Parenting in a pandemic: Don’t feel overwhelmed. Do this instead.

closeup of secure, happy girl hugging her father - by fizkes/istock

© 2020 Gwen Dewar, Ph.D., all rights reserved

It happened so fast. Schools closing, our lives turned upside down by social distancing policies. Suddenly, millions of parents find themselves at home with their children all day.

It’s putting a lot of new pressure on parents. How are you supposed to be your child’s teacher or daycare provider, when you’re also scrambling to make ends meet?  

Parents feel overwhelmed on at least two levels. First, there’s the purely personal burden. There’s too much going on, too much to do. The kids — the interruptions — might be driving you crazy. You need some relief, some time out, but you can’t get it.

Then there’s the added, psychological burden. The worries, the guilt, the expectations. That feeling that your kids are supposed to getting a better deal.

You might feel threatened, inadequate, or defensive.  You aren’t meeting the standard, you aren’t providing your kids with developmental stimulation that experts recommend.

Let me try to help with that.

I’ve been analyzing the research on child development and learning for many years. I know about the discoveries and the limitations of that research. I also know how difficult it is to home-school when you happen to be your family’s sole breadwinner and caregiver. I’ve lived that life.

So I hope you’ll grant me some street cred when I say that no parent right now should be feeling threatened, inadequate, or defensive. Not about your ability to suddenly transform into an impossible mash-up of Breadwinner, Mary Poppins, and Teacher of the Year. That’s not happening, and that’s okay. It’s more than okay.

Whatever you’re imagining — wherever that pressure seems to be coming from — let it go. Forget, for the time being, about providing your kids with the best educational environment. Forget optimal. Embrace good enough.

Right now we need to be prioritizing the fundamentals — our families’ immediate mental and physical well-being, and the security of society as a whole.  

That’s what’s most important. That’s what really matters for our children’s future. Not missed school days or graduation dates. Not trying to reproduce bricks-and-mortar schooling at home, in the middle of a pandemic lock-down.  Doing this isn’t necessary for our children’s long-term success. I’m not even sure it’s desirable.

Because this crisis presents us with opportunities. Opportunities for our kids to learn new things — things they weren’t learning in their old, pre-coronavirus lives.

We often complain that kids today aren’t independent enough. They don’t know how to take charge, to take care of themselves, to contribute to the running of a household.

In traditional societies around the world, kids participate in economic activity from an early age. They learn how to gather food, tend the fire, cook, and fetch water. They learn how to tend goats, build shelters, and make tools. They learn how to look after their younger siblings (Lancy 2008).

So the anthropological evidence is clear. Our children are capable of lending a hand, being productive and helpful. Isn’t this a good time to teach them?

This is one of our opportunities: We can enlist our kids in the business of running the home. We can teach them life skills.

Do you need to make dinner? Teach your kids how to cook. Got dirty clothes? Teach kids how to do the laundry.

Show kids how to organize the pantry, and take stock of supplies. Show them how to adapt when you don’t have exactly what you wanted.

Invite your children to watch and participate when you make house repairs. Teach them how to sew and garden. Show them how to use a phone, look up directions, and interpret a map. Teach older kids how to babysit, and administer first aid.

There are other opportunities too, opportunities to play and talk. To share ideas. To have fun together. To get to know each other better.

Our kids may remember these experiences for the rest of their lives. What value can be placed on that?

And yes, there is also an academic opportunity. An opportunity to replace traditional schooling — with all its inefficiencies and shortcomings — with a period of individualized, intellectual exploration.

That’s what I’ll be talking about in my next post: A quick, easy-to-implement homeschooling plan for parents who suddenly find themselves at home.

But here, let’s finish by staying focused on the top priorities — our families’ immediate well-being,  and the security of society as a whole. We’re all of us facing an emergency, and we must stand together to get through it.

Medical workers — and other folks doing essential jobs — need our support.

Huge portions of the economy are shutting down.

Very soon, most families won’t be able to pay the bills — pay for food, housing, utilities — let alone support local businesses. 

And when people have no money to spend? More businesses fail. More jobs are lost.

We can argue about whether and how to bail out corporations. But we don’t have to decide right now. Big businesses have the resources to wait a bit. 

What can’t wait is the rest of it — the medical workers lacking supplies and equipment; the individuals and families in serious trouble; the small businesses on the brink of ruin. People need help urgently. 

So we mustn’t get distracted. All of us need to demand that our leaders take immediate action:

  • Order the manufacture and distribution of medical masks, gowns, gloves,  respirators, and medications. Make free child care available for all essential workers.
  • Make government-coordinated health care available to those who need it, not only because it’s the morally right thing to do, but also because sick people threaten the welfare of everyone.
  • Guarantee that nobody goes hungry or gets evicted. Help local businesses stay afloat.
  • Provide immediate,  ongoing cash assistance to people  — enough to allow us to ride out this emergency.

Here in the United States, there’s no reason why the government can’t take these immediate measures. No valid reason why Congress can’t pass a relief package that addresses these urgent issues only, and leaves other, controversial issues (like corporate bailouts) to be handled later. 

So don’t allow politicians, lobbyists to muddy the water. Insist that government put people first. And when the immediate crisis is over, let’s keep pushing. That’s how we’re going to protect our children’s future.

More information about the coronavirus pandemic

Can children get the new coronavirus?

Yes. Read more about it in my Parenting Science article, opens in a new window“Coronavirus in children: Children get sick, too — sometimes seriously so.” I break down the findings of a recent study published in the Journal of Pediatrics.

Where can I find reputable resources and references about the new coronavirus?

One resource I like is this page hosted by the opens in a new windowBritish Medical Journal. In addition, my article, opens in a new window“Coping with the Coronavirus: Information for the science minded parent”, offers evidence-based statistics and links.


Lancy DF. 2008. The anthropology of childhood: Cherubs, chattel, and changelings. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Image credits for “Parenting in a pandemic”:

title image of girl hugging parent by fizkes /istock

Content last modified 3/24/2020