On Friday night, I played Scrabble with my 8-year-old son. Not on a screen or an app. But on the ancient multipaneled board that requires a working knowledge of origami to unfurl.
He beat me, riding S-A-N-I-T-I-Z-E, a Triple Word Score, and serendipity to victory.
On Saturday, we hiked through Pocahontas State Park. Our hands got dirty, and my 5-year-old daughter didn’t wash them for at least a few hours. It felt ... exhilarating!
Recent history and breathless cable news coverage suggest that shopping at Costco can be more dangerous than entering Mad Max’s dystopian Thunderdome. (“Two men enter; one leaves with a 64-ounce jar of off-brand mayo …”). And that you can take a 12-pack of two-ply toilet paper to a trading post, and leave with a Range Rover and a gently used hot tub.
But when you cut through the noise, long lines and hysteria — warranted or not — there’s another behavior emerging. It’s a behavior that’s a welcome record scratch to our frenzied routines and the B-side to the bumper stickers slapped to the back of my Honda Odyssey.
It’s family time in the raw. No youth soccer leagues or Girl Scout cookie sales to lean on. No bouncy-house birthday parties or dance rehearsals to serve as parental stunt doubles. No Science Museum of Virginia, Great Wolf Lodge, or Disney World to escape to. Not even any school — it’s just kids, parents and 35 pounds of pasta.
Take a moment and reflect. How many times have you told your kids “soon” or “right after this” — and then bribed them with something that has 700 percent of their daily allowable sugar to make up for letting the moment pass? I stopped counting. How many times over the past week, month or year have you yearned for more uninterrupted time with your children, but work and life have sucked it away like an informercial vacuum?
Sure, this isn’t how we fathomed that ideal parent-kiddo bonding time. It’s not two free weeks at a posh, secluded Outer Banks beach house untethered from your smartphone and laptop. And yes, we’ve got work to get done. But it’s a chance. It’s a chance to show our children what we’re capable of at our very best. It’s a chance to give them the reassurance that while this seems to be growing into a crisis more each day, it doesn’t need to feel like a crisis.
As a dad of two, a three-time parenting columnist, a full-time work-from-homer, and someone who’s been preparing for this for six weeks, I have some tips to share. (Yes, I’m also an alarmist and borderline conspiracy theorist, but sometimes it pays off.)
Leverage your parenting challenges into strengths.
For example, are you short on T.P.? Maybe you’ve also been complaining about all the lone, mismatched socks taking up space in your kids’ drawers. No toilet paper? An excess of mate-less socks? You do the math.
Balance new-world hygiene with letting kids be kids.
Just three weeks ago, my daughter licked a railing. At a hotel. And not just any hotel, a sleep-away waterslide park overflowing with sticky-fingered kids. If that happened today, #RailingGirl would trend on Twitter. Lay down some ground rules with your brood: No railing licking; no touching of every square inch of every surface area in the event you’re out in public; and keeping fingers out of noses, eyes, mouths and ears — their own and others. (Do I have to mention hand washing anymore? No? Good.)
Plan something special each day.
Take a nature hike. Plan a bike ride. Climb your family tree. Build a pillow fort. Plan that weekend getaway or full-fledged vacation you’ll take in a few months. DIY some hand sanitizer (It’s a thing, and you can make it fun). Drop off a care package for a lonely neighbor complete with kid art. Dump out all the Lego bricks and have your kids construct their school classrooms — maybe adding in wrinkles such as a taco cart here or bouncy house there — before taking on a few assignments the teacher sent home. Yes, there will be days when you play “Frozen 2” on a 10-hour loop — thanks for the early release, Disney — and binge on fruit snacks and Cheetos. No one is judging you.
Do you need a color-coded daily schedule that looks like a doomed game of Tetris to pull off parenting, work and life over the next two weeks? (Or is it months?) Let’s hope not, but whatever works with you. Just remember: Don’t start the dryer or give your kids Kool-Aid within 45 minutes of that big conference call.
If we rise up and hunker down, our kids just might remember this moment as the time they truly got to know you. They will brag to their own kids about the sock-puppet simulation you did of the War of 1812. Or how you tended a makeshift soccer goal in the backyard — and are now wearing a makeshift knee brace fashioned out of a swimming cap. Or how you made your own novel Girl Scout cookie flavor: bacon bits, blue cheese and Sriracha (or whatever is expendable in the fridge).
The COVID-19 Experience, which sounds like a faculty cover band at a school of pharmacology, is ebbing and flowing in real time (but mostly flowing). We don’t know how humor fits into any of this, from scrambling to find child care to rationing canned chickpeas, at all. There are already hundreds of thousands of people who would say this isn’t a laughing matter, and I get it.
Laughter might not be the best cure for this mess, but it’s a language our kids speak fluently. If you don’t believe me, play Scrabble with your kids. Right now.
And even against this backdrop of uncertainty, social distancing and cabin fever, they’ll try to pass off “T-O-O-T-I-F-U-L” as a legit word.
Give them the points and count the Double Word Score. Because life is tootiful.