If you’re the parent of a teenager, you know that the biggest source of familial friction isn’t phones or friends or eye rolls. Instead, it’s something much bigger: the inevitable need to cede control and agency to the child, even when it’s not clear they’re ready for it, and even when exercising agency could put them at risk.
The process is tough for everyone involved, but the outcome is never really in doubt. The kid-becoming-an-adult steadily gains more control of her or his own life. And their parents or guardians gradually accept that, much as they’d like to, they can’t offer ironclad protection from the threats posed by the wider world.
Throw an escalating global pandemic into the mix, though, and the picture gets more complicated.
Over the past few days, when our 14-year-old daughter has asked if she can go bike around town with friends, my wife and I have responded as follows: Trade uneasy looks, tell her not to go in anyone’s home, remind her not to get physically close to the friends in question, and then, as she rides away, have a nervous, ambivalent exchange about whether we’re doing the right thing.
In the past 24 hours, though, that M.O. started to feel inadequate. Juliette Kayyem, the WGBH News contributor and homeland security expert, tweeted that she’s simply ordering her (older) children to stay home, period. In an open letter, Bookline High School social worker Paul Epstein basically ordered that town’s young adults to stay away from each other. ("For your own safety and the safety of our entire community, and indeed, the world," he writes, "please do your part by staying away from others.") Add France locking down for two weeks, and President Donald Trump telling Americans of all ages to avoid gatherings of more than 10 people, and I was prepared to tell my kid: Sorry, but from here on out, any meet-ups with friends have to be entirely virtual.
But then I spoke with Mark Pasternack, the unit chief for pediatric infectious disease at Massachusetts General Hospital, who noted that restrictions become more onerous when there’s no foreseeable end to the circumstances that prompted them.
“It’s obvious now that we are, as a society, [are] in this for the long haul,” Pasternack said. “If it were just one week, anybody can be holed up for a week. … We can do things when we know that there’s a time-limited commitment, but we really don’t have a time-limited commitment.”
Given that, Pasternack said, “Taking a bicycle ride with a small number of friends, if they just went for a ride and hung out that way, I think it’s a low-risk enterprise. … Giving them an option of some fresh air and some exercise, and having a chance to chat with a small number of friends who are spaced apart, I think is okay.”
That said, Pasternack also suggested that a flat-out moratorium on indoor socializing for older kids — not just in homes, but in any public spaces that might still be open — is clearly the right way to go.
“There are very, very few cases [of] children who got what we would call really sick [from the coronavirus], beyond just staying-home-and-resting kind of sick,” Pasternack said. “They are the Trojan Horse, though, for the adult and elderly population.”
“You have a [meetup] with one child, you can say it’s not a big deal — but it’s really having a [meetup] with both families, because of the close contact between that child and his family or her family,” he added. “So I think things should be limited. How individual families can negotiate that I think is tricky, and variable. There’ll be kids who don’t listen to their parents, and the teenagers especially may be oppositional, and the younger ones will be more pliable. But I think the main theme — that social distancing really means social distancing — is where we’re at right now.”
The catch, of course, is that parents are simply being assured by their teenagers that they’re heading outside with friends but won’t go indoors. It doesn’t mean they’ll actually adhere to those those parameters. Ditto any assurances that they’ll keep a six-foot distance from their friends.
“With teenagers, there’s always the individual issue of how much they’re listening to advice and directives,” said Carolyn Snell, an attending psychologist at Boston Children’s Hospital. “So if you have [the] sort of teenager who’d be very vigilant around these things, who’ll practice good hand hygiene and social distancing, it seems in keeping with the guidelines to be able to ride bikes with friends and stay six feet apart.
“But of course, if you have a teenager who either might not be entirely on board with practicing those things, or is on the less-mature, more-impulsive side, it might be worthwhile to think about keeping a closer eye and a tighter rein on that person,” Snell said.
And my daughter is… which of these? Like a lot of her peers, I’d say she’s both, depending on which day of the week (or hour of the day) you happen to catch her.
For the record, when I asked if she’s been staying six feet away from friends during those bike excursions, she replied: “You can’t really bike in super close proximity. If you’re biking along the side of the road on the sidewalk, you’re sort of single file, so I’m assuming that’s around six feet. We haven’t been making sure we’re staying six feet apart at all times, but I think for the most part we’re staying pretty far apart.”
It wasn’t the best answer — maybe because, upon reflection, her parents haven’t been repeatedly demonstrating what six feet of distance actually looks and feels like. But it didn’t feel like the worst answer, either.
Full disclosure: As of this writing, despite pondering these questions for the past 24 hours, I still don’t know if I think it’s time for a new parental policy. Yesterday, the cold helped defer a reckoning. Today, it’s the rain.
At some point, though, the excuses will run out — and notwithstanding Dr. Pasternack’s counsel, my gut tells me that our daughter’s marching orders are likely to become significantly more restrictive.
She, in turn, seems prepared for a social life that’s largely or even entirely remote.
“I’d definitely get bored,” she told me. “I’d miss my friends a lot, because obviously it’s not the same when you’re FaceTiming them or texting them. But the fact that we’re experiencing this in a time and age where virtually contacting them is an option definitely is much better than if there was no means of contact.
“If that’s the only way I can talk to them for the next few weeks or months, it’ll suck, but I’ll get used to it,” she said.
Which is, Pasternack points out, exactly what society as a whole is doing every single day.
“When it comes to coronavirus, every day is an entirely new adventure, and sometimes the afternoon is an entirely new adventure from the morning,” he said. “Things are changing so quickly that it’s hard to give advice that has staying power.
"If you told someone a week ago that the St. Patrick’s Day Parade would be closed, and bars would be closed, and restaurants would be closed, they’d think you were hallucinating," Pasternack said. "Here it is, a week later, and we just take that as the new standard."