S01E16: Children & the New Normal

Cover page of Episode 16. It has a child's art on it with green tick and red cross. It has images that explain Keep Distance and Stay Indoors. In a green box on the left it reads: Season 1 with Deepika and Arpita. Below it says Episode 16: Children and the new normal. Right corner has the TCC logo.

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Arpita: Can you introduce yourself please?
Ritwin: Umm No.

Arpita: The great thing about doing anything with kids is that you have to be geared for the unexpected and the hilarious, here I was all ready with my notes and questions trying to chat about the coronavirus and the lockdown and somehow 20 minutes into the conversation we were discussing snakes and their families!

Ritwin: After my friends call me, we go out to play and play and come back again at 6 or 7.
Arpita: Or 8 or 9 or 10!
Ritwin: No! By 8 everyone should go back home but luckily noone is allowed.
Arpita: That sounds nice.
Ritwin: It’s because the snakes come at 8 o’clock.
Arpita: What really? So the snakes have a time table and they’re like it’s 8 o’clock children go home, it’s now time for us to play?
Ritwin: Yeah (giggles)

Arpita: And this is just the beginning of us looping into a discussion on the habits, habitats and rights of baby rat snakes to play spaces! And it’s not only the many tangents that conversations with children take – it’s also the laughter and giggling which remains despite the mayhem that the world feels like these days! So even though we were talking to kids about the pandemic, somehow the conversations didn’t feel quite as heavy and that lightness is just what kids bring to our lives really – but I am so getting ahead of myself here.. So let me begin with introductions! So I spoke to one already seven and one soon to be seven year old – 2 boys and their mums! The first set of conversations were with Ritwin and his mum Sophy!

Ritwin: My name is Ritwin and I am in second grade.
Sophia: Hi, I am Sophia. I’m an entrepreneur staying in Bangalore with my husband Roopak and our seven year old son Ritwin.

Arpita: According to Ritwin, one of his favorite things currently is transformer toys! And then there were the second set of conversations with Anshul and his mum Divya. Anshul and I spoke about fish and octonauts a lot and in between I managed to sneak in the coronavirus!

Anshul: My name is Anshul and i love to play football.
Divya: I’m Divya. I’ve worked in the development sector for several years after which I became a parent and took a break. I have two children one is almost 4 and the other will be 7 in 3 months.

Arpita: And then Deepika spoke to a father daughter duo who live in her building. Kristen, a vibrant active 11 year old and her father Kevin.

Kristen: I’m Kristen, I’m 11 years old and i live in Salhome building, the same building as Deepika!
Kevin: I am Kevin. I have a couple of kids, one’s 16 and the other is 11.

Arpita: So that was 3 kids and 3 parents from 3 cities – Blore, Chennai and Mumbai! All of these 3 cities have been under various forms of lockdowns and restrictions from the end of March and the reason we wanted to speak to the kids and their parents was to begin to wrap our heads around what has been happening with children since the pandemics come around.

In our previous episodes we’ve covered a bit about what has been happening with the most marginalised and vulnerable children where the issues of deprivation and vulnerability are immediate and magnified by the pandemic but this time we thought we should also talk to the neighbourhood kids and their parents and ask them how they’re doing and how the pandemic has affected their lives. The reason for this is simple enough – childhood is a formative period of life and even though the Covid-19 infection it seems might be sparing the bodies of children, there are very real grounds of concern for what is happening to them based on the unnatural ‘new normal’ that has now settled around them.

Disasters as per definition are ‘one-time or ongoing events of human or natural cause that lead groups of people to experience stressors including the threat of death, bereavement, disrupted social support systems, and insecurity of basic human needs such as food, water, housing, and access to close family members’. While the jury might still be out on how exactly to classify a pandemic – it clearly contains the stressors the definition covers. While the degree of hurt might be lesser than those who are most vulnerable, there is cause for concern for those not immediately on the margins too.

