It was the eighth time we’d had to break up a fight between our boys, ages nine and 14, that my wife Melissa and I realized that maybe we weren’t providing them with enough structured activities during the Virus Insanity Shut-In Time (VISIT) — and it was only Day Three out of an expected four weeks. VISIT, like fish, can start to stink after three days.
Melissa immediately started looking for resources to keep the kids busy because she’s good like that. Necessary, too. Up until yesterday, the weather here on top of Monument Hill wasn’t really warm enough to send the kids outside, and anyway, snow still covered most of everything from the weekend before. And not the fun kind to play in but the wet, heavy, icy stuff we get in March and April.
Here are a few things we found or have decided to do:
• Amazon has opened up its Audible audiobook service with a ton of free books available to stream on just about any device. The company says that “kids everywhere can instantly stream an incredible collection of stories, including titles across six different languages, that will help them continue dreaming, learning, and just being kids.” More importantly, it’s a chance to keep them out of your hair for at least a little while each day if you’re trying to work from home. Start here.
• FaceTime or Skype with the grandparents. Your folks are cooped up, too, you know.
• Homeschool! Scholastic Learn at Home, Khan Academy, Adventure Academy, and many other homeschooling resources offer discounts or even free materials during the Wuhan Virus Crisis. I hesitate to recommend any particular homeschooling resource since different families can have wildly different needs. So shop around, and if you’re on Facebook there are plenty of homeschooling groups for you to look to for advice.
• I learned this one the hard way: Just because your teenager is a natural nightowl is no reason to let him stay up all night on the phone. It’s perfectly fine to let them stay up later than you would on a schoolnight, but we’re now maintaining decent-ish hours and an actual schedule, even if it’s improvised. Think about doing the same if you aren’t already, otherwise, they’ll run roughshod over your work and domestic habits.
• Give them chores to do. Make sure they do them.
• Same thing with outdoor physical activities, weather permitting.
• My boys love natural history museums, and one of the world’s best is in London. It’s also closed. But virtual tours are available thanks to Google Arts & Culture. Here’s a handy list of that and nine other virtual museums available for you or your kids. I’d always wanted to visit the Getty, but can’t stand L.A. The Kung Flu has inspired me to at least visit online.
• A daily tidying of their rooms during this time should be a requirement. But have you thought about having them make a Salvation Army box of toys they don’t play with anymore? There are more kids in need than usual right now, making this a perfect time for giving.
• Roadtrip to nowhere. Get in the car and GO. It doesn’t much matter where, but if you’re anywhere near a national park, wildlife area, or the like, any of those would be a great way to get out of the house while staying far from the maddening crowd.
• Assignment: LEGO. “Build me an X-Wing fighter, but don’t use a kit.” Or a tank or a dollhouse or whatever it is your kids are into. Maybe they’re bored just staring at the same old LEGO bricks, but a customized challenge from Mom or Dad might engage their creativity.
• Have your kids ever made you dinner? Teach them something easy and fun, but also help them be resourceful by figuring out what you can make with what you have on hand. You’ll also teach them how to prioritize if you show them what should be used first because it will go bad first, and what should be saved for later because it won’t.
• I’m totally going to teach my boys how to play Axis & Allies, which is one of the most entertaining board games of all time. A&A is a classic WWII grand strategy game covering the entire globe, but on a simplified map using cool-looking 3-D plastic tanks, planes, infantrymen, etc. Each nation has its own strengths, but just like the actual war, the real action is between Germany and the USSR. There’s nothing like massing huge armies on the Eastern Front and then tossing huge handfuls of dice over and over again to see who wins each battle. Alternate suggestion: Teach them the thrill of capitalism with Monopoly.
Don’t spend too long on any one activity, or it will start to seem like a chore to the kids — and to you. But also try to strike a balance between planned activities and complete free time. VISIT is a marathon, not a sprint — and it’s all in close quarters. Give your kids (and yourself) plenty of breathing space.
And finally a suggestion or two for my brother and sister parents out there.
• Don’t be a schlub. Shower in the morning, put on decent clothes at a decent hour, continue shaving if you don’t normally wear a beard. Billy Crystal got it right as Fernando all those years ago: When you look good, you feel good. It’s really easy to let yourself go to hell when you don’t have anywhere to be or anyone to impress, but your kids are watching your every move — and your every moment sitting there on the sofa in your bathrobe at 3 in the afternoon. Be the person you want them to have confidence in, especially during a crisis. [I swear I’m not making this up, but as I got to editing this column, my nine-year-old came into my office, just dressed from the shower. Instead of his usual ragamuffin t-shirt and shorts, he’d brushed his hair and put on khaki trousers and a button-down shirt. He said to me, beaming: “I just wanted to look nice.” Setting a good example works, my friends.]
• Keep your game face on at all times. It’s OK to have your doubts and fears at a time when the only certainty seems to be uncertainty. And even loving family members can get short with one another when crowded into close quarters for far longer than usual. Even worse, the worries can make tempers even shorter, and lashing out only adds to the worries — it’s a nasty cycle, if you let you and yours get into it. But as a parent, you’ve got to be cooler than that. If you need to cry or just shake your fist at the sky, do it where no one can see you. When you need to express those doubts and fears, share them only with your spouse, and only when you’re 100% certain the kids can’t hear you. What they need right now more than even toilet paper is a calm and steady parental presence. So be that, even if sometimes you have to summon reserves you didn’t know you had. You do have them, I promise.
That’s all I have for now, but, man, am I open for more suggestions here on Day 12 of the VISIT. If you have any ideas for keeping the kids busy and the parents sane, I’m begging you pretty please to share them in the comments.