If someone had told me 6 months ago that I’d be advocating for kids to play together 6 feet apart, I wouldn’t have believed it. As an early childhood educator, the idea, out of context, makes me very uncomfortable. But time and shifting realities change things, and now, it feels imperative.

My father has helped me around many twists in life’s road with his saying, “What’s real isn’t always what’s ideal, and what’s ideal is rarely real.” I’ve never felt it more applicable or helpful than while parenting and educating during COVID-19. Things are not ideal in many, fundamental ways, and yet here we are. Though hopefully not forever, this is our reality, and probably will be for a while.

This begs big questions for parents and educators alike—do we anchor on what is ideal or on what is real as we support our kids during such a wild time? Do we hold kids precious and protect them from this reality, or do we help them to navigate within and adapt to it? Which will help them to thrive more in the long term?

My vote: Let go of “ideal” and parent for real.

In any given moment we have two options: to step forward into growth or to step back into safety. —Abraham Maslow

Kids will roll with it if you let them

Humans—especially wee ones—are naturally quite resilient, adaptable and hopeful. Kids don’t rage against reality like we adults often do—they tend to roll with things, especially if we give them the okay and support to do so.

My oldest was born with a club foot, and I was totally overwhelmed when her doctor told us 10 month old Maeve had to wear special boots locked together with a metal bar—all day long. My heart ached for my speedy crawler the first day I set her down on the floor, and it sank when another mom dropped a “so sorry!” on me at music class later that same day. This was not ideal. I called the orthopedist and implored him to find another way, but he insisted she would be fine, and that this was what she really needed.

How did Maeve react? As I was freaking out, she was moving from puzzled to frustrated to “I got this.” Within a day, she figured out how to make life work with her new constraint. Today, she is literally the fastest girl in her class—the kid is born to run. Maybe even more powerfully, Maeve is persistent and confident—and I have no doubt that navigating this challenge early on contributed to that. It’s wild to think of all she would have missed if I had insisted on saving her from what felt so hard on her in that moment instead of supporting what she really needed, even though it felt hard.

Kids don’t suffer the loss of the ideal

Fast forward to today, and many of us are torn between the ideal and real—between taking and foregoing chances to help kids adjust to this moment. It’s a hard balance to strike.

Many people are leaning into this new normal and bringing their children along, showing them how to learn new ways of doing things and make this new reality work—just like Maeve and her boots and bar. On the other hand, I have heard equally caring adults grow fiercely attached to an ideal view of life for kids.

For example, some say that it would be terrible to ask a 3-year-old to wear a mask, or for a child to see their teacher or parent wear a mask. It’s true that some 3-year-olds need time to make friends with masks. But with practice, nearly every little kid I’ve seen takes to it just fine—and there are many ways to make mask wearing feel normal and fun for kids. I have also observed kids adjust quite quickly to the masks around them, learning to see a smile reflected in someone’s eyes or to use thumbs up or down to communicate feelings. Plus, learning to wear the mask teaches kids that they can adapt.

I’ve also heard people say that it would be psychologically damaging to ask a child to keep social distance from a friend or loved one. For sure, it feels neither natural nor easy for kids to hold back from being close and even embracing one another or their elders. Again, as an early childhood educator, I would certainly not advise it under normal circumstances. That desire to touch is a sweet feature of our early days on the planet. It is also understandable that educators and parents alike find it easier not to ask kids to even try, especially if you live in a place where you may be judged when your child needs reminders or practice.

But is it really damaging to ask kids to learn to keep close to family while keeping a 6-foot bubble from others? Really? The alternative to asking kids to learn to keep social distance can mean isolation from friends and family, lost chances to be among other people and feel part of a community. For many families, that would also mean not seeing grandparents who are at risk. Is that a better option? And what lesson does avoiding these social encounters teach our kids?

Distancing with kids is doable

There are many ways to make 6 feet feel connected and sweet. Our family loves to give air hugs, and we practice with grandparents, with friends and even at Tinkergarten, the early education program for which I serve as director. Others have made up special waves or focused on hugging stuffed animals or pillows until we can hug the real people again.

We don’t need to tell kids that getting close is “bad” or “dangerous” for them to learn to keep distance. At Tinkergarten, we talk to kids about “keeping our 6 foot bubble to “keep everyone safe,” rather than use fear of the virus. The very reason we are staying away is extremely sweet—it is a loving and caring act to preserve your friend’s bubble, and little kids can really get behind that idea.

Though there’s a temptation to worry that kids will suffer without the chance to embrace others, remember that they can still cuddle, snuggle and squeeze their immediate family and designated “safe” people almost endlessly these days, as most of us are together all the time.

Teaching kids to “keep each other safe” is nothing new for us at Tinkergarten. Take stick play, for example. When kids play with sticks there is real danger that a child could poke himself or another child. We adults have two choices—take all of the sticks away or make some simple rules for the sticks like, “sticks need space” or “sticks can touch all kinds of things, but NOT another friend’s body.” Removing all danger is easier on adults for sure, but kids lose out on learning so many lessons and the joy of stick play! If you continue to gently remind kids of the rules, eventually they’ve got them.

Kids need reminders

Reminders are our powerful tool. Little kids do not have strong impulse control, so it will take reminding them and reminding them and reminding them. But that is exactly how little kids learn—through repetition and gentle reminders. If you can make the reminders fun, shame-free and kid-centered, it’s actually enjoyable to teach and watch your kids learn to mind their space bubble. For example, we love playing like lobsters at Tinkergarten—backing up just a bit to help kids learn to keep their space bubbles in place.

Choosing social distance is a privilege

Many kids and families have already been learning and practicing social distance, especially those who do so because real is their only option. This includes children of first responders, and children whose parents or grandparents are at risk or ill, and it will include the many children who will go back to school again this fall, no matter what school looks like.

It is a privilege to advocate for what is ideal for your children—an option that not all parents have. No matter how you feel about the new normal, we can all contribute ideas and support to those who are working to help children keep safely distanced as they learn and play together. At the very least, before we buck against those efforts on principle, let’s be really certain that we have both the evidence and the true need to do so.

Let’s put ideal in our back pocket and parent for real

“Challenges are gifts that force us to search for a new center of gravity. Don’t fight them. Just find a new way to stand.” —Oprah Winfrey

So much of how our kids adapt to new challenges is how we present and respond to those challenges. That has never been more true than it is now.
Let’s never lose sight of what is ideal. Let’s agree to look forward to days when it’s easier, more natural and more free to let our kids be and play like kids have long been able to do. But, let’s not let the ideal be the enemy of all of the good lessons and good chances to be together that are real in this moment.

This post originally appeared on Tinkergarten.

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