I walked into my kids’ room last week looking for my youngest. My oldest was curled up in bed. “Are you alone in here?” I asked.
“No,” he answered. “I’m reading.”
It took me a second to realize his answer didn’t mean that both of my kids were snuggled under the blankets. Instead, his answer meant that he didn’t feel alone in that moment – he had his books to keep him company.
Like most families, the playmates, friends, and hangouts our kids can enjoy have shrunk considerably during the pandemic. While the outdoors provides a safer and more expansive place to explore, we have spent a lot of time at home by ourselves.
We are nearing almost a year of disrupted schooling, constrained socializing, and political upheaval. Our blog is packed full of posts with tips, suggestions, and ideas for reducing stress and building resilience during COVID. But perhaps one of the most important questions of all to ask our kids is the one that I absentmindedly asked my oldest: “Are you feeling alone?”
Children are not meant to be isolated. Parents aren’t either. They rely on family, friends, and community to raise kids. Indeed, the Harvard Center on the Developing Child’s reminder that “resilience is built on relationships, not rugged individualism” is a powerful lesson of this time. The CDC’s early guidance to “maintain physical distance while staying socially connected” was an acknowledgement that us human beings cannot do hard things alone.
There are so many visible ways that we continue to get creative with connection: zoom meetings, virtual events, google meets, distanced outdoor gatherings, and every single way that educators have reached through screens to engage kids with each other and with their learning. I am grateful for each and every one of them.
But today I am also grateful for the indirect contributions from caring adults my kids have never met but who have held their tender feelings, need for adventure, and thirst for meaning during this difficult time: authors, poets, narrators, game designers, podcasters, song writers, and many many more.
We are all eagerly awaiting and organizing for a future where kids can run towards each other. We anxiously anticipate widening the circle of adults who can directly care for our kids. In the meantime, let’s not forget to name, celebrate, and lift up the network of caring adults who have indirectly helped our kids navigate this time. Let’s give gratitude to the e-books, audiobooks, paperbacks, songs, podcasts, games, and other stories who have helped our kids honestly answer, “No, I do not feel alone.” They have made all the difference in the world.
Here goes my short and sweet letter of gratitude:
Dear Books and Your Authors,
Thank you for being a “happy distraction.”
Adolescent psychologist Dr. Lisa Damour suggests that there is something to be said for taking a mental break during the pandemic. Losing oneself in a good book can be just what kids and teens need to stop ruminating or worrying and can give their nervous systems much-needed time and space to recover.
Thank you for expanding kids’ social worlds.
As novelist Keith Oakley reminds us, “Far from being solitary activities, reading books or watching movies or plays actually can help train us in the art of being human.” While some books might serve as merely a happy distraction, others center our attention on what matters most: connecting with others. Evidence shows that reading fiction improves our social abilities and helps young people create dynamic mental models of themselves and others. Scientists call this capacity to understand other people’s thoughts and feelings, “theory of mind.” It turns out that fiction is uniquely equipped to engage these brain pathways. It shouldn’t be a surprise then that exposure to fiction can increase empathy and social skills and reduce prejudice. While kids have been cut off from each other in the real world, these rich fictional characters and relationships continue to ignite their social brains in essential ways.
Thank you for giving kids power and agency.
Exploring fantastical worlds and superhero powers is often viewed as merely an escapist form of entertainment. Some argue though, that science fiction and fantasy give young people the critical distance they need to take charge of challenging realities. The ongoing dual crises of COVID-19 and racism have created high levels of uncertainty and stress at the very same time that children and youth have fewer opportunities to exercise control over their lives. While decidedly not a substitute for mental health care, fiction does allow kids to explore worlds and experience them with more agency. Professor of English Esther Jones argues, “What better way to deal with the uncertainty of this time than with forms of fiction that make us comfortable with being uncomfortable, that explore uncertainty and ambiguity, and depict young people as active agents, survivors and shapers of their own destinies?”
Thank you for being mirrors, windows, and sliding doors.
Dr. Lee Galda, professor of Children’s Literature at the University of Minnesota, first wrote about the importance of “mirror” and “window” stories in the 1980s. She explained that a mirror story reflects a child’s identity while a window story offers a view into someone else’s experience. Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop deepened the conversation by adding the concept of a “sliding door.” She notes,
“Books are sometimes windows, offering views of worlds that may be real or imagined, familiar or strange. These windows are also sliding glass doors, and readers have only to walk through in imagination to become part of whatever world has been created and recreated by the author. When lighting conditions are just right, however, a window can also be a mirror. Literature transforms human experience and reflects it back to us, and in that reflection we can see our own lives and experiences as part of the larger human experience. Reading, then, becomes a means of self-affirmation, and readers often seek their mirrors in books.”
Diversifying our bookshelves is decidedly not the only way that we build healthy identities or disrupt racism, anti-semitism, homophobia or other -isms. These forces live within us and our institutions, meaning that it will take more than new books and movies to help our children navigate them. That said, storytelling is a powerful onramp to self discovery, empathy, and collective care.
Consider writing your own letter.
Let’s praise and invest in the incredible writers, poets, and artists who have helped our kids cope with COVID. And when we emerge and rebuild, let’s ensure that all children have access to the authors and artists who will help them make meaning of these experiences and ignite a more connected vision for the next chapter.
Don’t have the time or energy to write a letter? Next time you are feeling tired, overwhelmed and alone during the pandemic – look around for the other caring adults who are holding your child up right now. Give yourself permission to thank them, lean on them, and get lost in a good story.