As health and education officials across the country debate what a relatively safe return to school could look like in a few months’ time, some school districts are considering the potential role masks could play. As in, they’re thinking about asking teachers, staff and kids to wear them. On top of which, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention already calls for children age 2 and up to wear a cloth face covering when they are out in public.
But as any parent who has pled with a young child to keep their mask on can attest, face coverings of any kind can be a tough sell for kids. Particularly when the goal is to wear them for more than a few minutes — whether for a summer outing, a socially distanced encounter with friends or in school, whenever it reopens.
So HuffPost Parents spoke with some experts about how to try and get young kids to actually keep face masks on — and when to throw in the towel.
1. Have them help you shop. Or sew.
If you are ordering a mask for your kiddo, let them pick it out. If you’re making them, ask your child to be a part of the process. Even if you’ve already got masks on hand, you can still make your child a part of the process by seeing if they want to decorate theirs.
“It allows them to feel like they have some ownership or control over the process,” said Allison Tappon, a child life specialist with the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia — herself a mom of two young kids.
The point is to make them feel like their particular mask is something they chose, not something that was foisted upon them.
2. Model mask wearing.
Make a point of wearing a mask around your kid, even if it means just putting it on occasionally while you’re all at home together. Doing so shows kids they’re not alone in needing to wear a mask. And it helps to eliminate some of the fear that some (not all!) kids might have around having half your face covered up. Likewise, ask friends and family members to share photos of themselves wearing masks, Tappon said. Bonus points if you can get photos or videos from cousins or friends they look up to.
“If you act as though the mask is an annoyance or a source of anxiety, your kid will notice. If, instead, you emphasize that it's a simple thing you can all do to help keep others safe, your kid will very likely adopt a similar attitude.”
But modeling mask wearing goes deeper than that, too. If you act as though the mask is an annoyance or a source of anxiety, your kid will notice. If, instead, you emphasize that it’s a simple thing you can all do to help keep others safe, your kid will very likely adopt a similar attitude.
“It’s important that parents manage their own anxiety,” said Dr. James Lewis, a professor of pediatrics at the Joan C. Edwards School of Medicine at Marshall University and author of “Making Sense of ADHD.” “If there’s anxiety in the home, that makes kids more anxious.”
3. Practice at home.
“It’s important to start this process before there is a need for your child to wear a mask,” said Tappon. As in, you don’t want the first time your kid wears a mask to be when you’re taking them to the doctor for a checkup or maybe even taking them to camp or school. Try to incorporate the mask into a daily activity while they’re at home, even perhaps while they’re playing, she said. Maybe while they’re playing with an iPad or watching TV.
“You’re trying to make it playful, and to introduce the mask in a nonthreatening environment,” Tappon urged.
Try and slowly stretch the length of time your kid is wearing the mask at home. If your kid is old enough, you can be really honest with them and say something like: “Right now, we’re hearing you might need to wear a mask at school,” Tappon said. Set a timer, and present it as kind of a fun challenge. Then don’t forget the power of rewards.
“Don’t underestimate the power of positive reinforcement,” Lewis said. Give them a small treat, start a chart, or load up on the praise — whatever works in your house.
4. Talk to them about the ‘why’ — but don’t overexplain.
Make sure that your kid knows why it’s being recommended that they wear a mask, which is basically to keep themselves and others safe. For really young kids, it can help to compare it to things they already know they do to keep themselves and others healthy, like washing their hands or sneezing into an elbow rather than directly on a friend.
“You really want to follow their lead with the amount of information you’re providing,” Tappon said. Some kids might want a lot of information; others might not care all that much about wearing a mask and may not be looking for much detail from you. Again, don’t create a problem where there isn’t one or assume the mask is a source of anxiety, discomfort or fear.
5. Trust in the power of teachers and their peers.
“Schools will have their own policies, and schools know what they’re doing,” said Lewis, who urged parents to trust that teachers are really excellent at setting expectations around children’s behavior — and getting them to follow through.
So it’s very possible that your kid might fight wearing a mask when they’re out with you, but be much more open to it in a school setting or simply if it’s something they see their friends doing. Do what you can now, Lewis said, and try not to worry too much about what lies ahead in a month or two.
6. Make sure the mask is actually comfortable.
Parents don’t have a lot of experience buying their kids masks or making them, because this is brand new to most of us. But not all masks are created equal, and not all masks will feel comfortable on your kid’s face.
“It might take a bit of trial and error to find a mask your child will actually tolerate, in the same way that it can take some trial and error to find comfortable shoes. Or a hat your kid will keep on.”
“Don’t just ask them, ‘Is the mask uncomfortable?’ because they’ll say no,” laughed Tappon. But do take a close look and make sure the mask is not, say, tugging behind the ears or so thick that it’s making it hard for them to breathe. It might take a bit of trial and error to find a mask your child will actually tolerate, in the same way that it can take some trial and error to find comfortable shoes. Or a hat your kid will keep on.
7. Don’t fight it too hard.
To start, know that some kids simply cannot tolerate masks — including many with developmental or respiratory health issues, and those are circumstances that parents should absolutely discuss with their child’s doctor and teachers.
Beyond that, though, there are some kids who are just going to resist, resist, resist. Especially kids who are older than 2, but still really young to grasp what’s going on.
“It depends so much on your kid and their reaction to things,” said Lewis. “You might have a 3-year-old who it’s just not going to work with no matter what you try.”
For now, just take things one step at a time, he recommended again. Do your best. Practice mask wearing. If your kid absolutely won’t go for it, practice social distancing and then try again a bit later. Because we’re all just doing the best we can.