Covering Coronavirus: Tips, best practices and programs

Journalists have grit, even during a pandemic. What about their children?

Photo by Zach Teris

For journalists who are parents, the stress may be about to get worse. Will schools open? Will children — again — have to learn remotely? Will the four walls of their house or apartment once again feel like they are closing in?

Journalists can be a resilient breed. They run to danger when others flee. They don’t cower in the face of authority. They persist when doors are shut.

How does that determination translate to parenting in a pandemic?

For insights, we emailed Angela Duckworth, author of “Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance,” a psychology professor at The University of Pennsylvania, and the founder and CEO of Character Lab, a nonprofit that helps children thrive through psychological science. 

To what degree do journalists, considered first responders and essential workers in many respects, display resilient qualities? And how does that resilience translate to confronting the challenges presented by the coronavirus?

Duckworth: It’s in times like these where you’re, ‘Wow, I’m being called.’ My cousin is a pulmonary emergency room doctor. And at the beginning of the pandemic, I asked her how she was managing. She was in the COVID unit and things were really terrible at that time. She said, ‘This is what I trained for.’

And I think that when you’re really gritty it’s often that you feel that way. I think maybe many journalists right now feel like, ‘This is what I trained for, right? Now’s the time to be my best.’

And I’ve been very grateful to journalists throughout this crazy time for doing pretty heroic work.

How do you think children of people such as your cousin or of journalists perceive the work of their parents? Does that translate into a manifestation of grit with them?

Duckworth: It is a wonderful thing for a kid to wake up in the morning and they don’t know exactly what’s going to happen, but their parents seem to be purposeful and not completely overmatched.

If they don’t have that, of course, it’s not that either the child or the parent is necessarily to blame, right? I don’t want to frame things that way. But I do think kids are always watching their parents. They are our first role models, and kids will try to figure out what the world is from how their parents are reacting to the world. 

I’m a parent of a 17- and an 18-year-old, and, as I think they would agree, I’m not modeling perfection. I’m also not even modeling calm. They know that I’m more stressed than I’ve probably ever been. They know that I’m grinding my teeth at night. They know that I often have problems sleeping. And I don’t think parents should feel the burden of being perfect role models or at least role models of perfection. But I do think trying to be role models that you’re doing your best, I think that’s what you’re trying to model: ‘Mommy and daddy got up again and we made coffee and we’re doing our best, and we have some optimism that come what may — and we don’t know what will come — we’ll be resourceful and as a family will manage.’

So is that basically the best way that resilience can be taught, by modeling? 

Duckworth: I think role modeling is probably the most important… If you want your kids to be kind, be kind. If you want your kids to be open minded, try to be open minded. If you want your kids to be humble, be humble. If you tell your kids to be humble and you’re arrogant, it generally doesn’t work.

So I think it is the most important thing parents do, but not the only thing parents do.

There is a level of intentionality and explicitness that I think is helpful. Instead of just modeling kindness, or compassion, or an open mind during a time where the country seems to be pulling apart, you could also literally talk about it explicitly. How important it is in a democratic society to be able to listen to other people? You don’t have to just model that. You could also say something about it: ‘By the way, I think it’s important to listen to the other perspective.’

How do you do that with resilience? Do you actually discuss it at the dining room table?

Duckworth: TED talks are sometimes mocked for these vulnerability stories that have the protagonists, usually the TED speaker, share some failing and then the turning point and then the happy resolution. But all kidding aside, I think that is a lot of what parents need to do — share things that they have actually struggled with.

I don’t want to give trivial examples in a very nontrivial time, but say there is a parent who’s been unable to really focus and get work done and is increasingly stressed out. I think it’s okay to say to your kids, ‘Hey, I’ve really struggled to be productive and to stay focused. My mind’s in a million places, and I asked my friend, and she had this idea, and now what I do is I really just try to take the first hour, and have this whatever it is that you’re doing.’

I think you are modeling a resilient response that isn’t perfect but you’re just telling the story of how you’re trying, and always emphasizing what you learned.  

You’ve written that being gritty in one thing doesn’t necessarily mean resilience in another thing. Is the experience we’re having with the pandemic, with social justice protests, is being exposed to all that preparing us for something in the future?

Duckworth: One of the perennial questions about the human experience is: How much does it transfer?

If I learned courage, you know, on the battlefield, will I be courageous in my private life? If I learn resilience in the time of the pandemic, then after the pandemic, fingers crossed, will I still be more resilient than I was?

Lessons don’t always transfer, but they certainly can transfer… That’s what maturity is. You take an experience and you learn to generalize it, you learn to carry over the wisdom into the next chapter of your life. I hope the pandemic will result in lasting changes. I hope that people will discover, for example, that they can do without a little bit. Some people who might have gotten comfortable with certain things —  ‘Oh, I needed my Starbucks, and I needed this, I needed that’ — well, turns out I maybe didn’t need those things.

In my life I hope that I remember how important relationships are to me. I couldn’t see my mom because my mom was at the nursing home, and the rules are very strict and she’s basically socially isolated in her little section. I think it made me realize, well, ‘I really need to have a relationship with my mom, I need to talk to her.’ So I hope I don’t forget that when things go, quote-unquote, back to normal. 

So many behaviors and traits that young people acquire revolve around school — kindness, curiosity, humility. Learning remotely deprives them of the circumstances where they can practice those qualities. What kind of burden does that add to parents in these semi-quarantine environments?

Duckworth: What we’re going through as a global community is truly historically unprecedented. So I honestly don’t exactly know what the implications are for human development and child development.

My guess is, though, that if you as a family, for example, choose three things, I think of these characteristics or character strengths in heart, mind and soul categories… As a family you could say ‘This fall maybe there’s one interpersonal strength of heart that we really just want to make sure we get it. Gratitude — every day we’re going to think of three good things. Or maybe it’s kindness — every day we as a family are going to do one nice thing, whatever it is. And then curiosity — everyday we’re going to learn one thing. And then we’ll — every day we’re going to try to do one hard thing. If you could prioritize one thing in these categories, at least it gives you a shot.

Necessity is the mother of invention and maybe if under these unusual constraints there’s a little prioritizing, parents could, in creative ways, find ways for their kids to continue to practice these things, which I think we need … during the pandemic and afterward.

Tell me, what are you learning about yourself during this period?

Duckworth: I think I’ve become more aware of my privilege, to use a term that I think is used a lot and causes eye rolling. But I feel really fortunate. I realized that I have work that I can do. I really didn’t suffer the economic uncertainty. I have wifi. Dammit, I have FIOS. I don’t just have wifi, I have an ethernet cord. I have a double monitor. My kids are healthy.

I think I realized that I have been to a lot of funeral services over the last few months, and that’s also making me realize, or be newly aware, of my mortality … It just has made me feel like I really want to do something useful with all this privilege.

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