Kids returning to in-person learning may have a harder time adjusting to new COVID-19 safety rules if they regularly see their parents disregarding the same recommendations. Ryan J Lane/Getty Images
  • Parents who regularly disregard COVID-19 safety measures may unknowingly be influencing their children to do the same with the example they set.
  • As children return to in-person learning at school, following safety guidelines is a requirement they’ll need to embrace in order to participate.
  • Students resisting safety measures in school may result in undue stress and conflict between themselves, their peers, and their teachers.

With many schools now reopen across the country, teachers and school staff have the additional challenge of getting students to comply with COVID-19 safety guidelines in addition to their already demanding jobs.

This includes enforcing the wearing of masks throughout the school day — a subject that continues to be a hotly debated topic, despite numerous studies proving that wearing face coverings can prevent the additional spread of the virus.

Though their reasons range from a desire to protect their “personal freedom” to a distrust of medical science, the bottom line is that there’s a large portion of the population that seems intent on disregarding COVID-19 safety recommendations.

A number of them are parents whose children are now learning in person with fellow students and need to follow the rules set in place in order to protect themselves and others.

Kids’ attitudes about COVID-19 safety are shaped by their parents

Jennifer Hoskins-Tomko, LCSW, is a psychotherapist who owns Clarity Health Solutions in Jupiter, Florida.

She said that children are looking to how their parents are responding to safety recommendations right now — and some parents may be setting their kids up for failure.

“If parents approach it by rolling their eyes and complaining, kids will pick up on those cues and be more resistant to wearing a mask themselves,” Hoskins-Tomko explained.

She pointed out that the opposite is also true. Parents who are modeling compliance with the safety recommendations help their kids to do the same, purely from the example they set.

This is the part family psychologist Caroline Hexdall, PhD, said is important.

“Parents are incredible models for their children, especially young children, and often kids are watching when we may not know it,” Hexdall told Healthline.

While she said that children between the ages of 3 and 12 are most susceptible to their parents’ example, she explained that “even adolescents still look to their parents for making decisions.”

“They may form their ideas and personal feelings around those decisions but often parents are consulted first,” she said.

Why does it matter?

Parents who disregard safety recommendations may not be concerned about their kids doing the same. In fact, some may be actively encouraging it.

However, this example has the potential to cause a great deal of stress for children who have or soon will return to in-person learning.

Bryan Truang is a former public school teacher from Arizona. He previously worked with 8th graders and currently teaches online learning classes.

In his experience as a teacher, he said he learned a lot about how the actions of parents could influence their children’s behavior.

“I can usually tell the political, religious, and economic ideologies of a child’s parents by listening and watching the student,” Truang explained. “It’s the same with views on social distancing, wearing masks, and other medical protocols recommended by health officials. If you’re a parent and you complain about wearing a mask, your kid will too.”

This can lead to conflicts in the classroom between students, their peers, and their teachers who are simply doing their best to keep everyone safe.

“As a teacher, it’s my job to look out for the welfare of all my students,” Truang said. “This means that I will follow the advice of medical professionals and the protocols put in place to likewise protect your child.”

In addition to the disruptions that can occur in the classroom, Truang pointed out that resistant attitudes toward COVID-19 safety guidelines can ultimately cause friction between parents and kids at home as well.

“If I enforce policies like wearing a mask and handwashing with a student, but you as their parent do not, I’m essentially in a position where I’m challenging you and, as a result, the faith and trust that student puts in you,” he said.

Truang further explained that even when a conflict doesn’t occur, kids can experience a lot of unnecessary anxiety when their teacher’s rules and their parent’s rules don’t add up — and additional anxiety isn’t something any child needs right now.

Helping kids excel in this ‘new normal’

Parents across the country have felt the stress of school closures.

Many are clamoring for their children to return to the classroom. But in-person instruction can’t happen if schools can’t keep their students and staff safe.

Which means getting kids on board with pandemic safety recommendations is a necessary part of the “new normal” parents have to be willing to embrace for in-person learning to work during the pandemic.

“It is harder to undo an unhealthy habit than create a positive one,” Hexdall said, but she pointed out that it’s not too late for parents to reverse course and set an example that can help their kids thrive in this challenging situation.

“It’s alright to admit that it’s uncomfortable and that you wish you didn’t have to wear a mask, but remind your kids that it is hopefully only temporary and it is for their own benefits and for the protection of others,” Hoskins-Tomko said.

Depending on the age of the child, Hoskins-Tomko suggests sitting down with them and having an age-appropriate discussion about the latest safety recommendations.

For younger kids, she recommends giving them a bowl of flour to play with and then allowing them to walk around the house without washing their hands first.

By pointing out the little finger and hand prints they leave throughout the house, you can explain how germs spread — and why it’s so important to wash hands regularly.

This is just one example of how parents can begin to shift the conversation around pandemic health recommendations, helping kids to be more successful when following those recommendations is required of them, and also helping to keep individual families and the communities they interact with safe.

“Do the best you can until you know better,” Hexdall said, quoting Maya Angelou. “When you know better, do better. We all are in this together figuring it out, but it is best to continue to try to do what is best for all.”

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