How To Support Families With Kids When You Can’t Be There in Person
As families hunker down in their homes, many parents are working from the same home — sometimes even the same room — that doubles as their child’s classroom. Cousins, aunts, uncles, and grandparents who might normally be able to give parents a break by looking after the kids are now also confined to their own homes, searching for ways to help out their loved ones from afar. Even though we’re a few weeks into the shelter-in-place regulations, exhausted parents could still use some help — and here’s how you can do so remotely.
Do online research and ordering for them.
Parents just need more free time, plain and simple. Anything that can be done remotely, regardless of how basic or boring it may be, frees caregivers up to handle what can only be done in-person. Maybe their toilet is acting up and they need help finding a plumber, or perhaps their cell phone broke and they need help researching which carriers are offering good trade-in deals.
My sister lives 900 miles away. To help her with her two kids, and to distract myself from the tragedies unfolding in New York City, I did some bureaucratic work for her. Her county was holding early voting this week, so I researched how she could request an absentee ballot online and submitted an absentee ballot request on her behalf. The process required uploading an image of her driver’s license, which we noticed expires in a few days — so my new task became researching her local DMV renewal process. I found out that, due to the pandemic, expired licenses in her county are being extended by 60 days, so I shared with her a calendar reminder to renew her license two weeks before its new expiration date. Just those few hours online gave back valuable time to my sister.
Samantha Ruiz, a nurse and mother of two in Milwaukee, expressed how helpful it’s been to have family members conduct online research on her behalf. Simple tasks like looking up which supermarkets deliver groceries and what their new hours are take her away from changing her three-year-old’s diapers, homeschooling her 10-year-old, and taking their newly adopted and overly energetic pitbull for walks.
What started with simple supermarket research turned into allowing others to do the actual shopping online, saving Ms. Ruiz even more time. “I know that I may not get exactly what I put on the list because so many items are out of stock, but given the time and hassle it saves me, it’s worth it,” said Ruiz.
Get grandparents involved.
Getting grandparents and elderly individuals involved is not just good for kids, it’s good for everyone. Older people are especially susceptible to coronavirus-related complications and are being instructed to take extra care to avoid contact with others. But as social isolation and solitude pose their own risks for older people, engaging grandparents from a distance is a great way to support their mental health.
Residents in nursing homes or assisted living facilities are at an even higher risk for loneliness, as many facilities are not allowing visitors unless it’s an end-of-life situation. Some seniors may not even be able to receive flowers or gifts as delivery people might not be allowed inside (check first with the facility). However, phone calls are always appreciated.
Not every senior is going to have access to or familiarity with the technology that makes video conferencing possible, so consider going “old school” and calling from your cell phone. If you have nieces and nephews, you could easily set up a three-way call between grandparents and them, and help them all while taking the burden off parents’ shoulders. (While you’re at it, remember to call on retired friends or neighbors who may not have their own grandchildren and who may be delighted to receive a call.)
Get creative with video chats.
In cases where grandparents are able to use online video tools, you could tap into their knowledge to help take some of the homeschooling burden off of parents. One community in Connecticut even created a makeshift Grandparents’ Academy to tap into the wisdom of the older generation. By pooling kids and grandparents from their neighborhood and setting up simple online calendars, grandparents can offer “classes” on history, civics, language, or whatever their expertise may be.
Video conferencing and chatting is getting a lot of attention right now as it’s made face-to-face interaction easier while social distancing from within the same city or across closed country borders. Sometimes, a quick video conversation will suffice to check-in, but to keep the attention of young children, video chatting can be most useful for visual-related activities.
Jeff Thomason and Melody Wren of Toronto, Canada, told me that FaceTiming with their grandkids (ages three, six, and six) allows them to feel more connected to each other. According to Ms. Wren, it typically takes the kids a few minutes to ease into the awkwardness of not being in the same room, but once they get comfortable, it’s all giggles. Mr. Thomason’s finger puppet shows have proven particularly popular, as have Ms. Wren’s improvised arts and craft classes.
Ms. Wren asks the parents to fish out 10 items from the recycling bin and have them on hand, along with glue and tape. “When we get on the video call, I ask them to build a bridge, then a house, then a train, a castle, and a monster. It gives them something to focus on and it’s fun for all of us to see each other.”
Help grandparents with talking points.
If you want to free up some parents’ time by either speaking with their kids directly or connecting them with grandparents, talking points can be very helpful. That way young kids don’t have to lose interest when grandfather repeats an overly long story, and in turn, grandparents can engage kids in topics they’d actually like to discuss.
While auntie might not be into Minecraft and grandpa may have missed the latest Marvel movie, you can still give them pointers on how to talk about them. Grandpa can ask his granddaughter about the latest Marvel movie with questions like: “What did you like about the movie?” “How was it different from the last one?” “What was your favorite part?” “Who were your favorite and least favorite characters?” and “What did you like or dislike about them?”
You can also search for topics that may be easier to discuss. For example, since so many restaurants are closed, and kids aren’t eating school lunches, families are preparing many more meals at home, creating an opportunity to ask kids about this new experience. You can ask the little ones about the different foods they are eating and what they think of them. You could inquire if kids are helping to prepare them and discuss new recipes they’d like to try, or what’s been the most delicious thing they’ve eaten this week.
Lend emotional support.
Talk may be cheap in some realms of life, but right now, emotional support can be just as valuable as actions. Jill Brown of Evergreen, Colorado, about 30 miles west of Denver, told me that the most valuable support she’s gotten has been from friends just checking in to make sure she’s okay.
Though a busy mother herself, now working her city government job from home with her rambunctious four-year-old daughter, she stressed to me the importance of offering consistent emotional support to friends of hers who are pregnant. One of them was scheduled to deliver two weeks from when we spoke.
“When I was pregnant under normal conditions,” says Brown, “I remember crying over silly things like not knowing which restaurant to pick for dinner.” Being pregnant is stressful and difficult enough under ordinary circumstances, so she aims to send the soon-to-be-parents bits of joy in the form of meditation videos, energetic mixtapes, and Golden Girls-themed comic relief.
Ms. Brown believes that what parents need isn’t always related to their kids. Sometimes, it’s just to be remembered as an adult and as an individual who needs to feel connected to others. Brown says, “I’m not offering any specific answers because I don’t have the answers. I just want them to forget about this mess for a minute, laugh out loud, and know that they’re not alone.”