SINGAPORE: In the recent 9/9 online shopping extravaganza, I did something quite uncharacteristic. I actually spent a fair amount of money.
I am not usually an avid online shopper but the bulk of my purchases was stuff for my kids – including children’s face masks.
With three young kids - a four-and-a-half year old daughter and a pair of twins just over the age of three – keeping them safe during COVID-19 has become a priority for my wife and me.
This included inculcating the importance of mask-wearing, in addition to other personal hygiene habits.
In the earlier days of the pandemic, especially during the circuit breaker, doing that was surprisingly easy. There was little to do. Nursery school, enrichment classes, playdates and birthday parties – the range of my kids’ social life – were put on hold.
We were quite grateful for the strict government measures mandating that the kids stayed put at home, minimising their exposure to the coronavirus in public areas.
THE BIG BAD WOLF
Truth be told, we were also glad that the kids didn’t have to venture out of our home, when doing so required putting on a mask.
How are our tiny tots going to tolerate a mask on their faces for such long periods of time, we wondered.
It seemed so restrictive. They are sure to yank it off after a few minutes, we thought to ourselves.
So best to just keep them at home as much as possible, and so we did.
That wasn’t easy either. Imagine explaining to pre-schoolers why they were home for about six to seven weeks, unable to attend school, meet their friends or visit their grandparents.
We told them about the big bad wolf that was COVID-19 and why everyone had to stay home when the predator was on the loose.
Still, I’m sure they were puzzled why Mummy and Papa had swapped our work formals for home wear and why we were constantly working even though we were home.
But how we underestimated their ability to comprehend, process and be adaptable.
FROZEN MASKS IN VOGUE
In June, they went back to school after a two-month gap. This was a day of reckoning for us parents – there was no running away from our kids having to put on their face masks and shields for the entire duration in school.
Even after painstakingly explaining to them the need to do so, which, after several prompts, they claimed to understand, we were anxious that wouldn’t be enough.
We weren’t alone. In the days leading up to school re-opening, anxious parents flooded chat groups with questions, clarifications and concerns – on how much the school would enforce mask-wearing in classes and what happened if our kids couldn’t comply.
Our kids were fragile, cotton-wool wrapped, inflexible children who can’t identify and protect themselves against risks – so what exactly was the school going to do about that?
The reality, to our amazement, turned out to be quite different.
As we dropped our kids off to school on day one, their well-meaning and committed teachers smiled and gave us their best assurances.
To our astonishment, at the end of the first day, the teachers reported the kids were very compliant with little or no fuss in wearing their masks and keeping safe distances.
Naturally, there were questions, even the occasional whimpers, but none of them yanked off their masks, threw tantrums or reacted in any of the ways us parents had feared.
It must be the Frozen and Cars character masks that we had bought for them we thought. They were quite excited to sport their favourite cartoon characters.
Maybe it’s the power of these Anna and Paw Patrol masks?
WHAT WE CAN LEARN FROM KIDS
But reality can’t be more different. Our kids adapted to a new, uncomfortable need of wearing masks like fish to water.
In fact, come to think of it, they were more accepting and adjusting to this aspect of our “new normal” life than my wife and I were.
It took me many weeks to get used to donning a mask without grumbling about it or feeling uncomfortable. I know several adults who find wearing a face mask an unbearable chore even to this day.
As our children learnt more about COVID-19 from school – beyond it merely being the big bad wolf – they are also becoming champions of personal hygiene and safe distancing within the family unit.
In fact, it’s our kids today who volunteer to be responsible in ensuring whoever leaves home is masked up.
This is surprising but shouldn’t be. A 2013 study by a group of psychologists from the University of California, Berkeley and the University of Edinburgh found adults saw events and formed causal relationships differently from four- and five-year old children. Children were less influenced by prior assumptions and paid more attention to current evidence.
And interestingly, science also tells us how adaptable and resilient kids are depends on one important variable: The relationships they are exposed to. Harvard’s Center on the Developing Child says that “the single most common factor for children who develop resilience is at least one stable and committed relationship with a supportive parent, caregiver, or other adult.”
But just before we all throw our arms up to claim credit for our kids’ awesomeness, the Center also adds that the “the brain and other biological systems are most adaptable early in life.”
GIVING CREDIT WHERE IT’S DUE
What this research tells me is that my kids will probably be more adaptable than I am because they are able to shed prior assumptions, beliefs and norms than me. Simply put, at their age, they are able to unlearn and relearn better and faster than I can.
And that is a good thing that they have put into practice habits on dealing with the coronavirus at such a young age since many leading scientists have stated that pandemics will become more frequent.
Whether it’s a public health crisis, an economic downturn or a personal setback, they will hopefully be better equipped to tackle these fresh challenges from this experience.
This is why when the Government announced on Wednesday (Sep 23) that kids under six need not wear masks anymore if they had a face shield, I read this news with mixed feelings.
On one hand, it is a huge relief my young ones no longer have to be subjected to this discomfort and that Singapore is gradually opening up the envelop to come to terms with a new normal in tandem with what the body of science is telling us.
On the other hand, it signals the end of a period that has been generally beneficial to their adaptability and resilience.
This would have been their first major test and show of responsibility - one that they passed with flying colours.
As for whether they will continue to wear face masks or switch to face shields, the change in regulation notwithstanding, I will leave that up to the young ones to decide. They have earned their stripes after all to make that decision. They have shown that they are capable of identifying and responding adequately to risks.
Credit must be given where it is due, with or without cartoon-themed masks.
Malminderjit Singh is editor at CNA Digital News, Commentary section.