117: Socialization and Pandemic Pods

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One of the questions I see asked most often in parenting forums these days is some variation on:

"I’m worried about my child’s socialization now that it looks like daycares, preschools and schools have been closed for several months and will likely remain closed for several more months. Can someone please tell me if I really do need to worry about what the complete lack of socialization with other children will do to my [only] child?”

So we'll take a look at that, and then we'll go on to take a look at the other kinds of socialization that happen in school that you may not have even realized happens until we dig into the research on it.

I also let you know about a new Pandemic Pods 'in a box' course. A lot of parents are thinking of forming what are being called Pandemic Pods - a small group of children who are working together either in some kind of parent care exchange or with a hired teacher/tutor.

As I'm sure you can imagine, there are a host of ways to set up these pods in a way that exacerbate existing inequalities that pervade the public school system. And there are also ways to set them up that might actually help us to begin to overcome some of these issues. Listen in to learn how!

Click here to learn more about the Pandemic Pods 'in a box' course

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Hello, and welcome to the Your Parenting Mojo podcast.

Today’s podcast episode is on the topic of socialization, because one of the questions I’m seeing most often in parenting forums these days runs along the lines of "I’m worried about my child’s socialization now that it looks like daycares, preschools and schools have been closed for several months and will likely remain closed for several more months. Can someone please tell me if I really do need to worry about what the complete lack of socialization with other children will do to my only child?” So that’s the main topic for our conversation today.

But I also wanted to let you know about some other resources I’ve been putting together for parents who are struggling to cope right now, and this episode is related to those as well.

You might have already seen that I have a course called The Confident Homeschooler, which gives you all the information you need to decide whether homeschooling could be right for your child and your family. It’s based on scientific research, as everything I do is, but it’s not huge and indigestible. It’s a series of short videos that you could binge-watch in an evening or two, and it gives you everything you need to make a decision about whether homeschooling can really work for you

  • whether you’ll need a curriculum, and if so, how to choose one;
  • how to use your child’s interests to develop their intrinsic love of learning,
  • the social and emotional learning that will enable your child’s success when they return to school,
  • overcoming problems like working with children of different ages,
  • and ways to assess your children’s learning so you can feel confident they are keeping up with academic standards, if you decide that’s important to you.

If you want to find out more about The Confident Homeschooler you can do that at yourparentingmojo.com/confidenthomeschooler.

But with many districts announcing that they are moving to remote-only learning for at least the first part of the fall semester, many parents are no longer in a position where they’re choosing whether homeschooling is right for them, they’re doing some form of it whether they want to or not. And parents are panicking. They’re panicking about their children’s learning, and whether their children are somehow going to ‘fall behind’ if they can’t make attending school two days a week work, or if they already know from what happened in Spring that their child just isn’t going to be able to sit in front of Zoom calls for even an hour each day.

Parents who are in this position are starting to form what are being called Pandemic Pods, and if you haven’t heard of these yet then you will most likely be hearing more about them soon. They pretty much exploded over social media just last weekend here in the Bay Area, and I expect they’ll move outward from there to other places where schools are closed. So a Pandemic Pod is a small group of families that are getting together to support their child’s development and learning in some way. Exactly how that will be done depends on the age of the children; for younger children this might essentially be a nanny share arrangement. For older ones there would be some aspect of supporting the children’s learning, and this can vary from learning about things the children are interested in to making sure the children complete every assignment sent home by the school district and ensuring readiness for the next grade of learning when school reopens.

On the first day people were talking about Pandemic Pods there was a huge rush to form them. And then the very next day, it seemed like people realized the social justice considerations of what are essentially networks of affluent parents, who are often but not always white, either withdrawing their child from school or providing this extra tutoring to ensure their child stays on track with the school-provided learning objectives. And there are other considerations like how many families you’ll work with, and whether each family is comfortable really socially isolating so the pod’s potential for exposure is minimized, and whether the children will wear masks all day every day, and whether the caregiver or tutor will wear a mask inside your house all day every day.

But I do believe there are ways to set pods up that address many of these logistical issues, as well as the social justice considerations, for two reasons. I think there can be a bit of a reflexive cry of “public schools are the most equitable arrangement possible, and Pandemic Pods reek of white privilege.” We’ll get to the public schools issue in a bit, so let’s take the privilege aspect first. If white people are using their networks to identify resources that not everyone can access then that’s a classic case of what’s called Opportunity Hoarding, which we discussed in depth in the episode on white privilege in schools. If white people are forming pods and then reaching out to parents of non-dominant cultures and inviting them in to ‘sprinkle a little diversity on top’ primarily for the benefit of our own child then we’re basically just perpetuating white supremacy.

