5 lessons from the School of Life in Lockdown

The mercury is telling us that winter has begun, but as lockdown measures are relaxed, it feels like spring is in the air. The great unwashed are bursting forth from hibernation with unbridled enthusiasm and a collective sigh of relief, impatient for a taste of everything denied them these past months.

Not surprisingly, parents of school-age children are leading the pack. They’re the haggard ones wearing the biggest smiles, with the most pronounced skip in their step.

And who can blame them? Cabin fever aside, being unexpectedly thrust into the vitally important role of educator, without any qualifications or prior experience, is its own form of abuse. Combining that with work/study (if you’re lucky) or the financial duress brought on by reduced working hours or unemployment (if you’re not)? Torture on another level. Now being relieved of that extra responsibility? Time to par-tay! 🎉… with clean hands from a distance of 1.5 metres, of course.

Throughout the COVID-19 response, government messages have consistently reinforced the importance of education and the continuity of students’ learning. It’s no wonder home-schooling parents have fretted about their inexperience and ineptitude and the potential impact of this on their children’s formal education.

But let’s not forget that education is so much more than just the process of learning or acquiring knowledge in a ‘school’-like environment. It’s about developing the powers of reasoning and judgment, acquiring skills, values, beliefs, habits, and generally preparing intellectually for adult life. Any experience that has a formative effect on the way we think, feel, or act can be educational. And in so many ways, COVID-19 has afforded us, children and adults alike, a range of firsthand, impactful life experiences that no classroom lesson could hope to match.

We’ve seen the differing responses of world leaders and their compatriots to the pandemic, compared their catastrophic health and economic outcomes to our Australian experience, and given thanks. 🙏 Our federal and state governments have worked collaboratively, using their authority to close borders, shut down the economy and curb many of our fundamental freedoms to keep us safe. And as a community, we’ve accepted these draconian measures; willingly made sacrifices for the common good; succeeded (so far) in flattening the curve and saving lives. We’ve learnt that collective action and co-operation matters.

And closer to home, young people have watched parents adapt to these unprecedented and changing circumstances. We know that young children learn observationally; that is by watching and listening to others, particularly parents. But parental influence continues into the teenage years too, albeit with less of an impact on behaviour itself and more on the beliefs and attitudes that drive behaviour.

With this in mind, I suspect children have learnt more from parents during lockdown than just the three Rs – reading, writing and arithmetic.

Here are five lessons from the School of Life that I’ve identified:

1.    Preparing meals or baking

Kids in the kitchen, helping to bake a cake or prepare a meal, see maths (measuring, weighing, telling the time) and science (flour for structure, eggs to bind, baking soda/powder for lightness and rise, butter and oil for tenderising, sugar to sweeten and moisten) in action. They also learn some valuable life skills.

Give a man fish, feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, feed him for a lifetime. ~ Lao Tzu

Preparing a meal involves so much more than throwing a few ingredients together to stave off hunger. It requires taking stock and planning, particularly when supermarket trips are restricted. Then when preferred ingredients aren’t available, being resourceful and creative, considering substitutes or alternatives, improvising. It’s love on a plate. And the reward for effort is not only nourishment, but pride in making something to enjoy with others.

2.    Budgeting

I’ve never met a parent who doesn’t bemoan the fact that children fail to appreciate the value of money, thinking it grows on trees or spits out of a hole in the wall on demand. With many parents laid off, stood down or working reduced hours during lockdown, household finances are front and centre; spending decisions, by necessity, under the microscope. And striking a balance between earning and spending is now a game the whole family must play.

There is no dignity quite so impressive, and no one independence quite so important, as living within your means. ~ Calvin Coolidge

I’ve seen this with my 24-year-old daughter, Lizzie*. She moved into a share house just before lockdown and then promptly lost her job in hospitality. Having to live off the smell of an oily rag is teaching her more about money management – saving for a rainy day, living within your means, conscious spending, seeking bang for your buck – than anything I’ve said or could ever say to her.

Whether parents involve children in the budgeting process or explain what it means to them after the fact, they introduce the world of prioritisation, impulse control and delayed gratification — distinguishing between needs and wants, learning to live with less, making do with what you have.

3.    Creating a routine and learning to self-manage

Just as parents began adjusting to work-from-home directives, home-schooling became a reality, and the world in lockdown was turned on its head. Learning spaces were hastily configured in quiet-ish corners not otherwise occupied by working parents, surrounded by all manner of distractions – electronic devices, toys, pets, the fridge, other family members.

Routine is not a prison but the way to freedom from time. ~ May Sarton

In this environment, sanity depended on the creation and observance of new household routines to accommodate home-schooling and work commitments amidst general parenting pandemonium and domestic chaos. For parents, wearing multiple hats, juggling competing demands, ensuring each received adequate time and attention, was like playing an extreme sport in a confined space.

Older children may have found themselves on the fast track to responsibility, unwittingly seconded to the role of teacher, helping younger siblings with schoolwork or assisting technologically challenged parents. Ultimately, survival hinged on each family member learning to organise themselves and manage both time and distractions to an age-appropriate degree.

Whether by modelling or explicitly teaching planning and self-management techniques, parents have fostered the development of some key life skills from which children will reap lifelong benefits.

Mastering others is strength. Mastering yourself is true power. ~ Lao Tzu

4.    Slowing down

Slow down, and everything you are chasing will come around and catch you. ~ John DePaola

In a recent post, I wrote about loving the slower pace of life during the lockdown. Probably not unusual for someone in my demographic. But for children with short attention spans, used to being scheduled within an inch of their lives, it’s been a shock. Suddenly, no rushing to be somewhere else or with someone else because somewhere else is closed, and someone else is in lockdown too.

The upside? More of that most precious commodity, time … and pyjama days. What child doesn’t love a pyjama day? An occasional reprieve from showering, dressing, teeth cleaning and hair brushing? What adult doesn’t love it? Or it’s cousin, the trackie day? That brief respite from societal pressure to groom, style, epilate and apply make-up? But I digress …

Perhaps it’s too much to expect children to fully appreciate the value of time when they have so much ahead of them. But it’s important for them to see the benefits of a more leisurely pace on their health, wellbeing and relationships, as well as the general mood of the household.

5.    Coping with boredom

It would be remiss however not to acknowledge the potential drawbacks of slowing down, one of which is boredom, or so I’m told. I can’t ever remember being bored myself, even as a child. It’s a foreign concept to me, although perhaps I’m not the norm? 🤔

Indeed, many children have experienced boredom for the first time during lockdown. With home-schooling tasks completed, parents attending to work and other responsibilities, organised sport, music, drama and other activities suspended, playgrounds closed, play-dates or catch-ups with friends banned, and screen-time limited, unstructured time has been plentiful.

Boredom is the fear of self. ~ Marie Josephine de Suin

While frustrating for some, the need to self-manage this free time has allowed children to explore who they are, discover where their interests and talents lie, rekindle imagination and creativity, and develop a measure of independence. Even if it’s been against their will 🙄

When you think about lockdown in these terms, it’s hard to deny that the past few months have been productive. And I’ve no doubt these five lessons from the School of Life are just the tip of the iceberg. We’ll find many more hidden gems if we take the time to look 🕵️‍♀️

What have you or your children learnt during the lockdown?

* names have been changed