Just yesterday my little nephews who are 7 and 10 years old, and who have been cooped up in their apartment in Mumbai for four months having barely stepped out at all or seen any other face than that of their parents – were woefully wishing they were here with me because I have a terrace and a garden to play in!

In conversation with the kids the starkness of the shift in their situation was revealed simply in the naming of what their schedules were like before the pandemic. This was Kristen describing her very full day before the pandemic came about.

Kristen: So it would be me getting up, going to tuitions, coming home, going for swimming, coming to school ..coming from swimming straight to school not coming home, eating lunch, continuing my entire school day, coming home, going out with my friends. We’d normally play football, play cricket, go cycling, go for walks around the blocks, simple activities but we’d really enjoy it. Then come back home, eat dinner, bathe, sleep. But the main part of my life in my house was just me sleeping and eating, that too if you don’t count breakfast and then one full meal.

Arpita: And this sounded strikingly similar to what I heard from Ritwin and Anshul though of course a 11 year old is much more independent. In some ways their lives were scheduled and very full because of firstly, the demands of school and then there were all the activities they were up to post school! Here’s Ritwin telling me how he squeezed the most of his every minute post returning from school on a regular day.

Ritwin: Come back home, one of my favorite things to do would be I would race back, the door would not be locked, and come back, open the door, the dor won’t be that locked from the inside and it would just be open, few of the times it would be locked, I go in on the TV, run before it comes on, wash my hands and legs and come back, by that time the TV would be on, take the remote and then watch my favorite channel! After my friends call me, we go out to play and play and come back again at 6 or 7.

Arpita: And then post pandemic all this totally changed! All the outdoorsy elements of their lives were suddenly gone – no school and no going out to play. Sophy shared what it felt like to Ritwin.

Sophy: Post pandemic you can imagine it’s it’s.. everything has vanished right? I mean, his school. Well when most of us when we..you know if the pandemic would happen to us and when we were kids I would be very happy at least ‘okay, I’m not going to school’. But for Ritwin it is not the fact.. he misses school and he misses his play time with his friends here in our community. So it’s like a double whammy for him.

Arpita: As Sophy explained it, Ritwin was pretty strongly hit by the loss of his access to the outer world be it school or his immediate community. Yet what I think also became evident in our multiple conversations was that while all children were faced within this scenario of suddenly losing parts of their schedules which functioned in tandem with being outdoors, the experience of the isolation was mediated by different factors. For Divya’s two sons of 4 and almost 7, the initial period of the lockdown wasn’t so difficult because to some extent they still had each other to play with.

Divya: They took it in stride in that sense and we used to make up by playing a lot with them and we still do but at that time, especially we would be in their room and we would make sure that we were playing with them and being with them at that time and just trying not to let them feel the absence of their friends as much during that period. But then when the lockdown actually came they saw that their friends are not downstairs and everything and and in the beginning like they were quite energetic and played around a lot. I mean a different sort of energy, you know when school is closed and you’re just home and there’s nothing really stopping you from doing anything.

Arpita: For them, Divya said, it took time for the experience to sink in. For two weeks the boys were happy to be free from school and just be playing with each, happy in their totally open days of endless play. But slowly as the weeks passed, the unnaturalness of the situation began making its presence felt even with them. The difference in outcomes between the two homes spoke to me of two elements that might decipher a child’s experience during a lockdown – one is having a sibling of maybe similar age to share the experience with, two, of course the personality of the child involved. Some are more gregarious and outgoing, while others are happier by themselves.

Meanwhile, our conversation with Kevin pointed to one more important factor – that of how being in different age groups spoke to how the situation impacted you.

Kevin: Yeah so there were two primary concerns, one was around elder son having his board exams and there was a lot of ambiguity as to what was going to happen and how the exams were going to proceed. Yeah so just the lack of clarity meant a significant amount of stress for him, and we saw that manifest itself in different ways with him being under that stress. And for us as parents as well, not knowing what’s going to happen and when it was going to happen and if it was going to happen. In terms of our younger daughter Kristen, she had earned a break after a whole academic year and we were wondering if she’s going to bounce off the walls as she’s very energetic and creative and we were wondering how are we going to channel all this energy if you can’t step out of the front door.

