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Coronavirus quarantine gave my daughter too much free time. How she used it surprised me.

Once a sedentary school-hater, my teen now cooks, exercises, finishes her work without nagging and supports her parents. I swear I'm not making this up.
Zoe Fisher
Zoe Fisher cooking for her quarantined family.Courtesy Margie Zable Fisher

Maybe it’s not fair to say that, before the coronavirus pandemic, my teenage daughter Zoe was a problem child; she was probably just a typical teenager. But, for a former teacher and a writer, you can’t help but feel like you are doing something wrong when your daughter is asked what her favorite part of school is and she replies, "Hanging out with my friends."

She didn’t have a favorite subject, a favorite teacher or even a favorite structured extracurricular activity. Her favorite physical activity for the last several years had seemingly been lifting up her phone to watch Netflix in bed. I’m an introvert who loved school, so Zoe’s disinterest bothered me. She had never been bullied, didn’t have ADHD and got decent grades, so I chalked it up to what she told me: Most kids today don’t like school.

When I asked friends who had teenagers about Zoe’s apathy, they didn’t seem to think it was a big deal. Many were dealing with bigger problems: kids with learning disabilities, hanging out too much with boys, drugs. At one point I even asked Zoe if she wanted to see a therapist, but she adamantly refused.

I knew that my husband, David, and I were part of the problem. As the only child of two doting parents, Zoe had learned how to work us to get what she wanted, and we probably let her a little too often.

Add to that her habit of procrastinating, despite years of David and me working with her to stop. Almost every week, she cried and had meltdowns over deadlines she was about to miss until we helped her with the assignments and projects that were due the next day. This not only inevitably messed up our plans for the night, but caused a lot of stress and mutual resentment.

So, when we all went into lockdown and Zoe had to take classes from home, I was concerned. Without the structure of classes to force her to keep to some sort of schedule or her social support system to give her some motivation to at least attend, David and I worried her grades would take a dive. But unlike before the pandemic, we simply didn’t have the time or energy for our usual efforts.

Zoe was going to have to fend for herself.

Then, a couple weeks in, a funny thing happened: She actually did her schoolwork — all of it — without any nagging from us, and she’s continued to do so. On the occasions she asks for help, it’s not in a “teenage drama queen” mode to get us to do the heavy lifting, but because she needs real assistance.

Her new attitude toward school made us wonder what brought about Zoe’s 180-degree change — and whether we’d missed something before. Obviously, the stresses of the pandemic had brought about a new “hands-off” parenting style in us, and she had more time and fewer distractions.

Beyond that, we thought perhaps the cancellation of major testing — finals, standardized Florida testing and SATs — that had always been a huge source of stress for Zoe (and many students) removed enough pressure to allow her to focus on the day-to-day tasks. Her school skills, though, were just the beginning of what changed when my daughter had nothing else to do.

About a month into quarantine, Zoe announced, “I’m bored. I’m going for a bike ride.” I was stunned. David and I are avid cyclists, and for years we’d tried to get her to ride her bike — with or without us — but she’d always said no. If that wasn’t surprising enough, the next day she said she was going for a walk.

From then on, she continued to walk, bike and even work out at home with fitness videos on a near-daily basis, without any encouragement from us. Then she asked if I could schedule an appointment with a nutritionist — which was something we’d been discussing for years, but she’d never been interested before.

Somehow, it seemed that the more we stopped pressuring her to do stuff, the more she just… did it.

My husband and I were happy about these changes, but I was personally most excited when, after her first visit with the nutritionist, she offered to make dinner. I really hate cooking, and David, who is a great cook, is usually too busy right now. And, in addition to taking a hated chore off my plate, Zoe began making healthy meals from which we all benefited. When she started doing the grocery shopping, too — something I didn’t like either — I was in mom heaven.

But then came the ultimate test of the new Zoe and her recently discovered sense of filial obligation: I asked her to help me with a desperately needed pedicure, since my standing biweekly pedicure appointment was out of the question during the pandemic. Living in Florida, I wear open-toed shoes 90 percent of the time, so it’s a necessity (for me at least) — but I’m hopeless at doing anything with my hands except typing. Being a teenager, she complained how gross it was to clip and file my well-cleaned toenails, but she did a really nice job.

“Zoe,” I told her, “with your pedicure skills and cooking ability, you’re pretty good with your hands.” She thought about that and said, “Maybe I’ll become a surgeon someday.” That was not something I ever expected to hear: While she had expressed an interest in working in the medical field, she had never felt confident enough to consider being a doctor, let alone a surgeon. But now that she was feeling better about herself and her many abilities, her ambitions were getting bigger, too.

She was becoming a more understanding person, as well, as she was able to observe our daily work lives. When I was very upset over a work incident, she comforted me, and gently suggested — as I had more than once to her — that maybe this was a learning experience. Sometimes when my husband is stressed out and working through lunch, she’ll join him in his office to keep him company.

If everything sounds too perfect, I promise that Zoe still complains about not being able to do fun stuff with her friends and gets annoyed with assignments, teachers and, of course, her parents. She is eager to get back to the outside world and has all the normal concerns — both the serious and the vapid — of any teenager anticipating their senior year of high school.

Still, though we’re facing uncertainty about our shared futures for longer than we’d like, David and I are feeling more optimistic about Zoe’s future than we did before the pandemic. The skills, maturity and empathy she’s unexpectedly developed during this challenging time will help her face her senior year — and whatever weirdness that will bring — as well as college and beyond. We all know there will be tough times ahead. But we all now know, including Zoe, that she will get through them.