If you’re a parent of any number of children, chances are good you’re worried about the effect this time in isolation is having on them. Parents of kids with special needs are struggling to get the services their children usually rely on. Parents of multiple kids are wondering when the endless sibling arguments will officially drive the whole family completely bonkers. And parents of only children may be worried about the lack of a built-in playmate in their kid’s life.
As the parent of an only child myself, this was among my first concerns when schools shut down and it quickly became obvious that even playdates with one other child were no longer a safe option. And over the past six weeks, my son’s “only” status—while admittedly probably making pandemic parenting much easier for me than for many others—has continued to rank with my greatest concerns for how he will fare during this time.
But so far? He’s been fine. Or at least as fine as one could hope or expect. And I have every reason to rationally believe that he will continue to be fine. And that your only kids will be fine, too. And here’s why:
Our only kids didn’t become only children the day the coronavirus lockdown hit your state. These are extraordinary times, but they don’t change the fact that only children have, at least in most cases, always been only children. You may be wringing your hands over whether they’re lonely—and yes, they very likely are missing their friends right now. But they are also used to being the only kid in the home.
They’re probably pretty adept at playing on their own and entertaining themselves. And although they probably wish they could get the hell out of the house as much (if not more) than you want them to, nothing about the structure of your family has changed; that is consistent.
What my son wouldn’t give right now for one Nerf gun battle with his best friend or one soccer practice with his teammates. He’s a very social kid, and up until now, no weekend was complete without him spending at least some face-to-face time with friends. But it’s the connection he craves, not necessarily the physical proximity.
We have found ways to satisfy his need for connection in other ways—by seeing his classmates on Zoom, by FaceTiming with friends during afternoon Minecraft marathons and by writing letters to pen pals. He has taken occasional bike rides with a friend (yes, and parents, who make sure they maintain proper physical distance from one another). Hell, we’ve even stood on one corner of the street while a friend stood on the other corner as they yell-chatted to each other.
For a 9-year-old, this is all fairly easy to do. But what about younger kids who can’t chat and play games with their friends on a tablet with the same ease or effectiveness? There is no need to panic about them, either, Dr. Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, a professor of psychology at Temple University, told the New York Times:
“The thing they are missing is this navigation and negotiation with the social world. Is it important? Absolutely. Is it going to be damaging? Absolutely not.” She said it would take years for children to experience lasting damage from the current shelter-at-home practices. “They still live in a social world. That social world has us as a part of it. We are their guides and travel agents. I don’t see it as harming them,” she said.
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And, Hirsh-Pasek said, video conferencing with loved ones or playmates is still beneficial for toddlers and preschoolers because it helps reinforce the art of communication and language development in a way that watching a TV show does not.
The people our kids need most right now? That’s us, their parents. They need an environment that is as calm and anxiety-free as possible, and we’re the best people to provide that for them—as challenging as that may be for us right now. As much as we’re able, we can use this time at home to connect with them. As Rebecca Onion writes for Slate:
The No. 1 most important thing to your child’s sense of well-being right now, a number of experts I interviewed wanted to emphasize, is that you remain as steady as you can. Kids are, as Yale psychologist Dylan Gee wrote in an email, “quite perceptive and sensitive” to parents’ stress. “The most important protective factor that a child can have in a stressful situation is a loving, supportive, consistent caregiver,” Gee, who has studied the way caregivers help children regulate their own stress, pointed out. “In that sense, children are with the very people they need the most during a stressful time.”
They need you. And the very fact that there is only one of them might mean they’ll get more of you than they otherwise would. In that respect, the numbers work in their favor: You can block out time for regular connection, whether that’s tossing the ball in the backyard, going for daily walks around the neighborhood or learning how to play chess together.
The undeniable truth is that we are in uncharted territory here. There is no way for us to know with any kind of certainty what the longterm effects of this type of isolation will be for our kids—or us, for that matter.
But just like the children who are arguing with siblings over who gets to pick the movie every night, we have every reason to believe that if we provide our only kids with consistent opportunities for connection and a safe and loving environment, they will be okay.
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