Arpita: So what became almost immediately evident is that age plays an important part in mediating the impact this situation has in the lives of kids. On one end are older kids like Johann who were preparing for an already stressful exam like the boards, thrown into a situation of confusion because for a while there it was unclear how the exams would proceed, added to the uncertainty brought on by an invisible virus. And then there’s Kristen who is 11 and already energetic outdoorsy, barely at home, wrapped in her whirlwind schedule of school and friends and activities who is suddenly faced with stillness and limited within the four walls of her house.

And then there are all the toddlers and young children like Dhruv, Divya’s younger son who is four, who likes being out and about even if its by himself running and playing in the mud, and of course Anshul his 7 year old brother and Ritwin who is also seven – being somewhere a little ahead on the spectrum on the cusp of socialising with peer groups, missing their friends and school communities.

In a paper on ‘The Impacts of Natural Disaster on Children’ the author Carolyn Kousky points out specifically how developmental stage and age make a difference to how a situation may impact children. She says: Children’s physiology makes them more vulnerable than adults to certain health impacts. (…) They can also be at a point in their development where health problems today can have long-term consequences. They may have greater trouble processing emotional trauma. For all those reasons, a natural disaster may affect a child quite differently from the way it affects an adult. Indeed, it may affect children quite differently depending on their ages.

Considering that the pandemic has challenged us even as fully grown adults and many of us struggle to really understand what the situation implies and means, it comes as no surprise that articulating and understanding the pandemic and its related consequences can be difficult on children. Especially as cocooned within their homes it can seem distant and abstract. When I asked Anshul what he understood about Covid-19, he said this.

Anshul: That it’s called Covid-19 and it’s called Covid-19 because it was discovered in 2019.

Arpita: Kristin, who is older, shared what she understood of the pandemic.

Kristen: According to me it’s a pain. I understand that it’s a very serious thing and it’s a world wide pandemic which basically I’m not the only one going through it and I can’t really be complaining because we haven’t got the worst of the worst. Other people may be having it worse than I have because I’m healthy and I’m safe.

Arpita: For most children, the clearest understanding of what the pandemic means comes from what changes it has wrought in their lives. For example, in Ritwin’s case, it was the inability to go out and meet his friends and play, which as Sophy explained resulted in this situation.

Sophy: Ritwin is a very outdoorsy person and naturally, he was very very very agitated. And kept wanting to go out to play. And to make him understand how serious this pandemic situation was we kept trying to tell him about a lot of things about how people are dying how they can’t get medicines. Nobody has got the vaccine for it and how people are like actually very sick how the doctors are, you know, finding it difficult to handle all these people in different countries, then suddenly it occurred to us how does impact information will actually affect him and impact him. Will he be scarred, will he be worried, will he be thinking of or get pre-occupied with the concept of death.

Arpita: Sophy’s concerns are very real. Research confirms something that most parents know instinctively. Stress flows both ways. Stressed parents, which frankly let us admit is almost all parents right now, might inadvertently pass on their stress to their children leading to behavioural issues and vice versa. Yet stress can have a lasting effect on children’s long term well-being. Hence, being sensitive to what we pass on to children is important, how we share, curate, speak of, internalise and express our views about the situation is important. Sophy explained how once they became cognizant of how their own preoccupation and sharing of the negative news cycle might be affecting Ritwin, they changed strategies.

Sophy: So what we did is we started looking at the positive news. We ourselves began consuming positive news and in turn giving him positive news and that has helped because it’s giving him hope more than actually of depressing concepts you know of the number of cases – in Bangalore in Karnataka, in India across the world. We are now looking at you know, how are people progressing in finding a solution in terms of vaccine, how quickly are people able to turn out PPE kits, how quickly are people being able to screen so many people, so those news we try and give it to our son more than you know the number of deaths. So that I think has shifted the vibes around our place.

