Not that her son needs comfort. The Northern Virginia high school senior is still living his best life, largely ignoring the surging pandemic. On Thursday, the 18-year-old got out of bed around 11:30 a.m., showered, ate and jumped into his 2004 red Audi station wagon, paid for with money he saved from a part-time job at a trampoline park. Then he headed for the woods 45 minutes away.
For two weeks now, since Loudoun County closed its schools March 12, Julian has been building a fort near the Potomac River with “my boys,” he says, about two dozen seniors who show up randomly, bringing free pallets of wood they’ve spotted on Craigslist and building supplies from Home Depot. Rather than socially distancing, they’ve hammered away for hours before grilling hot dogs and fish they catch in a nearby pond and huddling together “to chill.”
Last week, just a few days before Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (D) issued a mandatory stay-at-home order for the state’s 8.5 million residents, Julian arrived first to the clearing and offered a tour of the fort. It rose from the wooded landscape like a hermit’s dream with its frame of poles set in quick cement, covered by a blue tarp to keep out the rain. In recent days, the crowd had been dwindling as news of the coronavirus contagion grew more alarming and parents began putting their collective feet down.
Many teens in the Washington region and across the country are gradually moving past anger and depression to acceptance, at least for the time being, as they grieve the social losses that come with self-quarantining. But Julian — his mother wanted his last name withheld to protect his privacy — has been stuck in denial.
“With this whole virus thing I don’t know if we’re not taking it seriously enough or that we don’t realize the severity,” Julian said, puzzling over his mother’s warnings before opening the front door of the family’s Sterling, Va., home, right past another blue sticky note. “Julian,” it read: “Wash your hands — 20 seconds. We want to be well!”
One day, we might look back at the coronavirus pandemic as yet another societal cataclysm that shaped a young generation of Americans, like 9/11 or the Great Recession. Perhaps the hardship will make them heartier, or maybe more anxious. Or the long lens of history will reveal this as a time when teens’ addiction to social media and virtual communication — the focus of such parental angst — brought unexpected salvation.
But for now, we’re all still in the woods, amid school closings and canceled graduations and proms, the fresh demands of distance learning and the persistent drone of children whining to be with their friends. The fault lines of modern parenting that separate those who can draw a firm line from those loath to say “No” have never been more exposed.
Elisa would say “No” if she felt it would matter, but her son’s nature isn’t going to change overnight. Julian loves people and the outdoors. (“Adrenaline rush, that’s my kind of thing,” he says.) Plus he’s impulsive — a trait of his ADHD — and boyishly “hardheaded,” said his mother, despite him turning 18 in October.
She watched him walk out that door on Thursday with no idea where he was going.
'Who are these parents?'
Adolescence is a necessarily selfish stage of human development, when even the most reasonable restrictions can incite rebellion, and peers often wield more influence than parents. That social pull and need for connection drew dozens of teens to Cabin John Park in Bethesda, Md., last week to mourn the death of a classmate at Walt Whitman High School, defying pandemic rules about large public gatherings and perhaps their parents’ wishes.
The inability of some adults to rein in their children during the virus’s spread was the subject of a profane public service announcement last week by comedian Michael Rapaport, who chastised parents to “Get your f---ing kids inside!”
Stan and Chereace Richards know how hard that is. Their 18-year-old son, Stan Jr., returned to the family’s Bowie, Md., home from his freshman year at Morehouse College in Atlanta, when the school shifted abruptly to distance learning. His newfound sense of independence followed him though the front door, his parents said, while a fully mature sense of caution lingered outside.
Stan Sr., a 58-year-old entrepreneur who operates a health and wellness business out of his home with Chereace, sat down his son for a serious talk, although it hardly seemed to sink in, he said. “Every five minutes, I have to lock him in the house to keep him from going someplace.”
Chereace, who has eight cans of Lysol in her coronavirus arsenal, follows Stan Jr.’s path around the house, spritzing the surfaces he touches. She keeps wipes and hand sanitizer in the family cars and insists that Stan Jr. pump gas with gloves on. She pleads constantly with her husband, Stan Sr., and their so-far obedient 14-year-old son, Isaiah, to wash their hands.
“I think they’re sick of me,” Chereace, 49, admitted. “My oldest, it may take some time to reel him in, but we have to.”
In many families, mothers take the lead in protecting their children from infection and take the heat for it, too. There’s the “Annoying Mom,” the “Mean Mom,” and the dreaded “Bad Mom.” Also the “Sneaky Mom,” such as the Northern Virginia mother who tailed her daughter to the school track to make sure she wasn’t swapping saliva with her boyfriend. (She wasn’t.)
Kelly Davis was willing to take a hit when her 14-year-old daughter, Victoria, begged to go to a sleepover at a friend’s house. Victoria, a competitive gymnast and straight-A student who Davis calls “the love of my life,” pleaded with her mother. “Why can’t I go?” she demanded, as her friends watched raptly on FaceTime.
