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Why I Won’t Sacrifice My Sanity To My Kids’ Online Schooling02:28
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In this Thursday, March 19, 2020, photo, Rachel Keenan, 9, takes a live class online at her home in San Francisco. California's Bay Area has been shut down for more than a week, the first region of America to order its residents to stay home, work remotely and homeschool their children in a desperate bid to slow the spread of the coronavirus pandemic. (Jeff Chiu/AP)
In this Thursday, March 19, 2020, photo, Rachel Keenan, 9, takes a live class online at her home in San Francisco. California's Bay Area has been shut down for more than a week, the first region of America to order its residents to stay home, work remotely and homeschool their children in a desperate bid to slow the spread of the coronavirus pandemic. (Jeff Chiu/AP)

Our kids are learning more important lessons than academics this spring.

In a time of global pandemic, here is a truth that should be more universally acknowledged: either a) your children are old enough to handle their own online schooling requirements, and will learn more by doing so than they will in their newly virtual classrooms, or b) your children are young enough that academic learning, for these next few months, doesn’t matter at all. The most important lessons of the spring of 2020 aren’t going to be things schools usually teach.

With 80% of the world’s children no longer physically attending school, and a general suspicion (already confirmed in many states) they will finish out this school year at home, many parents are feeling overwhelmed by the demands the new reality places on our bandwidth in every sense of the word. Social media has become all about that shift, filled with advice, memes, tempting ads for educational programs and products and the new cattle-prods of parental guilt: mothers and fathers who, judging from the posted images and videos, are doing this way better than the rest of us.

Meanwhile, most of us are far from ready for our homeschooling close up. Our kitchens feature kindergarteners crying over being dragged away from a favorite episode of "Doc McStuffins" to attend a community-building school “assembly,” sixth-graders shouting angrily at newly overloaded or created virtual learning programs that aren’t working the way they should and high schoolers who’ve become nocturnal and can’t possibly be meeting that multi-colored schedule print-out the principal included in the last all-school email.

Our kids are learning more important lessons than academics this spring.

We can see that our children’s teachers and administrators are doing amazing work against what seemed like insurmountable barriers — but not all of our kids are on board. They’re disappointed, annoyed, resistant, lonely, bored or all of the above, and the result is that while online school is happening, it could probably happen more smoothly if we, the adults in the household, would take our children in hand and dedicate ourselves to their work as schedulers, secretaries, tutors and cheerleaders as well as tech support. Do we owe it to them to try to make up for all that’s changed by ensuring that if nothing else, their progress in reading, science, algebra, history and all the rest will remain as it would have been?

In a word, no.

Carys Williams, 7, center, plays on the family porch swing as her brother Owain, 8, left, plays with metal rods, and Gavin Tropeano, 9 months, is swung up in the air by his father Andrew Tropeano, as neighbors spend extra time on their porches since schools and offices closed due to the coronavirus, Sunday April 5, 2020, in Washington. (Jacquelyn Martin/AP)
Carys Williams, 7, center, plays on the family porch swing as her brother Owain, 8, left, plays with metal rods, and Gavin Tropeano, 9 months, is swung up in the air by his father Andrew Tropeano, as neighbors spend extra time on their porches since schools and offices closed due to the coronavirus, Sunday April 5, 2020, in Washington. (Jacquelyn Martin/AP)

Our children, no matter how old, are learning plenty in this season of unprecedented change. Every day, along with all their schools are offering, they’re being slugged with the same lessons we are all facing, some prosaic and others profound. They’re learning to wait for what they want and to find joy in what they have. To make the best of a bad situation. To live in close quarters with others, and put in the hard emotional and physical labor necessary to make that work. And they’re learning that all the little things that seemed so worthy of complaint just a few short weeks ago — the annoying classmate, the loss in the semifinals, the demanding teacher, the school lunches — were actually the hallmarks of having it pretty good.

Those are the harder lessons. At the same time our kids, like all of us, have an opportunity to reexamine their lives in a moment when the schedule and most expectations have suddenly fallen away. When you are alone with yourself and your thoughts and your choices are limited, what do you really want to do with your time? Many children and teenagers have never had to ask that question. Finding the resources within themselves to answer it — even if the answer is “try to eat a line of 400 marshmallows off a moving treadmill” — is going to help our kids develop the flexibility and self-reliance they’re going to need for the unpredictable road ahead.

... we can’t control what cards we’re dealt. We can only control how we play them.

That resilience is the most important thing our kids can learn in a moment when the greater, overarching message to us all is one most adults work on for our entire lives: we can’t control what cards we’re dealt. We can only control how we play them.

The transition to online classrooms will require some parent support for nearly every child, but it should be just that — a transition, and then a return to parents in the support role, with kids responsible for as much as they can handle, and for learning to handle more. That may mean grammar and algebra progress slows, but there are other things at stake. Right now, we’re all learning how to play a tough hand. It’s not the lesson any of us would have chosen, not for our children, and not for ourselves. But if you can learn it, you can learn anything.

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This segment aired on April 30, 2020.

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KJ Dell’Antonia Twitter Cognoscenti contributor
KJ Dell’Antonia is the author of "How to Be a Happier Parent (Raising a Family, Having a Life and Loving (Almost) Every Minute," the former editor of the New York Times’ Motherlode blog and the co-host of the #AmWriting podcast. 

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