What Is Pandemic Life Doing to Our Kids? Maybe Not What We Think
Times are tough, but our kids are tougher — and it’s not so hard to make the case that these specific kids living through this specific time are uniquely poised for greatness. Scars and all.
The moms are very worried.
Since March of 2020 — when schools started closing and COVID got real — you can find them (okay, us) hovering near each other at neighborhood playgrounds, talking about the kids. We find one another on Facebook; we speak to journalists; we text one another and tweet into the ether about the myriad worries of COVID parenting, which are individually as disparate as the parents themselves but still universally relatable to anyone trying to raise a happy, healthy, decent person who is equipped for this world.
Some concerns are small but nagging. For example, one mom I spoke to noted that online school for young children doesn’t involve much practice in handwriting, which is strongly linked to fine motor skills, reading, spelling and cognition (also: good handwriting). Other worries are more circumstantial, specific, troubling: the four-year-old with autism who lost his in-class aide to COVID restrictions; a fourth-grader suddenly suffering from depression; the kindergartner who’s developed a serious stutter over quarantine. (Yes, says Wanjikũ F.M. Njoroge, an infant and preschool psychiatrist at CHOP and the medical director of its Young Child Clinic, “Our volume of patients has definitely increased.”)
And then there are the gut-punch, looming questions about what scars this micro-generation — the kids who are really still baking; say, preschoolers through middle-schoolers — might bear from this moment of upheaval and uncertainty. What effect do masks have on a child trying to learn language? What do hours a day in front of a screen do to a six-year-old’s neural pathways? What about the kids — numbering in the thousands in Philly — floating outside the consistent reach of wi-fi for school?
Adding to the agita in the atmosphere have been the headlines — so many headlines, everywhere! — with their crisply distilled despair about toxic stress, about trauma, about a “lost generation.” Not that anyone expected anything different in a year that popularized the term “doomscrolling,” but still. It has felt impossible not to be shaken by the steady stream of bad news and the types of predictions that wake you up at 3 a.m. Our kids’ mental health is suffering more than ever, they say. And the academic delays are crushing. The screen time is making them addicts and hermits and nihilists. They’ll do drugs. Their earning potential will take a hit; their immune systems will suffer; the gaps that already exist between the tiny haves and have-nots will grow bigger, into a fathomless chasm, and that chasm will fall, as ever, along racial lines. And so the stories go, on and on into a COVID eternity.
Somewhere in the midst of this gloomy haze, I came across a COVID story of another sort. This one was about Philly Councilperson Bobby Henon, who flouted a city ordinance by pumping iron at a public gym, sans mask. Of course, instances of adults in power disregarding rules despite the deadly stakes have become fairly routine in this past year, but it was the locality of this one that made me stop and consider my three-year-old. She goes to preschool not far from Henon’s office at City Hall and manages to wear a mask eight hours a day, as do all her small friends. I considered my seven-year-old, who also wears a mask every time he leaves the house and who hasn’t been able to set foot inside his public school since March. (But enjoy your workout, Councilman!)
I thought about all these Philly kids in their rowhomes and townhomes and apartments, their study centers or grandparents’ houses or shelters — so many kids adjusting to this lonely, strange new world. Some were better equipped to deal than others, but all of them were trying, and, often as not, trying cheerfully. I know this is an odd place to find solace, but I did: They might have rotten handwriting, these kids, but they won’t emerge from this as soft, entitled weenies. This much seems clear.
What also seems increasingly clear is that our children are being shaped by forces entirely out of our control. For a generation or two of parents known for a tight-wound, deliberate approach to child-rearing — helicopter parents, Tiger parents, “positive” parents and so forth — this feels troubling. Modern moms and dads have heretofore existed in a world that tells us that the people our kids grow into hinges on us — the style of parenting we choose and the decisions we, as directors of their delicate lives, make about everything from their schooling to our own self-care.
Well, goodbye to all that.
