When Dylan Ekins started kindergarten in Florida last year, he wore a mask over his nose and mouth. He and his older brother Carter had a collection of coverings ranging from prints with crayons to superheroes to movie characters.
Building the collection wasn't a problem, but for their mom, Katie, getting the boys to wear them proved challenging.
“We talked to Dylan about it and explained that he was going have to wear a mask,” she says. “He was not happy.”
Experts are clear that wearing a mask, consistent handwashing, and social distancing are the trifecta that can help keep kids and the community safe from getting or spreading COVID-19. (Vaccines for kids 12 and older are key, as well.) That’s why many schools bringing kids back to in-person classes this fall will require masks, per recent CDC recommendations.
But as parents know, kids aren’t always natural rule followers.
“We’re not born knowing how to follow rules or expectations,” says Samanta Boddapati, a psychiatric and behavioral health specialist at Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Ohio. “So we need to think about prompting and coaching children so that they really understand some of these new expectations.”
Whether your child is attending class, daycare, or after-school programs in person this fall, experts provide some advice on how you can make the new rules for school a little easier.
Bring out the hero in your child
Some children are very rule-bound and willingly compliant about rules in general. “Other children are more defiant and don’t like to be told what to do, be it wearing a mask, social distancing, or brushing their teeth,” says psychotherapist and parenting coach Alyson Schafer. “It’s not that the child has a particular hatred of mask wearing, distancing, or tooth brushing—they have a hatred of being controlled and ordered around.”
Instead of setting yourself up as an adversary, Schafer says parents should seek to gain a child’s cooperation rather than forcing their compliance. One way to do that is to appeal to a child’s natural sense of kindness and altruism. Explain that adults need their help to keep the community safe and that this is their chance to be everyday heroes.
“Kids have a high sense of social justice and want things to be fair for all,” Schafer says. “Parents can connect the dots for children. Say things like, ‘We wear masks and stay six feet apart because we don’t want to spread our germs to others who may not be as healthy. We wear our masks because we want to help everyone, not just ourselves.’”
How you say it is important, too. “The more calm, confident and assured you are, the more likely they are to follow suit,” she adds.
But don’t overwhelm children with these conversations. Instead, Boddapati recommends having routine check-ins about the rules.
“Have those conversations about why you're wearing the mask as you leave the house,” she says. “Then it's not just asking a child to wear a mask—it’s an expectation that we have as a family when we're out in public.” (And yes, that means you have to follow the rules, too!)
Practice with patience
Even children who aren’t completely averse to wearing masks may balk when asked to wear it for an entire school day. And kids who’ve been away from friends for months will likely find social distancing hard. But experts say if they’ve had a chance to get used to the rules, they’ll be in a better space to keep the habit going.
Have kids practice wearing masks a few times a day, gradually increasing the amount of time they wear them. For social distancing, use kids’ sense of play to help them remember what “six feet” looks like.
“We know kids learn best through play,” Schafer says. “Come up with a fun game with your kids that teaches them how to stay on mark, or guesstimate six feet, and play it until they have some mastery that you can celebrate.” For instance, Red Light, Green Light and Simon Says teach listening and inhibitory behaviors.
Then, take children on small outings and give them the power to decide if they’re willing to follow your requests to wear a mask and social distance. For instance, a trip to get ice cream can come with the rule that the child must wear a mask and social distance. If they refuse, that’s OK. But no mask, no ice cream.
“The parent is not controlling the child’s behavior but controlling the situation instead,” Schafer says.
That freedom to choose is crucial. This way, the child decides independently to follow the rules, not just because you’ve said so. Over time parents can increase the length and scope of those outings.
Dealing with peer pressure
When Carter had to consistently wear masks at his summer camp, Ekins realized his concerns weren’t about comfort. “He was very nervous about it,” Ekins says. “He thought he looked weird.”
The family spent hours trying on lots of different masks to find ones that made him look “cool,” she recalls. That urge to belong is innately human, Schafer says.
“We’re all motivated to be accepted,” she says. “We do this by imitating the group norms and watching behaviors and attitudes modeled by others.”
Ekins says that once Carter saw that other kids his age were wearing masks at camp—and understood that it was a requirement to have fun—he felt better about the rules. It even helped him become a powerful ally when it came to his younger sibling.
“He was even telling his brother, ‘You know, it's not that bad!’” Ekins says.
Still, some children who your kid might come into contact with won’t be following mask-wearing rules. Empower them to handle those situations when you won’t be on the scene to offer advice by creating a list of possible situations, then brainstorming some responses.
“It’s hard to think on your feet,” Schafer says. “It’s better to plan and rehearse scenarios so that when faced with a situation of someone not following the rules, we can respond in a thoughtful way that the child is comfortable with.”
Schafer suggests using humorous retorts or ones that appeal to another child’s sense of kindness when they get too close:
• “I have a family member who is high risk, so I just have to be extra careful.”
• “Excuse my germaphobia—it’s just who I am.”
• “Isn’t it frustrating when you forget your mask? I’ve done that, too.”
• “Actually, I just ate too much garlic.”
“Keep in mind what your child is trying to accomplish,” Schafer adds. “Being harsh or judgmental will invite defensiveness. Being kind and educative while staying safe is the aim.”
The bottom line is for everyone—children and adults—to simply do the best they can as we all navigate this time of uncertainty. Says Bodapotti: “Having simple discussions, checking in with children, validating some of their concerns, and modeling some of the behaviors that you’d like for them is going to carry families a really long way right now.”
Editor's note: This story was originally published on August 24, 2020, and has been updated to include recent recommendations.