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Helping Your Child Gain Control in an Ever-changing World

by Abby Sandberg, Learning Specialist & Division Head

If there’s one thing we can agree upon about the year 2020, it’s that many of us have felt a loss of personal control and agency. The tried and true routines of school and work vanished at the blink of an eye and the recommendations of how to cope with the evolving pandemic are ever-changing. As adults, it can lead a person to feel discouraged, frustrated, and fearful of what’s to come. When you view the pandemic through a child’s perspective, the loss of control is likely felt even more strongly. Children, by nature, are driven to be independent. Their job is to explore the world and practice exercising personal empowerment within it. Of course, all kids will go about this process with varying degrees of gusto. Some will forge ahead, hardly looking back, as they beg for their first sleepover at a friend’s house. Others will more tentatively dip their toe into novel activities, first making sure that the safety net from their family is firmly in place. Whatever the approach a child takes, the end goal is to learn how capable they are in managing themselves out in the world.

With pandemic safety measures in place, it can be difficult to afford children this same experience. How do we let them spread their wings and practice exerting personal control, when we’ve had to tighten their bubble of existence? Most parents are familiar with the strategy of giving their child choices. A familiar scene to many parents is setting out three different sweatshirts for a child to choose from to proactively keep them from donning a tank top in February. (Let’s be honest, it doesn’t always work, but the chances do improve you’ll get out the door in weather-appropriate attire.) Now more than ever, children need choices. Their worlds have been turned upside down and we’ve had to say “no” to many of their usual childhood requests. Playdates have changed. Summer camps have vanished. Even if you are getting out and about to stores, farmers markets, or restaurants, it is clearly not the same. While adults may feel a semblance of normal creeping back in, we still have to deliver a lot of “no’s” in these places. “Don’t stand so close to that person in line,” “Don’t touch those vegetables!” or “Don’t take off your mask until we sit at our table.” Add these directives to the normal parenting that generally takes place and the result is a kid who likely feels like everything in their world is currently off limits.

While it simply isn’t possible to give children back all the freedom and choices we’d like them to have, we can more actively look for opportunities for them to practice exerting control and independence. While it may seem small, offering choices in the usual everyday routines can satisfy some of these needs. Let them help choose what’s for dinner or dessert. Give them lots of freedom in dressing themselves. Ask for their input when planning your evening walking or biking route. (e.g., “Should we ride by the park first? Should we go left or right at the stop sign?”). While the answer to some of these questions may be somewhat inconsequential, to the child, it gives them a sense of ownership on how their day is unfolding. It also sends the important message that there are still many areas of our lives that we do have control over.

Other opportunities to practice empowerment stretch beyond these routine choices. For example, consider the positive consequences of teaching your child how to garden. Imagine their sense of pride (and newfound control) of harvesting lettuce, cherry tomatoes, or herbs for the family’s dinner. Even just tending to a houseplant that is all their own can give them a sense of accomplishment as they water it and watch it grow. It’s not surprising that many families have adopted pets during the pandemic. While not every family is equipped to take in a dog or cat, a simple goldfish may give your child something to care for and increase their sense of control. (Of course, the unpredictable life span of a pet fish may lead to other life lessons!)

While the specific strategy to help instill a sense of control will differ for each child, it is important to reflect and look for opportunities for these important experiences. At the end of the day, you simply want your child to have some degree of agency and to feel empowered, confident, and capable in the world as it currently is.