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Talking to your kids about Corona Virus (as Christians)

We had ‘that talk’ with our kids this morning; and it turns out they’d already been talking about this a bit at school, and knew things already. Which is always awkward for parents…

Not ‘that talk’ — we’ve been having that one for a while, trying to help our kids understand how to approach sex and sexuality as Christians is something we wanted to kick off pretty early. No. The Corona Virus talk. It’s another one you should probably have early, as Christian parents, because our perspective on the virus should be a little different to the perspective offered by the world. Not because we want to go all ‘faith healer’ through the screens of people’s televisions, like one popular televangelist this week, or claim that Christians are immune because we are protected by God, but because we have a different perspective on life, and death, and a particular calling to love our neighbours — especially the vulnerable.

I’m keen for our family’s reaction to Corona Virus to look like:

  1. Prayerfulness
  2. Preparedness
  3. Playfulness
  4. Presence for the sake of our neighbours (loving, non-anxious, presence)

It’s possible ‘playfulness’ jumps out for you here as odd. Especially in such serious times. I’ll explain it first.

In an age of anxiety, I’m really keen to encourage our kids to be a non-anxious presence in the world, and part of that is modelling something different (Edwin Friedman’s A Failure Of Nerve is a good book for seeing how anxious systems (including families) are a self-replicating problem. Friedman coined the idea of the ‘non-anxious presence’ — people who can be emotionally differentiated from the anxiety around them, and appropriately challenge that, to respond better in crises than those losing their rational brains and switching to ‘reptile brains.’ I found this passage from the book quite profound for a bunch of reasons (one of which is that the Biblical paradigm of ‘beastliness’ — being transformed from the image of God into the image of the created things we worship — is ultimately a transformation into being like the serpent… It’s a long quote, but I think it’s important not just for parenting, and not just for in a crisis. Here’s Friedman:

“What also contributes to this loss of perspective is the disappearance of playfulness, an attribute that originally evolved with mammals and which is an ingredient in both intimacy and the ability to maintain distance. You can, after all, play with your pet cat, horse, or dog, but it is absolutely impossible to develop a playful relationship with a reptile, whether it is your pet salamander (no matter how cute), or your pet turtle, snake, or alligator. They are deadly serious (that is, purposive) creatures.

Chronically anxious families (including institutions and whole societies) tend to mimic the reptilian response: Lacking the capacity to be playful, their perspective is narrow. Lacking perspective, their repertoire of responses is thin. Neither apology nor forgiveness is within their ken. When they try to work things out, their meetings wind up as brain-stem-storming sessions. Indeed, in any family or organization, seriousness is so commonly an attribute of the most anxious (read “difficult”) members that they can quite appropriately be considered to be functioning out of a reptilian regression. Broadening the perspective, the relationship between anxiety and seriousness is so predictable that the absence of playfulness in any institution is almost always a clue to the degree of its emotional regression. In an atmosphere where everything is dire, a vicious cycle develops, as a loss of playfulness destroys perspective. When that circular process reaches unbearable thresholds, the chronically anxious family will not be able to contain its reactivity within its own boundaries, and some members will begin transmitting the family’s intensity beyond the family (acting out violently, combatively, or sexually) into a broad range of society’s other institutions, such as church choirs, synagogue religious schools, traffic, PTA meetings, a condominium association, or any office or place of business.

Kids play. That’s how they learn. It’s how they process the world. It’s the best way to teach serious stuff. When we talked about what a few weeks at home might look like, we focussed on how we would play well together. When we talked about hand washing we tried to encourage a bit of playfulness, our son Xavi is developing a “mega rub” method of hand washing. One thing our modern school systems do, when focusing on information and work as the key to formation, is eradicate play and fuel anxiety in these moments. Play and escape (and stories) are going to be a big part of combating that, and of not traumatising your kids or setting them up for anxious, reptile-brain, responses to the world around them. Just for the people who scan long bodies of text, I’m bolding the actual concrete steps we’re taking in case they’re helpful.

If you’re prepping for lockdown with your kids — prep to play. Buy an art and craft survival kit. Plan to be involved in play with your kids if you’re at home with them. Budget a moderate amount of screen time — but watch and play with your kids. Talk about the stories you watch, and the games you play. Help them regulate their emotions by being present with them, non-anxiously. Make sure they spend lots of time in fresh air outside (and think about physical contamination, so hand wash after, and use your backyard). I think we’ll be chucking their school work that gets sent home out the window (if it gets sent home at all).

