“Reread and reflect on the childhood stories that shaped you and see what they say about your life today,” was one of the instructions from an online class on clinical psychiatry my husband was been taking during the COVID-19 Quarantine. This was an easy assignment since he had begun reading “The Hobbit” by J.R.R. Tolkien with my twelve-year-old son the moment we were asked to educate at home.
Reading about the bravery required by the hobbit Bilbo Baggins to master his own fears in the cave before reaching the dragon made my husband and I pause as we considered our current situation. Dangers abound the moment we step outside of our door and into the world of the pandemic where any person may be a carrier of a disease that is rendering some injured, some recovered, and others dead. And each of us, as the world begins to reopen will need to access our own inner wisdom if we are going to face the dragon. How will we need to be brave? How we will need to consider ourselves, our family, and the greater good in making decisions about going in public and connecting with others? Leaving the shire was terrifying for Bilbo but he knew he had to do it. But how he proceeded on his dangerous journey was key. Indeed he relied on friends and wise teachers as guides along the way but there was a pivotal moment when he had to face the darkness alone.
It was at this point that Bilbo stopped. Going on from there was the bravest thing he ever did. The tremendous things that happened afterwards were as nothing compared to it. He fought the real battle in the tunnel alone, before he ever saw the vast danger that lay in wait.1
Bilbo, as we all must, tapped his inner reserves of courage when he was most vulnerable, conquered his fear and resistance, and proceeded with care, caution, and conviction. Are we ready for that kind of bravery? Are our children?
When I surveyed parents nationally, they reported they want to raise kids who are confident and resilient, who will stay strong during the trials of life. But like any other essential skill, confidence and resilience require practice. One of the unique gifts of the quarantine experience is that parents are able to model and offer guided practice in the essential life skill of resilience. What does it look like and feel like to stay strong during tough times? How will we adopt healthy coping strategies to own and manage our big feelings during this time of uncertainty? How can we feel fear, acknowledge and own it in order to master it? How we manage as a family together and how we each build our inner reserves can offer a rare and precious lesson as we raise and educate our children. Here are just a few aspects of this exceptional guided practice opportunity.
Facing fears. In the pre-COVID19 world, it was a weakness and shameful to admit to fears about work or school pressures, about conflictual relationships, or about unmet needs. But in the world of COVID-19, we are all admitting to facing a global fear of an unpredictable and unprecedented virus. It seems when the flood gates open, all waters are allowed in. In other words, we are permitted any and all fears in this moment. The myth of denying, avoiding and whistling away our troubles is just that - a myth. In fact, strength will only build when we admit our fears. We must name them, own them, and accept them. Only then do we have the ability to breathe, calm and center ourselves and focus, as Bilbo did, on the necessary mission ahead. Only then can we set forward Into the cave determined to defeat the dragon.
Living in the present moment. What day is it? What time is it? You may find yourself disoriented without the typical structures like a car ride that helped our body and mind transition from home to school, from school to work, and from work to home again. When faced with issues of survival, we are called to be completely present to the moment at hand. We don’t have time to consider the past. And who knows what tomorrow will bring? I found myself striving and struggling in the pre-COVID-19 life to become present moment to moment. Now our current circumstances place us right here, right now. How will we focus on our child and immediate family? How will will really see our child for who they are and how they are experiencing this time? How can we deal with our own worries constructively so that we are not projecting our own worries on our child but deeply listening to their thoughts and feelings? This is our current opportunity.
Learning together. Never in our history as a family have we been able to deep dive so intensively into the school curriculum in which our child is engaged. From learning about world religions to bacteria and viruses to creative writing, we are experiencing these aspects of our son’s curriculum together. And in addition to many concepts with which we are able to discuss and consider, there are also some social and emotional lessons for us as parents, teachers and co-learners that we are tackling. When asked “what’s the most important quality of a teacher?”, our wiser-than-his-years son responds “patience with the pace of learning.” Our parent pace, our adult pace, tends to be much faster and more impatient but learning takes time. So how can we slow enough to sense our child’s pace. How can we follow their lead and begin to flow with their rhythm of learning? Perhaps you have multiple children and a full work load too? Parents are juggling many responsibilities in one intimate location - home. Set timers and communicate clearly when in the schedule children can have your undivided attention to support their learning. You may find you receive as much as you give if you seize this opportunity for learning.
We can no longer ignore the fact that emotions play a critical role in learning. If our children are scared or stressed or working in chaos, we know they will not learn. And so too, if we — parents and educational supporters — are stressed, fearful and chaotic, we are unable to support learning in the ways in which we know are important to move our child forward in their education. How then can we take this moment to focus on feelings, to accept their presence, really allow them and ask, what are we learning from them? We can learn that our fears don’t have to control our actions. We can use the energy generated to pause, to consider our greater values and mission, and then, face the danger with considered action. We are on a hero’s journey together. Though the hero must ultimately face the dragon alone, we now have a rare chance to learn how to deal with our fears as a family. Our love and support of one another can offer the ideal learning conditions to defeat this particular dragon.
1. Tolkien, J.R.R. (1966). The Hobbit. Boston, MA: Houghton, Mifflin.
Jennifer S. Miller MEd. is author and illustrator of the book “Confident Parents, Confident Kids; Raising Emotional Intelligence In Ourselves and Our Kids — From Toddlers to Teenagers.” She’s worked with educators and parents on supporting kids social and emotional learning for twenty-five years.