My Family Picked Up 'Bad' Habits During the Pandemic And We're Sticking By Them

To get through the pandemic, my husband and I loosened up on our house rules and rewarded our toddler more than we planned. It's been working so why should we stop?

An image of a baby's hand grabbing a cookie.
Photo: Getty Images.

I had so many plans for all the fun things I'd do with my daughter in her toddler years—especially outings to the zoo. But that was all brought to a halt once the pandemic hit. My husband and I live in Italy, where for more than a year, we were on some sort of pandemic lockdown. For that entire period, we were inside our house and my daughter, Lucia, who was almost 2 at the time, didn't have contact with anyone else, except my mother.

Like all children, it wasn't easy on her to have no other kids to socialize with. I noticed Lucia started showing some regressive behavior likely because of her limited exposure to activities. My husband and I were worried, to say the least. So, to make up for what we felt our daughter was missing, we loosened up on our parenting rules and even gave her a few extra perks each day.

We let her keep using her pacifier even though her doctor recommended I take it away (thank goodness, that binky is now a thing of the past!). Since my daughter would not come with us on essential errands (like trips to the supermarket or pharmacy), we got in the habit of bringing her back a small gift every time we went out—usually a puzzle or a coloring book. After Lucia ate her dinner, we'd give her cookies when she asked for them. We also got in the habit of co-sleeping since Lucia was not sleeping well on her own. And the TV? Forget about it. Lucia owned it. It was Peppa Pig all day, every day.

But then, along with all my pandemic worries, I also started to worry if maybe we were giving in to her special requests a bit too much and harming her development. According to experts, I'm far from alone—and it was OK that I was finding other ways to make my daughter's days a little brighter.

"Over the course of the pandemic, families had to adjust many aspects of their lives, including schedules, rules, roles, and responsibilities, and a range of behavioral expectations," says Yamalis Diaz, Ph.D., a clinical assistant professor of child and adolescent psychiatry at the Child Study Center at Hassenfeld Children's Hospital at NYU Langone. "Kids did miss out on a lot of things, and it was hard, so sweetening their day with a few extra positive things certainly didn't hurt."

Jennifer Cross, M.D., a pediatrician at Weill Cornell Medicine and New York-Presbyterian, agrees, saying the pandemic was an unusually stressful time for all, so there was need to relax the rules.

They also said it was OK that I was shielding my toddler from everything going on in the world. Dr. Diaz says younger kids typically don't have the mindset to take on such mental challenges just yet. "Some may argue that kids have to be taught that 'life is hard,' so they should have to simply deal with the difficulties without the treats," says Dr. Diaz. "Absolutely not—they do not yet have the developmental skills and necessary emotional muscles to carry the weight of big emotional challenges without support in various forms from the adults in their life."

I'm feeling validated in my decision to nix some of the rules and make things a bit easier for my family over the past two years. But now that we're vaccinated and things are starting to calm down a bit, do I have to kick some of these new habits to the side? Not quite. "It is absolutely fine to continue to [reward] children at times as long as you are not using them to reinforce 'bad' or 'negative' behavior," says Dr. Cross.

"Alternatively giving treats for a child who is trying hard or doing a good job is a great way to reward them for their behavior," adds Dr. Cross. In fact, research shows that children (and adults) are motivated by positive reinforcement and are more likely to repeat a behavior that is reinforced rather than one that is ignored. But parents should also try and stay away from using food as a reward since it can send mixed messages to children about healthy eating.

While relaxing some house rules is acceptable, experts say it's still also important to keep routines. Kids feel more confident and secure when they have a predictable schedule they can depend on. "Make sure to prioritize good nutrition and sleep habits," says Dr. Cross.

In my case, my daughter is growing beautifully. During the pandemic, she learned to walk, talk, and feed herself. She became more independent, and her personality really started to grow. She finally dropped the binky, but we still surprise her with the occasional gift, let her indulge in the extra cookie and yes, we're still co-sleeping, but that's also because I love it! Lucia is happy, healthy, and full of energy. And if some of these habits made her (and me) feel better, then you are darn right that I'm sticking with them.

As I continue to figure out rules for my daughter, I realize that it is important to reflect on what changed during the pandemic and evaluate what worked well and what didn't. Dr. Diaz agrees: "My advice is for families to take some time to figure out a positive purpose moving forward so that they can retain those new ways of life."

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