I help run a writing club at my son’s school, and late last week we took a slight departure from our regularly scheduled programming.
“Has anybody noticed any teasing or bullying about coronavirus?” I asked the group of mostly fourth and fifth graders.
Chicago Public Schools has been sending email updates about COVID-19 risk factors and safety procedures for the past couple of weeks. In one of last week’s notes, this paragraph stood out:
“Finally, COVID-19 does not distinguish between race, nationality or geographic borders. Stigma and discrimination against the afflicted discourages early reporting of symptoms and further perpetuates community spread. If you believe your child has been the victim of discrimination, please contact the Office of Student Protections and Title IX (OSP) by phone at 773-535-4400 or email at firstname.lastname@example.org.”
Every hand in my writing club shot up in response to my question. Some kids stood up and bounced until I called on them. I promised them their stories wouldn’t leave the room, so I’m not going to repeat them here. But every kid had a story — about being teased, about witnessing a classmate being teased, about losing sleep because they worry about being teased.
It was a little bit heartbreaking and a little bit therapeutic and, mostly, it made me want to go around and whisper to every grown-up I know, “Ask the kids in your life about coronavirus, especially about teasing.”
“Parents sometimes worry that asking about something puts it on their kids’ radar or increases their fear,” educator and author Michelle Icard told me. “By talking about it, you’re going to be a release valve and decrease some of the fear and pressure they’re feeling.”
It was clear from the writing club stories that a lot of kids are trying to turn a scary thing into a funny thing. Coronavirus has become, in effect, the modern-day cooties.
“Adults make jokes when they’re nervous too,” I told them. “That’s pretty much the definition of Twitter. And ‘Saturday Night Live.’”
What we have to be careful about — and this applies to adults, too, of course — is not trying to get laughs at someone else’s expense.
Kids approaching or in middle school are just beginning to switch from concrete thinking to abstract thinking, Icard said, which makes them a perfect age for conversations about humor and its nuances.
“Making a joke is a way to ease anxiety, but kids need some instruction about what kind of jokes help and what kind of jokes hurt,” said Icard, who wrote “Middle School Makeover: Improving The Way You and Your Child Experience The Middle School Years.” “You can explain to them the difference between punching up and punching down — jokes that punch down at other people and make them feel bad aren’t good for anyone. Jokes about someone’s identity or where they’re from are off-limits. Making fun of someone for being different is off-limits.”
Icard said adults often encourage kids to be upstanders when they witness someone being ostracized or bullied, which is great, in theory. But for kids who are already walking around feeling anxious — or ostracized themselves — it can feel like a daunting ask.
We talked in writing club about grabbing a nearby adult to intervene if you don’t feel up to the task of upstanding.
“It’s really important for kids to know that the way to stop othering from spreading is for just one person to say something,” Icard said. “And it doesn’t even have to be something dramatic. I can be as simple as, ‘That’s not true.’”
There’s a lot we can’t control right now. But we can make sure the kids in our lives aren’t alone in their fear and confusion, and we can arm them with some tools to be allies for truth and kindness.
Heidi Stevens is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune. Reach her at email@example.com or on Twitter @heidistevens13.