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The coronavirus might not be the worst of it
The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

My children have gone feral during the pandemic. It’s fine.

If the choice is between chaos and unhappiness, I’ll take chaos

The pandemic has lowered the standards many parents have for their kids' behavior. Don't lecture them about it. (Dan Page for The Washington Post/The Washington Post)
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“I would NEVER have let MY kids act like THAT,” my mother said, taking a sip of wine as she watched my 5-year-old bounce through my living room on a ball while inexplicably yelling “YA, YA, YA!”

That was my mom’s first articulation of what she clearly was feeling throughout her first post-vaccination dinner in our house since the coronavirus arrived. We’d seen my parents frequently throughout the pandemic, since they live close by. But because all the adults in the family had only recently been fully vaccinated, this eating-together thing had the feel of An Occasion. After the initial gleeful hugs, it seemed as though my mom wasn’t feeling the new vibe in my finishing-up-living-through-a-pandemic-with-six-kids home. That vibe, of course, bears more than a passing relationship to “Lord of the Flies,” or maybe “Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome.”

In other words: My children are now feral.

I want to be clear that even in the Before Times, my children weren’t exactly being scouted as future Emily Post Ambassadors of Etiquette. Sure, they’re nice kids (as their mother, I admit I may be biased) who are familiar with the words “please” and “thank you.” On occasion, they have even been known to do the unprompted thank you note or phone call, and they say “excuse me” after a particularly egregious burp or fart. But there are six of them, aged 5 to 17, and so our house has always operated a level up from the chaos of other homes, even on a good day. I have a very dear friend who, pre-quarantine, started coming around dramatically less often once she got hearing aids. I’m sure that was a coincidence.

But now our level goes to 11. My teens have risen to the challenge of these times in a way that makes me proud, but my younger children, girls between 5 and 9, have basically gone wild. They would happily go unwashed and in pajamas for days on end (I know this because I have, in fact, unintentionally allowed them to conduct this experiment), with their long hair in thornbush-like snarls. They run races blindfolded, and they’ve posted “MISSING” posters for lost stuffed animals all over the house, yelling their lost panda’s name under beds and into closets. They interrupt each other constantly, and they’ve realized that talking with their mouths full only means they need to talk louder. They are extremely, extremely loud, to the point where I’ve actually had my ears ringing some days at bedtime, as though I just attended a concert. If left unchecked, they would almost certainly resolve their differences in fights worthy of a National Geographic nature documentary (“The intense glare on the face of the older child, along with the slight bend in her knee, signifies that she is ready to pounce and pummel the younger child face-first into the rug.”).

This, my friends, is Pandemic Parenting.

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A year ago at this time, I was crying in the bathroom — or the middle of the kitchen — every single day. I wept for the loss of in-person school, regular schedules, face-to-face friend interaction, and any sense of being able to function as an independent working adult. I wept for the frustrations of daily life living on top of one another as the varied voices of remote teachers blended into a cacophonous orchestra of “You’re muted.” And I wept out of fear: Would I be able to keep my family safe from this virus? Would we actually have to recycle toilet paper? Would this ever end?

But over time, my reactions to the stressors of the pandemic changed. As the pandemic progressed, I followed my parenting guru Elsa, and I Let It Go.

Not everything: Clothes (or pajamas) continue to be worn, if haphazardly. Most meals are still consumed at the table. And school attendance, whether in person or on a screen, is mandatory, as is homework. But as those early days and weeks of the pandemic stretched on into months, I realized that I could either yell at children endlessly, and constantly be miserable and unhappy, or I could let things around the house slide a little.

I went for option B. And I wasn’t alone.