“First, I made her get off FaceTime,” recounted Davis, 52, a single mom and special education teacher in Elkhart, Ind. “I said, ‘No, Victoria.’ I really don’t care what other parents are doing,” She pulled the “grandmother card,” because Davis’s 84-year-old mother lives with them.
Still, Davis finds herself resenting other parents. After the sleepover smackdown, another friend invited Victoria to a birthday party. “Who are these parents?” she asked. “. . . It’s hard when other parents aren’t doing the right thing. It makes me look like the mean mom.”
Kim Baxter was able to forge alliances with other parents so her 17-year-old daughter, Charlotte, a senior at Yorktown High in Arlington, could spend time with friends during the pandemic. Outside, of course, and the requisite six feet apart.
It did not go well.
Charlotte unwittingly texted her mother a photo while the foursome were out hiking. “They weren’t keeping any kind of distance,” Baxter, a 51-year-old attorney, said ruefully.
She later declined on Charlotte’s behalf when the mother of her daughter’s boyfriend and two other parents jointly approved a group camping trip. “The boys are Eagle Scouts and so that wasn’t my concern,” she said. “It was just the close proximity of what they were doing.”
Charlotte “had a moment,” then that moment passed. Now Charlotte and her boyfriend are allowed to hang out at each others’ houses.
“I’ve met his mom, and we’ve been texting,” Baxter said. “I think we both kind of agreed that these two are pretty tight and it would probably be unhealthy to separate them.”
Embracing the indoors
Some kids don’t mind staying home and staying in touch with friends remotely.
“You could say there’s never been a better time to be a teen during a pandemic,” said Sue Hoye, divorced mom to Eamon, a 17-year-old junior at Northwood High in Silver Spring, and 21-year-old Caelin, who is on leave from his job at an auto shop. “They are familiar with technology, not like my co-workers. . . . They are still entertained and talking to people.”
She has embraced their digital world. “They were teaching me how to play Mario Party on the Switch, and I was awful at it but it was neat that they were sharing it with me,” said Hoye, who works in communications.
“The truth is my kids are eventually going to be gone, sooner rather than later,” she says. When she considers this, a last chance to cocoon seems like a gift.
“There is this part of me that thinks about when they were babies,” Hoye says. “They’d get sick, and that wasn’t good, but that little sick baby would cuddle into me and be so vulnerable. They wanted to be held and they were warm and they needed you. It’s not like that, but it’s kind of like that.”
Julian knows he is supposed to keep his distance from his mother, who takes a medication that compromises her immune system. He calls her concerns “100 percent valid,” and said “it freaked me out” when she recently had a small cold. Even so, he sheepishly tries to duck into her space.
“Staying six feet apart from my mom is hard,” Julian says. “I like to go up and hug her all the time.”
As for Elisa’s written reminders, “As soon as I walk in, I get hit in the face with a sticky note,” Julian says. “You can’t grab something in the kitchen without a sticky note in your face.”
He seems more amused than annoyed; again, he understands. Still, “it’s hard to get in the habit of washing my hands literally after everything I touch,” he says.
No such rules apply at “Coronavirus Outpost,” the name he has given his communal fort in the woods.
He and his boys were out fishing after schools closed and “Someone said, ‘Yo I feel like doing something’ and everybody was like, ‘Yeah, I feel like building something,’ ” Julian recalled. They gathered wood from fallen trees before professionalizing the operation with trips to Home Depot.
Elisa, a Head Start teacher’s aide in her mid-50s who works remotely in one room while her IT manager husband works in another, tries to take advantage of the small window of time before her son leaves the house in the morning to roam.
“When he is home, I ask: ‘How are you doing? How are you taking this?’ ” Elisa says. And, once, “What about school?”
“All of that is postponed,” Julian replied.
On Thursday afternoon, Julian started to sulk when no one seemed to be showing up. Then his buddy Collin arrived. The two bought gravel to lay around the fort so their shoes wouldn’t get muddy.
Julian had already started thinking about what he would do when his boys stopped coming altogether.
The day before, he’d seen an ad for six pit bull puppies for sale on Craigslist, and he asked the Rockville owner to text him a photo. He fell in love with a little brown one with a white spot the size of a thumbprint between her green eyes.
“The older I’ve gotten, the more appreciation I hold for certain things in the world,” Julian says. The lizards he’s had “are cool, but they’re just there. Dogs, they have real feelings.”
He told Elisa he was on his way to go pick up his puppy.
“No, we can’t have a puppy at this time, not with everything going on,’ ” Elisa said.
Julian told his mom he would ask a friend to keep the dog for a bit until the virus thing passes.
“No, no puppy here,” Elisa responded.
This time, Julian listened.