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Monday / April 19

The “Pandemic Parent Stage Theory”: A Guide for Educators and Parents

Hello there! If you’re reading this, there’s a good chance you are one of the hardworking educators we have relied upon to help us navigate education and learning during the COVID-19 Era. If so, I’d like to offer a heartfelt “thank you” to you and your teams.  

In addition to my gratitude, I wanted to share a nuanced perspective from parents I have worked with over the past year as a school psychologist. We’ve had an entire year of navigating the pandemic, and it’s time to share some lessons learned. So, if you’re an educator, a parent, or both, please take a moment to review a working theory of mine. I call it “The Pandemic Parent Stage Theory.”  

If you’re a dorky psychologist like, me, you enjoy stage theories (think Piaget, Erickson, and Kübler-Ross). The gist behind stage theories is that each of us must progress through a sequence of stages in order to reach a higher understanding of whatever it is we’re navigating. 

Each of us is currently attempting to navigate the fatigue, stress, and anxiety of COVID-19. So, I figured you might like to know how to reach the healthiest and safest stage of parenting through a pandemic—and beyond. Yet, as any good stage-theorist could tell you, there’s no way to fast-forward to the final stage. Each of us must progress through the sequence. I’ve labeled each stage and its sequence to help you along the way: 

  • Stage 1: The Hero Cake Stage 
  • Stage 2: The Reality Burger with a Side of Guilt Fries Stage 
  • Stage 3: The Two Middle Fingers for All Stage 
  • Stage 4: The Acceptance and Amnesia Stage 

The first stage each of us parents cycle through is called The Hero Cake Stage. In this stage, when faced with monumental challenges (distance learning, political unrest, stress, anxiety, and the health and wellness of our family), we seek that sweet, delicious feeling of being the hero for our family. We draft immaculate visual schedules wherein each of our children produces high-quality work from their individual learning spaces at home! We plan healthy, balanced meals weeks in advance! We even plot-out exercise and yoga routines for all! 

Then, reality sets in. The Hero Cake Stage is painfully brief and unsustainable. Our heroic visions sputter out almost as quickly as they began. This short-lived stage bleeds immediately into the second stage: The Reality Burger with Side of Guilt Fries Stage.  

In this second stage, parents begin choking down the overcooked, greasy burger that is our reality. We acknowledge the reality that distance learning is actually a nightmare. We begin shoving feelings of guilt and shame down our gullets because we have no idea how to help our second grader complete their assignments. We attempt (meagerly) to create a schedule and routine, but mostly end-up wallowing in how far we fell from our idyllic (and short-lived) “hero stage.” 

This guilt-ridden reality leads to the (strangely liberating) third stage of “the pandemic parent,” which is The Two Middle Fingers for All Stage. In this stage, parents actively rebel against any/all expectations of what it means to be a “good parent.” Structure and routines in this stage are nonexistent. We let our kids stay up late (shoot, we stay up late, too)! If we hear the word “school” we groan in disgust. Clearly, this stage does not reflect our best moments and much like the The Hero Stage it is short lived. The only benefit from this stage is our transcendence beyond feelings of guilt and judgment as parents. We end up accepting ourselves and our goofy family for what we and are and it is.  

Finally, we enter The Acceptance and Amnesia Stage. We accept how far we have fallen from our Hero Cake ideals and we engage in some selective amnesia about our less-than-stellar parenting moments. This unique combination of acceptance and amnesia can only manifest by accepting our realities and our shortcomings and not really caring what other people think.  

In this stage, we are simply ready to do our best, forgive ourselves (and others), and stick to what might be our greatest antidote to the stress and anxiety of an uncertain future: structure and routine.  

Structure is best understood as clear and explicit expectations pertaining to our future. Kids need these clear and explicit expectations from home and school to feel safe. Routines are best understood as predictable patterns over time. The only way our families and schools can provide safe learning environments (online or face-to-face) is to incorporate both structure and routine consistently.  

Regardless of how you reach this level of understanding (be it through my silly “Pandemic Parent” stages or through strong educational pedagogy), you must understand how kids, now more than ever, need structure and routine to thrive. You must also remember that structure and routine don’t mean we have to be robotic. Applying structure and routine simply means we acknowledge the world for what it is: unpredictable. 

The pandemic has taught us many lessons: some great lessons, some not-so-great lessons. I am grateful for the lesson of safety. Whether it is the physical safety of our schools and homes or the psychological safety of our relationships and connections, we have learned exactly what it takes to be safe in the modern era: boundaries.  

Structure and routine are boundaries. Good structure and routines at home (and at school) foster good boundaries. Good boundaries anchor high-quality instruction and high-quality relationships. If you’d like to learn more about this new level of safety, I’ve jam-packed all the lessons learned from parents since the pandemic began in my new book, GPS: Good Parenting Strategies: The No-Guilt Survival Guide for Parenting During the Pandemic and Beyond 

Stay safe out there! 

Written by

Ben Springer is an award-winning and Nationally Certified School Psychologist and author of GPS: Good Parenting Strategies as well as Happy Kids Don’t Punch You in the Face. Ben received his Masters and Doctoral Degrees in Educational Psychology from the University of Utah, where he studied neuropsychological assessment, counseling, school-wide positive behavior supports, bullying prevention programs, parental involvement, evidence-based practice, autism, and social skills instruction. Ben currently works as the director of special education in Wasatch County School District located in Heber City, Utah, and also offers a range of online and on-site consulting at Totem PD. 

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