To mask or not to mask: that’s truly the question these days. We’ve all seen the TV coverage as small-town school board meetings become violent scuffles and watched as our once-friendly neighbors attack each other on social media chatter sites. Most of the debate centers on whether children should be wearing masks in school, and the divisiveness is going to affect our communities for years to come.
But there’s a more important question. How is the mask debate affecting the youngsters who show up for your Sunday School classes, VBS programs, and youth groups?
I’m not here to declare a stance about the appropriateness or efficacy of masking children in school. Instead, I want to cover something I find particularly troubling about the debate. Children learn many things in school and church, but they learn about adult behavior firsthand. Adults fascinate children, who dream of the day when they can drive and don’t have to memorize this week’s spelling words. More important, children mold their behaviors based on what they see.
For example, if your neighbor’s DIY home projects always include a loud stream of expletives, your kids may be learning that when adults get angry, they can swear. If your sister is always ready with catty comments about other relatives, the kids will think it’s okay for adults to badmouth each other. And when Dad doesn’t have to go to church because he’s got a Sunday tee time, the kids quickly grasp that golf ranks ahead of God.
The Covid pandemic has been teaching kids a lot, and again, they’ve picked much of it up by watching the adults around them. If they see people so afraid of being exposed that they won’t go out, they’ll be scared to do the same. If they hear their parents dismiss the virus as a myth, they’ll also balk at taking steps they’re asked to do. More important, if Mom keeps publicly proclaiming that Junior will suffer all sorts of anxiety if he’s forced to wear a mask, guess what the outcome will be?
When it comes to kids and the mask debate, we need to focus on two things. First, we need to acknowledge their very real fears about the pandemic. They’ve heard all sorts of scary things (like their grandparents are more likely to die) and it’s no surprise they’re confused and concerned. Second, we need to insulate kids from angry political debates. It’s one thing to have a dinner-table conversation explaining the different points of view. It’s entirely another for someone to bring their child to a school board meeting where the child witnesses them screaming at officials.
As a church leader, you can help turn down the temperature and mitigate the anger. Encourage the adults in your congregation to remain rational and treat each other with love, even if that other is completely wrong about whatever the political issue may be. We need to make sure children see behaviors we want them to adopt, not avoid. And if there are children in your church to seem to be overwhelmed by issues like these, why not suggest they sit down with one of our counselors to help them replace anxiety with confidence?
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Brittany Smith is one of Care to Change’s professional counselors. She focuses on helping young children and teens who have faced challenges find the guidance and support needed to become healthy adults.