How To Talk About COVID-19 Back-To-School Plans Without Tension

Despite some people's very strong opinions, there actually are no "rights" or "wrongs" right now.

With a bit of time, most parents become pretty good at dealing with unsolicited advice and learn to peacefully coexist with loved ones who parent differently. You nursed for two years? I went with formula! You’re giving your kid a phone? I’m not! And on and on.

But the conversations parents are having with each other and with other friends and family about school, COVID-19 and WTF to do about it all can feel particularly urgent and tense. The stakes are high. The options in much of the country are numerous and new. (All-remote? Hybrid? Pod? Etc.) Also, no one has parented their way through a crisis exactly like this one before.

“People are going to be armchair quarterbacks about this more than any other parenting issue because it has already been so politicized,” said Rachel Thomasian, a licensed marriage and family therapist and owner of Playa Vista Counseling — herself a mom of two who knows personally how tough these back-to-school choices can be.

“It’s an easy decision to make — when you’re not actually making it for your own children,” she said.

Here’s how to navigate those difficult discussions with fellow parents and with your family or other loved ones.

1. Know your trusted circle

Unless you have an especially thick skin or really hope to learn something new from that high school acquaintance who has no particular science background but does appear to have many opinions, now is not the time to head to social media to discuss what you’ve decided (or are considering) for your kiddo this school year. The same goes for any local parenting groups or email lists.

“Know who your trusted circle is,” urged Ramani Durvasula, a clinical psychologist and expert with Tone Networks. “Those people who can hear you respectfully, and who may not be doing the same thing as you, but can hear you and share what they are doing.”

Maybe yours includes a friend or two, your child’s pediatrician or past teachers, she offered by way of example. They’re people who can provide you with a “safe space” to talk about your plans, and as the year progresses and changes inevitably arise, can “help you make tweaks to your plan that feel organic, rather than reactive,” Durvasula said.

2. Beware the backhanded insults

If a mom or dad in your life does you the honor of opening up about the really painful, imperfect decisions they’re making about the upcoming school year, do them the honor of eschewing backhanded or subtle insults.

“Avoid phrases such as ‘I would never do that’ [or] ‘They are making too big a deal out of this,’” Durvasula said.

“Assume parents have been thoughtful and deliberate about their choices. It's not your job to try to sway them. This headline you just clicked on, or that study you just perused probably won't change their personal risk-benefit analysis.”

“I also believe when statements include ‘You should,’ ‘I would have’ or ‘I think you need to’ it could imply that you’re judging, and that you assume you would make a better decision than the other person,” echoed Thomasian.

Another one? “No judgment, but...”

“When a statement starts with, ‘I’m not judging, but...’ it does not alleviate any judgment heard from the listener,” Thomasian said. Whatever follows the “but” will sound like a judgment — and probably is one. The goal in all of these conversations is spreading empathy and understanding, not judgment or shame.

3. Listen, listen, listen

One of the factors that make our current situation so unusual is that two families that seem pretty similar on paper (say, same neighborhood, similar age kids, working parents) could face factors that lead them to very, very different decisions. Maybe one family has an older relative at home. Maybe one set of parents has relatively flexible jobs or bosses. Perhaps one child thrives online, while another melts down before and after every single Zoom class.

“The stakes are different for every family,” Durvasula said. So listen. Families don’t owe anyone an explanation, but if a parent tells you about the reasons they’ve reached a particular decision, be quiet and take it in.

Alas, that’s not something our culture has traditionally excelled at.

“Sadly, even long before the pandemic, parenting has been a horribly self-righteous space in America,” Durvasula said. “Why wouldn’t pandemic parenting sadly double down on this unhealthy self-righteous posturing?”

4. Don’t try to out-fact anyone

Of course, if you’re talking to someone who has been misled by conspiracy theories or really blatant misinformation, you may feel it’s your obligation to speak up. But as a general proposition, assume parents have been thoughtful and deliberate about their choices. It’s not your job to try to sway them. This headline you just clicked on or that study you just perused probably won’t change their personal risk-benefit analysis.

“Trust that by now everyone has done their research and made a decision based on the information they have available, which could change in the near future. It sounds like the science on how COVID affects children is still inconclusive,” Thomasian said. “Don’t offer unsolicited advice or facts about the virus to try to sway their advice. Remember that if they wanted it, they would ask for it.”

5. Don’t wait for anyone’s permission to do what you think is best for your kid

If you’ve done your research, thought about the various risks and benefits of the current back-to-school options available where you live, and committed to staying on top of new information, you have done everything you need to do.

You do not need to explain whatever conclusions you’ve reached to anyone in your life. You do not need to defend your parenting.

“Stop waiting for permission or validation from other people,” Durvasula said.

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