair would be the channel through which I learned to be less uptight.
I later realized that this moment reflected something bigger. I was learning to choose what was actually worth stressing about. Everything became relative to the daily stress of the pandemic and the magnitude of the world’s problems.
It changed how I parent.
As evidenced by the second hair moment, which came when my 10-year-old asked if she could get a blue streak in her hair. Without hesitation, I said, “What a fantastic idea, let’s do it!” Whereas I’m pretty sure pre-pandemic I would have said something like, “I don’t know, let me think about it.”
I wasn’t alone in finding the payoff in easing up and giving my kid the space to express herself. Many parents shared that rules they once took as definite pre-pandemic were worthy of bending. More important, easing up on screens, mealtimes, independence and more actually helped kids socialize, explore and grow, build confidence, and develop new skills and traditions.
Technology has value
The main area in which parents felt forced to ease up involved technology. Thanks to remote learning, screen time rules were abandoned.
But the big learning for caregivers involved the social value of technology. Vanessa Allen, a mom of teens ages 17 and 15 from Newton, Mass., said that one of her kids actually grew his group of friends thanks to technology. “In his transition to high school he met new friends and secured old friends, all through screens,” she said. Allen noted that with the good weather, there is still gaming, but kids have transitioned to outdoor movie nights and bike rides.
Jessica Ashley, a Chicago mom of kids ages 16 and 6, was heartened by the social positives: “It was a shift to see the social value and mental-emotional care that screen time could bring.”
Independence reduces tension
Parents discovered that giving kids autonomy reduced tension in unexpected ways. Sharon Morgan of Portland, Ore., started giving her 16-year-old son the option to opt out of the dinners she prepared. “He’s old enough to make his own food, and in a normal world, he’d probably be out with friends making his own choices anyway," she says. "That grew into more autonomy in general, and a lot less tension between us.”
Aishling Graham, a mom who lives in Dublin with her children ages 12, 11 and 8, started letting her older kids structure their bedtimes following their device-off time at 7:30 p.m. “They potter about, read, brush and wash up, and are generally asleep between 9:30 [or] 10 p.m. I hadn’t realized how much exhaustion managing bedtime routines caused.”
Healthy risk-taking is a good thing
Giving kids a longer leash bolstered life skills and confidence. Jennifer Russell, a mom of two from El Cerrito, Calif., let her 12-year-old daughter mountain bike with friends, acknowledging that she probably would have waited a few years to let this happen pre-pandemic. Her daughter now rides weekly with friends. “She comes home dirty, happy, tired and caught up with her friends," she says. "The social element and life skills learned — navigation, preparing and maintaining your stuff, biking safely on roads and trails, getting somewhere on time — have been such a confidence booster for her.”
A longer leash boosted confidence for younger kids. Brooke Ebetsch of Wheaton, Ill., let her 9- and 6-year-olds ride their bikes four blocks to their grandmother’s house, a decision she may not have permitted until much later pre-pandemic. “These ‘safe tests’ are so important. Yes, something could go wrong, but the risk is relatively low," she says. "My kids felt like they had some freedom, and some responsibility to take care of one another and to decide how long they were going to stay without me getting worried.”
These experiences align with kids’ developmental needs. “Testing limits is a necessary part of adolescent development,” says Ken Ginsburg, director of the Center for Parent and Teen Communication. “Your best bet is to create opportunities for growth that allow them to widen their social circles, explore their communities, and learn from positive role models. Parents also need to set very clear boundaries to ensure they stay safe.”
As parents communicate safety boundaries, beware of hovering. “Overprotecting and hovering can send teens a message that you don’t trust them or think they’re incapable. They need to know your goal is to give them more freedom when they show they’re responsible,” Ginsburg says. And there’s a payoff: “When we create these golden opportunities that offer potential for both learning and fun within safe territory, kids are less likely to push into risky territory."
Balance matters for everyone
Mental health and balance became a priority for so many families during the pandemic. Diana Prichard of Fowler, Mich., found herself reevaluating what work-life balance looked like for her whole family. When her 16-year-old daughter returned to in-person instruction, Prichard allowed a couple of skip days for life-enriching experiences, noting she might not have permitted that pre-pandemic. “School staff expressed disapproval, but we’re happy with our new perspective on where the school day fits in our lives. Her academics are not suffering, and I think she’ll be better prepared for adult life this way, not the other way around.”
Self-expression is important
I wasn’t the only parent who eased up through hair.To help her struggling 11-year-old, Stacie Bivens of Seattle let her daughter color her hair red at a salon. “I worked with her therapist to help her find ways to express herself and lift her spirits,” Bivens says.
Anne Updike is a mom of four kids ages 14, 11, 8 and 6 in Mesa, Ariz. She said that in her conservative religious community, many boys bonded over growing out their hair. “Some of the parents are upset, but most of us are just happy the kids have something to control and that it’s as harmless as hair," she says.
The list goes on: Parents shared the positive effects of eating in bed or in front of the TV, allowing formerly crated pets to bunk with kids and discovering the joy of midnight snacking when sleep eluded. Jeannette Kaplun, a Miami mom of 15- and 18-year-olds, said that maybe midnight snacking wasn’t the healthiest but that the trade-off was worth it. “The laughs we shared making TikTok recipes such as peppers with cream cheese and everything bagel seasoning in the middle of the night are some of our highlights of lockdown.”
Christine Koh is a former music and brain scientist who is now an author, podcaster and creative director. You can find her work at christinekoh.com and on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook at @drchristinekoh.