Generation COVID

Will the kids be all right?

Written by Amanda Mizera and Lizzy Stein

Tightening her pigtails as she zips her down jacket, an essential staple to the chilly fall ahead, a jump off the third stair passes as an Olympic landing. Skipping to the kitchen table, a morning hug from mom followed by a homemade strawberry and banana smoothie is all that’s needed for the long day of Miss Brettler’s first-grade class that lies ahead. This should be the norm for 6-year-old Joey Mclees.

But not this year.

Ari poses for a portrait on a swing in Waunakee, a Madison suburb on Oct. 27, 2020. Photo by Brian Huynh

While initial research revealed children at minimal risk from the pandemic, this hypothesis was quickly defamed as children faced a spectrum of hardships.

Though stress poses an adverse impact on anyone, it deeply affects children. As school closures have increased the risk of widening the achievement gap, experts worry about growing components of inequality imposed on students. Virtual learning has targeted not only the level of learning, but the ability to learn at all.

A 2020 brief by the Kaiser Family Foundation, which uses data from the National Survey of Children’s Health and National School-Based Health Care Census, polled parents of children undergoing school closures. More than two-thirds of parents reported concern for their child falling behind socially and emotionally as a result of limited social interaction, including missing out on organized activities and personal engagement. The study also found that one in four families live in neighborhoods without access to walking trails and sidewalks, potentially limiting a child’s access to the outdoorsa critical component in health maintenance.

Further, a June 2020 survey by Gallup Panel found nearly three in 10 parents report their school-aged child experiencing emotional or mental health problems in light of distancing practices. While rates of such behavior including anxiety, clinginess, irritability and fear have heightened, the risk for children with preexisting behavioral conditions, specifically those from kindergarten through 12th grade, is enhanced. For children of color, pre-pandemic mental and behavioral problems were significantly greater because this group is least likely to receive essential care.

As statistics of the pandemic’s harmful effects on children continue to rise, so do the concerns among parents. Jason Horowitz, a psychologist and clinical assistant professor in the School of Medicine and Public Health at UW–Madison, is one among the many.

Horowitz reflects on the detrimental, but also promising, elements of the pandemic through a lens as both a professional and a parent. He admits the effects of COVID-19 are a “societal stressor,” which inevitably “affects people disproportionately based on what kinds of privilege or lack of privilege they had before it started.”

One trend that ties in with how online learning will affect children moving forward is the competitive pressure put on children at an increasingly younger age. It’s no longer a rarity to be welcomed into the world in a Bucky onesie awaiting the self-proclaiming bio of “Wisconsin Class of 2038.”

“In America, there is a push for more and more academics at younger and younger ages. My worry is that there might be this focus that’s just strictly academic. We’ve lost a year. We need to make up the gap and there will be this push to accelerate learning,” Horowitz says. “What I really want to focus on is, what did we learn about our community? What does our community need to heal? What moral lessons do we learn here? This is something I talk about with kids a lot. One of the silver linings, and maybe the biggest one, is a chance to teach about what it means to be part of a community.”

Perhaps Horowitz is right: The thickest silver lining this pandemic has produced is the value of community. A community on all levels that exists within the walls of our own home and one well beyond them.   

“In some ways, it allows parents to see and get to know their kids even better,” Horowitz says. “It’s a chance to slow down and make life simpler. We, as a society, are guilty of not looking or learning from our history. I think we would all benefit from being a little more humble and open to information as we form our own judgments about what to do here.”

The Baldwin family poses for portraits in the backyard of their home in Waunakee on Oct. 27, 2020. Michael and Julia are pictured in the back and in front from left to right are their children Ari and Sienna. Photo by Brian Huynh

Slowing down is something that parents, alike, have found challenging and unconventional throughout the pandemic. From changing parenting styles to learning how to navigate through this new experience with their children, parents have had to deal with many obstacles when it comes to watching their children experience such a life-changing event.

Carol Mottram, from Middleton, a suburb of Madison, has had no shortage of navigating through the many difficulties that parents have faced these past few months. Mottram has five children ranging in ages from 3 to 13 and offers one word on how life as a parent has changed since COVID-19: exhausting.

“When all the children are home, you don’t have the outlets that you once had as a stay-at-home parent,” Mottram says.

In simultaneum, new discoveries are made when it comes to teaching children how to cope during a crisis. Mottram says her parenting style has adapted to being “a more understanding, loving parent and trying to really enjoy this time that we have, because we have more time with our children, and that can be a benefit.”

During this time when children are spending more time with their parents and families, they can start to feel as though they have been punished to stay inside while COVID-19 takes over the world. The dreaded feeling of not being able to go to school or play with their friends can take a toll on how children are able to communicate with others. Many parents have turned to a new way of doing things when it comes to helping their children socialize in order to prevent their children from losing meaningful connections with their friends.

Karyn Riddle, a professor of strategic communication in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at UW–Madison and mother of two, has done extensive research on the effects of media violence on children. Despite her previous habits, the pandemic has offered a new outlook on the way her children socialize.

“My thoughts on screen time have changed so dramatically,” Riddle says. “I’m letting my son have a phone in his bedroom at night. I never ever allowed him to do that before.”

Among the pandemic’s harmful effects, is the lack of human interaction offered, specifically to that of children. Although technology has made socializing with others possible, there is still the missing piece of not being able to experience special moments in person. Many parents have struggled with the consequences of their children not having enough face-to-face interaction with friends. 

“It becomes a balance between having to protect our kids’ physical health but also needing to think about their mental health,” Riddle says.

Mental health is a critical concern among children experiencing a pandemic given the extensive time away from friends, teachers and other meaningful connections. The inability to develop new friendships contributes to this setback of social interaction and values they bring to a child’s character including self-confidence, social skills and adequate manners. 

Children and young adults struggle with the concept of not being able to continue their standard routine including that of extracurricular and social activities. As the world has come to a halt, so have the opportunities to interact in a social environment with friends.

“I really like being around my friends,” 12-year-old Sienna Baldwin says about not being able to see her friends as much during the pandemic. “I really tried to FaceTime because I miss them a lot.”

Sienna and her third-grade sister Ari Baldwin of Waunakee, a suburb north of Madison, have not been able to participate in many group activities built in their weekly schedule. Father Mike Baldwin says that Sienna was typically involved in activities such as karate three times a week and softball over the summer and spring, but that “those things kind of disappeared.”

Ari (left) and Sienna (right) pose for a portrait in the backyard of their home in Waunakee on Oct. 27, 2020. Photo by Brian Huynh

Children of all ages are missing out on prime moments of their youth and have had to give up many extracurricular activities and learning in-person, which has been a difficult adjustment.

For Joey Mclees, of the Madison suburb of Monona, the loss of time with friends hits hard now that her classroom has moved completely online. “Well it makes me really mad that I don’t get to see my friends much,” Mclees says about her time at home compared with being with her friends in a classroom. At such a young age, it’s harder to understand why people have to stay indoors more and social distance. 

“People are resilient. Kids are especially resilient,” says Horowitz. Although COVID-19 has put children all over the world on pause, they will overcome whatever future obstacles come their way.

Breaks in life can be hard. Children and young adults feel this type of pause in life now more than ever. COVID-19 means fewer social interactions for children, worrying experts and parents who are afraid of the lasting effects. But this pause has also promised a new way for children to think creatively, as well as a chance for them to get closer to their family and community. 

When asked what would be the first thing she would do if she didn’t have to socially distance around her friends, Mclees says, “I would just go up to the friend of mine and say, ‘Hi!’ to greet each other, and we would get to hug.”