Arpita: She shared how this didn’t necessarily address the issue of not being able to play because that’s a difficult one, but it did help them create a more positive entry point into the complex conversation on the pandemic.

Divya on the other hand shared that though it didn’t seem like her two boys were very preoccupied with the coronavirus and its outcomes and seemed largely happy within their own worlds, the virus did pop up once in awhile in questions about the well-being of the elders of Anshul’s life – like his grandparents and his great grandmother – because he had heard that it affects older people more. Interestingly though, another maybe slightly unexpected place where the coronavirus showed up was in their play!

Divya: They kind of created a contraption to kill the coronavirus and I don’t remember exactly but in between a dinosaur ate the coronavirus so they had to kill the dinosaur! We’ve also in between played doctor. So my elder son kind of created this medicine called Cronofix and he was administering it to all of us because we had coronavirus and tell us exactly how to kind of have the medicine and things like that and then you would be fine. More recently my younger one created something where he was turning coronavirus in water, you know, he was transforming the coronavirus into water and at the end of which he kind of told us that now you know, the coronavirus is gone and now we can go out and play.

Arpita: Divya, who alongside being a mom is also an ardent advocate of ‘play’ and has written extensively about the benefits of play for children – pointed out how playing often is a form of coping, especially for young children who might not necessarily be able to articulate their anxiety and frustrations regarding their experience.

This stance is supported by research too. In one such paper titled ‘Healthy Play, Better Coping: The importance of play for the development of children in health and disease’, the authors strongly emphasise the value of play. They say: From a therapeutic perspective, play as intervention is valuable because play: (1) regulates negative affect and diminishes stress, (2) facilitates coping with adverse events, (3) is useful for processing new information both cognitively and emotionally by allowing for order and integration, (4) is a safe way to practice new behaviour and experiment with solutions, (5) stimulates fantasy and creative (divergent) thinking and (6) stimulates the development of empathy.

These are all precious qualities that we all wish to cultivate and support in our children. It is also the reason that play is one of the first tools used to stabilise and bring normalcy to the lives of kids living in conflict situations. Play is central to the well-being of children. Not just their emotional well-being but also their physiological and social well-being.

This also means though that the long term lack of access to the outside and to peer groups is a very justified concern. In our previous episodes we’ve also spoken to the therapeutic effects of nature on humans. This issue of playing outside has been made all the more complex where people who are living close together, in apartments for instance, might be making different choices for their children. While some still send them out to play with other children, many other parents have made the decision to keep the kids home.

Sophy: See the thing is our son is a very chatty and social kid right? I keep wondering what all of this isolation will have …this time na how it will have a long-term effect. Like I can see him already being sad, gloomy. I see random shifts in his behavior where he is you know where he is crying one moment, weeping, throwing a lot of tantrums and one of the most important things is that he feels that his friends who are continuing to play outside, will forget him when he gets out after the pandemic.

Arpita: Keeping an eye out for behavioural shifts is important in understanding and responding to how our children might be feeling and managing their sense of loss. Because really, the loss is very real. It was obvious in the conversation with each child.

For children, self directed unstructured play, either alone or with their peers outside, is also often the moment where their unlimited energies are most occupied and when they experience for a short while a space free of expectation and outcomes – a space where they can just be – independent and unsupervised, genuine protagonists of their own lives.

When we asked kids if they had questions and concerns for the future, they all had the same question and the same tone of frustration. Here’s Kristen putting it across strongly.

Kristen: When will this end? Are we at the worst part of the pandemic? Is it gonna get worse? And when is the next time I can actually go out and leave my house? I mean you can do that now, but youre still running a huge risk. So when will the risk be so low that i can actually go and be like – I’m free!

Arpita: Ritwin added his conundrum to this issue. He told us in the conversation how because of all the excessive energy he had that he could not use being cooped up in the house, he was finding it hard to sleep. He explained it like this.

