5 ways to keep our families safe — and calm — in the midst of Coronavirus

by Meghan Fitzgerald

This past week, Brian and I flew to Los Angeles. Then we brought our whole family from Western MA to NYC for the weekend. Mentions and reminders about sickness and safety were all around us. Even though we’re hearing that kids are at lower risk for Coronavirus, the uncertainty about how to keep safe is unsettling to all of us. And, as with many challenging parenting topics, there is no shortage of things to read — some that make us feel better and assure us this isn’t as bad as it sounds, and others that make us deeply fear what could be in store.

Although it’s nearly impossible not to ride the media rollercoaster, there are a few important steps you can take to help maintain your sanity and quiet any fears your little ones may be experiencing. I started by putting on my former school principal’s hat. After five years overseeing elementary schools through a variety of health issues, I knew that the Center for Disease Control (CDC) website was the place to start. And it was really helpful: They have a section that offers thorough guidance about the COVID-19 situation, including basic information about the disease, how it spreads, how to assess the risk, and how to respond. I also felt reassured that the information there is being kept up to date. This situation is ever evolving, and in just the past few days tracking the site, I’ve already seen the guidance evolve as new insights come to light.

1. Build healthy habits 

The site also includes a helpful list of “healthy habits” that help stop the spread of Coronavirus and keep us safe from other flu-like diseases. The list helped move me from fear to action. My only misgiving was that the list was written for a more general audience, and I found myself wanting a list catered to parents of young kids. 

So, here we go: a list of “cooks notes” for parents of young germ machines. In other words, here’s how to take the CDC’s healthy habits and apply them to life with little ones. No matter how the Coronavirus situation evolves, these habits will continue to be essential: the better we get at them, the better off we’ll be during cold and flu seasons to come. And they’re certainly going to keep keep coming our way.

2. Stay home when you’re sick — and get outdoors when you're healthy

Just watch little kids interact and share affection with each other, and it’s nearly impossible to imagine them learning not to make close contact. So, the real key is keeping our kids (and ourselves) at home when we’re sick. Many of us push ourselves to go to the office, go to the gym class, go to the grocery store, and go to a myriad of other public places just to keep up with the demands of daily life, even when we’re not well. It may be hard, but we all really have to stop that and stay home. 

The truth is that not everyone stays home when they’re sick, so we also need to reconsider how we navigate public spaces when we’re well. If a person near us is visibly sick (coughing, sneezing, etc.), we should move away and we shouldn’t feel bad about it. It’s recommended that we keep a distance of 6 feet or more to lower the risk of contracting their illness. It’s always important to be respectful of other people, but we also need to protect our own health. And we should never feel guilty about that.

We also know that part of the reason diseases like Coronavirus and flu spread more throughout the winter is that people tend to spend more time indoors, and being in public, indoor spaces increases our close contact with others. Going outside gives us so much more space to be together without being on top of each other. And, contrary to public perception, being outdoors in cold temperatures is great for health in many ways. So, it’s probably no surprise that we’re doubling down on time outdoors with friends.

3. Cover your mouth and nose and keep your hands out of your eyes

It’s so natural for kids to either let a good sneeze fly out into the open or to sneeze or cough right into their hands (hands are our supertools, after all). But, that is exactly how diseases like Coronavirus start to spread: someone sneezes or coughs onto a surface or they sneeze or cough into their hands, then touch the surface. Someone else touches the surface then touches their own eyes, nose or mouth, and it’s passed.

What’s one secret to cutting down on this spread? Teach kids to cough and sneeze “into your elbow.” This one, our own kids have down pat. To teach them, we kept modeling how to do it, noticed when they were about to sneeze and prompted them to do it too, and reminded them when they didn’t remember. It also helped to remind them that we were doing this to keep friends safe from our germs (more on how to talk about germs below). It takes practice to form a habit, but if you keep at it, it will become your child’s default mode of sneezing and coughing. (Our youngest will even tell perfect strangers to cough or sneeze into their elbows). 

It can be extremely challenging to get  kids to keep their hands out of their eyes at all times. But we can teach them to rub their eyes with their sleeves (if they are wearing long sleeves) or with the backs of their hands. You can have some fun with modeling this one, too, and, again, reinforce it as much as you can. 

4. Wash your hands — the right way

Effectively washing hands with water and soap, especially before you eat or after you spend time in a public place, is likely the most important thing we can do to stop the spread of disease. That’s why we’re currently prioritizing hand washing in our Tinkergarten classes and actively retraining our Leaders in proper hand washing technique.

The most important things to keep in mind with hand washing are that soap plus water is much more effective than just water, and that every step of the hand washing ritual is truly essential. This is not a place to take shortcuts.

We really slowed down with our kids this weekend and took the time to follow these six steps adapted from recommendations by SNAP (School Network for Absenteeism Prevention).

  1. Wet your hands with clean water (warm or cold). 
  2. Turn off the water and apply soap. (This step is good for the environment and helps prevent kids from just washing the soap right off before they can lather and scrub.)
  3. Rub your hands together to make a lather and scrub them well; be sure to scrub the backs of your hands, between your fingers, and under your nails.
  4. Continue rubbing your hands for at least 20 seconds. (Little kids can’t tell time, but they can hum or sing the "Happy Birthday" song from beginning to end, twice.)
  5. Rinse your hands well under running water.
  6. Dry your hands using a clean cloth or the air. We love to welcome kids to use the back of their shirts or to wave hands in the air — better for the earth than single use towels!

All learning is social, and kids learn even better when they see friends doing something. This spring, our Tinkergarten classes will dedicate extra time for kids and adults to practice hand washing together and help reinforce the habit. 

5. Talk to kids about health and safety 

Even though many of us may try to keep our kids from actively consuming news, they still pick up on the conversation. And sometimes they start to worry. So it can be comforting when we give them real answers to their questions. It helps to keep the information we give simple, matter-of-fact and infused with as little fear or anxiety as possible. Here are a few helpful ways to talk about germs with little kids:

  • Our bodies are amazing — they grow, eat food to get energy, and sleep to rest and repair. And, they can work hard to keep us healthy, too.
  • Our bodies also have other living things inside them — teeny tiny ones that you can only see with a microscope. Many of them are good for us and help us digest our food and stay healthy.
  • But, there are some teeny tiny living things called germs that can come into our bodies and start to slow things down, making us sick. Our bodies have to learn to fight the germs and get them out of our bodies, and we can feel sick while our bodies are working hard to do that. 
  • Germs most often come into our bodies through our noses, mouths or eyes. 
  • Germs most often get into our bodies when we touch something and then put our hands into our noses, mouths or eyes. So, keeping our hands clean by washing them the right way with soap and water is a really important way to keep the germs out of our bodies. Trying hard not to touch our noses, mouths and eyes with our hands helps, too.
  • And, if we need to sneeze or cough, we should do it into our elbows so we keep our own germs from jumping to our friends.

Reading the right books together can also help parents help kids make sense of all of this. A few of our favorites are Sherm the Germ by pediatrician, Dr. John Hutton and Sick Simon by Dan Krall.

Remember that our kids take their cues from us. So if we stay informed and keep calm when we talk about all of this, kids will feel more secure. The greater context may feel scary, but if we focus on the actions we can take (like hand washing and being thoughtful about others if and when we are sick), we will not only help the cause but can also feel more empathetic, empowered and in control.

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