Parenting in the Pandemic by Samina Hadi-Tabassum

The last two months have turned parenting upside down. Prior to the pandemic, parents were entering a groove as children steadied themselves in their school work, summer camp schedules were posted and parents pounced immediately to sign up for coveted slots, and preparations were under way for spring vacation. The speed and gravity of the COVID-19 virus and its effects on the human body led parents across the country to retreat immediately as news of exponential deaths in urban hot spots like New York, Chicago, and Seattle spread quickly. During this lockdown, our children are at home while we also work from home, and for essential workers, most have to find someone else to look after their children while they serve on the ground. There are many funny memes, cartoons and comedy sketches parodying this upside down world in which parents are monitoring their child’s e-learning while also attending their own Zoom meetings in shared spaces, dressed differently from their everyday work world and all of us behaving in more authentic and brutally real ways with our co-workers.

As we log onto social media, we are seeing examples of phenomenal parenting during the quarantine: parents baking healthy organic bread with their children, finishing off a thousand-piece puzzle together at the uncluttered den table, riding bikes throughout the neighborhood with their face masks and celebrating birthdays with homemade cakes and drive-by cheers from friends and family. Hidden within these images, the concept of helicopter parenting is still there, even under quarantine. Prior to the pandemic, there was rich debate as to whether we were smothering our children with overactive parenting, and subsequently, killing off their creativity and independence while increasing their anxiety and depression. Children of helicopter parents were going to college and depending on their parents for many types of support—from financial support to emotional and psychological support and sometimes academic support. Parents doing the hovering often voiced a sense of guilt for working so much and then these perceptions of inadequacy and neglect led them to a cycle of over parenting.

As an education professor at Erikson Institute, I often ask my graduate students in our core child development courses whether helicopter parenting has both pros and cons and whether we could maintain overactive parenting for so long since human evolution points to the opposite phenomena—just enough parenting to ensure a child’s safe passage to adulthood was the modus operandi. The term “good enough parenting” is one that I am constantly debating each waking morning in this quarantine as my husband and I balance work demands and the e-learning demands of a set of twins in the fourth grade and a sixteen-year-old studying for the ACT and AP Tests all through virtual formats and Facetime with friends.  The concept of the “good enough parent” comes from the British psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott (1957, 1964) who challenged perfectionism in parenting and the idea that parents should be judged by the unattainable ideal. Parents were seen as flawed individuals who would fail at some point in the raising of children; however, the parent eventually should seek redemption and try to remedy the deficit (P. Coate & S. Engstron, 2014). Imperfect parents can raise children to become functional adults, as long as they are not harming the children.

Parents today are struggling with what it means to be a good parent in a pandemic and are constantly engaged in subjective decision-making. What is seen as acceptable parenting? There are definitely more hours of screen time in my home, as well as more frozen pizza lunches and less walks around the block. Who will let us know what is unacceptable parenting in the pandemic? Our children definitely have opinions and emotions about how their own lives have radically changed from a lack of structure and routines to a lack of emotional support from friends and other caring adults. We are now questioning whether it is becoming normative to have our children watch multiple hours of television while we attend virtual meetings, answer emails, and make greater effort to seem like the important employee. In the end, we have to look to our culture and community to find answers as to what is acceptable parenting and where and when the normative becomes borderline abusive.

Kellet and Apps (2009) did offer some insights into what is “good enough” parenting: a) meeting the child’s health and developmental needs; b) putting children’s needs first; c) providing routine and consistent care; and d) parental acknowledgement and engagement. These criteria have been helpful in changing our parenting methods in the recent week—we are trying to pay more attention to the children at specific points throughout the day and checking in to see if they are healthy. There is no doubt that children face greater risks during a pandemic and that the family becomes the sole protective factor as they lose contact with their school, extended family and community members. A safe and secure home environment is becoming more and more important to ensure children’s well-being. However, for many children, the home environment is not a place of safety; rather, it can be a place of risk due to physical, sexual and emotional abuse, which is heightened when parents lose their jobs.

The mental and physical health of the parent plays a role in determining whether a parent is good enough. During these stressful times, addictive behaviors can resurface in parents and children notice these changes in their parents immediately and can become anxious of the sudden shifts in mood within this tightly controlled home environment.  Without external networks and social services, the emphasis must go back to nurturing and the need for parents to being emotionally and physically available for the child at a basic level. That is the simple equation—to play with them, to feed them, to hug them, to read with them.

