Unintended Consequences of the School Masking Debate

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I’ve been hearing a lot of dramatic debate around kids masking in schools. I’m a parent and a psychologist. I’ve given it some real thought, and we as a society know more than we think.

Straight up — the parent in me doesn’t want my kids to have to wear masks. My kids don’t want to wear them either. Yet we have have had very calm, productive discussions about the reasons masks are needed and required. I asked my kids what they wanted to do, and they said, “We want to do our part.”

Interesting.

On the other end of the spectrum, I have had school, health care, and other personnel sit in my office tearfully recounting experiences of verbal abuse by the public around mask refusal. I have cried alongside them listening to reports of vitriol spouted them while they were just trying to do their jobs — people who derive satisfaction and fulfillment in serving others.

All over a mask. (I found myself wondering how wearing a mask compares to actual human rights violations in North Korea and China, but I digress.)

Parents who object to mask mandates in schools lament the effects on children, and I get it. They aren’t fun to wear. They are a sad and unfortunate sign of the pandemic we are trying to conquer. Kids have had a tough time with being in and out of school, being socially isolated, and struggling to learn on line. That is why it is so great to be able to return to in person learning — however that might occur.

I found myself thinking about what I know as a psychologist from studying and working with children. What do we know about how children adjust to dramatic life change? While I don’t know about studies on children in pandemics per se, I do know about a few other lines of research that may be applicable. They are at least worth considering.

A LONG time ago, societal forces thought daycare for children was a terrible thing. Mothers ‘should’ stay home with children. It was hypothesized that daycare did psychological damage to children so we studied it. Turns out longitudinal studies of daycare adjustment indicated that as long as mom was happy and secure in the arrangements, kids did just fine.

Another line of research looked at how kids adjusted to divorce. Given that 50–60% of all first marriages end in divorce, a significant number of children could be impacted. Again, longitudinal studies showed that children adjusted well to divorce as long as the parents adjusted well. When conflict between parents was low, security needs were met, and the parents were emotionally adjusted, the kids were well-adjusted.

See the theme here? Kids’ emotional adjustment depends on parental emotional adjustment. Not a big surprise.

When it comes to masking in schools, most kids (without significant sensory or other developmental concerns) are going to do just fine with masks. It is when the parents show significant emotional upset around masking the children will also likely show significant emotional upset around masking.

Here is my point: If we are truly concerned with children’s emotional and physical health, we will belly up, mask, and move on. This pandemic is painful in so many ways, but all the mask hysteria is making it so much worse than it has to be. We already have heightened anxiety around safety, food security, health, social isolation, housing, and you name it. The fever pitch over masking is compounding it all and creating another layer of emotional distress that is unnecessary. The louder and more ugly the debate gets the more likely the consequences will be long-term and negative with kids.

Another line of reasoning worth consideration is the idea that during times of war, we developed a sense of community, belonging, and worth through contributions to war efforts. In other words, everyone who did something felt better for doing so. (And, I am not speaking of loss of life due to military service, which is another issue entirely.) So much lip service is given to self-esteem among kids, and in reality, self-esteem is built upon action. Kids need to do something in order to feel a higher sense of worth. What I am saying is the by encouraging kids to “do their part,” we may have an opportunity to build self-esteem. We may have the opportunity to create agency — the feeling that “I can make a difference” in an otherwise out of control world.

Finally, I will say that my biggest underlying fear is that we are further destroying the profession of teaching in schools where talent is desperately needed. I suspect that most teachers go into education to make a difference because it isn’t for the money. If teachers no longer feel they can make a difference and feel unwanted, devalued, or even attacked for simply trying to provide an education, why would they choose a career in education?

We are already in a hole due to the pandemic, how do we move out of the hole if we lose the talent willing to invest in our kids because we keep literally and figuratively spitting on them with these protests? Teachers have already lost control of curriculum choices. What is left if not love of the job and children?

It feels as if we have lost perspective. It’s time to take a deep breath and think about what we are saying and doing. It’s time to consider the long-term and unintended consequences of scorched earth mask protesting in schools.

I’m here to tell you that the argument “it’s for the kids” doesn’t hold water.

Author of Move on Motherf*cker: Live, Laugh, and Let Sh*t Go. Using CBT, mindfulness, humor, and profanity to feel better. jodieeckleberryhunt.com