Opinion - As the realities of being stuck in our houses for weeks on end with our children set in, Kirsten Johnstone tries to put a positive spin on this situation, and gets some advice from the experts on how to stay sane, and even enjoy this time.
Day one: Start homeschool. 7yo into it. We make a schedule which includes lots of cool stuff we can do at home. We research orangutans, make cheese scones, and harvest some aloe vera to mix with our isopropyl to make hand sanitizer. 4yo loses shit because I'm not paying any attention to her. Sit down and do a puzzle with 4yo while simultaneously spelling out words (every. single. one) to the 7yo. I bring 7yo a dictionary. I am a calm, collected, mother. My mantra is 'This is not an emergency'. Even though it actually is.
Day two: We're already way off schedule because we slept in and 7yo needs an emergency dental appointment before total lockdown. We also need to brave the supermarket because we have run out of coffee and wine. My phone is pinging every minute with work-related messages and I am getting stressed because I have a looming deadline (this article) and my partner has thus far hogged all the working time. My friend tells me that pandemics are bad for feminism. Both children are testing the boundaries and turns out the boundaries are pretty riddled with holes right now. The house is a bomb site, food ground into the carpet, a mountain of dishes, glitter all over the kitchen. We make gingerbread and I try to let go of my perfectionism.
Day three: 7yo stressed out that our schedule isn't working to the minute. 4yo thinks that putting tomatoes down our shirts is the funniest game ever. 'Mr D' takes over the childcare, and I retreat to the makeshift home office to try to make the technology of recording radio interviews at home work. Kids bust in every five minutes. 7yo starts screaming that it's not fair that the home office is actually her bedroom. There is yelling. If we're going to get through this, it's time to call some experts.
"Let the adventure begin!"
"The kids are gonna remember this for the rest of their lives" says neuroscience educator Nathan Wallis.
"It's going to be a memorable thing. So I think it's good for parents to have that in the forefront of their mind and just create wonderful memories."
Parenting mentor Mary Willow (Plum Parenting) says that: "If we can look upon this period as an adventure rather than a jail term we can bridge the children through it and set them up for expanded minds and hearts on the other side, rather than residual anxiety and scars. Your family ship is in new waters. Let the adventure begin!"
Wallis says that the hectic pace of normal 21st century life keeps the human stress response system activated, and that four weeks of winding down will be a really good thing for our whole society.
"In the same way that we've seen the atmosphere in traditionally polluted countries clear from the lack of industrialism, there is like a settling. I think born from that, is families feeling more connected, and the stronger the sense of belonging in the family, the better the person's social and emotional wellbeing is. So I think it could be a really, really positive thing. We complain about living such busy lives and not having time to connect with our children. Well now we've got this."
Make a schedule
For those of us who are still expected to work, who are lucky enough to have kept our jobs, there is a juggle. Wallis recommends making a clear schedule, so that both your children and your workplace know when you will be available.
"Don't try to do them both at the same time, because it means that you're not fully present in either. So I would say structure your times when you are working. And then actually give the kids your full attention - be with them mentally, spiritually, physically and emotionally."
Willow agrees that rhythm is key.
"A daily rhythm settles the body down so that the heart and mind can be freed up to engage in loving, interacting and learning. A balanced rhythm takes away the uncertainty, gives everyone a map to guide the day and, most of all, protects downtime, which is when the brain is given a chance to digest and process experience. Downtime not just for them… but for you!"
Instead of over-scheduling your children's day, Willow advises a mix of 'breathing in' activities which require focus and effort, and 'breathing out' activities that allow free play and fun.
Wallis acknowledges that there isn't a one-size-fits-all way to schedule your days. Some children find security in following a school-like timetable, others thrive on a more child-led, free-flowing approach, but all children need some predictability in their lives.
Put on your own oxygen mask first
Self-care has to be prioritised, says Wallis.
"You can't let yourself get run ragged and fall over because everyone relies on you. And you're a model to the kids as well.
