How much freedom is too much?


If you’re the parent of a teenager, you know that the biggest source of family friction isn’t the phone, friends, or rolling eyes. Instead, it is something much more important: the inevitable need to cede control and free will to the child, even if it is not clear that he is ready for it, and even when the exercise of free will could endanger him.

The process is difficult for everyone involved, but the outcome is never really in doubt. The child who becomes an adult gradually acquires more control over his own life. And their parents or guardians are slowly accepting that, as much as they would like, they cannot offer rock-solid protection against threats posed by the rest of the world.

Throw a growing global pandemic into the mix, however, and the picture becomes complicated.

Over the past few days when our 14 year old daughter asked if she could cycle around town with friends, my wife and I responded like this: Exchange worried glances, tell her not to come in in anyone’s house, remind her not to get physically close to the friends in question, and then, as she walks away, have a nervous and ambivalent exchange about whether we are doing the right thing.

Over the past 24 hours, however, this MO has started to feel inadequate. Juliette Kayyem, WGBH News contributor and homeland security expert, tweeted that she just orders her (older) children to stay home, period. In an open letter, Bookline High School social worker Paul Epstein essentially ordered the young adults of this city to stay away from each other. (“For your own safety and the safety of our entire community, and indeed the world,” he wrote, “please do your part by staying away from others.”) Add locked up France for two weeks, and President Donald Trump telling Americans of all ages to avoid gatherings of more than 10 people, and I was ready to say to my child: Sorry, but from now on any meeting with friends should be completely virtual.

But then I spoke with Mark Pasternack, unit chief of pediatric infectious diseases at Massachusetts General Hospital, who noted that restrictions become more onerous when there is no foreseeable end to the circumstances that prompted them. .

“It is evident now that we are, as a society, [are] in this for the long haul, ”Pasternack said. “If it was only a week, anyone can be locked up for a week. … We can do things when we know there is a time bound commitment, but we really don’t have a time bound commitment.

In view of this, Pasternack said, “Going for a bike ride with a small number of friends, if they just go for a ride and hang out that way, I think it’s a business to do. low risk. … Give them the chance to get some fresh air and exercise, and to have the chance to chat with a small number of friends who are spaced out, I think that’s fine.

That said, Pasternack also suggested that an outright moratorium on indoor socialization for older children – not just in homes, but in any public spaces that may still be open – is clearly the right way to go. .

“There are very, very few cases [of] children who have become what we would call really sick [from the coronavirus], beyond just staying home and resting, ”Pasternack said. “They are the Trojan horse, however, for the adult and senior population.”

“You have a [meetup] with a child, we can say that it does not matter, but it is really to have a [meetup] with the two families, because of the close contact between this child and his family or his family, ”he added. “So I think things should be limited. How individual families can negotiate, I think is tricky and variable. There will be children who will not listen to their parents, and adolescents in particular may be opposed, and younger ones will be more flexible. But I think the main theme – that social distancing really means social distancing – is where we are right now. “

The catch, of course, is that parents are simply assured by their teens that they are going out with friends but that they won’t go inside. This does not mean that they will actually adhere to these parameters. Ditto any assurance that they will keep a distance of six feet from their friends.

“With teens, there is always the individual problem of how well they listen to advice and direction,” said Carolyn Snell, treating psychologist at Boston Children’s Hospital. “So if you have [the] kind of teenager who would be very vigilant around these things, practicing good hand hygiene and social distancing, he seems to be within guidelines to be able to ride a bike with friends and stay six feet away from one of the other.

“But of course, if you have a teenager who might not be quite okay with doing these things, or who is on the less mature and more impulsive side, it might be worth considering keeping a closer eye and a restrain that person, ”Snell said.

And my daughter is… which of them? Like many of her peers, I’d say she’s both, depending on what day of the week (or time of day) you catch her.

For the record, when I asked her if she stayed two meters from her friends on these bike tours, she replied, “You can’t really cycle nearby. If you are cycling along the sidewalk road you are sort of single file so I guess it’s about six feet. We didn’t make sure we were six feet apart at all times, but I think most of the time we stay quite a distance from each other.

That wasn’t the best answer – maybe because, upon reflection, her parents haven’t repeatedly demonstrated what six feet apart actually looks and feels. But that didn’t seem like the worst answer either.

Full Disclosure: As of this writing, despite thinking about these issues over the past 24 hours, I’m still not sure if I think it’s time for a new parenting policy. Yesterday, the cold helped postpone the accounts. Today is the rain.

At some point, however, the excuses will run out – and despite Dr. Pasternack’s advice, my gut tells me that our daughter’s marching orders are likely to become much more restrictive.

She, in turn, seems prepared for a widely or even entirely distant social life.

“I would definitely be bored,” she told me. “I would miss my friends very much, because it’s obviously not the same when you FaceTiming them or texting them. But the fact that we are living this in a time and age when contacting them virtually is an option is certainly much better than if there was no means of contact.

“If that’s the only way for me to talk to them in the next few weeks or months, it’ll suck, but I’ll get used to it,” she said.

Which is, Pasternack points out, exactly what society as a whole does every day.

“When it comes to the coronavirus, every day is an entirely new adventure, and sometimes the afternoon is an entirely new adventure first thing in the morning,” he said. “Things are changing so quickly that it is difficult to give lasting advice.

“If you told someone a week ago that the St. Patrick’s Day Parade would be closed, bars would be closed, and restaurants would be closed, they would think you were hallucinating,” Pasternack said. “There you go, a week later, and we’re taking that as the new normal. “

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