We may not know what constitutes either an average or an optimum child-rearing environment in a pandemic. In our home, the younger children wake up an hour before us and watch cartoons before bowls of Cheerios make the rounds and just before their two daily hours of e-learning. The teenager wakes up much later and enjoys a carefree morning of smoothies, yoga and then off to her more rigorous e-learning. The twins spend the afternoon chatting with their friends on Zoom, playing video games and riding their bikes around the block when the parents start to turn off devices around 3 PM. We make sure to eat lunch and dinner together and check in on each other throughout the day, even it means yelling and screaming. There are occasional wrestling matches to break up and fights over the remote control. At the end of the night, we are happy as the “good enough” parents and will be even after the pandemic ends.




Mirror Mirror by Samina Hadi-Tabassum

During our early stages of life, our brains start developing a unique set of neuron cells called mirror neurons, which are located in the parietal lobe on the top of our brain where visual and motor abilities intersect. When a baby is just a few weeks old and sees her mother smile, she then also smiles and mirrors this behavior. Months later, if the mother laughs, she will also try to contour her facial muscles and vocal chords to make the same movements and sounds in a form of facial mimicry. One often sees parents sticking out their tongue playfully at the baby and then the baby follows suit and also sticks out her tongue. When the baby grows up and becomes a toddler and sees her mother cry, she will come over in an act of love and cry as well, showing the early signs of empathy that we are wired for at an early age. The toddler’s mirror actions also demonstrate a strong attachment between mother and child. One could also argue that these mirror neurons allow adults to implicitly teach the young, who mirror the adults’ actions, and build scaffolding to ensure the successful adaptation of behaviors leading to human survival.

As adults, we may sit across the table from our friend at a coffee shop, and as our friend starts to cusp his hands around the coffee mug, so will we, without knowing or thinking. If my sister starts playing with her hair while we are talking face-to-face in our kitchen, I will also try to play with my hair, even though I am not conscious of mirroring her actions. Research shows that we keenly observe the objects in our environment, whether it is a loved one or a food object, and try to enact a mirror response. We often come physically closer to that object and contour our bodies and muscles, especially our mouth, in our mirror response.  We watch with our eyes, pay close attention and use inference to produce a reciprocal matched action. In the end, my self-knowledge gets integrated with the knowledge and perception of others. We start to “mentalize or theorize” each other’s actions and points of views.

Mirrors neurons allow us to understand the intentions of others by replicating their actions through stimulus-response associations. In studies conducted with rhesus monkeys initially and then later humans, we watch the mouth movements of others and imitate them, especially when it comes to eating and yawning. We first perceive the motor actions of another person and/or object and then we execute it ourselves, even if we have never experienced that action before. The mirror system only responds to sensory-motor actions and not abstract ideas and thoughts inside our minds. However, this mirror system allows us to learn, sequence and execute complex responses. The more concrete the actions are then the better we can mirror them; abstract motions are less likely to be mirrored. For example, if someone falls down the stairs on a train platform and another person runs to help that person up, then we will also mimic the helping action by simply observing the goal-directed behaviors of others and moving in that same direction and motion to help.

Many psychologists would argue that we are wired for such acts of empathy and that our biology structures us to help each other out in a collective society, whether anonymously on a train platform or with our next door neighbors. Otherwise, we would die quickly and perish if there is no one there to support us when we face our battles, obstacles and storms. Human civilizations started off in tribes of a hundred or less who traveled together, mirroring each other’s behaviors and thoughts. Mirror neurons allow us to work collectively because we know each other’s intentions and act accordingly. However, in the last decade, in our fast paced world, more and more of us began living in solitary spaces, removed from the collective hive. When we start behaving like solitary individuals, we start to see ourselves as set apart from collective groups, especially those who are from different tribes.

In this recent pandemic, we have seen great acts of empathy as human beings reached out and mirrored responses. Walking down the street, I might see a mother and child moving in towards us; however, as we come closer, we mirror each other’s actions and immediately move six feet apart. We are starting to wear masks in public as we see mirror images of masked individuals all around us. We see people at the grocery store standing along the taped lines and get in queue. We are staying home because we are mirrors of each other. That is, our social brain knows what is best for all of us.