Business Insider Edition

Coronavirus made me to talk to my kids about some horrors in recent history

Anthony L. Fisher , Business Insider US
 Mar 30, 2020, 05:50 PM
A child is seen wearing a facemask at the Ninoy Aquino International Airport on February 3, 2020 in Manila, Philippines.
  • The coronavirus quarantine made me talk to my little kids about Stalingrad, the Polish ghetto, and the Great Depression. I didn't plan it, it just kind of happened. At the dinner table.
  • I wasn't trying to needlessly terrify them, I wanted to comfort them with context: Things are bad, but they can be worse, just as they were for members of their family that they knew and loved.
  • I wanted them to understand that humanity has is capable of doing terrible things, but in this moment, its at least trying to do a good thing. And they're a part of that effort.
  • This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.
  • For more stories go to www.BusinessInsider.co.za.

The coronavirus quarantine made me talk to my little kids about Stalingrad, the Polish ghetto, and the Great Depression. I didn't plan it, it just kind of happened. At the dinner table.

I started by laying out the facts about the coronavirus pandemic, and how it's going to dramatically effect their lives.

My youngest turned three this week, so she wasn't much interested. But my 10- and seven-year olds listened with rapt attention as I laid out the sad and difficult realities of the current moment and how they link to our past.

There were immediate changes: You won't see your friends for a while. A long while. Same for the inside of a restaurant or your grandparents' house. You also won't be going back to school maybe not until September, an increasingly best-case scenario.

There were also the long-term differences. To my fifth-grader, I laid out the increasingly likely scenario that she might not ever be going back to her school again. And that it's possible she may never again see some of her classmates, many of whom are destined to split up to various middle schools in September.

To myself, I noted that the prospect of the next school year beginning in September is merely aspirational for the moment.

The kids also had to hear that the wonderful flourishes of spring and summer are probably out of the question, too. We won't be going to any baseball games. Camp's probably out. We can't go to the movies, either.

Essentially, summer vacation won't be a vacation. It'll be just like now, only hotter, though hopefully with no extended "distance learning."

They seemed to process the information as both terrifying (for obvious reasons) and reassuring, because they understood that no one is exempt from this situation. It's a drag for everyone, and we're among the luckiest of the lucky.

To comfort them with context, as I explained why a substantial part of their young lives will be difficult, at times painful, I ended up matter-of-factly laying out how much worse it could be - and has been.

Talking history's horrors in the context of the coronavirus with your very little kids

Despite growing up in a loving home and never yet having had to worry about when their next meal is coming, the concepts of a real-life siege and suffering on a mass scale are not completely alien to my kids.

They know their great-grandmother survived the Holocaust. They know much of her family was murdered by both Nazis and their Polish neighbours. They have been introduced to the concept of a thriving society turning barbaric in a heartbeat.

These true historical horror stories particularly resonated because their great-grandmother lived until 2018. They knew her, she held them in her arms, she was very real to them.

Maybe it was the knowledge that this groundwork had been laid in their growing brains that afforded me the confidence to compare our objectively awful situation favourably to life in the Polish ghetto during the 1930s and early 1940s, or the extended global tragedy of the Great Depression.

In explaining the necessity of quarantines and state-ordered lockdowns: They were part of a global community effort to "flatten the curve" and allow scientists to get this pandemic under control before too many people have to die. None of us are being deliberately punished, like some of their near-ancestors had been, we're just doing what the available information seems to indicate is the right thing to do.

It's a generation-defining moment for almost every generation alive

As any parent of a young child, much less multiple children, can attest - solitary boredom is an unfamiliar commodity. Don't get me wrong, many aspects of parenthood can be sadistically boring. It's just not the same as "I'm lonely in my apartment and I've watched everything on Netflix" boring.

We're only a week into the mandated quarantine, but the family's managing well. (Check back in with me in a month.)

That said, I generally feel stretched-thin in times where my mental and physical health is in order, when the weather is nice, and when the kids aren't screaming at each other about something trivial in the room next to where I'm writing. The indefinite reality of five people crammed into a city apartment, all day, every day, continuously tests your ability to be the "grownup" - the one who assuages children's fears, not exacerbates them.

I'm coming to believe this is a generation-defining moment for every generation born since World War II. No other event comes close to being as potentially devastating or as all-encompassing.

That's why I haven't had much time to think about the very real possibility that my kids will come of age in where the possibility of mass unemployment and death lurk furtively around the corner. At this point, I'm hoping for a best case scenario that leaves their education significantly disrupted, and some fun summertime childhood memories curbed by life on the inside.

In having the unexpected dinner table talk with my little kids about some of the 20th century's greatest horrors, I hoped to impart a message of empowerment: Let's be strong, let's be generous, let's be patient, because society can go sideways, as it has in your family's lifetime.

For a moment, it felt bizarre. That didn't last.

It felt better to not lie to them, to acknowledge their anger and disappointment and anxiety, and then remind them that humanity can let you down. I also wanted to impart that by doing what we're doing - staying inside for months - we're part of an effort that unites pretty much everyone, and if it works, would be a reason to keep believing in humanity.

In some ways, I was probably telling it to myself, too.

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