September 9, 2020

Friendship in the time of COVID

I felt lonely all summer. Sure I missed the camp kids, and yes, I found joy in my beloved family, my fabulous spouse, and the delightful new grandchild. Not to mention nature, the lake, yoga, blah blah blah.

But I didn’t see my friends. Like most folks I know, my pod is my family. When push comes to shove, we make that choice.

Think about it. If I, an old woman in a blissful marriage and surrounded by my wonderful family, was sad to not see my friends, how do you think kids feel? Unfortunately we already know that answer. They’re sad. Multiple studies have shown that kids’ mental health and joy for life suffered during their COVID isolation. And school is shaping up to be not such a fun time this fall.

The urgent question for parents is how to make it possible for kids to be with their friends in ways that nourish them. Zoom doesn’t. And despite their addiction to screens, nor is Instagram or anything else that puts a screen between people.

Kids need unfettered face-to-face interaction with their friends. They need it badly and they need it now. Much as we like to think that parents can nourish our kids, by the time they’re about 8, peers matter more. Peers reflect back who they are. Peers confer value on them in the only stakes they believe in. It happens up close and personal. Kids don’t distance, and they hate masks.

So how to do it in the face of ongoing COVID restrictions and requirements for physical distancing? The goal is to arrange a secondary “friend pod” composed of kids whose parents commit to the same level of COVID precautions as you do.

This is the hard part. Thus far, COVID has exposed fault lines in relationships. Even the best ones suffer because for everyone the bar of caution is at a different height.  I went to backyard distant dinner party and was the only person who brought all my own tableware and insisted on physical distance. Did the others label me neurotic? For sure. Did I label them careless? That too. Did we discuss our differences rationally, calmly and kindly? Not a chance. We papered over them.

But for your kids, you can do this. You can grow into it. Step one is relationship-building with the other parents. This will require bringing your a-game to empathy building. The fast track to engaging empathy in others is to show some vulnerability, to open up about yourself. This looks like calling the parents of your kid’s target “friends pod” and leading with your fears. Don’t do it on email or text. There lives built-in distance. We know this about screens.

Start by telling them your worries for your kid’s well-being if they can’t hang out with their friends. Then speak your worries about COVID contagion for both families, grandparents etc. Then engage more deeply and connect by asking them what they want for their kids this fall and winter. And what they worry about. Listen deeply.

Then name that pesky “COVID bar” and how different people tend to take such varying levels of precaution. Then seek consent to go the next step. Ask if they’d be interested in discussing whether you and they, and a few more families, might be able to find common ground in the precaution department, in order to build a “friend pod” for the kids minus masks and physical distancing.

If they consent, create a Zoom or backyard meeting with a few families. Parents only. Email agenda in advance. It’s about what level of precautions every family is willing to commit to, in order to create a “friend pod.” It includes a commitment to check in together once a month and re-negotiate the commitment.

Then you convene a second  Zoom meeting with the kids. Again a formal agenda pre-circulated. Present the kids with what the grownups figured out. Ask them to respond to it. Ask if they can live with the protocols in order to get a “friend pod.” Then secure the kids’ commitment to the precautions.

Some will ask: “Why can’t we just get tested? Testing is so easy now.” Yup, and you can get infected walking out of the testing centre. Or two days later. You can have a false negative if you were infected in the two days before the test. It’s a minefield.

Six months of navigating COVID have taught us a thing or two. We know what precautions to take. We know our kids are desperate for normal peer interaction. And we know we can make it through this.



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