Artwork for FTWeekend Comment - issue dated 18.04.20
© Jonathan McHugh 2020

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Glancing up from Zoom I see my three children gallivanting in the garden, making up games to combat the boredom, and think their childhood looks much like mine. Except for the eerie quiet. In lockdown, England is without traffic, without church bells and overhung by a sense of impending doom.

My youngest son is only 10. How much should I tell him about this crisis? Should I stop him watching the news, or give him a crash course in the history of the Depression? Should I try to bolster his job prospects in an uncertain world by enrolling him in a coding course or prepare him for dystopia by teaching him to trap a rabbit? Or is lockdown a chance to give him back his childhood?

Parents find this new world hard to navigate. Only a few weeks ago we were learning to wash our hands for 20 seconds, singing “Happy Birthday”, while inventing increasingly ridiculous names for the birthday recipient to ram the message home. Now the schools have closed and thousands have died. The script is still being written with no end in sight. A friend’s eight-year old keeps asking if everyone is going to die.

There is something peculiarly sinister about an enemy that is not only invisible but within: something we could unwittingly pass to those we love. I don’t talk to my children about breathing problems and intensive care units. Beyond that, I’m not sure how to inoculate them against fear — of the disease or the economic collapse which may follow.

To my relief, experts say children are pretty resilient. The under-fives are easily spooked by things they don’t understand, so it’s best to just reassure them they will be safe. Around four-fifths of older children are robust “dandelions”, according to paediatrician W Thomas Boyce. Only a minority are sensitive “orchids” who need more nurturing. Orchids are upset by the ditching of predictable routines; so parents should maintain some semblance of normality, even if that means writing down a list of what has changed and what has not.

One advantage of lockdown for children can be more parental attention. But psychologists say that anxiety can be as contagious as a virus. In Ready or Not: Preparing Our Kids to Thrive in an Uncertain and Rapidly Changing World, the San Francisco psychologist Madeline Levine argues that, as the world becomes more disturbing, anxious parents project more of their stress on to their children. This creates “accumulated disability”, impairing the child’s ability to cope and adapt to a more complex world. Ms Levine notes that most successful workers she has interviewed take what she calls a “squiggly” path through life: trying things, failing and adapting. For them, resilience proved more valuable than qualifications.

We have known about the dangers of helicopter parenting for years. What I had not fully realised is that overprotective urges stem from our own insecurities — we want to reduce our children’s distress in order to reduce our own.

The link is profound. When one group of therapists treating children for anxiety decided to treat their parents too, the effects were dramatic. After a year, only 5 per cent of the children were diagnosed with anxiety disorders compared with 31 per cent in a control group. Another group treated parents only, yet, according to the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, the resulting improvements in the children were as good as those achieved by cognitive behavioural therapy.

This makes me think that my kids will be better off navigating their own squiggly path through lockdown and perhaps beyond. I have stopped bleating that employers value maths and dropping hints about becoming doctors. The pandemic has sparked their interest in science more powerfully than years of foot-dragging trips to the Science Museum.

Instead, I am giving short seminars in the more mundane skills of independent living. Middle son has pronounced that our kitchen looks like a scene from Withnail and I and has demanded a mop. Eldest son has invented a Come Dine With Me-style competition in which we are cooking supper in turns. Even better, he has stipulated that whoever cooks also cleans the kitchen, demonstrating a new level of domestic insight.

This situation is perhaps hardest on teenagers. Mine miss their friends acutely, and mourn the loss of a summer term they had been looking forward to. But as they crack Monty Python jokes and message their friends, they seem to have imbibed the national spirit. After initial jostling over laptop space, they are less combative with each other than for many years. What with writing letters to care homes, FaceTiming their grandmother, clapping on Thursdays for carers, I realise that they are seeing the good in this crisis. What they need inoculating against is me.

I asked my youngest for his views. “Don’t tell your children so much that they become as frightened as you are,” he said calmly. Looking at him, I remembered the school projects he has done on plastic in the oceans; his quiet stoicism at three grandparents’ funerals; his insistence about climate change. He is mature already. Like all children, he reads his parents intimately, and what he needs is for us to be calm.

The big question for parents is what values do we want our children to have as they head out in this uncertain world? How are we personally handling the situation? Are we volunteering, donating to food banks, calling someone who is lonely, supporting local businesses and paying our bills? If we are lucky, our children will remember this as a time of discovery and resilience. They will also remember if we did our bit.

The writer is a senior fellow at Harvard University and an adviser to the UK Department of Health and Social Care

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