6 life lessons the pandemic can teach our children

By Joan Goodchild

From resilience and gratitude, to the tough stuff like death and finance, experts say this is an ideal time for the kind of learning that doesn’t happen within the walls of a classroom. 

Not everything kids learn these days needs to be based on a formal curriculum. There are many other kinds of valuable skills and characteristics parents can impart during this time.

When Massachusetts students went back to a variety of learning arrangements this past fall, most were diving back in with significant education loss from the spring, when the pandemic began, and schools closed for many months.

Just how much was lost is still undetermined. The nonprofit testing organization NWEA examined what happens to learning during the summer to assess just how much the spring closure may have impacted student academic achievement. Their figures estimate that students started this school year having lost about a third of a year in reading and half a year in math. Education research firm CREDO estimates that the average student lost 136 to 232 days of learning in math, depending on their location in the country.

Many experts also believe this year, with its mix of hybrid and remote arrangements, while better than no schooling at all, will also yield less academic progress than in a typical year.

But not all learning happens in the classroom. And with so much more time being spent together, inside the walls of the home while we wait for the pandemic to abate, how can families take advantage of this time to teach lessons that are outside of the typical academic subjects? What can we parents focus on teaching our kids through these difficult circumstances?

Child mental health experts say it’s an ideal time to find ways to instill values and lessons.

“Children and adolescents, just like adults, do best when they have purpose, structure, and something to be proud of. So, any activity that helps enhance a sense of mastery – learning a new skill like cooking, baking, or any non-academic accomplishment that your family values will support resilience in youth,” said Yael Dvir, MD, vice chair and director of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry with UMass Memorial Medical Center and University of Massachusetts Medical School. “‘Teaching’” is not necessarily what is needed – this shouldn’t add stress to your or your children’s lives – but adding joy and a sense of accomplishment can be very helpful.”

In other words, take heart. Not everything kids learn these days needs to be based on a formal curriculum. There are many other kinds of valuable skills and characteristics parents can impart during this time. Consider the following suggestions.

Resilience

Children and adolescents learn most by the example adults set for them, said Dvir. Take time to discuss with them how you have overcome hardships in the past and how this experience will also be an experience we will learn and grow from someday.

“Talking about how we overcame and are overcoming hardships in the past and currently is a great way to show resiliency,” said Dvir. “Telling family stories that reflect this value – so that we create a family narrative – works best.”

Dr. Neha Chaudhary, child & adolescent psychiatrist in private practice and part-time faculty at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School tells parents that one of the best ways to teach kids about resilience and adaptability during times of stress is by showing, not telling.

“If parents model healthy ways to manage big feelings like anxiety, worry, or stress, chances are these skills will spill over to their kids who are soaking in everything they see, no matter their age. If parents show they can adapt in the face of stress, their kids will see what it means to be resilient, and hopefully take it to heart."

Handling death

Conversations about death are never easy, especially if a relative or family friend is impacted. 

“It is best to follow your child’s lead if there was an exposure to a loss,” said Dvir. “Allow them to talk about fears they may have, and feelings they may have developed in response to loss, not just of human life, but also of normal life as we know it. You can model how to manage this in a healthy way; make sure not to talk above your child’s developmental level and not to provide more information than what you have been asked to provide.”

Chaudhary recommends breaking the ice around the conversation by normalizing it and noting that death is a topic many people have been thinking about during the pandemic.

“A good rule of thumb is to stay direct and honest as much as you can. If your child asks a question about a tough topic like death that you don't know how to answer or don't want to, it's okay to say you don't know, or to ask them what they think the answer is."

Gratitude 

The pandemic has been extraordinarily difficult for so many reasons, but amid it all there are still many reasons to be grateful, said Dvir

“Again, modeling this for your child by talking about what you are grateful for is a great start. It can also become part of a family-time routine, giving a daily example of something you are grateful for, and asking your child to share their own example.”

"Studies show that expressing gratitude can boost your mood and overall sense of happiness and well-being,” said Chaudhary. “Parents can teach their kids how to express gratitude by doing it as a shared activity alongside them in which they list, say, three things they are grateful for that day. By infusing it into your bedtime routine or doing it at the dinner table, you can even make it a family ritual -- something you do regularly because of what it means to you -- that improves everyone's mental health and helps the family feel more connected."

Finance

This is also an ideal time to teach children about personal finance, said Dr. Arnaa Alcon, Dean of Bridgewater State University’s College of Humanities and Social Sciences, who also has an expertise in teaching children financial literacy.

“This is a great time to build the important habit of talking about money and increasing financial literacy. But, actually, there is never a bad time to start learning about money,” she said. “Parents and caregivers of younger children searching for projects and activities can build in those with money themes. And children may be hearing about financial issues facing so many families – including job loss and financial uncertainty. Those children may have questions and concerns that can be managed in an enjoyable way while learning about personal financial topics.”

Alcon points to many resources that provide activities for kids of all ages and companion guides for parents who may want to brush up on their own financial knowledge as they teach their children. The FDIC’s Money Smart, which can be found at FDIC.gov, offers parents and caregivers guides with activities and conversation starters designed for children in grades Pre-K-2, 3-5, 6-8, and 9-12.  

For older kids and young adults, Money Talks has interactive games and multimedia resources designed to give “applied experiences that encourage fiscally sound decision-making in marketplace transactions.” The United States Mint site has games, printable coloring pages and videos, all focused on understanding money and how to use it.  

Budgeting

The recent holiday season and upcoming birthdays and other occasions for gift giving provide a great opportunity to discuss budgeting, including “the comparative cost of special gifts, needs versus wants, and how to balance those, and the importance of saving money and helping others,” said Alcon. “There really are so many fun ways to increase financial literacy.”

Making the best of difficult circumstances

Resilience, gratitude and learning to get by with fewer financial resources are all part of a greater package of takeaways on how to make the best of it during very hard times. This may be the most valuable lesson of all.

"Families may not get all of this time together at home again,” said Chaudhary. “It's a great idea to lean into one of the silver linings of the pandemic and get to know each other better, teach each other, and practice new lessons learned that books can't teach you. Shared activities can enhance bonding and connection between family members -- something much needed with all of the stress around us right now."