Faith Gong: Anxiety, hand-washing, and eye contact: A report from the kids

The temperature hasn’t risen above freezing all day, but the sky is a brilliant blue traversed by wispy clouds and the sun is shining on the sparkling white snow. In our front yard, my four daughters are zipping around on their skates, playing broomball on the ice rink that my husband built to keep them outdoors and active during the winter months. After a disappointingly mild December, January finally brought the requisite three days of below-freezing temperatures necessary for skate-worthy ice, and my daughters’ joyful voices proclaim that it was worth the wait. 

They are young, happy, and carefree. 

Or are they?

Over the past week I’ve heard this question asked repeatedly: How will having lived through the COVID-19 pandemic affect this generation of young people? Surely it will have some impact on their outlook on life and their behavior, much in the way that the Great Depression, World War II, and the Vietnam War impacted the generations that lived through them. 

I’ve heard this question pondered by fellow parents, by elderly adults, and even from the (live-streamed) pulpit of my church. So, since I have a sample size of five children in my house, I decided to ask their opinion: How do they think they’ve been changed by COVID-19? 

It may well be too soon to be asking reflective questions like this; after all, we’re still very much in the middle of this pandemic. Yes, vaccines are being administered as I type, but by all accounts my family still has another 6-9 months to go before life approximates “normal” again, at which point we will have lived with masked faces and minimal social interaction for nearly a year and a half. 

But I gave it a try. 

“How are you doing?” I asked my 13-year-old.

With a perfect teenaged deadpan, she looked at me from under raised eyebrows and replied, “Do you really want to know?”

After having been assured that I really did want to know, she informed me that her current state of mind was, “Anxious and depressed, with a side of tired and bored.”

These seemed like fairly typical 13-year-old sentiments, but when pressed as to their cause she looked at me as if the answer was obvious: “Well, let’s see, an armed mob just attacked the Capitol, so our democracy is in danger, and we’re in the middle of a global pandemic.”

Fair enough. 

I will leave the state of democracy alone for now. (My two oldest daughters learned of the attack on the Capitol building from the radio on their way down the mountain after skiing with their father; they burst through the front door shouting, “All we did was go skiing, and the country is falling apart!!!”) Returning to the pandemic, I asked my daughter how she thought it would affect her life in the long run. 

“I think I won’t take anything for granted,” she mused. “Like, the other day, when Daddy said that the ice in the rink would probably be hard enough for skating soon, I said, ‘Great!’ but inside I was thinking: ‘Really? I’d better not count on it. Something horrible could happen to make the ice melt.’

I turned my attention to her 11-year-old sister, who kept protesting, “Mommy, I’m trying to READ!” But actions speak louder than words, and this particular daughter has become our family’s sanitation bully. She lurks around the sink and by the bathroom door, ready to pounce: “Did you wash your hands? Did you wash them long enough? Did you use warm water?” (She’s instilled fear into her younger sister, who now washes her hands while singing the “Alphabet Song” through twice at a leisurely pace, with painful consequences for our water bill and our bladders.) 

When I finally got my 11-year-old away from her book, she said that COVID-19 would “probably shorten my lifespan, from all the anxiety.”

My 9-year-old speculated, “When I grow up I’ll probably be super-clean and sanitary and stuff like that.” Based on the current state of her room, I’m dubious — but hopeful. 

My 7-year-old added, “Maybe I’ll be more protective when people get sick. But maybe not.”

I have observed that the COVID-19 pandemic has given my daughters a different perspective on the books they read and the movies they watch. Every so often, during a scene in which social interactions are taking place, someone will interject, “Wait a minute, are they all together without wearing masks?!?”

The final child in our household, my 1-year-old son, is pre-verbal, so I wasn’t able to interview him. I suspect he wouldn’t have much to say if he could speak, since his entire conscious life has taken place during this pandemic; I’m curious to see how he’ll respond when he’s no longer limited to immediate family and masked strangers at a distance. 

When the pandemic began, however, my son was seeing a variety of medical professionals for some health issues. His home health nurse, who treats pediatric patients throughout Addison County, told me, “I’m noticing that these babies who are growing up during the pandemic already have great eye contact. They have to, since that’s the only part of our face they can see.”

Taking all of my findings together, it seems that we might expect the Pandemic Generation to be hygienically hyper-aware, health-conscious people with low expectations but excellent eye contact. 

Could be worse.

I do not for a minute take lightly the very real and serious consequences that COVID has had on children: I treat my daughters’ feelings of anxiety and depression quite seriously, and I know that other children are having far worse struggles. I can’t imagine there are any parents, teachers, or counselors out there who aren’t aware that our children need all the support we can give them to manage the trauma of this pandemic year. 

But I tend to err on the side of hope, and I do have hope for this upcoming generation. If nothing else, when my teenager said that she no longer took anything for granted, I considered that a positive development. I grew up taking everything for granted: that I was safe, that grown-ups had everything under control, that the government was run by principled people with everyone’s best interest in mind. I suspect that much of my generation — at least of the white, American, upper-middle class, suburban variety — grew up with similar beliefs, which may have contributed to our country’s current situation. 

So if my children grow up knowing that life is fragile, that plans can change in a heartbeat, and that the people in charge don’t always have the answers, then that’s excellent preparation for the real world — a gift that only experience can give. 

Faith Gong has worked as an elementary school teacher, a freelance photographer, and a nonprofit director. She lives in Middlebury with her husband, five children, assorted chickens and ducks, one feisty cat, and one anxiety-prone labradoodle. In her "free time," she writes for her blog, The Pickle Patch.

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