Belinda Smith knows the pitfalls of saying the wrong thing — she’s seen it written on little faces.
It can take just two words to crush a child who just toiled away at a painting or drawing, she says: “What’s that?”
Instead, Smith recommends adults say: “Tell me about your picture.”
Nearly six months after widespread stay-at-home orders first went into effect, we have little clarity about when our lives will go back to “normal.” While kids are adjusting to a more constricted life, the void that’s befallen a lot of their schedules — formerly packed with school, playdates and activities — remains.
The coronavirus has limited visits with grandparents, aunts, uncles, godparents and friends. Throughout the hurdles of the past months, desperate parents have reached out to their friends and family to keep their kids busy over FaceTime, Zoom or the old-fashioned phone. These interludes can put a newfound pressure on both sides to make conversations.
Adults used to share outings, meals and other bonding activities to connect with children, but device-enabled visits rely solely on talking, which can be awkward and hard, especially for humans just getting accustomed to language.
“You don’t want to come across as judgmental” if you can’t recognize a rabbit from a hamburger in a young child’s artwork, said Smith, an early childhood development expert and former professor of art education at the University of Missouri in Columbia.
When you ask children to describe their art, “not only does it reveal their thought process, but it helps them create a visual connection with their words as they develop,” Smith said. She sees this during interactions with her own 5-year-old granddaughter.
Los Angeles-based child therapist John Roos suggests trying to create a framework for time with kids. During the pandemic, he’s adjusted his practice to work remotely. Some children don’t like to converse on a screen, so he’ll work with clients on projects.
“Have some continuity and give kids something to look forward to,” Roos said. He suggests writing a story together, drawing together or even sending tandem projects or photos to each other through mail or email.
He’s currently writing a story with a 9-year-old boy who came up with the characters, their attributes and their actions. Roos and the young boy talk about the situations the characters get into and Roos writes the story into a document as they chat. They both watch the story unfold on a shared screen.
“Kids need something to look forward to. It doesn’t have to be a trip to Disneyland,” Roos said, adding that it’s especially important right now when there’s not a strict sense of time. His clients often talk about “when we were back in school” or “after coronavirus,” when in fact, no one knows what’s going to happen next. A shared project can give kids a sense of progression.
Roos notes that while kids have had their connections disrupted, new ones can form.
He works with a 16-year-old girl who he has encouraged to send emails to her adult family members. She writes about what she’s doing to her grandparents and cousins who live across the country on the East Coast or abroad.
“Parents are busy and kids just need some personal feedback,” he said. “The great thing about email is that the replies can come at any time and then she can write back. These are people she wouldn’t normally talk to, so it’s fostering her maturity and relationships.”
Samantha Lock runs a mindfulness studio in the Outer Banks in North Carolina and has dozens of kids in her studio throughout the summer.
She suggests doing something active with kids, like the “Cosmic Kids Yoga” program together.
There are also simple mindfulness exercises to do with children. A favorite in her studio is to “get kids to crunch their toes and let them go, crunch their knees to their chests and let them go, and then clench their fists and let them go.”
In class, she rings a bell and had children raise their hands for as long as they hear the sound, which she says calms them.
But like Smith and Roos, she says the key is to do something.
“They like to move their bodies more than see their faces on the screen,” Lock said.