Distancing to Reconnect: Possibilities and Parenting During Covid-19
*This article was also published in YES! Magazine
Our school district is closed for at least the next three weeks, but likely longer. With our state currently on a mandatory shelter-in-place order, children, parents and other caring adults are home together, all day, everyday. Last year, I had the privilege of homeschooling and unschooling my children, an experience that helped my oldest grow in so many ways: emotionally, intellectually and intuitively. I say privilege because I know there are many parents who understand the deep colonial roots of our public education system and who want all of our children to be free, but those same parents have to work full-time jobs, are chronically ill, or disabled and have no alternative to institutional schooling. This past summer, I had to make the difficult decision to send my oldest child back to school, knowing that it was not a place where they thrive. At least not in the same way they were thriving when they spent their days outdoors with a homeschool crew of other BIPOC (Black/Indigenous/People of Color) kids, learning to work out difficult situations, and learning about and with the natural world around them. Yet, as the saying goes, children are resilient, and I draw from that experience to imagine the possibilities of connection and other ways of knowing the world in a time of pandemic.
There are so many openings and lessons that this current ecological, political, and social moment is laying bare. We have an opportunity not to distance our selves from one another socially, but to socially and culturally distance ourselves from an extractive economy that devalues our labor as parents and the knowledge and contribution of our children. A colonial schooling system worked precisely to distance Indigenous children from their cultures and to keep all children out of sight and out of mind, making parents much more available to becoming exploited laborers within an extractive economy. I always find it eerie when I go out in the middle of the day to lunch or to a store and do not see any children between the ages of 5 and 18. The absence of children in our everyday lives is one marker of an on-going colonial mentality. Distancing our selves socially and culturally from an extractive economy and colonial mindset presents an opportunity for parents to reconnect with our children and with the little child inside of us. Anyone who finds themselves at home with children or co-caring for our housemates’ children- or for a small group of neighborhood children- can take the opportunity to create and engage in activities that allow us to learn about where we are, the land that we stand on, the water that sustains us, the winds that move around and through us, and the warmth and energy that radiates from outside and within. All of the things that we’ve been deliberately distanced from.
Re-connecting in a time of pandemic will look different for all of us. I/We want to invite folks to be creative with what this looks like in their social and economic contexts. For those of us that have the means and perhaps the privilege to work from home, one approach is to take the time to co-work, co-learn/un-learn and co-create with our children. Let your workplace know what you need and prioritize your children, if that’s what you need. For those of us living in Oakland, or Los Angeles, or the number of other cities across the country that supported public school teacher strikes last year, let’s remember how we came together to form solidarity schools so that parents who could not afford to take time off could honor the teacher-strike. They left their kids in our care to go to their job. Those same workers who relied on solidarity schools in order to honor the strike are the same workers who are on the frontlines of this epidemic: grocery, retail, medical personnel, and janitorial staff.
I put together a few activities based on getting to know our homes, our neighborhoods, and our cities, with our children. These activities are framed through the firm teachings of the maestrxs in my life, that the best way to teach social justice and social change to children is not to be dogmatic, but rather to equip them with tools so they see the problems around them and so that they imagine the solutions. I’m always floored by the creative possibilities that the children in my chosen family put forth. I want to credit them here too! I definitely fall into the dogma trap when trying to teach the young ones in my life to be cooperative and loving humans. Over the years, I realized that I was limiting their imagination by simultaneously transferring emotions including my anxieties, paranoias, anger, and fear about the injustices that shape the world we live in.
So these activities are generative and inquiry-based, focusing on supporting children to know where they are and who they are. Perhaps having more time and space to know themselves deeply will cultivate the care and cooperation needed for a Just Transition and will come from the responsibility they have to themselves, to each other, to the land, to the water, and to the spirit of all living beings. This is where we’ve landed, friends. I hope the next few weeks/months that you have your child/ren in your home or on your block be full of new or re-learned experiences and that you see what gifts these young minds bring along with their silliness, stubbornness, and inquisitiveness.
Also, REST. Rest with your kids. Show them what it means to slow down. Show yourself what it means! Cuz y’all WILL get on each other’s nerves. Be patient with yourselves, be patient with them, and when things start getting rough, trust that jokes, fresh air, and a dance party will bring you back to each other.
We need our children. We need to nurture their creative spirits that know how to change the rules. And as parents and adult caregivers, the time is now to remember how we all once held the courage of imagination to change the rules, and that same courage is waiting to be nurtured in all of us. Use these weeks/months to practice regenerating our relationships to each other and to our work. When things start to try to go back to the normal that kept us from one another, resist by remembering how these weeks/months of being different with your children felt. That is the “new” that we need as we remember our way forward.
Creating activities for getting to know place
1. Where are we?
What is the indigenous name of the land that you live on? Who are the Native people of the area? What is the Native language? What sacred sites are near you? Rivers? Mountains? Shellmounds? What are their names? What are their indigenous names? What is the name of the closest natural water source to you? Is it above ground or below ground? Can you walk there? What is the name of your watershed? What are some Native plants or trees near you? Are they edible?
