Before I sat down to write this article, I asked my children, “What do you think about COVID-19?”
“It’s deadly. I am a bit scared. But I don’t mind getting 5 days’ MC to stay at home, away from school.”
Upon hearing my son’s reply, I explained to him that he would have to stay in a hospital if he has COVID-19. He then asked, “There is Wi-Fi at the hospital right?”
The truth is, our lives are still relatively calm and peaceful here in Singapore. While many of us may know of family or friends who are confirmed or suspect cases, being at the receiving end of regular updates from the Ministry of Health (MOH), we still feel quite assured. In fact, in our family, we spend equal amounts of time talking seriously about the situation as laughing over COVID-related jokes and memes.
Undoubtedly, one silver lining in this COVID-19 crisis is that we now have an excellent opportunity to talk to our children about deeper issues like love, life and death.
That said, if your children are teenagers like mine, there can be no long lectures or moralising. We will probably find conversations more effective if we start by asking for and listening to their opinions. Here are some ideas about how we can engage our children on five critical issues arising from COVID-19.
1. Let's talk about health and hygiene
I do my fair share of reminding my children to wash their hands and not touch their faces. The less mainstream thing I did was to send a cute video on how to fight COVID-19 with Superhero Me to the family chatgroup. I excitedly told them that the way to cough is to do a dab. They rolled their eyes, but they remembered.
Although our family is currently all clear of COVID-19, we faced other medical situations which could not be dealt with expediently because medical resources are prioritised for tackling COVID-19, and rightly so. Having to suffer pain and discomfort for longer periods now, we not only appreciate our usually prompt medical services but the all-round good health and fitness which we had often taken for granted.
Ask: What do you think we can do more as a family to improve our health? Would you like to do something to help the family in this area?
2. Let’s share our fears and anxieties
The COVID-19 situation can cause fears and anxieties in different ways. One may fear catching the illness, or worry about loved ones dying.
As we watch COVID-19 spread across the world, it becomes apparent how fragile life is. All it takes is for someone to act irresponsibly or carelessly to trigger a chain of infections. People recovering from OCD might find reminders to wash their hands confusing as they struggle not to return to their previous addiction. Others may find news about the spread and fatalities alarming and depressing.
On the other hand, it is suddenly a big deal to have an itchy or sore throat. Questions like these can overwhelm us: “Am I really sick?” “What if my colleagues think I just want to skip work?” “What if my boss doubts my capabilities because I fall ill at a critical time?” “What if I lose my job?”
While some people may dislike the changes in our daily routines or are irritated by the restrictions placed on their freedom, others are fearful that their absence at work or a social occasion would put them in bad light.
This is the case in South Korea where Noonchi (which means the ability to read and adjust to others’ moods) is highly valued and calling in sick is frowned upon. This culture of going to work sick was purported to be one of the causes of the initial sharp rise in COVID-19 cases in South Korea.
When we share such thoughts with our children, they learn that there are many facets to a situation, and fear can manifest in different ways. It is also a good way to check in on how they are coping with the situation and if need be, find ways to relieve their stress and reassure them.
One possible way is to help them differentiate those worries that are within their control (that they can do something about), from those that are not. For example, if the news gets a bit overwhelming, can we set limits on when we tune into the news?
Ask: What are some fears and anxieties that people might have in this COVID-19 situation? Why do you think they have such fears and anxieties? Can you relate to any of them?
3. Let’s discuss country and government responses
There is much to learn by studying how governments around the world are responding to the challenges posed by the rapidly-spreading disease.
Some questions to consider are: How does the Government meet both shorter-term healthcare and longer-term economic needs? How do we look out for our own nation’s interests yet maintain good diplomatic relationships with other countries?
Many countries have shut their borders and closed schools to slow down the spread. Singapore considers such measures with caution because they do not just have economic implications but would likely stress families further — with the change in routine and children cooped up at home with no outlet for their boundless energy. While some have joked that birth rates will increase nine months later, others have warned that divorce rates may go up.
We can teach our children that such delicate trade-offs apply at the personal level too. Letting children spend their time indoors on gadgets could keep them safe from viruses. On the flip side, the sedentary lifestyle may affect their health and result in a dependency on gadgets.
Beyond trade-offs, we see the importance of having financial reserves for times of emergencies, and building up a strong healthcare system and social capital — all of which takes years of hard work and discipline.
Ask: Where do you think Singapore has done well, or not so well, in tackling COVID-19? What are some personal lessons you can learn from what you have observed around the world?
Self-preservation is a natural instinct, but it is important that our children hear stories that go against the grain.
4. Let’s talk about service and compassion for others
Amidst the doom and gloom, inspiring stories also abound. Doctors and nurses continue to care for patients although some of their colleagues have succumbed to the virus. In turn, people who were quarantined at home in Italy, Spain, France and Israel co-ordinated applause for medical professionals from their balconies.
Then there was the story from the early days of the virus about a man who delivered masks to a police station in Wuhan and then ran away, not wanting to be identified. Closer to home, a local community group organised shelter and basic provisions for Malaysians who were temporarily living in Singapore when daily commuting between the two states was disallowed.
Self-preservation is a natural instinct, and we see it in the form of hoarding and other inconsiderate social behaviours. It is important that our children hear stories that go against the grain, to avoid apathy or a me-first mentality.
Ask: How do you think COVID-19 has brought out the best or the worst in people? What are some stories which you have read about, that inspired you? Is there anything you think our family can do to help others?
Despite the stress and weariness of this season, it is good for us to remember that what we do have is our family.
5. Let’s talk about life and death
At the beginning of the crisis in Wuhan, I read stories about children bringing their sick elderly parents from one hospital to another, seeking treatment. Many of them eventually died without having received treatment.
Another piece of difficult news that emerged was how medical professionals are no longer doctors but “sorters” — who need to decide who to save. In situations where there is a lack of medical facilities, and the number of people who need them exceed what is available, doctors are faced with the difficult decision of letting someone die.
There is a limit to what science and technology can do, just as there is a limit to how far human strength and resilience can bring us.
In spite of all the preventive and protective measures, anyone can fall ill at any time. No matter how healthy and fit someone is, no one is invulnerable. COVID-19 is just the latest crisis to remind us, once again, of the brevity of life.
Despite the stress and weariness of this season, it is good for us to remember that what we do have is our family. Let us show them our love today, while we can.
This is one of my favourite quotes:
I shall pass through this world but once. Any good, therefore, that I can do or any kindness I can show to any human being, let me do it now. Let me not defer it or neglect it, for I shall not pass this way again.
Life is short and uncertain. While we are alive, let our lives be a blessing and let us enjoy it as much as we can, in meaningful ways and with people whom we care about.
Ask: What do you think of death? Why do you think it is difficult for doctors to decide who to save? How should we live our lives so there are no regrets?
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