History, as the Atlantic writer Caitlin Flanagan recently put it, has found our children. It’s found them just as it once found her father, who was at Amherst when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. Like many young men, she writes, he hadn’t anticipated being relocated to a destroyer in the Pacific. This nevertheless became part of his story and his personhood, as such things do.
When you think about it this way — through a broad-zoom lens vs. trying to process life through a newsfeed, as is my own destructive habit — it buoys the spirit. No, really! Look backward at all the other times that tried men’s (and kids’) souls, and contemplate who and what has come of those moments. Or look forward at the modern wave of pragmatic idealism already fomenting in our young people — hey, did you know that in the midst of the pandemic, medical-school applications shot up 18 percent? — and it’s not so hard to believe that the story of the COVID Generation doesn’t end here, in the dumps. It’s not so hard to make the case that these specific kids living through this specific time are uniquely poised for a new greatness. Scars and all.
They’re calling it the “Fauci effect,” this uptick in medical-school applicants, after the mild-mannered immunologist who’s been the face of the pandemic fight. COVID has served as a “call to arms,” explained one of the young would-be doctors to NPR. There’s the sense, she says, that “if there’s another pandemic, it’ll be up to us.”
The applicant boom — arriving just as the U.S. was staring down a projected shortage of doctors — is “unprecedented,” a director within the Association of American Medical Colleges told the NPR reporter. But as Twain said, history rhymes: This rush on medical school reminds the director of the bump in military enlistment after the terrorist attacks on September 11th. Which, back then, reminded people of the Pearl Harbor moment Flanagan wrote about.
Our grade-schoolers aren’t headed to medical school or boot camp anytime soon, but never mind that: The Fauci effect is likely the tip of the iceberg. When life as we know it has been majorly disrupted, the generational responses have a way of unspooling themselves over years and decades. It’s not always the response that people anticipate. Famously, the British children who experienced bombing raids in WWII showed far less lifelong trauma than children who were safely shipped off far from the bombing … but also away from their moms and dads.
There were also the kids who lived through the Great Depression. In his book Huck’s Raft: A History of American Childhood, University of Texas historian Steven Mintz writes that in the worst years, one in five New York City kids was malnourished; in coal-mining regions, it was nine in 10. The world felt like it was falling apart: Thousands of schools shut their doors, Mintz writes, and a quarter of a million children left home, became drifters. It’s no wonder people worried that Depression kids would never really recover. Mintz points to a 1936 book titled, yes, The Lost Generation, and to other accounts that suggested young people were so “discouraged, disgusted, sullen and bitter” that they were “vulnerable to the lure of demagogues.”
Well. Now we know that many of these would-be lost souls would not only go on to fight against the demagogues, but would eventually be celebrated as our “Greatest Generation,” feted for the very traits — hard work, bravery, frugality, personal sacrifice, responsibility, etc. — that were forged in those dark, difficult years. Or so the popular narrative goes.
Okay, so “there’s a lot of bullshit that goes into that celebration and that stereotype,” says Michael Zuckerman. He’s an emeritus professor of history at Penn who’s studied childhood in America, a good-natured guy who came of age just after “Greatest” kids. He’ll tell you there’s little consensus among historians or developmental psychologists about a clean cause-and-effect understanding of a generation, or how much a childhood really defines your adulthood, or even, really, the parameters of what defines “a generation.” He will say this, though: “It did look really bleak for those kids.”
Studies at the time showed worrying drops in self-esteem, self-confidence, assertiveness, and cognitive competence. And it’s very possible those predictions for the children — so bleak, so blighted — would have been right, Zuckerman says, had it not been for WWII, which brought with it opportunity, a sense of belonging, a booming economy, and later, the GI Bill, which helped a (mostly white) segment of them bounce back even higher. And if not that, he posits, perhaps something else might have come along, some other event around which to regroup. Who’s to say?
