Saying no to the ice cream truck was the no that broke me. I’d lost count of how many times I’d told my daughter no during Coronavirus lockdown before then. Dozens. Maybe hundreds. No grocery store. No elementary school. No playgrounds or nature preserves. She couldn’t touch other kids. But when the ice cream truck rolled by our house ringing out broken notes from Scott Joplin’s “The Entertainer,” we were dashed onto the rocks by its siren song. Yet another normal, fun thing I had to deny her. But with our New Jersey county home to one percent of America’s Covid-19 fatalities despite being only 0.002 percent of the total population, the danger of a SpongeBob popsicle-selling super spreader was real.
That night, I bought her four popsicles from the nearest bodega. For a rare moment I wasn’t the bad guy. I wasn’t placing restrictions, setting limits, enforcing rules, or snatching away something fun. It felt good. But it wouldn’t last.
Covid-19 has forced parents to be a new type of bad guy, one who not only must be the determiner of bed times and diets and schedules and school but who now must decline even the most innocent requests. Under lockdown, parents have to enforce a gauntlet of rules. Information is constantly changing. Government officials contradict one another. As states open up, guidelines are in flux but the ambient anxiety of the pandemic, social unrest, and economic collapse hold steady. Parents, uncertain about how to keep their families safe, might be stuck as bearers of bad news for a long time.
As lockdown drags on, Oregon mom of two Renzee Lee has grown increasingly tired of telling her 13-year-old daughter and 10-year-old son they have to stay inside and be careful.
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“I have to continually remind my children that I’m not saying no to going out just to be a big bummer or to be strict, but to keep everyone as safe as possible,” she says. “They don’t absorb or accept it. Maybe they just need someone to blame and I’m the closest they’ve got to pin it on.”
Her daughter’s 14th birthday is next month and they don’t get to move forward with her original plans to have a slumber party at the beach with all her friends. Lee says her daughter understands, but then sometimes still plans the trip.
While Lee’s daughter copes with lockdown through denial, her son responds with anger, breaking things and slamming doors when he can’t see friends or go BMX biking.
“Now, after time has passed, I just feel bad for them,” she says. “They are experiencing something none of us has, and they must also be feeling fear and uncertainty. As a mom with no answers or a crystal ball, I don’t know how to help them or the situation.”
In her practice, San Antonio clinical psychologist and parenting coach Ann-Louise Lockhart has found that quarantine is hardest on children ages one and two and teenagers. Young children suffer from lack of interaction and new stimuli. And teens are, well, teens. They’re undergoing a developmental stage called individuation where they define their own identity, in part by questioning authority. Under lockdown, parents are the only authority available for questioning the grand majority of the time.
“The developmental task in your adolescence is to connect with your same-age peers,” Lockhart says. “If you’re stuck at home with mom and dad and you can’t connect in a meaningful way with your friends, that’s miserable. And then another part of being an adolescent is to test limits, to develop your own sense of independence and autonomy and be your own person. So if the government, the CDC, my parents and everybody’s telling me to stay home, [they’ll say] ‘psh, I’ll do what I want.’”
Many children of working parents are used to seeing moms and dads at night and on the weekends. In those moments, they’re the focus of their parent’s full attention. With their parents home at all times under lockdown, they expect the same level of attention, which is impossible when parents have to split their energy between their kids and work.
A North Carolina dad of one found that working from home meant imposing new restrictions on his daughter’s access to him. It’s a difficult concept for a kid to grasp and a parent to convey.
“I’ll admit I’ve gotten really frustrated with her before,” he says. “I’ve definitely snapped at her when she couldn’t understand that I needed quiet during a meeting. I felt terrible about it afterward, but I couldn’t even fall back on our normal ritual of going out to get ice cream and just having some daddy/daughter time together.”
Parents of special needs kids have found keeping order in the home particularly challenging under lockdown.
Dana Marciniak, a Buffalo, NY mom whose two boys include an 11-year-old with autism, found her role as a parent radically changed under remote learning. In normal times, she’s her son’s advocate and nurturer. Under quarantine, she had to teach and challenge him instead. She valued the experience for what it taught her but was ready to throw herself a huge party when the school year came to an end.
“It was ridiculously hard being their mom and their teacher,” she says, adding she felt she “turned into the annoying mom, constantly reminding them to do work.”
Some parents living in states that are loosening Covid-19 restrictions find official guidelines at odds with their own judgment about risk exposure. After their kids have been cooped up alone for months, it’s gut-wrenching to say no when the rest of the neighborhood says yes. Father and WikiLawn Lawn Care president Dan Bailey’s lives in Florida, which began reopening in May and experienced a spike in new cases in June. He’s tired of round-the-clock lowdown parenting but isn’t comfortable giving his eight-year-old the access many of his peers are getting.
“As much as I’ve been tempted, though, I feel that’s ultimately dangerous and sends a bad message to our kids,” Bailey says.
He adds: “My son is old enough to understand what’s going on, thankfully, and he’s taken a heavy interest in science so I can talk to him about the more complicated parts of this situation. But he’s still a kid, and when all of his friends’ parents are letting them do fun things for summer but I’m not, he gets upset.”
Unfortunately, parents may have to get comfortable being bad guys. Covid-19 isn’t going away soon and the need to tell your kids no won’t disappear when it does. With America lagging the world on childcare, parental leave, and children’s health care, American parents were on their own before COVID-19. Lockdown only made it easier to see.
For a long time, parents have been frogs swimming in water rising so gradually in temperature, we had no idea we were being cooked until it reached a boil. Everything seemed normal from day-to-day. But over time, middle class wages stagnated while the cost of living increased. Dual income households became the norm. With both parents working, work increasingly interfered with family life and family life increasingly interfered with work.
Sure, it’s stressful to be stuck in lockdown with our kids. But just wait until parents have to go back to work and figure out what to do then. As a research investigative story from the Hechinger Report warned, our patchwork childcare system may be about to shatter. The older relatives we once relied on for free babysitting are at high risk. Ninety percent of the country’s childcare centers are privately owned. They’re expensive to run and, despite their considerable expense, difficult to make a profit from. Many childcare centers were on edge before lockdown. When furloughed, laid off or remote working parents are ready to return to their worksites, the places they trusted to care for their kids may be long gone.
This places parents in an even more precarious situation and affirms their role as the perpetual bad guy, the constant naysayer. It’s not a role we ever wanted, but it’s a role our children need us to play. Will there be a time when I can say yes to my daughter’s simple request for a popsicle from the ice cream truck? Yes. But now is not that time. When is that time? I’ll know it when it arrives. I hope. It’ll be nice to be the good guy again.