(And if this is the first time you’re hearing this phrase ‘people of non-dominant cultures,’ then it’s a term I use to avoid centering whiteness, and to recognize the power imbalance inherent in systemic racism.)

But there are ways to form these pods that don’t do that. A Pandemic Pod doesn’t inherently perpetuate white supremacy. The way the pod is formed CAN do that, or can NOT do that. So if a white parent reaches out to people of non-dominant cultures, maybe parents of other children at the white family’s school, or maybe through a local church and asks what resources parents need access to, then you can open a conversation. What you may well find is that while you are feeling overwhelmed and panicked because this is the first time our social systems have really completely failed us, that families of non-dominant cultures have robust support systems that have thus far flown under the radar. So if you ask them what they need, a group of families might already have a long-standing support system and ask you to purchase wifi access for them, and then encourage you not to engage further with them, thank you very much. They might be deeply suspicious of your motives, as, frankly, I probably would be too if I were them. But it’s possible that by starting a conversation about what they’re seeing and what are their needs, and what you’re seeing and what are your needs, that you’ll be able to open up a space that is truly inclusive, not just tokenistically inclusive.

By making the needs of others at least as important as your own needs, and even centering their needs above yours, you’re doing the real work of dismantling white supremacy here. This is really it. You’re listening to the needs of people of non-dominant cultures, and you’re acting on them not out of a sense of duty and obligation and white saviorism, but because your survival and your child’s survival are wrapped up in their survival and their child’s survival. You will sink or swim together. This is the work Black people are asking us to do to dismantle the systems that have given us so much power and privilege for so many years.

So if you’d like more information on how to form a pandemic pod, from whether you should start one in the first place, to way more of these social justice considerations, to the kinds of questions you’ll want to ask the other families participating, how to identify a caregiver or tutor and what to ask them in an interview, to what the children should be learning and how to know if they are learning, to minimizing costs, then my new Pandemic Pod ‘in a box’ course is for you. You can learn more and sign up today at yourparentingmojo.com/pandemicpods.

Now I do want to come back to this issue of public schools being the most equitable arrangement possible for children, and the idea that if we aren’t supporting public schools then we aren’t doing anti-racist work because it’s intimately connected to the idea of socialization.

I think when many parents are thinking of the issue of socialization they’re thinking about it at one level, as I was as well before I started looking into it, so we’ll start there before we go deeper. We’re thinking about the interactions our children are missing out on with other children, and whether that’s a big deal to their development. And fortunately for us, that’s actually a relatively easy question to answer. So maybe this will be a super short episode and we’ll call it done? But come on; I know you know me better than that!

So when we think about this issue of socialization with other children, and whether not being able to be around other children for a long time is problematic, we can say that in many cases the answer here is ‘no.’ I’m thinking back to our episode on the concept of Self-Reg®, which is the term that Dr. Stuart Shanker coined, and which is ““a powerful method for understanding stress and managing tension and energy, which are key to enhancing self-regulation in children, youth and adults of all ages. Decades of research have shown that optimal self-regulation is the foundation for healthy human development, adaptive coping skills, positive parenting, learning, safe and caring schools, and vibrant communities.”

In that episode we looked at a lot of research on childhood stressors, and specifically at some definitions published by the Center for the Developing Child at Harvard University, which distinguishes between three types of stress:

A positive stress response is “a normal and essential part of healthy development, characterized by brief increases in heart rate and mild elevations in hormone levels. Some situations that might trigger a positive stress response are the first day with a new caregiver or receiving an injected immunization.

A Tolerable stress response activates the body’s alert systems to a greater degree as a result of more severe, longer-lasting difficulties, such as the loss of a loved one, a natural disaster, or a frightening injury. If the activation is time-limited and buffered by relationships with adults who help the child adapt, the brain and other organs recover from what might otherwise be damaging effects.

And a Toxic stress response can occur when a child experiences strong, frequent, and/or prolonged adversity—such as physical or emotional abuse, chronic neglect, caregiver substance abuse or mental illness, exposure to violence, and/or the accumulated burdens of family economic hardship—without adequate adult support. This kind of prolonged activation of the stress response systems can disrupt the development of brain architecture and other organ systems, and increase the risk for stress-related disease and cognitive impairment, well into the adult years.

While we can see that daycares and schools being closed for a long period of time doesn’t exactly fit the time-limited criteria of the positive stress response, if our child is at home with at least one loving parent, then the stress of not being able to see their friends is not likely to be harmful to the child. Of course, this may not be the case if being at home exposes the child to things like domestic violence or caregivers who regularly humiliate the child, or other types of situations that we know are traumatic, and remove children from the sources of support they may have had in school.

