Family

My COVID Parenting Has Reached Peak Inconsistency

Honestly, I have no idea what I’m OK letting my kids do anymore.

Masked kids in the back seat of a car.
shironosov/iStock/Getty Images Plus

A couple of days ago, my 12-year-old son peeked his head into my bedroom while I was working and asked if a new kid who just moved to our block could come inside to play video games. Before I could answer, he followed that up with the obvious next question: “And does he need to wear a mask?”

Yes, he can come in. And no, he doesn’t need to wear a mask. No rhyme or reason to that answer. It’s just … what came out of my mouth.

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A few minutes later, another head popped into the room. It was my husband, asking if I really said it was OK to have this new kid over without a mask. “Ugh, yes, that’s what I told him,” I replied. “But I have no idea! Do whatever you think is best! I don’t know! Up to you!” And then I turned back to my laptop.

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In the end, my husband asked the kid if he was vaccinated (yes) and let him stay mask-free. But neither of us could really say why we made the decision we did, or if we’d make the same one next time, or if any of our decisions add up to anything comprehensible at all.

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This is parenting these days, for us and too many people we know. Peak inconsistency. Complete incoherence. Just decision after decision based on a little bit of science, a little bit of outdated guidance, and a little bit of how much time or energy we have to think it through.

There was a time when the rules really sucked but were easy to follow. Our school district was online only, so the kids learned online. The after-school club said everyone had to wear masks, so they wore masks. There was a questionnaire to fill out before soccer each week, and whenever our answer was yes (yes, we’ve come into contact with someone who tested positive for COVID; yes, we traveled outside of the tri-state area), we knew what to do: keep the kids home. There were no indoor play dates—that just wasn’t done. The bar mitzvahs were all on Zoom. And once eating at a restaurant was something we were comfortable doing as a family, it was outdoor only. No other option to tempt you, even on a cold night. While we were occasionally faced with a new predicament, generally all signs pointed toward the same answer to our kids’ constant requests: no.

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But now, well, it’s a crapshoot. For a while my husband and I were following the CDC guideline that said it was OK for a family of vaccinated adults (even with unvaccinated children) to have one other family of vaccinated adults (even with unvaccinated children) over to the house, inside, mask-free. When writing this piece, I realized I didn’t even know if that guidance was still in effect. It turns out that current recommendations for families with unvaccinated children include masking in “indoor public settings,” but there’s nothing on private residences. OK!

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The truth is that some days we allow one child from another vaccinated family over to our house, unmasked, and some days we allow two, simply because the second kid showed up and, well, the first kid is over 12 and vaccinated so that’s fine, right? We’ve driven camp carpools this summer where we’re all masked. We’ve driven camp carpools this summer where none of us are masked. On car rules, a friend recently told me, “This summer, I have given rides to kids with 1) all windows down and masks up; 2) just windows down; 3) just masks up. Not because I did any kind of risk analysis and came up with the perfect protocol for the situation, but because I suck and forget and just end up making do.”

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Perhaps you are familiar with the following sleepover logic, described to me by another friend: “We wouldn’t let our unvaxxed tween sleep over at her best friend’s house even though they spend all day together indoors (and out, too) sitting next to each other on the couch, eating meals together, hanging out in each other’s bedrooms and never being socially distant … But somehow sleeping over means they’ll be lying next to each other BREATHING IN EACH OTHER’S AIR ALL NIGHT. What does that even mean? And how is it more dangerous than trading licks of ice cream or laughing at YouTube videos while smushed together on the sofa?” Good question!

We, too, have had our sleepover illogic: We’ve allowed a vaccinated child to sleep over, even though our younger kids are unvaxxed. But we wouldn’t allow an unvaccinated child to sleep over, even though both can transmit the virus. And who knows: Maybe we would allow it the next time we’re asked, depending on the circumstances. You know, the circumstances. As a friend in California put it, “We’re not eating at restaurants inside with our unvaccinated child (unless it’s very very cold and there’s no tables with heat lamps or a very long wait).”

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Perhaps this haphazard decision-making sounds a little, or a lot, flip. You may have different thresholds and variables. Perhaps you have an immunocompromised family member, and so are erring on the side of caution. Or perhaps you live in a place where rates are really low, or really high, and have adjusted accordingly. But with many more schools opening full time this fall than last year and with, according to a recent poll, nearly 90 percent of parents planning to send (or already sending) their kids back, we’re all participating in a giant parenting experiment that leaves approximately half of our children’s lives controlled by the decisions of the district or state, and approximately half just up to us, and our own worries about this virus we thought was going away and now isn’t.

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There’s the pep talk we give ourselves about how, if our kids contract COVID, it will probably just affect them like the flu, and anyway, we have to learn to live with this thing, so maybe playing FIFA in the dank basement with friends makes sense. We make our little minute-by-minute decisions. And we contradict ourselves daily. That same friend who admitted to an incoherent carpooling strategy also told me about reprimanding her vaccinated teenager for not wearing a mask indoors. “We reminded him that he had to wear masks when he was in a store, restaurant, etc. or with lots of people,” she said. “Then, we promptly took him to a family birthday party at a crowded hibachi restaurant, where no one—including us—wore masks. He did not let our hypocrisy go unnoticed.”

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