Kids Really Don't Want to Social Distance. What Should Parents Do About It?

As coronavirus restrictions loosen and the U.S. reopens, it's still recommended for the public to practice social distancing to slow the spread of COVID-19—but how the heck are we supposed to enforce that for our younger kids?

boy wearing protective face mask while playing at playground
Photo: Nitat Termmee/Getty Images

Last weekend my husband and I took our toddler to a newly-reopened zoo in New Jersey. We wore masks, our temperature was taken before entering, and we walked through the exhibits while keeping a distance from others. After a while, my 21-month-old son wanted to ditch the stroller and walk on his own. He immediately began running around, checking out the animals, and was thoroughly enjoying himself. The issue? Social distancing means nothing to him. My husband and I had to continuously make sure he wasn't too close to others, and my son grew more and more frustrated because he didn't understand why he couldn't just interact with all the other little kids.

American families have been dealing with the coronavirus pandemic since March, when nearly all kids were forced to learn remotely and most socializing shifted online. Now that the country is starting to reopen, people are going back out. But social distancing is an issue with children. In many cases, it's just not working.

Some parents are devastated every time they have to physically separate their kid from others at the park, or, on the flip side, they are feeling guilt over potentially exposing their children to the coronavirus after allowing a playdate among neighbors. It's a lose-lose situation, so what should parents do? Do we continue to enforce strict rules to keep our kids safe, or do we worry more about the effects isolation might have on our children and let them socialize, even if that means they're going to be in close contact with others?

This is probably not what parents want to hear, but most experts say playing it safe is still the way to go. "The risks haven't changed," says Snehal Doshi, M.D., a board-certified pediatrician and CEO at Millennium Neonatology in Charlotte, North Carolina. "Older people are still more likely to get more severe infections. Younger individuals are more likely to be asymptomatic carriers. Be careful, and teach them as best as you can. If you have family members who are elderly or have complicated medical conditions, stay away from them."

Ultimately, you have to decide what's best for your family, but Chaniece Wallace, M.D., pediatrician at Riley Children's Health in Indianapolis, says, "while it is true that children will not practice social distancing every time, it is important that they exercise certain precautions around the elderly and immunocompromised." That's why she recommends limiting physical contact with at-risk individuals, like a grandparent, or taking extra precautions if your child is at a higher risk.

So what exactly does this all mean for parents? Now that school's out, most people are going to get the kids away from their screens and start socializing more regularly. Experts say that's understandable, but if you do, you should try to do the best you can to enforce rules with your kids. Here are some tips to make it work for your family.

6 Tips to Help Your Children Stay Safe

1. Be honest with your kids.

According to Vanessa LoBue, the lab director at The Child Study Center at Rutgers University, kids are more likely to follow COVID-19 health precautions—like wearing a mask, frequently washing hands, and maintaining a 6-feet distance from others—if they understand why they're doing it in the first place. That means being upfront with your children about the coronavirus in the most age-appropriate way possible.

2. Set expectations, even for young children.

Sure, it'll be easier to explain to school-age children why they need to wear a mask or wash their hands with soap often, but parents should set some easily understandable expectations for their younger children, too.

"As a child is taught to keep distance from a hot oven or stove, the same would apply to distancing from others," says Richard Peterson, CFE, Chief Academic Officer at Kiddie Academy in Abingdon, Maryland. "Whether or not your child or children fully understand social distancing, keep emphasizing what they can do to keep themselves and their family safe—the things they can do that are under their control."

Sesame Street aired a coronavirus special, and there are even books dedicated to helping teach children about COVID-19. Dr. Doshi also suggests practicing with hula hoops or pool noodles at home to help kids understand how much space they should keep between others while making it fun at the same time.

3. Use the reward system.

You've heard of sticker charts for completed chores and special toys for potty training, but you can utilize the same prizes for following health guidelines.

"Reward your little ones for good behavior, including complying with social distancing rules," says Dr. Wallace. "Give them verbal praise, a gold star, or even an extra book at bedtime. Do not see it as bribery, but instead motivation to reinforce good social distancing behaviors."

4. Organize playdates outside.

"Generally, to practice social distancing means avoiding playdates," say Dr. Wallace. However, if a playdate is organized—which they will be because, let's be honest, many parents are craving interaction just as much as their children—Dr. Wallace recommends limiting playdates to a single friend, making sure that your child's friend is healthy and that they haven't had contact with anyone who might be sick, and staying outside.

"By organizing outdoor playdates, you can encourage physical distancing in a wide-open space with fresh air," says Dr. Wallace. "Activities such as bike riding, hopscotch, and sidewalk chalk allow kids to be together while limiting the spread of germs."

Peterson agrees with keeping things outside, even with having neighbors "play" while on their own lawns. "Based on the science of disease spread, this is one area where a parent should not compromise," he says.

5. Remember: you can change your mind.

You may have agreed to a family party or playdate for your kids, but if something's making you feel uncomfortable, trust your gut—even if that means temporarily disappointing your children to keep them safe. You get to make the rules for your family.

"Say you are going to a small get-together but notice that there are 20+ people and no one is wearing a mask—back away and run," says Dr. Doshi. "It's very hard to tell [your kids] no, but know that you are doing the right thing by not [potentially] exposing them."

6. Keep it virtual.

If your child's really unable to practice social distancing or if you're at all worried about socializing in person with others, there's no reason you have to. While social development is shaped by parental, sibling, and peer interaction, Dr. Wallace says that children will likely be unaffected in the long-run—and interacting on virtual platforms can help to limit any potential negative outcomes.

"You can always have virtual playdates using FaceTime, Zoom, or Skype," says Dr. Wallace. "Virtual playdates allow kids to interact while minimizing exposure to germs."

The Bottom Line

"Remember, children are resilient; they will be OK," says Dr. Wallace. "Cut yourself some slack during this unprecedented and challenging time."

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