What do children think is ‘normal’?

Janet Empson on children’s views of the coronavirus pandemic.

With more than 40 years as a developmental and health psychologist with research on deprivation and disadvantage, and as a grandmother, many children have talked with me over the years, both at home and in research. In 2015 I published what some children told me was normal about their lives. ‘Nice’ frequently occurred. Normal is everyday activities, doing the same as everyone else – familiarity, routine and predictability. Normal is going to the park or playground, playing with friends. Normal is being with calm adults who are predictable, affectionate, not too exciting, who do nice things, who make cakes. Normal is grandparents who listen, who don’t rush you, who read stories, who play cricket. Not normal is being mean, a show-off and a bully (Empson, 2015).

Children’s views of coronavirus

Eight weeks into lockdown due to coronavirus, I have some children’s views:

‘It was a bat that did it, do we need to kill all the bats?’ (Johnnie, nearly 5, Sheffield).

‘Evil. Makes you die.’ (Suzie, 6, London). 

Initially coronavirus was ‘silly’. But, now, coronavirus is good because it ‘makes you do more exercise, wash your hands more, you get to go all the way to the other parks’ (by bike). ‘I miss my teachers.’ ‘We’re not rushing around all the time.’ ‘The [school] work is just the same. You don’t have to walk all the way to school, it’s just downstairs.’

The siblings I have spoken to in Sheffield differ in their views: quiet ones enjoy and are doing well with home-schooling. One-to-one teaching suits them. The sociable girls are desperate to be back at school to see their friends.

Children’s views of coronavirus have changed over the weeks since schools closed. At first it was new and exciting, and they could spend more time at home. As time has gone on, younger children like Johnnie have become more emotional. Some older children are playing new games involving killing coronavirus.

Recovery and resilience

When lockdown was announced I thought that the mental health implications of coronavirus would be profound – especially for the most vulnerable in society. The processes of biopsychosocial recovery for many households will take at least 18-24 months; adaptation to loss of loved ones, and bereavement will take longer. I questioned the ‘resilience’ of society-as-a-whole and especially that of vulnerable children in dysfunctional families. The ‘new normal’ will have greater vulnerability in many ways.

At home we have kept to our normal routines as far as possible while regretting losing planned events. Our expectations of life were abruptly changed; coping actions were required. I turned to my friends for mutual comfort and my children organised Zoom sessions. During April, like Johnnie, I became more emotional, with feelings of separation and missing my family – even though electronically I had more contact.

I reflected on how life has changed over the decades that I remember. The 1950s was a wonderful time to be a child: life was simpler, the pace slower; we played outside within safe limits and enjoyed much more freedom than the children of today. I liked being with elderly neighbours and felt safe with them. Some of the spirit of neighbourly love in earlier decades has been revived by Covid-19. We should not lose it.

Normal lives

The lives that children see and desire as normal are the same as my own desires. We desire loving relationships with calm and kind people around us. In dysfunctional families the ‘normal’ is different, yet the desires are the same. Whatever the circumstances, all human beings have to satisfy the same needs, which develop in variety and complexity through life (Maslow, 1954). Bronfenbrenner’s bioecological model of development includes neighbourhoods as increasingly important as we grow up. His model can be used to analyse the current situation and suggest how to move forward constructively as psychologists in a world with Covid-19.

The so-called ‘war against coronavirus’ is happening now in the more prosperous parts of the world and will soon spread rapidly in poorer countries where its effects will be multiplied by war and famine. Children who pass through a traumatic experience such as war with ‘resilience’ are those who function well cognitively and socio-emotionally, with adults who shield them appropriately from what is happening, modelling suitable behaviours and maintaining as much semblance of normal life as possible (Goodyer, 1990).

Ultimately, we all desire the same things in life: love, security and the experience of joy. People should attempt the difficult shift away from being fearful (Rowe, 1986) and have the courage to face what we have learned about ourselves during lockdown. We must try to stop fearing death, and to become more caring so that we can truly live our lives with hope about tomorrow. In these ‘unprecedented times’ many adults are realising what we really value in life: more contact with the natural world, our daily routines, the ordinary things, kind people around us. The normal. Our children already knew that.

- Janet M. Empson, PhD, AFBPS, Chartered Health Psychologist, is a Visiting Fellow at Sheffield Hallam University

Methodological Note: The children quoted here live in functional families.

Key sources

The work of Urie Bronfenbrenner, especially

Bronfenbrenner, U. & Morris, P. (2007). The bioecological model of human development. In W. Damon & R.M. Lerner (Eds.), Theoretical models of human development (6th edn, pp.793-828). (Handbook of Child Psychology; Vol 1). Wiley.

Empson, J.M. (2015). Atypical child development in context (2nd edn). Palgrave.

Goodyer, I.M. (1990). Life experiences, development and childhood psychopathology. John Wiley.

Kubler-Ross, E. (1969). On death and dying. Tavistock Publications.

Maslow, A.H. (1970). Motivation and personality (3rd edn.). Harper and Row.

Parkes, C.M. (1975). Bereavement. Studies of grief in adult life. Pelican Books.

Rowe, D. (2002). Beyond Fear. HarperCollins.

Rutter, M. (1976). Helping Troubled Children. Pelican.

Rutter, M. (1996). Developmental psychopathology as an organising research construct. In D. Magnusson (ed.), The lifespan development of individuals. Cambridge University Press.

Acknowledgements

My dear departed friend Dorothy Rowe. Alison Scope, Sheffield University.

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