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“Initially, in the early phase of COVID-19 lockdowns, many parents' attempts to recreate the previous structured chaos of life bordered on quixotic: intricate daily schedules of at-home learning, virtual morning circles, and “educational” YouTube videos,” Shana Kusin and Esther Choo wrote in the Lancet. “But as the months passed, these routines slowly gave way to free-wheeling screen time, less clothing or personal hygiene, and a motto of ‘just survive’. Chores, exercise, and sleep/wake cycles became more and more lax. Long walks around the neighbourhood, waving at masked strangers from a distance, and marvelling at the slow growth of tomato plants in the front lawn of a neighbour's house became highlights of the day, with their own beauty.”

So sure, you can say that parents like me took the easy way out by opting not to fight the good fight for things like “daily baths or showers.” Apparently that’s what my mother might say, and she’s correct about most things. I disagree, though. First of all, in a global pandemic, no option really qualifies as “an easy way out”: You’re in it until you aren’t, full stop. But in moments of clarity, usually at 2 a.m., I saw two roads diverging in my potential pandemic parenting experience. One road went down a dark path of constant frustration, fury and dissatisfaction. And the other road … well, I didn’t know where it went, but it looked like it was safer and less fraught with peril at every step. If it meant I wouldn’t be crying the whole way, and neither would my children, I’d take it. Yes, it would be loud, it would be chaotic, it would be messy. But at least there would be light in the darkness.

Pandemic parenting is like being trapped in a Choose Your Own Adventure book

Once I made that choice, I helped let chaos reign. I’m the one who bought the trampoline(s) for the den (it was in the name of saving the couch!). I’m the one who found the old disco ball in the basement closet and hooked it up. I’m the one who deemed Sundays to be “family dinner and a movie night,” and now I’ve gotten used to the crunch of dried macaroni beneath my feet on Monday mornings. I’m the one who said nothing when they taped up the bull’s eye on the wall of the den, along with elaborate rules for “sticky pig throwing contests!” and the “pin the tail on the unicorn” on the wall of the kitchen.

I was complicit in the chaos. And deliberately so. I know that I lived out a privileged version of this pandemic, where I didn’t have to deal with housing insecurity, lack of food, whether the Internet worked or any number of problems. Things could have been so much worse, and I did and do appreciate my good fortune. But like so many others, I was stressed out about just getting through the seemingly endless uncertain pandemic days and doing so with our health. So all of these small issues — tape on the walls, food on the floor, hair in inextricable knots — paled in comparison to the powerful force of Dory’s mantra in “Finding Nemo,” “just keep swimming.” No, I didn’t give up discipline entirely, but I did, whether consciously or not, relax my standards with regard to almost everything.

And knowing what I know now, I wouldn’t have done it any other way. We are coming out of this, slowly but surely — not only glad to be alive, but also alive and glad. We are loud, we are unruly, our hair is unbrushed and we are happy. And that is more than enough. That is a gift.

Research psychologist Peter Gray and “Free Range Kids” author Lenore Skenazy cite research at the University of Colorado which found that the kids who have more free time to create and structure their own activities develop stronger executive-functioning skills — better planning, problem-solving and follow-through — than kids whose lives are more continuously structured by adults. In this context of more freedom, kids can be creative, chaotic and random — and from that mix, good things can come.

Sure, we will have to recalibrate somewhat to get back into Life As We Knew It Before. We will have to once again learn what “inside voices” are (if we ever knew what they were in the first place). But as anyone who’s ever seen a montage in a film that concludes with remarkable change knows: Change is possible, no matter how long it takes, particularly if there’s great musical accompaniment.

And when “normal” returns, I hope my kids retain the creative, independent, free-spirited ethos that has ruled my messy home over the past year. Because I have no doubt that my children can reacclimate to whatever society may look like in the future, eventually perhaps even wearing non-pajama clothing on a daily basis. If it’s a little loud around here when they do? That’s okay by me.

Back on my couch with my mom, I took a deep, calming breath. “Oh,” I said with a smile, hoisting my own wine glass back in my mother’s direction. “Do you mean when YOU lived through a global pandemic as a parent of young kids?”

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