After collecting this information (likely from the internet if you have it available)- Have your child create an image or chart with this information and hang it somewhere where you will see it every day. Make a commitment together to read this information daily until you know it by heart.
2. Block mapping
Take a journey through your neighborhood and ask your kids to note the built environment and the natural environment. What is going on in your neighborhood? What do the houses look like? Are there lawns? What do lawns require to stay green? Are there trees? How old do those trees look? Look at the streets. Do you see pot holes? Do you see bike lanes? Do you see curb cuts/curb ramps? How did those get there? On the journey back, ask them to note if they know the names of people who live in the houses on the block? If they don’t, why don’t they know their neighbors? What is the importance of knowing who lives around you?
When you get home from your journey, draw a map of your neighborhood with your kiddo(s) including all of the things you saw. Make a video recording of your child talking about their walk. Ask your child to notice something different every time you journey.
Creating activities for getting to know self
1. Birth story (this is a parent-led activity that might require some emotional preparation)
Talk to your child about their birth story. This can be emotional, painful, joyful, or difficult for some people to do. If you can, make a small altar together where you can add some things from pregnancy and birth to help you tell the story. Take your time. Young children don’t need long explanations. But they do like detail! What time of day was it? Was the weather hot, cold, warm, rainy? Who was there? What were you wearing? Did you listen to music? Was there a doctor, or midwife, or doula? What did you eat? Build your story with other adults who were also present at the birth if you can.
2. Family Story (this is also parent led and family can mean chosen family, biological family, or whatever definition of family y’all come up with!)
This activity can take several weeks, months, or years! You can share stories with your children about each generation as far back as you can and invite older generations into the conversation! Some questions to guide individual stories: Where were you born? How did you get here to the current place you reside (Try to use the Indigenous name of the place!)? What were your favorite foods growing up? What was your first job? Why did you work at that job? What did you parents do? What did you do for fun when you were a kid? What were some important things that happened in the world when you were growing up?
After hearing stories from different family members, you can work with the youngsters to put together a bigger story of your family. What is your family ancestry? Where has your family migrated from or to? What languages does your family speak? What talents does your family have? What dreams does your family have?
*I want to acknowledge that family stories can also bring up memories of harm or might be too painful to engage in. Move at your pace as the adult, and move at the pace you need for your inner child.
3. What are you watching?
This activity encourages parents to watch some of the things your kiddos watch on TV, without (outward) judgement. Get some snacks and sit down to watch something that your children watch. For a lot of us, TV watching and device using has been a way that we can get our work done, and for some of us it is also our time to watch our own TV, have alone time, etc. And many of us know that what we see on television influences how we think about the world around us, including limiting our ability to imagine different worlds. Cultural distancing means an opportunity to shift the narrative of the stories that shape the monoculture of extraction, competition, and binaries. (You can even do this activity by yourself, and ask yourself the questions about the shows and movies you watch.)
What lessons do you think the show is teaching? How does love show up? Is cooperation a central theme? How about competition? How is conflict resolved?Who are the characters? What do they look like? Do they look like you (think about race, gender, skin color, language, mannerisms, hair, clothing)? What do the houses look like that people live in? How are people commuting? How are people eating/What are people eating?
These are just a small set of questions that you can use to start a conversation with children about television and media. Check out these five essential media literacy questions for more guidance.
4. How do I know what I know?
One of the major disruptions perpetuated by a colonial schooling system is solidifying the mind/body split. Over time, institutionally schooled people are trained to believe that all knowledge comes from the human brain and that our feelings and intuition are unreliable. We have the opportunity to show our children the importance of knowledge transmitted through books, oral storytelling, and the knowledge we carry in our own bodies. This activity is a practice of paying attention to the places in our body where we carry our emotions. Tuning in to our body also connects us to our power. That same power is what we need to make change possible in the world around us. Young people connect to their thoughts and bodies in many ways including through ceremony, mindfulness meditation, and movement. The most critical component for young children is adult affirmation of their emotions. I know, this can be so difficult when we get caught up in our child’s feelings. Go easy on yourself and your little ones.
A practice that I have gotten into the habit of doing after witnessing a tantrum or other kind of emotional outburst, is to say to my kids, “So looks like you were hella angry, am I right?” If they say no, I ask them what they were feeling. When I’ve guessed right or they tell me, I ask them, “So where did you feel that in your body?” You will be surprised at how quickly children can respond to this question! Much more quickly than most adults that I’ve asked. This sounds like a small gesture, but I know my children are much more intuitive because of this. If you don’t think you can try this with your kid yet, try it with yourself. Where does your tantrum live in your body?
*I want to acknowledge that embodiment (connecting your physical and emotional feelings) can be difficult for survivors of trauma. Again, move at your pace and be gentle with yourself.
What other ideas can we share about re-connecting to the children in our lives?
Important note: These activities are meant to be ongoing, even after going back to schools/jobs. Don’t feel limited or pressured to do all of these at once! Also, check out Mycelium Youth Network for current programming for youth in response to COVID-19.