In the meantime, though, there was another fascinating aspect of life unfolding during all of this. For years, the idea of the nuclear family was “really blasted,” he says. In the Depression, “There were so many families breaking up, so much vanishing of one or the other parent, either by desertion or divorce. And then after that, the fathers went off to war and the moms went to work, so there were latchkey kids by the tens of thousands.” This was catastrophic, experts fretted: “Every prognostication was this would be the end of family life as we knew it.”
But then, no. Instead? “You get a baby boom,” Zuckerman says. “You get big families. And they stay together, many of them with little to no experience of that, coming from — relatively speaking — the worst family situation of any time in America for decades before that.”
Maybe this trajectory change was about newly cushy living conditions; maybe, Zuckerman says, it was adults willfully deciding to create what they didn’t have. In any case, his takeaway is this: “People are iffy,” he says. “They don’t always do things in a linear, propulsive way. They’re creative. They have imagination.”
I’ve thought about this a lot during COVID — creativity, imagination — as well as the gains that spring forth even in the face of loss. Like, say, how often during this period of house arrest my kids have been forced to enjoy each other’s company. And the overall increase of parent or grandparent time in general across America, at least for the children lucky enough to have it — surely there’s a positive impact for kids used to seeing their grown-ups two hours a day? Our offspring may be ruining every conference call and driving us batty at home, but, as Zuckerman says, won’t it be interesting to see how having parents involved in schooling might help some kids? Or how time away from being bullied could change a child’s life?
“These kids have got a lot of life still to live, and they’ll regenerate themselves 10 times over.” — Michael Zuckerman
Not to dismiss the parental concerns of the moment; Zuckerman doesn’t. It’s just that the doomsday anxiety that looms large in his head is more centered on the “savage world” our children are inheriting from their forebears who ignored climate change. (Oh, don’t worry, I tell him: We’re losing sleep over that, too!) When it comes to COVID and its fallout, he’s a bit sunnier. “These kids have got a lot of life still to live, and they’ll regenerate themselves 10 times over.
“New things will come along and present new challenges,” he says, “and surely what you learn in the past helps frame how you come to those challenges.” Maybe, he allows, it debilitates us sometimes. But then, here’s another truth that’s stuck with him through his studies: “People seem stronger than some will give us credit for.”
Every year, as a capstone to their grade-school education and several years of Spanish class, the eighth-graders of the Philadelphia School take a trip to a Spanish-speaking country, like Ecuador or Costa Rica. “You hear about the trip from the time you’re in kindergarten,” says Siena Palermo, an eighth-grader at the Fitler Square private school. “It’s a big deal.” So when COVID canceled it, Palermo and her friends were, understandably, “super-bummed.”
Still, she’s surprisingly upbeat about the rest of the year, in part because she’s looking forward to the smaller, local field trips that they’re still able to plan, having returned to school on a hybrid schedule. The destinations are no big shakes, not compared to Ecuador — maybe they’ll visit the Schuylkill Center, or Penn’s Landing. But it’s not the destinations that matter, she says: “We’re really just looking forward to spending time together.”
TPS teacher Gerald Dessus, who’s helping to plan the outings, tells me the same story — how the kids are just eager for hang time. “They seem to value that community so much more now that they can’t experience it in the ways they have,” he says. And while TPS might be fairly remarkable, with its field trips and the relative luxury of class time during COVID, this observation about the kids isn’t unique. I hear this or something like it from almost every teacher, tutor and parent I talk to. I hear it from preschool teachers and parents of high-schoolers. I hear it from the leaders at Mighty Writers, a nonprofit in Philly (with outposts in Kennett Square, Camden and Atlantic City) that teaches and tutors some 3,500 children between the ages of seven and 17.
“The kids have adjusted well to the online classes,” says Maurice Williams, one of the “literacy leaders” in charge of running the group’s free writing workshops. The children still have what Mighty Writers has always given them, he says — a place of their own, a chance to express what they’re thinking. But he also tells me about one young student in a Zoom class who talked about missing “the physical humanity” kids used to have. Something they once took for granted, as Williams says — “That daily communication of ‘Oh, hi; how are you.’ I think they’re all yearning for that. We try to make up for it, but it’s a special feeling when you can be in the space of someone else. They’re missing that.”
