A Jewish Psychologist's Guidance for Talking About Coronavirus with Kids

A conversation with parenting expert and bestselling author Dr. Wendy Mogel

With schools and office buildings closed amid the COVID-19 pandemic, families are spending more time together than ever, doing everything at home from virtual classes to Shabbat via videoconference.

Wendy Mogel, PhD, is a practicing social-clinical psychologist and the author of New York Times bestsellers The Blessing of a Skinned Knee and The Blessing of a B Minus, both about raising resilient children, as well as Voice Lessons for Parents: What to Say, How to Say it, and When to Listen? She's also appeared on past episodes of our Jewish parenting podcast, sharing guidance backed by Jewish wisdom.

We sat down with Dr. Mogel (remotely, of course) to get some guidance on how families with small children can make the best of their at-home time together.

ReformJudaism.org: Let’s try to start on a positive note: What, if any, might be the silver lining of having schoolchildren home for an extended period of time?

Dr. Wendy Mogel: In the midst of this health crisis, the good news is that it’s providing many parents with the opportunity to take time to sit and listen to children's questions, think about the answers, and respond with curiosity and respect.

This practice can set a pattern of parents being attentive, receptive, and captivated by what the children are asking – which sure beats what I call “pester-pong,” the pattern of parents pestering kids and kids pestering parents!

This is also an opportune time for parents to model g’milut chasadim (acts of caring for others) and kavod habriyot (honoring all human beings). Even though children may be less vulnerable to getting very sick from the virus, they can understand that we are all responsible for protecting those who are more at risk.

This is a scary time for us all. What can parents do to comfort and reassure their children?

Panicked parents expose children to their fear, to “emotional contagion.”

One fix is to follow the potent 12-step program strategy of acting as though you have courage, even when you’re feeling scared and vulnerable. In conversations about tricky topics, the melody is more important than the lyrics: A calm tone is more important then getting every single word right. 

We can also frame this crisis for children by telling them that they are living through an important time in history. Terrifying events become tales of resilience in children’s books, such as the thrilling “I Survived” series: the sinking of the Titanic, Hurricane Katrina, the attacks of September 11, even the Nazi invasion.

Invite children to make a record of their daily experience. Offer to take dictation, helping them create an illustrated, self-authored journal of life during a worldwide pandemic. Then, when their children ask what it was like, they can read their book to them.

How can parents inoculate their children, if you will, against emotional contagion?

Children often resist listening to what parents say to them directly, but they get very quiet and attentive when listening to the good stuff – conversations among adults.

This is important to keep in mind because parents often assume that kids aren’t really listening, when, in reality, what children hear second-hand often leads to misunderstandings and misperceptions that raise their anxiety.

I also tell parents to shield children, as much as possible, from broadcast news because media outlets tend to be sensational, which can be very alarming to children. Young children can't distinguish between reality and fantasy – another reason to stay clear of scary broadcasts.

How important is it to be honest with kids about this situation?

Not talking to children about the situation only adds to their anxiety, because then their giant imaginations take over.

If your child asks about something you’d rather not address directly, try to reframe the question in a way that is appropriate to their level of understanding. There is no single way, for example, to talk to a 6-year-old, typically the age at which you can’t shimmy out of some degree of candor.

Consider your child's temperament: If your 6-year-old is a jittery catastrophizer, you’ll want to find out what their worries are and address them one by one. Other children revel in gory stories and press you for worst-case outcomes, but they too need to be assured that you’ll keep them safe.

There’s also great educational material online to help kids better understand what’s happening, including an entertaining and informative comic from NPR about the nature of viruses and how they spread.

And finally, children (like all humans) experience the world through their five senses: hearing, seeing, smelling, tasting, and touching. You can comfort them by such activities as playing music or singing with them, baking something together that smells good, giving them a fuzzy blanket, or stroking their heads as they sit in your lap.

What are you hearing from parents about having to work at home and spend long hours with kids who would normally be at school?

At first, a lot of parents were terrified. Even the parents who are teachers were upset and saying, “I'm a teacher, but not at home with my own kids.” After the initial shock, many parents have started having fun in their new role as teachers.

They're listening to bird songs with their children, finding worms in their backyards, putting on plays, playing board games, making music, cooking and cleaning – all kinds of experiential learning children naturally love to do.

It’s also so important to remember to laugh: One Israeli mother shared a now-viral video about the pressures of distance learning and home-based education amid already-trying times.

Parents should not feel that they have to be perfect substitutes for professional teachers; let’s reject the nonsensical notion that all the learning your child has ever done at school will evaporate and leave them stunted!

Upheavals are nothing new to the Jewish people. What wisdom can we distill from Jewish tradition to help us get through this latest crisis?

We just read the Torah portion in the Book of Exodus about the Israelites’ incessant whining about the hardships in the wilderness of Sinai.

They asked Moses, “Was it for want of graves in Egypt that you took us to this miserable place?” They even groused about the manna falling from heaven. “Back in Egypt we had cucumbers, melons, onions, and garlic!”

After 40 years of being annoying, the Israelites finally reached the Promised Land. We’ve been in the wilderness again and again across time, and I think what has gotten us through it all was our willingness to tolerate each other, coupled with a delicious dose of humor.

As we confront long days of being cooped up at home with whining kids, let’s take every opportunity to laugh and to love.

For more on this topic and others related to the coronavirus crisis, visit “COVID-19: Judaism Under Quarantine,” where new and relevant resources are being added every day.


Aron Hirt-Manheimer is the Union for Reform Judaism’s editor-at-large. He is former editor of Reform Judaism magazine (1976-2014) and founding editor of Davka magazine (1970-1976), a West Coast Jewish quarterly. He holds an M.A. and honorary doctorate in Jewish education from Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. His books include Jagendorf’s Foundry: A Memoir of the Romanian Holocaust (HarperCollins, 1991) and Jews: The Essence and Character of a People (HarperCollins, 1998) with Arthur Hertzberg.