Mind Matters with Kyle MacDonald: Parents struggle with back-to-school decision


I’m really struggling with sending my primary school-aged kids back to school. It seems like the school has done everything they can to make it safe, and everyone keeps telling me it will be okay, but I’m terrified and can’t make a decision. Is this just my anxiety?

A: The human fear response is one of the most amazing protective mechanisms we possess.

Little doubt that without it we would’ve long since died out as a species, and the beautiful logic of evolution has ensured that we are both very quick to learn to fear things, and very slow to unlearn that fear.

This is the basic mechanism of anxiety – and it will continue to present a challenge as we work our way through this pandemic, and out the other side into whatever our new reality looks like.

As a parent of primary age children, I share your dilemma – and have struggled with it too.

The process of “lockdowns” used the natural response of fear to combat the spread of Covid-19. It wasn’t “fear-mongering”. The fear was a good thing because it worked at the time.

All emotions have behaviours that they prompt – we call them action urges – and the action urge of fear is to run away and hide.

Just what you want everyone to do in Covid alert level 4. And, when we eliminated the virus from the community, and fear was no longer rational, we emerged.

That’s not to say that the Government has “used fear” to control us – as some desperate to politicise the virus would contend.

It’s just true that it feels easy when our emotional response – fear – lines up with the required behaviour – stay home.

But now – from an emotional point of view – we’re being asked to do something different. Now we’re being asked to wrestle with the central challenge of anxiety – to feel fear and not hide. To assess risk and take measured action.

Assessing risk is complicated and emotion-laden. And it’s really hard – especially if it involves the safety and well-being of your little ones.

So we’re all collectively trying to recalibrate our anxiety and that’s a hard task because it involves making risk decisions, relying on gut calls and on reassurance from people that are experts in things we don’t always understand.

Maddeningly, there isn’t always a clear, simple, black and white “right” answer. And being told to do what “feels right” isn’t much help either, if you’re not sure what you feel, or it’s drowned out by waves of anxiety.

But we do trust our kids’ welfare to schools in ways we don’t even generally think about. So ask questions of your school and your children’s teachers. Ask all the questions you need too. More information helps.

And talk to your GP, if there are any health conditions you may need to be thoughtful about.

But maybe also talk to your kids. Ask them want they want. Mine really wanted to see their friends and their teachers again, and that held a lot of weight for our decision-making.

Because while children – and indeed us adults – have been exactly where we all needed to be for the last three and a bit months here in Tāmaki Makaurau, going back to school at this point isn’t really about education.

For our tamariki it’s most importantly about rolling back the fear response, dipping their toe cautiously back into the wide world, and reconnecting with their school, their teacher and their mates.

Because otherwise, the anxiety might grow in avoidance (because that’s also what it does) and going back to school next year may be just that bit harder – for them, and for us parents.

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