I’ve noticed the same at my own home, in the child who regularly weeps when it’s time to come in from playing on the street with neighbors and who — despite spending upwards of five hours a day online for school — is still joyful beyond measure at the prospect of Zooming with a buddy to play Guess Who. Which reminds me of something else Williams says: “One of the lights at the end of this tunnel is the relationships the students have poured themselves into fostering while we’ve been at home.” In group chats outside class, he says, they’re making new friends, friends who live all over the city. “They’re asking for meetups in the park,” he says.
People find a way, don’t they?
There’s more to this, I think, than just a new appreciation of friendship and community-building. These children, dug into the foxholes of a war they didn’t start, are also bonded as a unit by this communal experience of missing out. Of lives disrupted. Rich kids, poor kids, kids in and out of school, Black, Asian, white, Latino: Their stories are disparate, but they’re tied together by the same plot twist. And together is good. Forget rugged individualism: Haven’t these kids seen what one rugged individual who’s not wearing a mask can do to the group?
These are children who have worn masks uniformly and dutifully, most of whom will eventually get shots to establish herd immunity. Our babes, who have missed birthday parties and first days of school and graduations and grandparent visits, already have a real sense of what it means to be one individual of many in a society where our lives are all connected, whether we like it or not. A piece of the continent, a part of the main.
The lesson couldn’t come at a better time. In the 2020 book The Upswing: How America Came Together a Century Ago, and How We Can Do It Again, political scientists Robert D. Putnam and Shaylyn Romney Garrett compare our modern moment to the Gilded Age, a time characterized by robber barons, crushing economic inequality, anxiety, and intense political division — all symptoms of a cultural and political focus on the “I” over the “we,” they argue. But good news: After the Gilded Age came the Progressive Era, with its political and labor reform, expanded civil rights, growth of the middle class. It was a moment, they tell us, when the outlook shifted toward the “we,” a moment that marked the beginning of a six-decade upswing into an America that saw far greater economic equality, more cooperative politics, a culture of solidarity and national sense of progress.
The authors trace a trend of “we” thinking into the peak of this better America, right into the 1960s. From that point on, they say, America begins a descent back into selfishness, hyper-individualism, and various types of democratic and social decline, until, finally, we’re rewarded with an “increasingly zero-sum, tribal view of society, and eventually, Trumpism.” Which is, as we know, a period distinguished not just by Trump himself, that modern robber baron and “I” spokesman, but also by political division, staggering inequity, a pandemic death toll of more than 500,000 souls, and a Capitol nearly toppled by a maskless mob wielding secessionist flags and “Don’t Tread On Me” banners.
In their book, Putnam and Garrett make no promises about a swing out of these gilded pits into a better world of “we.” But they do leave us with a glimmer of hope for another “upswing,” pointing to the reform-minded social justice movements we’ve seen unfold in recent years and also to the power that “youth-driven vision” played in the Progressive Era.
And, hey, you should see what our youth are writing these days.
Rich kids, poor kids, kids in and out of school, Black, Asian, white, Latino: Their stories are disparate, but they’re tied together by the same plot twist. And together is good.
At West Philly’s W.C. Longstreth Elementary, students in Joy Waldinger’s art classes participated — virtually — in something called the Dreamline program, which tasked kids across the globe with creating banners that conveyed their hopes for their future lives. Waldinger’s seventh- and eighth-graders’ pieces hung at Cherry Street Pier, where you could see what the kids dream for their future: getting into good high schools and colleges, being YouTube stars and hairstylists, becoming nurses and doctors (hear that, Fauci?!) and photographers and fashion designers and the best NBA player ever. (“I just don’t want to be Kobe,” one student wrote. “He would want me to be better than him.”)
