Staying Happy, Staying Home.

Left: Mask for a “Ko-omote” character in Noh theater. My son and I started researching and making traditional Japanese masks. We recommend this TV documentary as good places to start: Begin Japanology’s episode on masks.

My friends and students ask me: Are you okay? How is your son dealing with all this? How are you holding up? It’s been six weeks since we’ve been staying home and I think: Yes, we are okay. There are times at the end of a long day of playing, making art, baking bread, and doing the things that fortunate families like us are doing that I weep. I am exhausted and like everyone else, have no answers on how or when things will change. As parents, we are never processing emotions for one, but for two or more. We are mirrors, luggages, punching bags, and giant stuffed animals to our children. Our job is to be flexible, forgiving, funny, and fuzzy. There are days when I tackle difficult conversations about disease and pollution. And there are others, when I’m just trying to convince a small person that he doesn’t actually want to watch three movies in a row. I am not perfect, but I do have to show up each day and try. Here are some things that have helped us feel okay, and even happy, during this time. (p.s. We both cry at least once a day for various reasons and that’s okay too :)

These days, we can do this both literally and metaphorically.

1. Put your mask on first.
I often find myself with the choice every morning either before my six-year-old son, Rui, wakes up or during his online school time: do I take a shower or do I sit down to meditate? Let’s be honest — we can all go for 3–4 days without showering. But it’s difficult to go on day after day without a sense of calm, checking in with our breath, and letting go of the anxiety and stress we may be holding onto in our minds and bodies. Now that we’re mostly home, inner peace is even more important than outer appearance. Way more! Whatever your practice is that makes you feel restored and whole, (e.g. meditation, yoga, journaling, or listening to your favorite song and doing a happy dance) do that. Even if it’s for two minutes. You’re not being selfish — you’re doing your practice to benefit your child, your colleagues, and everyone else you interact with that day. I do a very simple breathing meditation every morning to make a connection with the sense of peace at my heart. Throughout the day, I bring that feeling back whenever I start to feel anxious, stressed, tired, etc. It takes practice and training, but we all need to cultivate a sense of inner happiness and peace, pandemic or not. Whenever I have larger pockets of time, I join my friends for guided meditations here.)

Imaginary friends from left to right: Ravishing Rick Rita, Diamond Jacques and La Niña.

2. Invent new friends.
Just as your child makes up imaginary friends or personifies his favorite pair of socks, you can do the same and then invite these people into your home. There’s a perfectionist, eccentric robot, the “Clothes-On Machine,” who arrives in the morning to assist with getting ready for the day. She tells jokes, gets into arguments, and insists that she is an expert in everything she does. I invented her to break up the tension and tediousness of our morning routine. Rui and I both created “Ravishing Rick Rita” and her character evolves through daily stories and pretend play. Rita is always striving to be the heroine: the most famous and beautiful woman in the world, but in fact she is her own worst enemy. Her lack of kindness to people and animals always foils her success. Then, there’s the amiable and charming “Diamond Jacques,” who owns a circus, manages traditional festivals in Japan, and most recently fell in love with an octopus. “La Niña” is a kind and caring person who loves teaching Spanish. Sometimes, the characters do things that are mundane, like brush their teeth, or they perform ridiculous stunts, such as placing a cat in a tree to feign heroism when “rescuing” it. Other times, they are a medium for delivering hard truths or processing challenging life lessons (e.g. we journey back in time to visit the childhoods of each character and the experiences that shaped them). Overall, our imaginary friends introduce different perspectives so that the world feels much bigger than the two of us.

We have been researching the history and evolution of clowns every day since January.

3.Go down a rabbit hole (together).
I used to feel this pressure to come up with interesting ideas for Rui and me to do each day. But you know what? Your child has so many (usually much better) ideas and those are ideas are theirs, which means they are inherently more committed to seeing them through. I’ve learned to follow my son’s lead and support his interests through observing his learning process at his school, Pono, a democratic learning program for kids ages two to 13. At Pono, there are no curricula, no grades, no homework, and no tests (not too dissimilar to life itself!). In this way, kids are free to learn based on their own interests and they pursue their curiosities through field trips, mentorships, and hands-on projects. In many ways, Pono’s methodology accidentally prepared us for this extremely unstructured and unpredictable time together. By observing his interests at home and at Pono, I’ve noticed Rui’s growing curiosity for physical comedy, acting, and generally, the absurd. In January, we watched Fellini’s last film, I Clowns, a documentary on traditional European circuses. Since then, Rui fell in love with clowns, asking me to do “clown research,” which means looking into the history and lineage of clowns from European court jesters to Japanese Kabuki artists, and also creating our own clown personas, costumes, and acts. This research project has created a sense of focus and purpose for hundreds of hours of play and is naturally conducive to learning. Researching clowns includes making historical timelines, tracing artistic influences, and examining societal structures that shape the creation and constraints of humor and entertainment. Whatever it is that your child is drawn to, as parents, we can become their research partners, helping them to navigate online archives, documentaries, and books, and together, make unexpected connections and discoveries.

We have made more than 10 masks and headpieces based from cardboard boxes, paint, and paper.

4. Recreate the world.

It’s very clear these days that we have very little control over the world around us. Previously simple questions like, “When will I see my friends?” or “When can we eat my favorite pizza again?” are totally unknown. But I do think that kids and grownups alike feel a tremendous sense of agency and purpose through making. During our home quarantine, we’ve realized that we can actually make anything in the world with cardboard, paint, tape, paper, glue, an X-Acto knife or a good pair of scissors, and some string. When Rui comes up with an idea for a project, I see the excitement in his eyes and a sense of purpose and confidence infuse his voice and gestures. At his age, he waivers quite a bit between desiring autonomy and requiring assistance. Certain things we take on as collaborators. For example, we’re recreating paper masks from the Swiss mime group, Mummenschanz. This is taking multiple days, many reviews of video clips, and Rui still feels like our design needs improvement. It takes some digging and curating, but there are some extraordinary behind-the-scenes studio visits, tutorials, and other content that open a window into the processes behind the productions and objects we enjoy. A simpler way of recreating the world we see on screens is pausing to draw characters from movie scenes, books, or from visual archives, like the Metropolitan Museum’s online section for kids. The other day, when Rui decided to draw all the knights from Bedknobs and Broomsticks, he leaned over and said, “I feel happy now. I feel happy doing this.” And that’s what we want for all our kids: to be able to find happiness, moment by moment, each day, even when the world is wobbly and hurting.


Adriana Valdez Young is a design researcher at Openbox and teaches research and strategy at Parsons School of Design. She is an advisory board member and guest meditation teacher at Pono, NYC’s only open, democratic, and outdoor school. Her son, Rui, attends Pono (now from home), where he enjoys learning science, music, acting, baking, and Greek mythology. You can learn more about Pono’s online offerings for both parents and kids here.




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Adriana Valdez Young

Adriana Valdez Young

Mother, mixed methods researcher, urbanist, and faculty at SVA’s MFA in Interaction Design in NYC; head of community at 3x3.

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