It’s August, and school will be starting shortly. Parents everywhere are faced with a real dilemma: “Do I send my kids to school and risk them catching, and potentially spreading, Covid-19?” Or, “Do I keep my kids at home and risk being unable to earn a living?”
Parents are stuck between a rock and a hard place. Here in Ontario, public health figures are decrying the large class sizes in the provincial government’s back to school plan, and the government is doubling down to defend its position.
In the US, schools are planning to reopen across the country, even as the number of infected people edges toward five million and rates of infection in many states are at an all-time high. I can’t imagine what parents must be thinking when faced with these grim statistics but also needing to go to work.
What can we do when we feel so helpless and out of control of our lives; when it sometimes seems like it’s a toss-up between our children’s safety and our ability to put food on the table and a roof over our heads? How do we make these seemingly impossible choices?
Of course, all we can do is our best. And we can remember that it’s impossible to predict the future. We aren’t clairvoyant, so we can’t know how our decisions are going to play out. It’s not our fault if things don’t go the way we hope. We can’t beat ourselves up for making the best choices we can in a situation that’s constantly evolving and unpredictable.
Self-compassion is so important now, because parents tend to blame themselves for bad outcomes, even when they’ve done nothing wrong. I’m all for taking responsibility, but there’s a difference between being irresponsible and being in a situation that’s beyond our control.
Parents need to be kind to themselves right now. It’s so challenging to have school-aged children and not to know what’s best for them under the circumstances. It’s clear that kids need to go to school. They need the structure, the socialization, and the entire in-person educational experience. But they also need to be safe. And their families need to be safe. Right now, there’s no perfect answer and no parent should be faulted, whatever decision they make.
Parents need to cultivate an attitude of self-forgiveness and go easy on themselves, whatever back-to-school decisions they make. They also need to forgive themselves if they experience a negative outcome. We’re all doing the best that we can in exceedingly challenging circumstances and parents need to let themselves off the hook because it’s not their fault if things go wrong.
Aside from self-compassion and self-forgiveness, another important emotional tool for dealing with the back-to-school conundrum is the ability to tolerate uncertainty. Parents can’t know if sending their kids to school will be a great thing or an unmitigated disaster. Parents can’t know if keeping their kids at home will work out the way they planned.
Right now, everyone needs to work on tolerating the uncertainty. We can’t know what’s going to happen. We can’t know which decision is the best to make for our kids. We have to accept the lack of control and the inability to predict what’s around the bend. It’s not easy to tolerate uncertainty but it will help us to cope in these unprecedented times.
Tolerating uncertainty involves an element of surrender. We must face our vulnerability and accept that we can’t know the outcomes of our choices or control our children’s future.
To some extent, it’s a lesson in letting go that all parents need to learn. Eventually, every parent must realize that it’s impossible to keep their kids 100% safe, 100% of the time. It’s impossible to get our kids to make only good decisions, and it’s impossible to control the types of people they associate with. It’s also impossible to totally prevent our children from getting into an accident or getting sick.
Unless we want to bubble-wrap our kids and deprive them of a normal existence, we have to allow them to be free and sometimes to get hurt, as hard as that must be. All that we can do is try our best to teach them to be strong, courageous, smart and resilient, and then hope for the best possible outcome.
This lesson on letting go is only heightened during the Covid-19 pandemic. Parents everywhere must do the best they can for their kids, not having a clue how things will play out. Tolerating the uncertainty will make the difference for us between being able to keep on functioning and falling into overwhelming frustration, anxiety or despair.
One thing to remember is that today, no parent is alone. Every parent around the world is going through exactly the same situation. Every parent on every continent is trying to figure out the best solution to their children’s education. Parents everywhere can reach out and communicate with one-other on-line for support, guidance and perspective.
Around the world, very few parents have the luxury of being able to keep their children at home with no financial consequences to themselves. The vast majority of parents around the world have few options. It’s either send the kids to school so that they can get back to work, or keep the kids at home and compromise their income.
One thing that parents can do is lobby their local governments to ensure the safety of their children at school. Parents can insist that their boards of education follow the best, most up-to-date public health guidelines and not put the children at any unnecessary risk. There’s an election coming up in the US in November 2020. Parents can vote to elect the person and the party who they feel would best protect their children and their families in the months to come.
And in the meantime, parents can work on having more self-compassion, more self-forgiveness and a lot more tolerance for the uncertainty of these strange new times.