"Even if it just means you have a bath while your partner looks after the kids, you get twenty minutes just to chill."
Willow is an advocate for getting up before the children (I know, impossible for some) to start the day off with some quiet time for yourself. Many find it hard at first, but rave about the benefits. And hey, early risers are some of the most productive and successful people, right?
She also says that weekly parent meetings are important right now, and that family meetings for older children will help everyone to stay on the same page.
Don't try to homeschool your children
Many schools have sent out learning materials, websites and suggestions to continue children's education at home. If your child is keen and engaged with this work, great, be there to support them. Teenagers facing exams will need to keep studying, but otherwise you should see this as an opportunity to see the learning that can happen at home.
"Overall, I would not be focused or worried too much about academic homework over four weeks, it's not going to make a big difference in the long run," Wallis says.
"Doesn't mean you throw it out the window, but you'll be amazed how much academic stuff you learn through play, and through interacting with the environment, learning how to make mum's potato salad."
He points out that learning music or languages enhances cognitive intelligence, and helps to strengthen the central executive network in young brains.
"So from my point of view, I'd say learn the guitar for four weeks. You've actually got time now to sit down and get YouTube out and spend an hour a day every day learning the guitar. I think that's going to be way more beneficial to your child's education than worrying about keeping up with any homework."
Wallis clarifies that using YouTube as a teaching tool should be supervised, not used as a sitter.
Beware of the creeping screen time
The amount of online educational resources for children is staggering. Then there's online games, Netflix, video calls for staying in touch with friends and whānau. It would be easy to let them stay all day on a device, but both Wallis and Willow warn against this.
"There is a correlation with screen time and anxiety and depression. So we already had to be concerned before this happened. And now we're going into an environment where that's likely to increase significantly. So I think the big warning is for people to remember just how damaging they are to young brains."
Wallis says that children under two shouldn't be looking at screens at all, and children under seven don't benefit from looking at screens. For the kids older than that, they should have an imposed two hours, device free time in one block. Research suggests that this takes them out of the risk group for anxiety and depression.
Willow worries that screens "activate the dopamine pathway in the brain of instant gratification", which, if you let your kids zone out for hours, will leave some grumpy little addicts at the end of it.
But if screens are the only way you can get some downtime for yourself - use them. They are also our lifeline to the outside world right now, and Wallis says we should distinguish passive screen time from interactive screen time. Set times and time limits for video calls with friends and whānau.
Making space for play
Not all living spaces are all that well set up for a family to live, work and play in full time. For some families, it will be a claustrophobic time.
Mary Willow suggests taking a fresh look at the house and garden (if you have one). "You may need to designate and redefine areas and times for different activities such as free play space, creative space, and downtime space. What can be turned into useful props?"
She's got long lists of possible activities at home that includes picnics outdoors, fort building, charades, crafting, diaries, and making music. Four weeks may not be enough to fit it all in.
However it plays out in your household, Wallis says that four weeks is not going to define who they are.
"But the kids are going to remember. So what do you want them to remember? Four weeks of you yelling and screaming at them because they wouldn't do their physics homework? Or, you know, four weeks of going for walks in the parks and talking deeply about things because you never really had the time before?"
I watch my children play after dinner. They have invented a 'carrot catapult' and are entertaining themselves with a cardboard box, cord, and the hilly slopes we live on. There is uproarious laughter, and an uninterrupted flow to their play. They look a little feral though, and after a while I point them towards the bath.
Later I tuck my 7yo into bed. "What are we going to do tomorrow mama?" "Pretty much the same thing as today my love," I reply. "Just hang out." She grins, as if this is the best thing ever, the only thing she wants.
I'm optimistic, like Nathan Wallis and Mary Willow, that this downtime will have a positive spin for many families, mine included. I'll even admit to liking them more already. Hell, maybe in four weeks I'll want to take the kids out of school, quit my job, and move to the country. It's not likely, but it's good to see this as an opportunity to get to know my kids better, at the very least.