Ritwin: I have energy to stay awake.
Arpita: You still have energy to stay awake?
Ritwin: Yeah.
Sophy: So why do you have energy to stay awake?
Ritwin: Because I don’t get to play, I don’t use my energy to run around!

Arpita: It’s been more than four months of the pandemic now and parents have been grappling with the many shifts and changes that have come through this period, the range of questions that their children are putting in front of them everyday. As Radhika, the founder of the NGO Astha, said in our previous episode, parents have tremendous experience and wisdom that they intuitively apply to these situations. So we inquired what methods of coping they had found that helped their children.

Kevin shared how working with Kristen on her day and adding new elements to it helped settle her down.

Kevin: If there had been no lockdown, she would have been getting up early and going cycling with friends and that was something she had done in previous vacations so that represented a change in the routine. There was an initial lethargy about: ‘hey why do I even need to get up in the morning? There’s nothing there that I necessarily need to look forward to’. And then as we started supplementing her routine with activities that were contained to the home environment that was cooking or artwork or we put her on a new application for french language, brought a little structure into learning mathematical tables – once we started adding some components into the day then atleast there was some diversity of activities to keep her occupied.

Arpita: Experts who work on building back a sense of safety and security for children post disaster, death or trauma – agree that schedules and routines play an important role in restoring a sense of normalcy to children’s lives. Routines are comforting because they give children a realistic sense and expectation of their day. Little things like: eating meals at regular times, regular bedtimes, assigning simple tasks and chores to older kids, exploring activities of interest – can all help them settle down, direct their energies constructively and feel like they’ve regained some sense of control over their lives.

Kevin: It’s this ability to let the child explore things at their pace. So that was brilliant cause there was no time clock associated with the anything now, that they needed to do it and accomplish it now – that typical pressure associated with getting things done, check boxed, accomplished. That went away for a little bit and we said that the whole world’s on a pause button so might as well enjoy the time and do it at your pace.

Divya also seconded this opinion of letting children have days free of expectations and to just let them be. She outlined why this was important to her and the kids.

Divya: Because I think given the situation of a lockdown and not being able to go out at all and not having any respite, you know from the way in which you’re living your life. And also like the complete lack of socialization. You know the boys were there for each other all the time, you know, and I didn’t want to come in the way of that. So they spent a lot of time with each other and it is the most time they’ve ever spent with each other and when they were with each other especially they’re kind of good. They’re looking after themselves, they’re distracted, they’re playing, they’re doing what they want to do. And that makes the day a lot easier for us as well instead of going against the grain and say now you have to do this and now you have to do this. And having an imposed schedule is always a lot tougher especially with kids.

I also kind of think that children are capable of a lot by themselves and learning a lot by themselves as long as you let them let them explore things that they want to explore and and the way in which they want to explore you know. I mean, I think these are the kinds of freedom that we need to be giving our children just now. It’s an opportunity to know your children for who they are and not for what curriculums are teaching them in that sense.

Arpita: She added how going out was an ordeal currently as it meant putting on a mask and being on constant watchful behaviour which was just very difficult for little children and led to both the children and the parents being stressed out. Anshul shared what one of the primary reasons for this was.

Anshul: Because I have to wear a mask because it makes it harder to breathe. There’s another reason why I don’t like wearing masks cause when I sweat it all gets into my mask and it gets hot.

Arpita: These frankly seemed completely understandable reasons to me. I cant imagine anyone enjoying a sweaty mask on their face! Hence, within the home, keeping it free of excessive rules and structure, made them happier and allowed the day to be better for the whole family, Divya shared.

Yet there was another recurrent theme with the kids that was hard to ignore. Boredom.

Kristen: But the thing is that when you’re at home sometimes you get really bored. Just that even though I don’t mind being at home it’s actually just real fun to be with your parents, be with your sibling and sit around and do nothing the entire day, I just kind of miss that feeling of adventure – oh my god I get to do this and do that and do that! Cause I mean once you finish doing everything you possibly can within your house, what are you supposed to do?