The other side of this high-level question is that even when the child seems happy and reasonably well adjusted, are they missing out on some kind of skill building that they can only get by being around other children in daycare or school. I do wish I could remember where I read it, but I do recall seeing someone somewhere explain what a strange idea it is that we put all the people in our ‘village’ who are the same age, and who lack social skills, and we put them all together with the smallest possible number of adults we can and expect the children to learn social skills.

We do know that children can effectively learn skills like manners and sharing from their parents and caregivers, so just because your child isn’t around other children doesn’t mean that they aren’t going to learn these skills. And there’s no research indicating that children who aren’t around big groups of other children for extended periods come to some kind of developmental harm because we just wouldn’t have made it as a species if we needed this. All children enjoy play and create opportunities to play when they can, even when it isn’t culturally sanctioned. But they don’t have to have large groups of friends to learn how to play. They can learn with siblings, or with parents spending a bit of time with them each day, and by themselves, and with one or two other children occasionally if you’re able to do that.

That said, if your child is extroverted and gets energy from a lot of social contact with others, and especially if you’re an introvert and need more quiet time, or if your child has a condition like autism that makes social contact with others important and that person simply cannot be you 100% of the time, then absolutely you can look for a friend or a small group of friends to co-isolate with to slightly expand your social bubble and give yourself a break. But it’s possible that it isn’t contact with people their own age is actually the critical factor, and rather it’s just contact with other people that’s the important ingredient, and so having a teen or another adult or even a grandparent spend time with the child could also be beneficial.

But let’s dig a little deeper into this, and ask ourselves what we *really* mean by socialization. And we can start to get at this tangentially by asking why it matter so much that our children have the experience of being around others. What are we trying to do by doing this? We’re trying to give them experiences with other children, and also with other adults – the teachers, with a goal of giving them skills to succeed in the world. And what kinds of skills do they need to learn to succeed in the world? Basically, they need to learn the skills to understand what it means to move around in a world that is dominated by white norms.

Now I need to give a hat tip here to early childhood education consultant Ijumaa Jordan, whom I heard interviewed on the Pre-K Teach & Play podcast which is hosted by Dr. Kristie Pretti-Frontczak. I already had a bit of background knowledge on how whiteness is the assumed norm in most situations in the world – we can see this when a news reporter refers to a white man as a ‘man,’ and a Black man as a ‘Black man’ – because whiteness is the assumed norm, the reporter didn’t need to mention the white man’s race. That’s just one tiny example, but it shows how when a group of white people are together, it’s a space that is assumed to be neutral. Race isn’t an issue. Race only becomes an issue when someone of another race comes into the space, or when a white person finds themselves in a room full of people of other races.

In this podcast episode, Ijumaa Jordan talks about how dominant white culture shows up in preschool classrooms. One way this happens is through time; where you show up at a certain time (which is called ‘being on time’), and then things happen in a linear sequence that functions as a schedule. In other places, and Jordan gives the Caribbean as an example, that time is more circular and based on relationships, and things don’t happen until the right people get there. In our classrooms we might start at 9am, and 10:00 is group time, and 11:00 is outside time, and at 11:25 we start transitioning to washing hands, and at noon everyone has to sit down and eat their lunch. There’s no space for anyone who doesn’t feel like going outside that day, or isn’t hungry at noon, to do anything different. And when we’re talking about children of non-dominant cultures, the teacher will then sometimes say “they come from such chaotic homes…” and frame it up as preschool training the child to do something the parents have failed to do, which is to accept a view of time that is used by white culture. Some things do run on time, and we need to be ready for them. But this is my interjection here; the majority of the schedules we thrust on our children we do because it makes our lives easier. We might tell ourselves that our children ‘do better’ when they are on a schedule, and by that we usually mean that they are more compliant, and that the behavior they show when they’re on a schedule might be easier for us to cope with. But maybe it’s possible that another schedule would work better for them than the one we arbitrarily impose, or maybe they really don’t need as much of a schedule as we think they do.

This idea of scheduling becomes problematic in a couple of ways. Firstly if we’re looking at federally or state-funded programs like Head Start then those programs tend to require that parents show up with their children by a certain time, and if you’re regularly late then you get written up and you could potentially lose access to the services that you rely on to take care of your child while you work. So there’s not much flexibility there to account for whatever reality you’re facing with getting your kids out the door that morning. And you might say ‘well, if there were really mostly white kids in the school, does it even matter if we use this highly scheduled approach?’ and Ijumaa Jordan says yes it does, because we’re teaching our children the dominant narrative, that the white way of viewing time is the right way to view time.

Another way white norms show up is around being quiet. There’s a pretty clear white cultural norm around being quiet. I haven’t been to church in a long time, but I used to...

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