A B- is a pandemic-appropriate goal
As schools closed and shelter-in-place orders sprouted, my social media filled with parents swapping tips for homeschooling and entertaining suddenly-schedule-less kids. These posts had an aura of panic, cloaked in a layer of winking-emoji-and-wineglass humor, but there was a strong social-norming message too: good parents would adjust to this terrifying, topsy-turvy situation without their kids missing a single lesson in fractions or the plant lifecycle.
Now that we are a couple weeks into the mayhem, the tenor of my Facebook feed indicates that most parents have figured out that this is an absurd and laughably unachievable standard. And that all the hubbub might have been more about managing our own anxiety by controlling what (we think) we can control instead of what is healthy (or possible) for our families right now.
But society has been indoctrinating us in the innumerable and pernicious requirements for being a “good” parent — for medaling in this (non-existent) Parenting Olympics, if you will — for so long that many folks don’t know where to start in their journey toward averageness. As the self-designated World’s Okayest Mom (and someone who had a practice-run of social distancing during a six-month school-less sabbatical in Colombia), I have some tips to guide your quest for greater parenting mediocrity:
You can ease up on the homeschooling.
If your current routine is bringing joy and purpose to your family, rock on. If, however, it is making you want to light something — or someone — on fire, you can stop completely. For real. First of all, elementary and middle-school grades mean nothing to anyone ever. And while teachers everywhere scramble to move their lesson plans online, most of them will admit that the content isn’t great yet and the modality doesn’t work for many kids. Besides, the beauty of Common Core curriculum is that the topics spiral. So if they miss cell structures or decimals this time around, they’ll get another chance at it next year. Our kids missed six months of fourth and seventh grades and they hopped seamlessly back in when we returned, even when their classmates had continued learning (which is not happening now). So you can let it go.
Or you can choose one of the many other stops on the train between All and Nothing. You can cap the hours your family will spend on school. You can let your child choose which lessons to do and which to skip. You can stop for now and start again later. If your child is legitimately struggling with a topic, you could keep up with a few lessons, or you could give them a break, and let their rapidly-changing brain grow so that it’s ready for whatever they’re struggling with when they return to normal school. Long division or terminal velocity might make more sense when they are a few months older. Stepping back is also difficult for high school students planning to apply to college; their grades matter, but let’s trust that colleges will provide some grace in their applications given the apocalyptic scenario our teens are living through.
(If you’re aghast at the idea of slacking off completely, you might ask yourself why. How much is about your children’s education and how much is about what teachers and other parents will think of you and your parenting? Ego is an uncomfortable thing to face, but as grown-ups, we should be honest with ourselves about why we are going Dolores Umbridge on our children.)
Relaxing your standards is okay.
Most of us went into parenting with a vision for the kind of parent we would be: one who offers only organic food, for example, or forbids screens, or requires bathing every day. But parenting is nothing if not a constant lesson in compromising your values in the face of reality. And this reality sucks. Your normal-life ideals are not the swords to die on right now, so let them go. Let your kids watch the entire Disney canon on repeat or 672 stupid YouTube videos. Let them sleep later than usual and have pancakes for dinner. Your kids will surprise you with their resilience in the face of what you were once taught was bad parenting.
Setting some (minimal) boundaries is helpful.
By relaxing standards, I’m not saying you should let your children go fully Lord of the Flies; a B- in parenting still requires keeping them alive and (generally) healthy. We have rules in our house, but they are minimal: stick to a sleep schedule (my daughter’s is 2am to noon, which I suppose is technically a schedule), eat at least two legitimate-human meals a day (a bowl of yogurt and a handful of Cheez-Its doesn’t count), get 30 minutes of exercise and do something — anything — with your mind. But that’s it. That’s all we can handle right now, and that’s okay.
Offloading your work doesn’t make you selfish or lazy.
If you’re not fighting about multiplication tables all day, you can use that energy for other things: namely, handing off some of the work that you would usually do. Feeling useful is a core component of happiness, so let your kids be useful. Anyone over six can do their own laundry, or wash the dishes (although their clothes might end up a dingy grey and some food may stay caked on the pans, but it got done, right?). Anyone over eight can prepare a dinner of bean and cheese burritos and a salad, or anything that comes in a freezer box. My poor, put-upon kids are also learning to paint walls and wash windows and I’ve assigned them to check in on family and friends who are isolated, both to practice their phone skills and allow me to work my other (paying) job. There are many skills more useful in adulthood than listing the causes of the Civil War or solving quadratic equations. You can focus on those that make your life easier right now instead of the stuff their teaching-credentialed teachers will cover later, and everybody wins.
Let them explore their own needs.
This is a rare time for your tweens and teens to explore what makes them happy or unhappy with few consequences. As my husband says, “It’s better to learn how to self-regulate on Halloween candy than heroin.” So instead of setting all the rules yourself, invite them to experiment. Let them spend 14 hours on social media and then ask them how they feel afterward. Encourage them to spend 3 days on a regular food-and-exercise schedule and 3 days off, and then have them reflect on their mood and energy level. Ask them to think about how they feel before and after doing something they claim not to want to do but know is good for them. Because our Colombian sabbatical was a great practice-round for vast swaths of free time, my kids immediately knew what they needed when schools closed: “Remind me to play piano or do some art when I get grumpy,” my daughter asked, while my son immediately set up daily Minecraft and Dungeons and Dragons virtual-dates with his friends.
Choose which yardstick you use carefully.
Even before this apocalypse, there was an entire chorus of critics out there ready to judge us harshly and list the many ways we are failing at this parenting thing. Social distancing is a great opportunity to ignore them and decide for yourself what your family needs. Stop grading your parenting against January of this year, or the photos of distant acquaintances’ children cheerfully studying in the homeschooling nook in their spotless living room (I find it helpful to assume that 14 seconds after the photo was taken, someone stabbed someone else in the neck with a colored pencil). Instead, find some gratitude for what your family has going for it that others — now or at another social-distancing time in history — may not: enough food, working internet, safe sidewalks, that twenty-minute stretch when everyone was enjoying the dominoes game. Or try re-framing. The seven straight hours of Minecraft and sullen resistance to book-reading bothered me until a wise friend re-framed it: “Isn’t it wonderful that they are home and safe with you, instead of out in the dangerous world?” Suddenly, Snapchat marathons seemed benign.
Breaking the habit of A+ parenting takes work. Even after years of practice, I still slip into some of my old habits: harassing my children about things that make me look good but don’t actually matter, feeling smug about my choices (while they’re working), judging others for making different choices. So don’t expect perfection in your quest for mediocrity.
These are wild, unprecedented times, and we are all facing wild and unprecedented struggles. Give yourself some grace, because even a B- takes a lot of work at times.