From Policy Wonk to Concerned Parent

My thoughts on this back-to-school season, plus recommendations on what us parents should be making a point to do

The vast majority of the time I’m writing on this platform, I’m writing as a dedicated – and sometimes admittedly frustrated – health policy wonk pointing out mental health in the news and demanding immediate action.

This week, I’m writing as that same guy, but putting my parent hat on. This is somewhat unfamiliar territory for me, as I don’t often put any of my personal life out there. However, this week feels like a good week to do so, and to be honest with you all about some of my thoughts and feelings on this year’s back-to-school season.

This week, both my daughters went back to school. I’d be lying if I said there wasn’t a part of me that was at least a little bit concerned about it. I’m so excited that my children have been able to return to school – for their benefit and mine – but that excitement is definitely dampened by the situation we find ourselves in today.

When we thought about the 2021-2022 school year months ago, my wife and I were hopeful that COVID-19 would be behind us and our kids would be able to laugh and play, mask- and risk-free, with their peers. But now, we find ourselves with our girls back to school, surrounded not only by a risk of contracting COVID-19, but in the middle of a highly politicized and heated debate.

And parents like me, well, we’re kind of freaking out. Especially because we know that some of the likely problems we are going to experience are entirely Preventable. As a leader in the mental health space and an advocate for robust integration – which includes public health – I often feel that there’s a lot I should be saying … even in my own community.   

In my home state of Tennessee, Gov. Lee said earlier this week that he would allow parents to opt out of having their child wear a mask in school even if the school mandates it:

Twitter avatar for @miller7Ben Miller @miller7
Playing politics with public health has not been good for this country. With the data heading (again) in the wrong direction, this is a scary sign of the times. And we start back to school this week with data already trending in the wrong direction.…

WTVC NewsChannel 9 @newschannelnine

#BREAKING: Tennessee @GovBillLee announces he's signed an executive order that gives parents in Tennessee the ability to opt out of school mask mandates. He also says he won't announce a special session of the TN legislature. WATCH:

Outside of the illogical legal stance, inconsistent messaging, and blatant disregard for the science, I have to admit feeling a bit frustrated at this decision – especially because of the impact it might have on my kids and my family. I’m also a bit angered by the fact that we are still even having this conversation. We are more than a year into this pandemic and we are still going back and forth about whether masks can prevent the spread of COVID-19? We are still putting our personal comfort (or even just a show of support for certain political beliefs) before the health and well-being of others?

It’s not the first time – and unfortunately it won’t be the last – that political ideology and rhetoric override science, common sense, and decency. But I can’t help but wonder if had the adults lead and just gotten vaccines, maybe we wouldn’t be in a situation where our kids are caught in the middle of a virus and politics. Maybe if so many people would stop repeating what they have heard from leaders, no matter how inaccurate it may be, parents wouldn’t be feeling this way right now.

But back to our kids and their health.

Physically, while their parents bicker, children are getting sick. They’re being admitted to hospitals for COVID-19 at a significantly higher rate than ever before, and at the same time, they’re falling ill to another respiratory virus called RSV at an unseasonably high rate – resulting in children’s hospitals that are nearly entirely full.

Mentally, children are suffering too. But to be clear – and I can’t stress this enough – it’s not because they may have to wear masks. In fact, according to a recent, lighthearted poll by Kaiser Health News, the school rule that kids most dislike is “No talking in line.”

If wearing masks isn’t nearly as much of an issue for our kids as it is for some of their parents, perhaps as parents, all of us should refocus our concerns on the things that are really taking a toll on our kids’ well-being. Instead of making assumptions about how our kids are feeling and speaking on their behalf, perhaps we take a step off our soap boxes and just ask. There’s such power in taking a moment, looking your kid in the eye and asking a question that shows you are actually listening to what’s going on in their life.  

Exploring how our kids are feeling about going back to school or how school is going so far is a relatively simple, common question that parents tend to ask. And though kids’ initial response might just be “good,” or “excited,” or even grunts and groans (I get the range of this frequently), there could be a lot of things below the surface leading them to answer in such a way. Parents’ next immediate question should be “What makes you feel that way?” or even a basic “Why?” And perhaps another “Why?”, and maybe another “Why?” – until they feel they have a good understanding of what is motivating or demotivating their student from wanting to go back to school.

During this conversation or the more that could follow, it’s especially important to try and equip our kids with skills as we discuss things that can be stressful. From deep breaths to writing down their feelings, there are so many ways for them to healthily manage their stress and anxiety. They will benefit from learning those skills in the current moment, in the years to come, and hey, you might be reminded of the importance of doing it, too.  

Speaking of the years to come …. If kids are being dragged into an adult issue about wearing masks versus not wearing masks, kids deserve to have a (somewhat) adult conversation about what’s going on right now. If you have kids, you know that kids are lot more observational, smart and insightful than we sometimes make them out to be. My 13-year-old has already told me about the different groups that are forming at her school – those who do wear masks and those who don’t. The political divide we have seen grow stronger in recent years is now literally right in front of our kids’ faces (or on some of our kids’ faces).

Odds are, your kids may already have some ideas about what moms and dads are going back and forth about on the news. So, let’s answer their questions without passing along any judgement, as they could pass that undeserving judgement onto their peers and foster negativity that this world really doesn’t need any more of.

From one parent who loves their kids to another, let’s make it a point to have open conversations with our kids – and more importantly, lead by example in how we talk and what we do.