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My Kids Won’t Wear Masks, So I Won’t Let Them Outside. Am I Wrong?

A dad with mask-resistant kids asks the Goodfather if the fight is worth it.

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Goodfather,

My kids are stuck inside. Like stuck stuck. There’s a park near our house, but it’s pretty well populated and the coronavirus cases in our area are seriously high. So we won’t let the kids go outside without a mask. The thing is, they refuse.

Our 4-year-old just hates it. The 7-year-old seems freaked out by it. Either way, neither will put it on. It reminds me of getting them into the right coat for a chilly day. They won’t do it. While with the coat we often let them go outside and be cold, in this case, we’re holding the line but they’re suffering. How do we negotiate?

Not Going Out in New Jersey

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I applaud your commitment to keeping your kids (and just as importantly people who may share space with your kids) safe. Through all of this, I’ve been impressed by parents who are doing the hard work to hold the line and keep COVID-19 from spreading. You might think you’re simply raising your kids during a pandemic, but in making appropriate choices for yourself and your kids, you are helping to keep your community healthy. You should be celebrated for that. 

Of course, I understand you didn’t come to me for praise. So without further back-patting (regardless of how much you deserve) let’s get into your issue. 

Your comparison between getting your child to wear a mask and getting them to wear a coat is pretty apt. The difference is that the purpose of a mask has the potential to make putting one on feel big and scary for children. If kids associate a mask with viruses and viruses with sickness and death, then you could see why they might have some reluctance to strapping one to their face. It’s simply not normal. 

Add to this the fact that people wearing masks look creepy. Most children are pretty adept at reading non-verbal cues from facial expressions. A mask deprives them of half of the information they would have used to figure out if someone is friendly or frightening. In many respects, fear is built into masks. They are used by bandit and rabble-rousers. It’s not a tremendous mystery as to why children might feel trepidation in putting one on.

Not to mention, a mask is simply uncomfortable. It’s stuffy. It can irritate skin and fog up glasses. The elastic bands can irritate ears and the ties and pinch and pull hair. It all adds up to a garment that basically isn’t any fun. 

But here’s the thing, part of the fear and anxiety kids may have around masks is linked directly to the fact that they have wild and vivid imaginations. If you can find a way to work with those imaginations, you may be able to start turning things in your favor. 

You know who else wears masks? Superheroes. Doctors. Helpers. My suggestion is that you change the image of the mask. Change what it means for your kids. Try sitting down and doing some mask decorating. Let them draw on them or bedazzle them. Allow them to make the masks part of their superhero identity. Imbue them with imaginary powers. Do the same for your own mask.

And once the masks have been created, try incorporating them into play. I know, like you have the time, right? Well, in all honesty, it may not take too long. Many times, I find if I give my kids the full power of my adult imagination for 10 to 15 minutes they’ll run with it and let me get back to my adult stuff. You may find the same happening in your home. 

The strategy is fairly simple. Kids like dress-up play. They like to carry that play into the world. It’s not for nothing that it’s common to see children sporting tutus or capes, or at the very least clothes sporting characters in the grocery store. If you make masks playful, your kids will start associating masks with play. 

There are some times when “it’s for your own good” just isn’t going to cut it. There’s nothing wrong with a bit of gentle subterfuge as long as everyone is having their needs met and having a good time. 

In addition to this strategy, I suggest you model good mask-wearing and hygiene too. Heading out? Put on your mask. Do it happily. Change into your own super-hero. Make wearing a mask something that looks normal and okay. If you sigh and look worried every time you’re suiting up to head out, it will only mean you kids will internalize that worry. 

I know none of this is normal. But we need to strive, as parents, to at least not let the coronavirus drain the joy and playfulness from the world. Children need to play, and they need to play even if the world is burning down around them. Turnin necessity into play is a fine way to help ensure kids continue to have a childhood in hard times. 

Finally, I want to say again how proud I am of you, and how proud I am of all our readers, frankly. The pandemic has made the hard job of parenting even harder. But know that what you are doing is right and important and crucial to the safety of your community and our future. 

Keep up the good work.