Arpita: In our chat, Ritwin too said that he was bored. I asked Sophy later what she thought of this.

Sophy: So boredom is inevitable regardless of whatever it is. Atleast Roopak and myself we are conscious of the fact that we should.. in an attempt to take away the boredom we don’t try and stuff it with activities or gadgets. We’ve always been conscious of it and we’re now also being conscious of the fact that we allow certain amount of boredom in his days. So if he says he’s bored, we say okay sit simply and he actually sits and day dreams and he talks to himself. So yeah, that boredom factor will be there regardless of however. I mean I know kids who are 24 bar 7 in front of the TV but yet they are bored. So we don’t try to negate his boredom, but we try and negate his loneliness.

Arpita: This I felt was a very powerful distinction. Boredom is known to hold many benefits for children from enhancing creativity and problem solving to building resilience and grit. And in a culture where children are under the constant assault of consumerism and technology, often over-stimulated, boredom might be important to re-cultivate and engage with. Yet on the other hand loneliness, even in an adult, can be devastating for one’s overall well-being. Making the distinction and being mindful of it felt very important.

It also says something about the difficulties of being both, a child in the times of the coronavirus and a parent in these times. Negotiating the world of reality even as we protect our children, is a hard task. What was interesting to me was how both Kevin and Divya emphasised the value of gratitude in negotiating this thin line.

Divya: We didn’t want to shelter them completely from what’s happening in the outside world. So we did, we have told them that you know, lots of things are kind of come to a standstill and there are lots of issues towards.. you know, especially with regard to employment and jobs and animals. I mean they’re very fond of animals. So one of the things that we did is that we kind of encouraged them to donate to a couple of animal charities. So that they understand that you know that it’s not just them dealing with the impact of things. It’s a moment when I do want to shelter them as much as possible as a parent, but I also feel the need for them to have a little glimpse of the reality.

Arpita: Another set of lines to negotiate it seemed to me was within the parents themselves – their internal worlds where they were juggling so many identities and responsibilities. They all agreed that to be better parents, putting aside the parent hat for a bit of time everyday was very important. Care-giving after all begins with the self.

These conversations with the children and the parents confirmed something very vital that has been embedded as wisdom within the child rights community – that each person, including every little child, is uniquely knowledgeable about their own lived experience and deserves to be heard.

Considering that we were speaking to children and adults from the Indian middle class, we were maybe expecting to hear similar things, yet what we heard instead were a wide range of ways in which both – children and adults – were finding ways and means to cope and be irrespective of these trying circumstances. There are no easy answers to the questions that the pandemic has been putting in front of us. Yet in sharing their struggles and their triumphs, these set of families gave us a glimpse into the process, substance and struggle that long term resilience is made of.

I leave you with a thought shared by Divya that maybe sums up our collective hope for our children.

Divya: What I really hope for my children is that you know, once we’re through with this, I think we’re all going to heave a sigh of relief and you know think about all the things that we missed during this period, you know going out, socializing, being with people whatever.. but I do hope that on hindsight that they kind of realize that we gave them this time and space to play around and just be and that they were okay.

Outro: A very special thanks to Divya and Anshul, Kevin and Kristen and Sophy and Ritwin for generously making time for us and chatting with us on such short notice!

In our bonus episode, we continue this conversation about the coronavirus, children and the new normal with Jehanzeb Baldiwala, Director-Mental Health Services at Ummeed Child Development Centre. So don’t forget to tune in! You can always catch up on the older episodes from us at http://www.thecuriocitycollective.org

This episode was made with the support of Srinidhi Raghavan and Deepika Khatri and produced by the Bangalore Recording Company.

Special thanks to Syon Vijayvargiya (age 7) and his mother Charu for sharing his artwork for our podcast cover; and to Divya for sharing photos of Anshul and Dhruv’s many play creations for our campaigns!