Op/Ed: How do we explain COVID-19 to our children?

  • Published
  • By Master Sgt. Nick Choy
  • 142nd Wing Public Affairs

I thought long and hard about how I should explain COVID-19 to my children.


I settled on the truth because it’s the best thing for them.  But what “truth” and how much?


I have told them a lot of people are sick around the world, as well as here in our local community. I even told them that many people will die as a result of this pandemic before it is over. They responded with contemplative stares as if realizing the gravity of the moment. It was then that I had to check myself.


A lot of people have mixed thoughts and emotions about what, and how much to share with their children about the ongoing world health crisis. The thing is, children know and understand a lot more than we realize. They listen to our conversations, recognize our worried faces, see what’s going on in the news on television, online and hear the reports on the car radio. And if you’re anything like me, you try to catch updates throughout the day or have your car’s radio station perpetually tuned to NPR wherever you go.


On what few grocery shopping trips we have ventured out for, they see the posted signs at businesses, and while they may not fully understand the impact, they get that something is just not right. In retrospect, they don’t even need to read the signs — they can sense it in the air.


Never being one to hide the truth from my children, I’m convinced that my honesty and transparency will serve them well in a world that may never return to what we once thought was “normal.”


Freeport Pennsylvania resident Dorothy Sellers was the same age in 1918 as my oldest child is today. In an interview with Newsday, she remembers a large tent being erected just outside her town. “Like one big circus tent,” the 106-year old Sellers said.


Sellers’, and others’ vivid memories of that time underscore the impact the event made on these individuals. While at this writing, the world is in the first couple of months of this pandemic, it appears the repercussions — financially, emotionally, certainly legally and ethically — may last decades. I’m convinced that for our two children, the memories of this period will last a lifetime, and may shape how they see, and live in, the world around them.


In March, Kids Health.org published an article titled, Coronavirus (COVID-19): How to Talk to Your Child. One piece of advice from the post that sticks with me is the phrase, “Focus on helping your child feel safe, but be truthful.” So I knew I’d have to explain why they weren’t going back to their daycare (we pulled them out of The Goddard School on March 13), and why we weren’t going to visit their grandparents who live just across town.


They had questions, and I did my level best to be honest and transparent with them. They had to know that their grandparents were okay and that their school, and the friends they have there, are safe. They also needed to know why there were no more scheduled play dates with friends, and why the hand-washing suddenly increased both in frequency and intensity.


The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has advice on what information to share with children regarding COVID-19. While it closely mirrors other online resources, they focus primarily on personal hygiene, cough/sneeze etiquette and social distancing. But while a lot of online advice for talking with your children about COVID-19 centers around “being present” and “active listening”, knowing and understanding your child is a completely different ballgame.


Kate Boulduan, a reporter with CNN, said in an opinion piece published online March 17, that she found herself tongue-tied when she tried to explain to her two daughters, ages 5 and 2, about COVID-19. Her pediatrician, Dr. Bruce Brovender, of Global Pediatrics advised, “The fewer words, the better always. But always be honest,” he said. “If you’re not,” he added, “You actually make things scarier and more traumatic because they don’t know what the truth is and what [it] is not.”

And we don’t need scary. What we need is reassurance. Children look to their parents for that steady guidance.


Tovah Klein, director of the Barnard Center for Toddler Development at Columbia University said in the interview with CNN’s Boulduan, “The most important thing across ages is that children need to know that they’re going to be OK and chances are their parents are going to be OK… The first thing is to reassure them about that.”


I’d like to think we are doing a great job of providing reassurance for our sons. My wife and I are home with them every day, so we interact together as a family on a regular, if not constant, basis. We have also committed to keeping some “normalcy” in a world that seems anything but. One small effort is to keep their academics moving forward — in the form of simple math problems and word memorization for our 5-year old, and writing letters and numbers with our 3-year old — things they were working on at Goddard School prior to us pulling them out in mid-March.


To complement these efforts, my wife also found a number of online resources being made available by agencies, learning institutions and other parents stuck at home during this health crisis. The saying, “It takes a village to raise a child” just went global as well as virtual.


Sure, it’s not easy. The stress level ebbs and flows, and it isn’t easy being cooped up in the house, or in our yard for the past two weeks. I don’t see much changing in terms of getting out into the community. Any grocery trips will be done by one parent, and quickly — in and out, just as the store opens to avoid any crowds, in the interest of “social distancing”. And only for absolute necessities. For the most part, our children will be stuck here, either in our house, yard, or neighborhood, with nary contact other than our immediate family.


My hope is they remember some of the disruption caused by the pandemic, and how their parents inventoried the family’s emergency preparedness kit — perhaps it’ll help them stay prepared for a winter storm, or the inevitable Cascadia Subduction Zone mega-quake expected to hit the Pacific Northwest anytime soon. But I hope they take away the good things from this experience; the board games, quality time spent with both their parents during their formative years, practical life skills taught at an early age, and the sublime intimacy only two parents who are fully present can bring.


If nothing else, I hope our children remember this time as a period when we stuck together, spent lots of quality time together, and the shared experiences we had as a family.