As the coronavirus pandemic stretches longer and longer, figuring out how to parent in this time of uncertainty adds new challenges each and every day. In the early days, we were uncertain about much regarding the virus, and figuring out best practices for safety was a challenge. We started with travel bans and handwashing and normal flu protocols. Then we expanded to social distancing and some use of face coverings. For weeks (months!) many of us have been under stay-at-home orders, venturing out of our living places rarely, if at all. And now, in many places, we are entering yet another phase—mask wearing.
At each stage, it’s been our job as parents to teach our kids, as non-anxiously as possible, how to live in these new ways. We learned new songs to sing while washing hands (Come Thou Fount is my song of choice!). We’ve taught them how to keep six feet apart, saying: “Keep a llama between you!” or “Pretend like you’re wearing a big hula hoop!” And now it’s time to teach them about wearing masks.
It’s important to do this now, to get used to masks and practice wearing them, even if we are still doing “stay-at-home” because, at some point in the future, our kids will need to re-enter the world. They’ll return to school or church or sports. Or they’ll need to go to the doctor’s office or a therapy appointment or some other essential place. And if we teach them how to wear masks now, then when they do need to go out, it will feel natural, second nature.
But just as important as teaching them how to wear masks, we need to teach our children why they need to wear a mask. We need to teach them, if you will, the theology of masks, because too much of the conversation around masks (and other social distancing measures) has to do with fear. Fear of the other, fear of the unknown, fear of authority, fear of the virus. But we follow Jesus, who said more than almost anything else: “Do not be afraid!” And Jesus also teaches us that whatever we do, we must do out of love.
We need to teach our kids why they need to wear masks. We can’t teach them to reluctantly wear a mask out of obligation. We shouldn’t tell them to wear a mask out of fear of others. We must not teach them that masks are an uncomfortable necessity. Instead, let’s tell them that masks are a sign of love. Let’s teach them that we wear masks to show compassion and concern for others. Let’s teach them that masks are a hallmark of generosity and grace.
I’ve been working on this with my kids. We’ve been practicing wearing masks and talking about why we do it. And last week, while we were eating dinner, we observed our elderly neighbor through our front window. She was going to her mailbox to get her mail, and she was wearing a mask. All of the sudden, my youngest daughter Addy said, “Look Mama, she’s keeping us safe!” Her big sister chimed in, “She’s a really considerate person.” Completely unprompted; that was their natural response.
I couldn’t help but hear the echoes of scripture in their words. “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35). I heard also the refrain the ancient theologian Tertullian, who said that outsiders were so astonished by the Christian witness they would say, “See how they love one another!” My girls looked at our neighbor, and they saw loved lived out loud. It was a lesson to them, as well as an example that they could follow.
As we enter the world of mask-wearing, we have an incredible opportunity to teach our kids that they can make compassion and love visible in a new and wonderful way. Wearing a mask correctly is important. And wearing a mask well, wearing it as an instrument of love, is powerful.