Micro-dosing Play in the Age of Scary News

Dear Polly,

I have a really anxious 10 year old. We are super close. We talk about everything from social issues, to health related matters and climate change. We can even cover big topics like the Me Too movement, pesticides and GMOs. My daughter is smart as a whip and “an old soul”, as they say. She asks grown up questions and wants grown up answers. I like to be straight with her but it seems like she is growing more and more pre-occupied and less playful. She seems tight inside and I haven’t seen her true smile for a couple of months. How can I help her? Is there anything I can do to help her relax? And oddly, it seems like she has a harder time being at ease when she is with me.

Worried in Nor Cal,


Dear Lara,

Ahh yes - the double edged sword of being informed and aware is slicing right through many kids’ ability to relax. One fearful discussion about the fires, the garbage, the ocean, or the icebergs can turn a playful moment into a despairing puzzle, eclipsing an earnest kid’s mind to be at rest, in awe, or feeling spontaneous joy. Being informed and bonding around the news can cast a bit of a shadow on a kids world view. On the one hand, I get to bond with my kids and feel connected with them. On the other, does every moment need to be a teachable one? I recently witnessed an innocent mother-daughter trip to the market turn into an interactive lecture about how we are overfishing the world’s oceans, about the e-coli outbreaks on the romaine lettuce and the dangers of pesticides and GMOs, preservatives and sugar. The kid knew a lot, and it looked like her little ten year old soul was wrung out.  Once upon a time kids raced up and down the aisles of the grocery store squealing and bumping into shoppers (remember how annoying that was?). Now they are studying the ingredients on the boxes looking for public enemy #1 (corn syrup) and trying to verify that whatever they are buying is cruelty-free. One the one hand I say,  “Wow. Look at these kids vigilantly scrubbing each item for signs of safety.” On the other hand I say, “Wow. That looks like a new kind of very serious childhood.” I think I was twenty eight before I ever read the ingredients on a box.

A trip to the grocery store when I was ten years old meant parking myself on the ground with my dad in front of the Fairfax Market while we shared a box of foil wrapped Ho-Hos, bonding around the challenge of unrolling the Ho-Ho without breaking the chocolate coating. We weren’t bonding around serious matters (the ones happening in our own home or in the world) and I wasn’t informed or very “aware” but I was relaxed because he was. Inside the store, I was expected to get stuff for him, He let me pick out the cookies that day if I could gather more items than him from the list. I didn’t know it then but he was teaching me how to relax in the fraught world we lived in.

It’s tricky when a child wants to know about what’s happening in the world but you can feel their light-heartedness and playful nature dim when they find out. There is no shortage of issues to discuss, and the next generation carries a burden of fixing a lot of what is wrong today. But we as parents must decide whether we will add to the din of scary news, how much “awareness” is enough for a kid and when to make the choice to indulge in a good news diet (at least when we are at home).

Many kids I know who share some of your daughters thirst for knowledge, also share the common bond of feeling frightened by issues they are barely able to understand. An intrinsic sense of guilt (how can I enjoy myself when I could be helping?) along with a parents nudge of “we have to do something to help” can generate a sense of moral burden that’s hard for a caring kid to shake off. Next thing you know a weekend of playing outside becomes better spent by hosting a bake sale to save flood victims. No harm there, right? Well, I guess it depends on the kid. Some kids seem to not be able to shake off the feeling that they have to be part of the solution-and this is a problem.

I’d like to put forth an idea to you, Mom. Let’s trust that your kid will get the scary news funneled to her in micro-doses somewhere between 50-100 times per day from friends, social media, tv, and the like for the rest of time. Job handled.  What if you were to add something uniquely different to the mix? What if your distinct and unique job could be to teach her to play (in the midst of hard news) and to find naturally occurring phenomena all around her that is utterly trustworthy? What if you micro-dosed her with awe and moments of inspiration instead of fear?

What blueprint will you leave her with? Just as my dad taught me how to eat Ho-Ho’s outside the market on a Saturday, can you let the world share the news of an e-coli scare while you help her discover the joy of racing carts down the aisle? A kid will take whatever kind of bond is offered. If orbiting fearful and difficult topics gets her a connection with you, she will take it and she will do it well. What if instead of bonding over the “watch out, be careful” worry-love brand of parenting, you bond around what’s right right now? Ask her if she’d like to join you in being on a hunt for what “lurks” that is supremely benevolent.  See if she’d like to research those things and be in awe over them, with you.

I offer this: She will learn to relax and play if she sees that YOU can relax and play. Modeling is ferociously important on this one Mom. Teach her how to flex the muscle of “There are hard things happening and there are wondrous things occurring at the very same moment and there is nothing wrong with us if we feel good while it all goes on. Show her she can be aware AND be at ease. She doesn’t have to hurt in concert with the world when the world hurts as show of care or solidarity. She can want for change AND feel at ease knowing there are lots of adults working hard to fix what’s broken. So let’s allow the world to drone on with its infinite loop of scary news... while you keep pointing out what’s naturally working because it’s all around us if we look for it. This can be your shared project that helps you grow closer and calmer together (rather than be fearfully connected).

Most of all, Mom, don’t talk this project to death. Let go of the teachable moment.  Instead, Micro-dose awe, play and letting go with your girl by demonstrating it. Lose yourself as you dance in the kitchen. (Don’t be the filmer of the dancing. Be the dancer.) Be late and relaxed. Show up un-prepared and un-worried. Show her how to raise her face up to the rain and smile as it falls in your mouth and fucks up your hair. Eat a Ho-Ho at the grocery store. Show her how to have a little fun in a world drenched with problems. Because only YOU can.

With care,