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Covid began to consume my kids' lives. I had to rethink how I spoke to them about it.

When we talk to kids about Covid, we have to give them a realistic and complete perspective on personal responsibility and illness so that we can limit their feelings of guilt and shame.
Students during the first day of class at Tustin Ranch Elementary School in Tustin, Calif., on Aug. 11, 2021.
Students during the first day of class at Tustin Ranch Elementary School in Tustin, Calif., on Aug. 11.Paul Bersebach / Orange County Register via Getty Images file

With California’s indoor mask mandate for the vaccinated set to expire Tuesday and Gov. Gavin Newsom expected to re-evaluate guidelines for schools in two weeks, parents (and kids) are again forced to contend with a shifting Covid landscape. While the easing of some restrictions, like wearing masks outside, makes sense, I question whether the rollback of precautions is premature when case counts remain high and vaccinations are but one tool in our Covid toolkit. Then again, by now, I’m used to having to zig and zag.

From the earliest days of the pandemic, I stressed to my kids what a privilege it was to remain home while continuing to work, learn and play. I emphasized that dodging calamities — whether they be the virus, bad air from wildfires or diabetes — often depends on factors beyond our immediate control, such as socioeconomic circumstances, employers’ paid leave policies and access to health care and other resources. But deep down, a part of me believed that avoiding Covid could be distilled to a matter of diligence and willpower — a belief that I couldn’t unravel until I understood where it sprang from.

My 5-year old started filling page after page with scenes studded with Covid viruses, imbuing them with almost humanlike sentience.

Growing up in a Chinese American household, I was taught that disease and morality were inextricably intertwined. From cancer to HIV to pneumonia to depression, diseases result from overindulgence and carelessness or perhaps the transgression of laziness. You court cancer by smoking or gluttony; you contract pneumonia because you wandered in the rain in your socks. But there’s a foolproof way to guarantee health: Be virtuous, or, in other words, eat sensibly, get regular exercise and limit vices like gambling or promiscuity.

When Covid-19 first made its appearance in the U.S. in spring 2020, I busily incorporated these principles into our family’s infection-avoidance strategies. Walled off in our family-size silo, we discussed how important personal responsibility was and its role in limiting the disease’s spread.

Omicron’s arrival, however, upended the foundations of that belief.

The tide turned after winter break. Suddenly, the Covid-19 case rates in San Mateo County, California, where we live, shot up elevenfold from their peak at the beginning of the school year and about fivefold from their all-time high last winter. Notification emails from my children’s elementary school — all with the same subject line, “Covid cases – Casos de Covid” — started coming every day. Omicron, significantly more transmissible than its predecessor, delta, which was itself twice as contagious as the previously dominant, alpha, was a game changer.

As omicron advanced, the world realized we didn’t have as much control over the virus as we thought. And in response, I’ve been rethinking how I talk to my children about Covid-19, so they aren’t burdened with guilt or shame.

I’ve seen how Covid-19-induced shame can make families feel like they’ve stepped out of line, even when they’ve followed the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s playbook to stay healthy. For instance, a few weeks ago, a friend shared that her husband had tested positive. They had been vaccinated and boosted and carefully followed health agency guidance and then some. Fortunately, his symptoms — a slight cough, a sore throat and headache — were mild, and he recovered in a few days. But beyond the uncertainty of his prognosis was an overarching feeling of embarrassment and shame for succumbing to an illness they had spent so much energy trying to avoid.

These days, when our family talks about Covid, I tell my kids that unseen and unknown factors are at play.

While our Chinese American heritage played an essential role in how we thought about the virus, people from all backgrounds have experienced Covid-related shame. More than anything else, what happened with my friend highlighted that “doing everything right” was no longer — if it ever was — sufficient to protect us.

While I grappled with this thought, Covid-19 began to consume my children’s lives as they internalized my messaging. My 5-year old started filling page after page with scenes studded with Covid viruses, imbuing them with almost humanlike sentience. When we encountered unmasked hikers on our walks at a nearby park, my 8- and 10-year-olds would press up against me while my youngest asked, always a shade too loudly, “Why don’t they have masks on?”

At the same time, our community, halfway between San Francisco and Silicon Valley, had been relatively insulated from the storm of the past two years. The county’s vaccination rates top 80 percent, and many people have been able to work from home. Cases, when they appeared, seemed to affect friends of friends or relatives from harder-hit regions of the world. So when we heard that a cousin from Milan had tested positive or that a great-aunt from Milan had died, my daughter asked, “Did they get sick because they weren’t careful enough?”

But of course, reality is so much more complicated — predicated on where we can afford to live (away from highways), what we manage to put into our bodies (organic, home-cooked meals) and how our luck shakes out. After all, our genetics may strongly predispose us to heart attacks or strokes, no matter how many carrot wheatgrass smoothies we consume, and the miles we clock on the treadmill can do only so much if we live next to a toxic Superfund site.

Everyone gets sick sometimes — and the guilt and shame tied into that experience can be damaging. Research on the relationship between stigma and diseases like cancer show that shame – from sources both external and internal — negatively affects prognosis and quality of life.

So it’s important that kids learn a more realistic and complete perspective when it comes to personal responsibility and illness. But I continue to struggle; it’s all too easy to slip into magical thinking — wherein if we could just do X, Y and Z, we would emerge from this crisis unscathed.

These days, when our family talks about Covid, I tell my kids that unseen and unknown factors are at play. But while history, genetics and luck exert a heavy hand, we can still make tweaks within those constraints. And just because personal responsibility isn’t the ironclad guarantee we hoped it would be, that doesn’t mean we should toss it aside.

The longer any of us can delay Covid from entering our homes, the more time we have for scientists to find effective treatments, thus limiting potential long-term consequences of the disease. And although Covid-19 may be inescapable, I’m hoping we can still have some say in how it all plays out.

CORRECTION (Feb. 17, 2022, 1:45 p.m. ET): A previous version of this article misidentified a person who died. She was the author's great-aunt in Milan, not an aunt in Rome.