Small adjustments that can take the pressure off families — and let them enjoy the added time together.

Source:  Usable Knowledge - Harvard Graduate School of Education

ByJill Anderson

Date: April 16, 2020


As the world navigates the current pandemic, there has been a dramatic increase in how much time families are spending together, leading many parents and caregivers to feel pressured into being everything — parent, friend, teacher — for their child. Child developmental psychologist Junlei Li says it doesn’t have to be that way — and families can look to China’s working families for examples of how to find balance and support through the isolation.

“Being with your children doesn’t have to be yet another stressor, but can offer a sense of relief, even for grownups,” Li says. “Parents feel a lot of burdens. They are not used to being with their kids all this time, especially with young children. Parents can feel the pressure of having to accompany them this whole time. Instead of trying to be everything at all times, think about the small, even brief, kind of quality moments of play we can have with our children.”

Li participated in work that was led and organized by the child development and family support research center of the China Welfare Institute, which has helped families during that country’s nationwide quarantine. In an ongoing series of “corona-fighting family wisdom,” the initiative solicited coping strategies from both urban and rural families and shared out the stories.

We asked Li to share three of these lessons from China for American families to adopt as they face extended time at home during the coronavirus.

1. Find ways to connect and share within and beyond your family

Children can pick up on the stress being felt by their caregivers, Li says. The China Welfare Institute tried not to add to growing stress levels, and instead focused on simple efforts at home.

“Instead of going out and telling parents — here are the top 10 things you need to do for your kid — they asked for videos and photos submissions of things parents and children are doing together,” Li says. The organization solicited and shared stories from a diverse range of families, providing a glimpse of what support can look like. The outcome stressed the value of families being able to connect and better understand their role in children’s lives. Li suggests that all families should find similar ways to enjoy being with each other that relieve pressure for all members of the family.

“Children process and deal with these things right along with grownups,” Li says.

2. Emphasize play over learning  

Despite the reputation of Chinese culture for its dedication to academic learning, Li reports that the China Welfare Institute deviated from that ideal by placing a larger emphasis on play.

Play provides a way for children to process their emotions, says Li. “Part of the richness of play is — playing either alone or playing together with other children or with us, with the grownups — it can start to meet children's developmental need,” he says. “Children need a way to express their own uncertainty, handle anxiety, and assert control.”

Families should plan time to play every day without trying too hard to drive the experience. Children should take the lead in thinking about how they want to play, what they want to play, and whom they want to play with. Although many children have limited opportunity right now, Li says families can create an environment where children can match their needs through play. 

3. Find ways to create new modes of learning

Li witnessed many families in China taking advantage of learning through observation and doing, which has long been a part in rural and indigenous communities where children are often active participants in family life.

He suggests finding simple ways to let your child pitch in. Consider when children demand what they want or don’t want to eat and take advantage of this time to let children take part in cooking. For example, have children come up with something they want to cook with their parents and then eat it.  

Li adds that young children, in particular, really like to help. “They feel really important if they can pitch in,” he says. “Right now it almost seems more doable because there is so much more time since we’re stuck at home so it’s easier to incorporate.”

Along the way, Li says it helps restore some sense of control and agency in children too. “You know, for children right now, it’s ‘I can’t go to school, I can’t go outside, I can’t go to the playground,’” he says, “I can’t play all the time. … There’s a lot of ‘I can’t, I can’t. I can’t.’ Finding family appropriate ways for children to pitch in can turn into a ‘I can do this.’”

Ultimately, these small adjustments can help the whole family as everyone gets used to differences in their daily lives.

“As adults we can have quite a bit of empathy. I think for once we're in a situation where we’re very similar to children. We're uncertain. We're anxious. We don't know when this ends,” Li says.

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