It’s hard enough for adults to maintain social distancing — you’ve seen those photos of crowded beaches and parks — but for young children? That’s a whole other challenge. Here are some tips for getting your kids (especially those under 5) to care about wearing masks and steering six feet away from strangers.
Be Honest (To a Point)
Children have vivid imaginations, and keeping them in the dark can cause them to dream up their own dire scenarios, according to Jacqueline Sperling, a clinical psychologist at Harvard Medical School. Too much detail, however, can lead to anxiety. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends explaining to children that Covid-19 is a new virus that has made a lot of people sick, but doctors think that most people will be OK, especially children. For kid-friendly explanations from Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch, watch “The ABCs of Covid-19,” a town hall hosted by Sesame Street and CNN. It also covers basics like hand- washing.
Stories grab children’s attention and make difficult concepts easier to grasp. To explain why social distancing is important, one mother in Los Angeles compared it to pulling to the side of the road to let an ambulance pass. If you’d rather outsource the storytelling duties, download “My Hero is You,” a free children’s book developed by the United Nations and other agencies about a girl named Sara who rides a winged creature named Ario to educate other children about social distancing and Covid-19 prevention.
Make It A Game
Children are more apt to practice social distancing if it also somehow feels fun. That’s the thinking behind “Can You Save the World?,” a video game designed in part by a British psychology professor, where children learn to dodge people on crowded sidewalks, collect masks and avoid sneezes to earn points.
Play Dress Up
The C.D.C. recommends that children over two wear a cloth face covering in public, but getting them to keep the face covering on is hard. Borrow a page from Halloween and make them fun. Buy a cool superhero, cat, or dinosaur mask from Etsy. Or make one: YouTube has lots of how-to videos. It’s a craft project that protects your child and kills time during endless days at home. You might also consider bandannas and neck gaiters; they’re less fussy and easier for young ones to take on and off.
Motivate, Don’t Bribe
Debates about using rewards to motivate children are endless, but parents trade favors for obedience all the time. Even the C.D.C. signs off on rewarding good behavior (say, wearing a mask outside without fussing) with praise, a board game or an extra book at bedtime. For older children, a little money might help, at least in the short term, according to Emily Edlynn, a child psychologist and parenting columnist. And it’s really only bribery if you hand out the reward before the effort. Afterward? It’s reinforcement.
Use (Gentle) Discipline
No one likes threats. Child psychology experts say that threats hurt motivation and undermine parent-child relationships. But you can still take away privileges for not following the rules (like wandering too close to strangers without a mask). Just make sure you explain the consequences beforehand and make the punishment fit the infraction, psychologists say. It’s likely that your child is getting plenty of iPad time in quarantine as it is. Is losing 15 minutes so bad?
Appeal to Their Better Nature
It’s easy for children to get wrapped up in their own frustrations during quarantine. Try shifting the focus from their own problems to the needs of others. Psychologists encourage parents to help model empathy with their children, widening their “circle of concern.” Emphasize to children how keeping their distance is really just a favor to their friends, because it helps keep them and their families healthy. The point is to drive in a deeper point about sacrifice: You’re not alone here; we are all in this together.