Which brings me to the preparedness point. We’ve done a dry food shop so that we have a few weeks worth of food in our house, not just for us, but for others. We’ll keep stocking up on this front for a few weeks probably. We bought a standalone freezer (we’d tossed our old chest freezer in our recent move). I didn’t want to buy another one because of running costs, and how close our supermarkets are, but Robyn convinced me, and it might actually end up being useful in this preparedness thing. Our plan is to cook a bunch of frozen meals that will be available for us, should we get sick, and for our neighbours and community. We have a street Facebook group, with stacks of our neighbours in regular contact, which will put us in a good position to check in on each other in the event of a lockdown, but will also help us monitor those more elderly neighbours not on Facebook.

Part of preparedness for us, in talking to our kids, was finding out what they knew already. Kids listen to the radio in the car. They talk to each other. Schools are doing what they can to build hygiene practices. I’m on the executive committee for our daughter’s kindergarten so I know there are lots of conversations happening behind the scenes about risk management, and kids notice little changes in practices even if they don’t understand the why. When they don’t understand the ‘why’ they fill that gap with their own reasons. Xavi was telling us about a virus that can kill people in five minutes. Helping your kids have good information — like that this virus is very mild in children — will help them be better prepared emotionally. I’m an asthmatic, so is Xavi, so there’s a degree of risk for us, and we’ve talked about making sure we’re taking our preventers as prescribed (something I’ll have to start modelling). We spent a few minutes answering questions the kids had about the virus, and finding out what they’d heard. Part of helping your kids navigate this is making sure you’re considering expert advice — not just memes — so monitor advice from public health experts and government — and make informed decisions as a family, giving kids age appropriate information that will replace anxiety and fear with love.

Which is where we talked about how we’re going to respond as Christians. How it is particularly important for us to listen to Jesus, who tells us not to worry, and not to be afraid, and also tells us to love our neighbours. He showed us what that looked like in how he loved us. Part of figuring out what is loving in the face of this advice is figuring out how to not just act in ‘self-preservation’ but lovingly for the sake of others. So we talked about how while they’ll probably be very safe, lots of older people in our lives are going to be at risk, and part of loving them is looking after ourselves (washing our hands, coughing into our elbows, not touching our faces). We’ve talked about how preparing well, and looking after ourselves, will help us help people we know. We can only be present in community if we are looking after ourselves, and sometimes the best way to help our community will be to remove ourselves from contact with people if we feel sick — even if that is hard and sad for us (and BOOORING).

I loved Andy Crouch’s piece on how churches should respond to Corona Virus a lot. I like his take on culture, and on the importance of practices and symbols for ‘culture making’ (you should read his book on that front).

I thought his overarching aims dovetailed nicely with the non-anxious presence stuff — I think he is tapping into what it looks like to be a faithful presence in our community in times of crisis. Crouch says:

We need to redirect social energy from anxiety and panic to love and preparation. This crisis presents an extraordinary opportunity to fortify small communities of love and care for our neighbors. That will only happen if we lead in a way that reduces fear, increases faith, and reorients all of us from self-protection to serving others.

His advice on ‘what to communicate’ in a church setting to avoid it becoming an anxious system applies on a family level too.

In shaping culture, nothing matters as much as action that carries symbolic weight. Sometimes this symbolic action takes the form of concrete steps, but sometimes it is simply well-chosen words and images. It may seem like our most urgent need is to make decisions, and of course we cannot neglect the decisions that are ours to make. But just as important for moving the horizons of possibility are what we say, how we say it, and even how we appear to others as we say these things. The way we communicate will shape the choices others make, and how they approach their own decision-making.

This means that all of us have a primary responsibility as leaders, as far as it depends on us, to be well-rested, soaked in prayer and contemplation, and free of personal fear and anxiety. We need to start and end each day as children of our heavenly Father, friends of Jesus, and grateful recipients of the Holy Spirit. We need to pray for genuine spiritual authority, rooted in the love that casts out fear, to guard and govern our lives as we lead, and trust that God will make up what is lacking in our own frail hearts, minds, and bodies.

What he says here of leaders is true for parents. This is why prayerfulness, not just privately, but with your kids, is going to be important in a crisis (and, you know, we also believe prayer works). Prayerfulness matched with preparedness, playfulness, and presence.

While there are lots of 20 second songs you might sing while handwashing with your kids (and some of them will be fun… we use a 2 minute podcast called “Brushy” to add some fun to nightly toothbrushing routines — there’s a gap in the market for a 20 second podcast maybe)… We’re encouraging our kids to use the 20 seconds to pray for people we care about, and for those we don’t know. We’ll check in on their anxiety levels, and one of the things we’ll do as we sit with them and talk about what is happening is pray together.

Also, there’s a whole other conversation to be having with your kids if Corona Virus is threatening your economic wellbeing (possibly your employment). Those four elements are going to be practices that might stand you in good stead as we face these anxious economic times together too.

So that’s what we’ve done — would love to know how you’re navigating this with your families?