Six years ago, on a Saturday afternoon, I got a call from a law-enforcement officer telling me that my husband had died in a bike wreck during a charity race for cancer research. I had a toddler and was pregnant with my second daughter at the time. Three days later, I spoke at a memorial for Jake. The eulogy wasn’t just a tribute to him, but a mission statement for me. I asked that my friends and family hold me accountable for living life unafraid. A traumatic loss meant that I was primed to see threats everywhere. But I knew that my big fears would make the lives of my children small if I couldn’t control them. They deserved more from me than that.
I think about this pledge often as year two of the pandemic comes to a close. I had to relearn my bravery after my husband died. A lot of people will have to do the same now that we’re entering what looks like the endemic stage of COVID.
I still have to fight my protective instincts. Nearly every day, I feel that familiar frisson of anxiety—a tightening in my stomach when my 6-year-old wants a skateboard, a jump in my heart rate when my 8-year-old asks to go sledding—but that feeling isn’t a reliable gauge of risk to my children. A quick search of CDC data suggests that skateboarding causes fewer injuries than trips to the playground or playing soccer do, which I let my kids do without thinking twice. I thank my adrenaline-pumping amygdala for its work and pass the baton to my more rational neocortex on parenting decisions. Tolerating risk for my kids is tough, but vital, so I practice.
Unfortunately, if understandably, the message in the early days of the pandemic was to do the opposite. The public-health message “Stay home, stay safe” had the advantage of being simple. But the slogan, restrictions, and the intense social pressure that accompanied them actively discouraged logical, individualized analysis. If you weren’t at high risk for severe COVID yourself, you could still carry the disease. Discussions of trade-offs were verboten. Going to an outdoor neighborhood gathering or seeing family was tantamount to the morally depraved murder of undetermined numbers of grandmas and immunocompromised people.
That is not an exaggeration of the tone of some media coverage or on-the-ground sentiment in deep-blue areas of the country, where, as CNN’s Chris Cillizza noted, many kept their COVID diagnoses secret for fear of being labeled COVID sinners.
A one-size-fits-all approach to risk, and top-down encouragement to take as few risks as possible, may have been reasonable in 2020, before we properly understood how the coronavirus was transmitted and before we had vaccines. Spurning risk analysis made us all worse at it, however, and children have paid the highest price.
Children are the least at-risk population, but in many areas of the country they continue to face draconian mitigation policies—either in their name (low chance of serious COVID complications doesn’t mean no chance) or in the name of protecting their elders. As David Leonhardt wrote in The New York Times, we’ve inflicted “more harm to children in exchange for less harm to adults.” You don’t have to be a psychologist to see something wrong with that exchange. In our focus on one threat, we’ve let a thousand others flourish: learning loss, destabilization of the public-school system due to under-enrollment, self-harm, behavioral problems.
The major metropolitan areas of the United States were a global outlier in 2020 and 2021 for extended school closures. (Schools were largely open in Europe and Scandinavia and many other spots in the U.S.) Schools closed again in Chicago while the teachers’ union negotiated COVID protocols this month, leading no doubt to yet more learning loss. Children as young as 2 still mask on public transportation in Oregon while children in Boston learn in classrooms with the windows open to 20-degree breezes. Some schools are attempting to get every child into N95 masks or the like since the CDC acknowledged that cloth masks don’t offer much protection. Beyond schools, we restrict children’s ability to participate in public life. Major American cities require proof of vaccination for them to eat at a Chuck E. Cheese. In Minneapolis, even children ages 2 to 5 must show a negative COVID test to get into a restaurant.
Most children are neither in grave danger nor do they pose a grave danger to others—especially now that vaccines are widely, freely available—but we routinely treat them as if they were. And the media have too often fanned the flames of parents’ fears instead of quelling them, keeping us stuck in the amygdala portion of our response to COVID risk. A characteristic column from December called attending day care “playing Russian roulette with our children’s lives,” but no outlet would run similar sentiments from a mother who refused to put her kids in a car or near a pool—both scenarios much more statistically risky to children.
Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor exemplified the casual and rampant exaggeration of risk to children during oral arguments in January, when she estimated that there are 100,000 children in hospitals in serious condition with COVID, many on ventilators. The real number is about 5,000, and many of those are likely incidental infections, detected with routine hospital testing, in children admitted for other reasons.
To request a cost-benefit analysis of any COVID-mitigation policy in places where this style of thinking prevails is to be accused of desiring child sacrifice. The Alexandria City Public Schools board member Margaret Lorber asked parents in 2021, “Do you want your child to be alive or to be educated?”
When newly elected Virginia Governor Glenn Youngkin rescinded an executive order from his predecessor requiring universal masking in schools, and giving parents the power to choose, the same districts whose overcautious policies kept children out of classrooms for a year vowed to continue keeping them out if they show up without face coverings. Although the science on the benefits of child masking is uncertain, and the downsides are becoming clear, the districts presumed that allowing parents to come to their own conclusions would cause great harm.
This “child sacrifice” form of debate doesn’t serve children or parents. Adults should do our best to make rational calls for our kids, to weigh costs and benefits, to pass the baton from the amygdala to the neocortex. If I’d chosen never to let my kids near a bike, I’m sure my friends and family would have understood and respected my decision. But that would have been an irrational reading of the risk, and deeply unfair to my kids.
“Kids are resilient” has been a refrain of the pandemic, used to justify the removal of regular school, birthday parties, and talking with friends at lunch. But it’s not a kid’s job to be resilient. It’s a parent’s job to be resilient for them, to spare them from our fears and worries. The longer we abdicate, the more damage we will do.