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The lessons we should really be teaching kids in the pandemic

Give up the rigorous homeschooling. There has never been a better time for simple lessons about inequity.

mother helping daughter with schoolwork
With schools closed in many countries around the world, parents are having to homeschool their kids. But the lessons to be learned in the coronavirus pandemic go beyond the academic.
Ute Grabowsky/Photothek/Getty Images

The words “Zoom call” now slip off of my three-year-old’s lips as easily as “birthday party” (and she loves to disinvite people to her birthday party right now, me included). My six-year-old, meanwhile, throws her scooter to the side outside our front door and runs straight into the bathroom to wash her hands. Kids adapt fast. Much faster than their parents.

America’s parents — particularly my peers of the white and privileged variety — seem not to be adapting in the face of this coronavirus crisis, so much as attempting to schedule our way out of it. The homeschool porn on social media — the elaborate charts, the explosive science fair projects, the Facetiming with all manner of experts — telegraph to the world that even a deadly flu can’t get in the way of our family’s achievements. One mom sent me a schedule she devised for her kid that includes a timer so she can switch academic subjects every 15 minutes. Her kid is five years old.

I’m here to say stop the madness.

People are dying. Particularly black people, low-wage workers, and those who have been historically neglected by our health system and pummeled with our racism. Our emperor, President Trump, has no clothes. Now is the time to push aside the elaborate academic schedules and teach our kids something more lasting about humanity.

There’s never been a more necessary time than now to teach our kids about systems and structures. Bleary-eyed adults are looking at predictive models late into the night on their laptops and trying to explain them the next day over Cheerios. Instead of shying away from this, lean into it.

You might understandably be thinking, “But my kid is four years old. She thinks Daniel Tiger is actually talking to her. How am I going to explain redlining to her?”

Of course, there are developmentally appropriate ways to talk to our kids about race and class, among so much else. But too often, white and privileged parents let ourselves off the hook in moments like these, justifying our silence with the notion that these concepts are too complex and can wait. Professor and parent Jennifer Harvey, author of Raising White Kids, writes: “Our children can and do understand racism much earlier than adults give them credit for.”

So simply asking a four year old, “Who are you noticing are the helpers in this moment?” in a nod to Mr. Rogers’s classic message, could be a very fruitful question.

I promise that having a genuine, searching conversation with your kid about what constitutes an “essential worker” will have a far more lasting effect than grabbing the Caviar delivery from the porch and getting back to the geometry lesson as the driver speeds away. For an older kid, you might ask: “Who is still working outside the home? Why? How are they being protected or neglected by other people — their neighbors, their employers, or the government? What does this all have to do with the fish taco we’re about to eat?” In other words, don’t forget the climax of the lesson: complicity.

As civic advocate Eric Liu put it, “The moral question that comes with flattening the curve is not just whether I’ll do my part to stand six feet away or stay at home. The deeper moral question is: How can I change at least one system of power around me?”

In other words, we should be learning lessons during this time that go beyond logistical distancing measures and ways to replicate our pre-pandemic lives. These lessons are also bigger than “We’re all in this together,” which is the equivalent of our Boomer parents’ well-intentioned, but inadequate lessons about being “color-blind” to racism. Epidemiologically speaking, we are all in this together. But when one lays our historic and economic profile over our epidemiological one, it becomes very clear that not everyone is exposed to an equal risk here. Those in dense urban centers, those who depend on public transportation, those who work in low-wage, unpredictable jobs without enough protections or adequate health insurance — these are the Americans most “in it.”

That’s not because they didn’t shelter in fast enough or wash their hands enough times. It’s because we live in a country whose story is riddled with redlining, the undervaluing of care, and the long tail effects of slavery.

So follow your kid’s lead. They’ll start asking all the right questions if you let them look up long enough from their Zoom lessons to do so. On a whim, I asked my six-year-old, “Do you have any questions about the coronavirus?”

My usually slow processing, quiet girl didn’t skip a beat: “Where did it start? How does it spread? How does it end?”

Well, dang, someone has been listening. Of course the kids are listening. And they are making meaning out of every piece of news you share. We spent some time researching, and then I did what educators would call “scaffolding” — I built on her questions to ask her some more: Who do you think is most and least likely to get the coronavirus? Why might that be? Who is most likely to get the care they need in response? How could we change that?

If you’re worried about your kid falling behind, you’re not alone; in a recent Pew survey, 64% of parents said they were. But we can’t let our fear of short-term academic FOMO overtake our motivation for long-term, collective justice. Your kid’s success, as turns out, is dependent on our collective health. It’s time to start acknowledging that interdependence, to ourselves and our kids.

So if your kid emerges this summer from the cocoon of your nuclear family newly sophisticated about power and how it flows, you will have done something profoundly important — not just for your kid, but for this country. Even more, if your white and privileged kid understands that they aren’t the center of the universe, that there are limitations on what resources they should be consuming, that they can fight the very forces their ancestors seeded and be a part of healing this country’s moral wounds, they might emerge healthier themselves. They might have the muscles, not to cling to schedules and control in times of crisis, but to ask and act on the hard moral questions of our time.

Courtney E. Martin is an author, speaker, and co-founder of the Solutions Journalism Network and FRESH Speakers Bureau. She is currently at work on a book about white parents and school integration. Sign up for her popular weekly newsletter here.