The Future Of Child Care: COVID's Dramatic Impact On Parenting Styles & School Systems

Written by mbg editorial
The mindbodygreen editorial team worked together on the creation of this article, combining their deep expertise honed by years of reporting on health and well-being. It has been thoroughly researched, written, fact-checked, and reviewed by our editors.
Kids, parents, education, community

Graphic by mbg Creative x Lumina x Jeswin Thomas x BonninoStudio / Stocksy + iStock

When the world stopped, all the past "better than thou" parenting styles seemed so inappropriate and outdated. Quickly the priorities became focusing on mental health and on well-being. Empathy—toward teachers, other parents, your children, yourself—became paramount. Building social circles with families who share the same values and ethos became a vital means of community. Parents started showing their vulnerability: They shared with one another their struggles, their challenges, and collectively leaned on each other. In a time when we're literally encouraged to not interact with others, parents reached out and found one another to feel seen. 

We stopped trying to be better than each other and instead started looking for ways to make an unfathomably challenging time just a little bit better for everyone. 

It should come as no surprise right now, but parents and kids are struggling. 

This has been a challenging year for us all, each of us facing our unique set of issues. For parents, they were turned into sole caretakers, home-school teachers, and playmates overnight. Kids lost their social circles, had to deal with long days in front of a screen for virtual learning, and missed out on various rites of passage, like extracurricular activities, graduation, and dances and had so many more encounters with disappointment and uncertainty.

89% of moms say they feel unsupported by society.

This has taken a toll on mental health. Surveys and research, too, is beginning to show the cracks. While the research on how COVID has affected our mental well-being is still emerging, what we do see is alarming. One survey found that 89% of moms say they feel unsupported by society—and 86% experience burnout at least occasionally, and 41% say they experience it frequently. Another study from the journal Pediatrics found that the "results clearly show that the coronavirus crisis has substantially worsened adult and child psychological well-being." 

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How we cope — and how we move forward. 

Thankfully we are highly adaptable creatures. In a remarkable time, parents were able to find ways to help maintain some sanity and prioritize their children's mental health and well-being. Parents are now learning to open themselves up and show vulnerability. And with that, they have also been able to develop more empathy and understanding. 

"I definitely see parents being more sensitive, patient, and adaptable. The pandemic has provided a unique opportunity to connect with their children, regardless of age, and I've yet to speak to a parent who hasn't appreciated this," says Reva McPollom, an education expert, CEO, and founder of Lessonbee, agrees. "As someone who felt very isolated at school and home growing up, this is absolutely a trend that I will continue."

Another area that many of us, parents or not, found was a vital step toward normalcy was creating what we've all started calling a "COVID bubble." Having a small group of like-minded folk with whom you can safely socialize has been a mental health saver. So much so that even scientific institutions created guided instructions on how to mindfully build your bubble, like this one from the researchers at MIT Medical

"As parents think about how they want their family to operate, they are likely to be more choosy about who they spend time with," says Gertrude Lyons, M.A., Ed.D. This is just practical: If you can only allow so many people into your bubble, you likely want to include people who share a similar ethos

For example, if one priority is making sure your kids are able to remain physically active in some way, perhaps you'll form connections with parents who are encouraging outdoor yoga playdates at the park. If you want to raise a socially conscious kid, you'll want to find parents who are equally dedicated to giving back to the community. 

"All the research on social contagion supports the notion that we are significantly more likely to be supported to make healthy choices and uplifting lifestyle shifts if we are with people who are doing the same," says Lyons. "This is not an approach that creates exclusivity; rather it is one that has the potential to foster greater creativity and tolerance for a broader spectrum of difference and choices."

McPollom agrees: "While the pandemic exposed harsh injustices, in homogeneous communities it also leveled the parenting playing field. It became pretty clear, pretty quickly, no one knows better than anyone else what they're doing. But many parents have been able to move from anxious and fearful to calm and resourceful."

Now, more than ever, we're in this together. 

The end of the competitive parent.

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There's a famous quote by John Steinbeck that particularly resonates with so many right now: "Now that you don't have to be perfect you can be good." Once you are able to shed the delusion of unblemished parenting, you can look inside, evaluate your own value systems, and create a parenting style that works for you. 

As Lyons explains to us, "Parents are reevaluating their lifestyles and discovering choices they didn't know they had about how they can design their family life. I see parents starting to realize that so much of where they gained security as parents was dictated by outside influences—friends, close family, so-called parenting experts, doctors, and so on. So often, we have looked outside ourselves for everything related to parenting: how best to school our children, socializing, and working outside the home or not working outside the home. Parents are now starting to realize they have been over-relying on the media or an external picture of a 'good parent' and instead need to think for themselves."

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What this means when we go back to "normal."

Things are never going back to exactly the way they were—and in many cases, the change is welcome and for the better. Many people think schooling is one of those areas that needs an overhaul: While many parents and communities likely felt underserved by the current school system and caretaking resources, this year showed just how severe the cracks really were. 

"We have learned through this what they really need, and so of course, it's going to have a big impact on what parents are going to accept in the school system and what they will accept in caregiving," says Pressman. "We'll see gratitude for what's working—and change of what's not."

One area is parents realizing that schools and their workplaces need to be more accommodating to the unprecedented demands of modern life: "I think it's horrific that parents, and women in particular, are being challenged in ways that are unacceptable; there's a small, tiny silver lining that people realize there are choices that don't need to be what they have always been."

We see this in ways big and small: Feeling comfortable to bounce a kid on your knee over a Zoom meeting (this all-too-familiar sight would have been deemed unprofessional just mere months ago), creating neighborhood-driven playgroups rather than relying on clubs or extracurriculars for kids' social needs ("Personally, before COVID, I didn't even realize how many kids ages 3 to 8 were within a one-block radius of my house. Now, my 3-year-old daughter knows all the kids in our neighborhood, and we feel much more connected," says McPollom.), and advocating for more equitable and fair standards for your school district from your local government (this past year has inspired many of us to be more comfortable being local advocates for our communities.) 

"It feels a little less daunting to carve out your own plan," says Pressman. "We feel a little bit freer to do things we never would have done before. That freedom of having no rule book has allowed for tremendous innovation that it's possible to do these."

Another area is shared division of labor—we may think that as a society we've come a long way in this regard, but the research that's come out in the past year shows we have so much more to go. "It's been well documented that this pandemic has affected women, and in particular women of color, disproportionately," says McPollom. "One ideal outcome is a more collaborative and community-oriented approach where parents, regardless of gender, learn to better communicate and work together to share parenting, household, and work responsibilities with more equality than ever before."

For school, while there will come a time when children are able to attend school again in a more "normal" fashion, it's now with the understanding that schools need to better serve the community around them. If anything, we've learned that community is a powerful thing, and our school systems will likely grow to reflect that. 

The takeaway. 

Often, parents feel the need to act like they have it all figured out—in front of other parents, in front of teachers, in front of other caregivers, in front of their kids. But here's the thing: None of us have this situation figured out. That's just what happens when you're living in unprecedented times. 

"You know, there was a time when it was understood that it takes a village to raise a child. But we've become very individualistic as a society," says McPollom. "I think this pandemic has humbled us all to realize that other folks outside of our immediate circles matter too. Teachers, neighbors, grandparents, all of us need to have one another's backs. Because when the shit hits the fan and you're trying to get through a challenge by yourself, you realize how fragile it all is."

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