By Rabbi Jonah Rank
Since COVID-19’s arrival in the United States, working parents in the USA have felt a change at home. As their residences have suddenly become offices and classrooms, many parents feel the collapse of barricades that long protected working parents. There is no escape to work, and there is no respite from parental responsibilities.
Plenty of working parents are freaking out as they learn what their kids require during time slots when these kids used to not require anything (or at least, not this much) of their parents. I am convinced that this culture shock stems from something that humans have often ignored for thousands of years: taking care of our own kids.
For millennia, humans have created (usually understaffed, underfunded and underappreciated) institutions for raising kids — formally (like schools) and informally (like stay-at-home parents — often moms). But once either institution of having-somebody-else-taking-care-of-kids stops operating (say, a school closes or a stay-at-home parent exits the stage), full-time employed parents are given the impossible task of dividing their attention between work and kids.
With children suddenly returning home from college, school or day care after all this time of relieving their guardians of certain supervisory obligations, many parents have begrudgingly welcomed back their descendants. Tweets cheekily describe scenes from their authors’ day by replacing the word “kid” with “coworker” (“My coworker spilled her milk all over my computer”), and Facebook resounds with refrains of resignation (“Can anyone else get any work done with your kids home?”).
If children posted messages on social media substituting the word “parent” with ‘teacher,” I suspect we would see children noticing some lonesomeness now: “Since there’s no school, my teacher lets me just watch TV,” or “My teacher is too busy working to make eye contact with me.”
We know that the USA truly values labor. Employees in the USA work more hours than employees in most other nations, take less vacation, earn less time for family leave and, on the daily level, pause for relatively short lunch breaks (or conduct “working lunches”). American educators (and others serving in helping professions) earn notoriously smaller salaries compared than other well-degreed professionals, and stay-at-home parents in the USA earn no monetary income for parenting. Raising kids has no dollar value.
The mass spread of COVID-19 will test the patience and values of working parents. When the people to whom parents like me outsource child-rearing duties disappear, do we merely keep ourselves sane and the kids alive by offering them the warm blue light of computers, phones, tablets, and TVs? (This decision should not come lightly; research demonstrates that intense exposure to this kind of light messes with circadian rhythms and cognitive functioning.) Alternatively, do we roll up our sleeves and do the hard work of creating an intentional homemade learning environment that caters to our kids’ brains’ and bodies’ needs to work and to rest?
Many folks choose the former — not because they hate their children or because they are ignorant but because these parents do not have the support system that they need in order both to fulfill their paid-work responsibilities and to respond as empathetic caregivers to these young souls. But choosing not to engage our kids meaningfully at this time will have serious repercussions for the long term. This strange time is most likely not a blip in history.
Scientists expect COVID-19 to linger for some time before a vaccine can protect us from the coronavirus (probably at least 17 months away), and, in the best case scenario, confirmed cases of Americans with COVID-19 are expected in July to be thousands more than there are today, and, in any other scenario, hundreds of thousands more than there are today. All this is to say: American kids should not go back to back to school this year — and who knows about next year?
For those who would rather say that parents can’t be responsible for educating their kids, we must consider kids whose schools have not even moved online at all or sent packets home. Many kids have nobody else to enrich them.
Parents ought to take the time now to get used to this level of hands-on parenting. The Wildlife Conservation Society tells us that an increasing number of deadly zoonotic diseases are likely to be transmitted through unstopped wildlife markets. Though this coronavirus outbreak may be a first in my life, I expect a repeat just around the corner. Given all this, I want to do an honest and good job at the child-cultivation bit this time — and next time.
With schools becoming a less-reliable resource, parents have to take matters into their own hands and to take education matters seriously. And to do this, American parents are going to need partners in the American workplace.
As schools may become unreliable, parents must take education seriously at home. To do this, American parents are going to need partners in the American workforce. If the American workplace believes both in its workers and in the future of children, then now is the time for all industries to recognize that all of their employees with loved ones who need attention right now must be paid and given time to be caregivers.
When I put my kids to sleep each night, we sing the ancient verses of the Shema. I pronounce each night a divine command to transmit my values to the next generation: veshinnantam levanekha “You shall teach these matters to your children” (Deuteronomy 6:7).
I detest hypocrisy, and I feel that sending our eldest to school is a big enough concession (and an honest confession about my confidence in my skills as a child-educator). I deem it responsible enough for me to choose a school I love where I can see offspring flourish, but we are living in a time when schools cannot be the only place where education happens. That little phrase in the Shema keeps asking me to take it a little more literally.
American parents like myself have to feed our children, to detach from our phones, and to be present for our children’s questions, concerns, and curiosity — and we have to be proactive. We should not have to choose between our jobs or our kids, but many of us work in jobs that demand precisely this binary.
Right now, working parents have at least two difficult jobs, and we need partners at every level if we believe children are the future.
Jonah Rank is a musician and rabbi who serves as the director of the religious school at Kehilat HaNahar in New Hope.