Children will be OK after COVID-19, just as I was after the Gulf War
As the COVID-19 disruption drags on, parents worry how this long, stressful, enforced break might affect their children. This includes me, trapped at home with two children under 4. But I also know that they will be OK.
I know this not because I believe in the famed resilience of children (although I do), but from experience. I grew up in Israel, and just a few weeks before my 9th birthday, Iraq invaded neighboring Kuwait, triggering what would become Operations Desert Storm and Desert Shield.
For my classmates and me, this meant a sudden uptick in our global awareness. I quickly learned my way around a map of the Persian Gulf, and I could rattle off coalition members as if they were dinosaurs (which, like all 9-year-olds, I was also obsessed with).
I also learned — because as things ramped up toward invasion, so did our prewar training in school — that we might get attacked by gas-bearing Scud missiles, from which we could protect ourselves by speedily donning our government-supplied gas masks. During drills, when the alarm sounded, we would run to the nearest shelter, put on our masks and wait for instructions. Almost every day, over the course of a long two months, we put this training to use, running, hiding and waiting in our masks as bombs rained across the country.
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As they are now in the face of COVID-19, schools were quickly closed, as were most nonessential workplaces. Gatherings were discouraged and eventually forbidden, and leaving the house became just plain silly. We were in a national self-imposed quarantine, trying to sit out a threat that was very real. The nearest bombs fell just a few miles from us. We feared chemical warheads the most. They were invisible and deadly. Thankfully, none fell.
As a parent of two, this all sounds mind-scramblingly stressful. And I’m sure it was — when the whole thing almost happened again a decade later, my teenage self felt the anxiety much more acutely.
As a child, however, it was a a curiously enjoyable experience, or at least that’s how I remember it. I must have been scared or nervous. I remember asking whether our house would survive if a missile hit the yard next door (answer: probably not).
Yet I also remember watching movies in the shelter. I remember my mother braiding my hair, staying home from school, coloring maps and feeling very proud at how fast I could put on my gas mask and tighten the straps.
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Today, as I eye our dwindling piles of craft supplies and dried goods, it comforts me that our crisis is not, despite the rhetoric, a war (though, alas, the number of COVID-19 casualties look to be as high already). Pandemics are terrifying, but we are all in this together.
Perhaps my greatest source of comfort is that my experiences now conform to what I remember as a child. Even in quarantine, life falls into some routine. Children are exceptionally good at finding joy — indeed, spending time with their parents is a joy, even when those parents are tired and frustrated. Communities can and do come together, even if we are physically apart. This, like all things, shall pass.
My experiences also remind me that parents can, and do, make a world of difference to how a child perceives the world. Mine clearly imparted to me a deep sense of security, which has lasted even as I developed the usual array of adult anxieties.
So despite my instinct to put my own children in hazmat suits, bleach down the house and batten the hatches against the world, I know that the best I can do for them right now is calmly and cheerfully wash their hands and explain why people are wearing masks and why we cannot visit our favorite places.
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I remind myself that I once faced missile strikes armed with a gas mask, tarp, masking tape and rags soaked in water and vinegar to block the gap between the door and the floor. To my parents, it felt woefully inadequate, but I don’t remember being worried.
When my school eventually reopened, we discovered that local missile strikes had undermined half of the foundation. We had to go to school in shifts. But I still learned all my math and reading. In fact, because I drew second shift, it remains the only time in my life I was on time for school.
We were, in the end, OK. And I know my children will be, too, as long as I can keep them safe — both from the world, and from my own fears.
Ayelet Haimson Lushkov is an associate professor at the University of Texas at Austin and a Public Voices Fellow of The OpEd Project.