But they have still loftier goals than these. When Dreamline charted the topics Waldinger’s class focused on, alleviating hunger also came up a lot. (“Longstreth is part of a disenfranchised community,” Waldinger says, “and there’s a lot of poverty in the area.”) They also wrote frequently about cleaning up the oceans, about peace and justice. But the dreams that came up the most? “The majority of them were about equity,” Waldinger says.
As it happened, the year of COVID was also the year of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and Walter Wallace Jr.; it was one of four years of an administration that saw racism and inequity and brutality burst into such full display that there was no getting away from it. Grown-ups who had heretofore enjoyed the privilege of shielding their children from such things suddenly found it much harder — if not flat-out wrong — to proceed as usual.
Meantime, also on display for our children was a growing crescendo of voices raised against those things: marches and protests in our neighborhoods, on the steps of the PMA, surrounding City Hall. And the kids have all been marinating in it. Kids who have understood racism as part of their lives but never saw quite this much response to it, as well as kids for whom this was an education — they’ve all been swimming together in these big concepts about what’s fair and what’s not, and maybe even how to make big changes and why we should. And if parents and life haven’t yet presented these ideas to them, the schools have. At least, this is true in Philadelphia.
Dessus currently teaches cultural studies at TPS — a class in which he focuses on making sure students understand a wide range of “lived experiences.” Before this job, he spent years teaching social justice to middle-schoolers at Mastery Shoemaker in West Philly. (Social justice! A whole class!) This is a relatively new development in the world of education. Also new: My kindergartner talked about Black Lives Matter in his class last spring; this past winter, his art teacher led a unit comparing the protests of the 1960s to the 2020 protests in Philadelphia. The kids designed tie-dyed t-shirts with symbols of peace and equality.
People are iffy, like Zuckerman says, but it strikes me that all this education, both lived and institutional, feels fairly important and hopeful as far as youth-led vision goes, at least in the “we” sense of American greatness.
Dessus thinks so, too. The students he sees are much more attuned to the world than the children who came before them, he says. Maybe that’s because of social media, or because moments like George Floyd’s death have made it impossible for schools to get around having conversations about social justice. Or maybe it’s the way the world, with its politics and its pandemic, has so ruthlessly invaded their daily lives. In any case, he thinks it’s all going to make these kids “so much more empathetic and socially conscious” than the generations that came before them. (You know. Us.)
“Actually,” he says, “they already are.”
From a comfortably zoomed-out perspective, it’s tempting to write profound things about the human spirit and its resilience. I’m more than happy to give in to the temptation to point to kids who have displayed this in spades, like the 10-year-old in South Philly who grew his lemonade stand into a whole food-truck business during the pandemic; like the seven-year-old who recovered from COVID before Christmas and then used his savings to buy gifts for a school toy drive; like the nine-year-old I know whose “growth journal” has handwritten quotes about stiff seas and skilled sailors. And also just those thousands of kids with their masks and their hand sanitizer, trooping — Zooming — onward like tiny soldiers through happy days and hard ones. My God, these kids!
But one thing about the broad-zoom lens: While it’s good for easing “lost generation” fears, it doesn’t do much for addressing individual children who are lost, or might be. No amount of hope for the group erases the individual pain of a suffering child, and we know that there are children in our city suffering in COVID’s wake from depression, hunger, neglect, grief. Or worse. And thinking about all this has at times made writing an optimistic story — or sitting upright at the computer, or eating, or sleeping — feel almost impossible. My God, I pray at 3 a.m. These kids.
It’s true, says Wanjikũ F.M. Njoroge, the CHOP psychiatrist, that it’s still too early to say what the long-term effects for children might be. It’s also true that every child is different, and that different access to resources — resources like mental health specialists or counselors or academic support, or even just adults who can “scaffold” around kids to help them understand and cope, to see that they’ll come out of this — will affect how a child responds, both now and down the road.
