If you’ve dipped even a toe into the kiddie pool of modern parenting politics, then you’re probably aware that it’s actually a shark tank. Confess your love for the convenience of school lunches and expect a pitying smile. A far more withering gaze will meet any mention of a Happy Meal or a decision to stop breastfeeding. Making choices for our children often feels like a high-stakes game show in which there is only one right answer and everyone is shouting their own version of it at you.
I have two children in elementary school, and I fully expect a frenzy of playground whispers and social media recriminations over who is and who isn’t going to vaccinate their kids when the Covid-19 vaccine for children aged 5 to 11 becomes available. (Public health officials have said that could happen as early as this fall.) In my southern Vermont community, the whispers have already started.
Many parents, even those who are vaccinated themselves, are spooked by vaccines when it comes to their children. A September Gallup poll taken just before Pfizer and BioNTech announced that they would seek emergency authorization to administer the vaccine to younger children found that 45 percent of parents would not be willing to get their child under 12 vaccinated — including 18 percent of parents who were vaccinated.
There’s an opportunity here, to show our children that anxiety and anger don’t have to go hand in hand — and perhaps to more productively process our own worries, even if there are no children watching. Most important, it’s a chance to model empathy.
No matter how certain you are of the efficacy and safety of vaccines, putting a new vaccine in your child’s arm is a hard decision. As adults, we can show children that life is full of hard decisions and demonstrate how we have learned to approach them. We can teach them that it’s our responsibility to care for others, even when it costs us something. We can show them how we deal with anxiety.
Children are always watching us. That’s what Michele Borba, an educational psychologist and theauthor of “Thrivers: The Surprising Reasons Why Some Kids Struggle and Others Shine,” reminded me. “The first way that kids learn values, how they learn to handle life, how they learn resilience — they need a model, and they are tuning in to us far more than we ever give our kids credit for,” she told me. “A lot of kids are saying, ‘My parents can tell me to be calm, but they’re not.’ So we’re saying one message when we’re sending another.”
The same goes for the way we talk about other people in front of our kids, Dr.Borba said. We’re failing to model empathy when we preach kindness and then bash other parents for their choices. Kindness and empathy, she said, are built over time, over many small conversations based in curiosity about how other people experience the world. She pointed to the work of Samuel Oliner, a sociologist and altruism expert, and his interviews with rescuers who risked their lives to help Jews in peril in Europe during World War II. One common thread, she said, was a family culture based in empathy and helping others.
In her own more recent research, Dr. Borba interviewed a group of teenagers in Illinois who told her that they coped with pandemic-related stress and anxiety by making gift bags filled with cookies and handwritten notes for students they were worried about during remote schooling and lockdown. The phone calls of appreciation, some tearful, made them feel better and more connected. “Empathy nurtures crucial abilities that help children handle stress,” she told me. “Empathy in action is the antidote — doing something.”
One way to take action, for children, is to get a vaccine when it’s available to them. We can acknowledge that getting a shot can be scary and that our arms might be sore, and we might feel crummy for a day or two — but that it’s a small price to pay to help our whole community stay healthy, especially people who are immunocompromised, older or sick. Getting vaccinated is also a way to help protect people who choose not to do so — and it shows that we see their value as fellow human beings and care about their welfare, even if we don’t agree with them.
It’s worth reminding ourselves that though the risk of children without underlying conditions getting a serious or life-threatening case of Covid-19 is not zero, it is very small, as David Leonhardt wrote in his Morning Newsletter in June: “The biggest risk to your child’s health today almost certainly is not Covid. It’s more likely to be an activity that you have long decided is acceptable — like swimming, riding a bicycle or traveling in a car.” As for vaccines, the risk of children experiencing serious side effects after a jab is very low, and most experts say they’re confident that the vaccines are safe for growing bodies.
As for the risk of teaching our children that everything is hopeless and that people we don’t agree with are undeserving of our empathy? That seems pretty high.
Talking to our kids about our own feelings can also help us acknowledge and contend with them. For me, even more than anxiety, there’s anger. I’m angry that this pandemic could be winding down in the United States but it’s still raging, largely because of vaccine refusal. I’m angry that every time my phone rings I assume it’s a school calling to tell me that one of my children needs to quarantine at home because of potential Covid-19 exposure. I’m also angry that organized campaigns of misinformation have misled people who want the best for their families and that the reality of modern American life is that many of the unvaccinated simply can’t take time off work to deal with side effects.
There’s not much I can do to fix these problems, but getting vaccinated is one action our family can take together, rather than drowning in rage or giving in to pessimism.
Annaliese Griffin (@annalieseg) is a Vermont-based independent journalist who writes and edits culture, lifestyle and health stories.
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