I Told My Kids They Were Superheroes to Get Them to Wear Masks During a Pandemic—and It Worked

Living in Hong Kong with me during the SARS outbreaks, my kids felt empowered wearing masks. The reason? We encouraged them to look at it is as their superpower.

Child feeling like a superhero
Photo: Eric Jeon

My children spent many of their early years in Asia. Due to my work, we lived in Hong Kong during the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) outbreak in the early 2000s and masks were a staple of daily life. Truth is, wearing masks was already pretty common in the region before the pandemic. Any given day, you'd see some adults out on the streets wearing them. And the same was true for kids. When children had a cough or felt ill, they would routinely ask the teacher for a mask to put on.

The thought process behind this was not about protecting themselves. Instead, it was about protecting others. Children in Asia tend to understand from an early age that anyone can spread an illness. They are taught to protect the people around them from whatever illness they might be coming down with.

With this altruistic view of mask-wearing in mind, children—including my own—felt good about wearing masks. As parents, we were able to present it as being their superpower. The message to our kids: You have the power to help prevent the spread of a virus. Putting on a mask means you're doing something wonderful for your teachers, classmates, families, friends, the whole nation, and even the world. In other words, you're like a superhero. Putting on a mask became fun, not frightening.

Though communications from U.S. officials about mask-wearing were inconsistent and confusing at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, masks eventually became a keystone in the country's approach to limiting the spread of the virus. Masking is now considered a critical public health tool, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). When it comes to encouraging kids to wear masks when it's recommended, the superhero message is a great place to start.

Empowering them to be a part of the solution during SARS added to their sense of identity and self-worth. It helped them take back the sense of power and control that the pandemic subsumed from them.

In fact, researchers support the idea that this different way of looking at health precautions can help change how kids feel. Framing these precautions as something your kids can do to help others empowers them to feel more in control of the situation, licensed clinical psychologist Jenna Mendelson, Ph.D., writes for Cone Health, a healthcare delivery system based in Greensboro, North Carolina.

I saw all this play out for my children. Empowering them to be a part of the solution during SARS added to their sense of identity and self-worth. It helped them take back the sense of power and control that the pandemic subsumed from them.

It's true that making these steps fun and playful can also make kids more eager to be health-conscious. Children in China, for example, put together large, artistic hats to ensure social distancing when they returned to school in the spring of 2020 after lockdown. I'm part of the SchoolMaskPack program to help make mask-wearing as joyful as possible. We created color-coded, washable masks for kids, parents, and teachers, along with a calendar card to keep track of which color mask to wear on which day.

But even amid the playfulness, it's important that we make sure kids know the value of wearing masks goes far beyond them. It has ripple effects throughout their society and across the world. The more we all help our children adopt the mentality that we're taking these steps not just for ourselves, but to protect those around us as well, the better off we're going to be—both in terms of our health and in our relationships to one another.

As we continue to navigate this post-COVID-19 world, we'll have a chance to make this happen. We can help them carry this crucial lesson with them: Not only do we need to keep life moving forward, but we also need to look out for each other. Every one of us can do our part. Ultimately, that's how we'll get through this pandemic.

Chris Foster is CEO of FosterEquity and Chief Marketing Officer for SchoolMaskPack.

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