But she’s still optimistic. Because when you work with patients from birth to five, as she does, you’re doing that work precisely because you know there’s always hope for them. You also know that beyond those years, as the brain continues to develop in school-age children, “We don’t ever say that this or that closes off the avenue to typicality or normal developmental expectations.” And this, she says, “is what’s so wonderful about children, even in the face of really horrible circumstances — this ability to adapt.”
If this hopeful sentiment — coming from this esteemed expert at the best children’s hospital in the country — isn’t some sort of papal blessing to go ahead and remind everyone about children’s resilience, I don’t know what is. And who might need such a reminder? For starters, the people who’d otherwise believe the “lost generation” rhetoric and give up the fight. And the parents who are being swallowed up by waves of worries, big and small. Also, the parents whose instincts are to shield kids from the bombs, so to speak. (You’ll recall, maybe, those folks in Missouri who made headlines when they secretly threw an illicit homecoming dance. Hoping to spare their teens the pain of loss, they created a near-super-spreader event that shut down the school.)
Anyway, speaking of the Pope: In November, he pleaded with the world via the New York Times to use this moment, this past year of change, to beget still more change now that so many weaknesses have been laid bare. “This is a moment to dream big, to rethink our priorities,” he wrote. And: “There’s always a way to escape destruction. Where humankind has to act is precisely there, in the threat itself; that’s where the door opens.”
It strikes me now that all of these things are true and linked; that the threat itself has been expressed (and expressed, and expressed) in the stories we’ve read, and that we might use the gloom and worry and weakness to rethink priorities. To make sure we are exceedingly “thoughtful about how we allocate resources,” as Njoroge puts it. To boost our kids in ways and moments they need it. Because here’s something else Njoroge knows, remember? There are no closed doors. When they get the support they need, “We do expect children to do well. Or at least better.”
As of this moment, neither America nor Philadelphia is known for thoughtful allocation of resources, particularly when it comes to our children. (Have you seen the way we fund our schools?) But hard times and global crises change us. History has shown us this, too. The 1918 flu pandemic led us to invest in public health. The Depression changed our entire idea of federal government, says Kriste Lindenmeyer, a historian at Rutgers. She’s written extensively about members of the Greatest Generation, and she points out that even before WWII helped tilt their trajectory skyward, there was Roosevelt and his federal interventions that saved and shaped them: “The New Deal came and gave families relief so they could feed their children. It started nursery schools. It paid teachers.” Many rural districts didn’t even have high schools, Lindenmeyer says. In 1930, fewer than half of 17-year-olds were in such schools. Then the Works Progress Administration and other New Deal agencies built some. “By 1940, it was almost 70 percent.”
We could do it again. Dream big. Rethink priorities. Escape destruction. Boost.
Maybe we already are. We have a new president, after all, a guy the Times’s Nicholas Kristof even called “Rooseveltian” thanks to his plan to curb child poverty. Which, if it works, would go a long way in boosting this generation, particularly in Philly, where 25 percent of our families live below the poverty line.
We also already have — right in this city — our teachers and school counselors, those heroes who have scaffolded like crazy for our children in the past year, delivering lessons and meals and art supplies and books both virtually and to front doors, these tired souls who are already telling us about the academic and social-emotional resources they know the children will need to be caught up and cared for and boosted. And by God, we should listen to them. (Maybe we will: We also have an educator in the White House now.)
I know. This all sounds just incredibly, wildly optimistic, especially during COVID times. You’ll forgive me for this, I hope. Wild optimism is half of parenting. (The rest is crippling worry and laundry.) But optimism is a distinctly American feature, too, and our history has given us plenty of reason to have the highest of hopes for these kids who keep showing up and showing us what they’re made of: toughness, resilience, this wider, more wonderful understanding of “we,” all bursting forth — like those future doctors — at the exact moment the world cries out for them.
Published as “The Kids Will Be Alright” in the April 2021 issue of Philadelphia magazine.