Coronavirus anxiety

Although I’m now five months into new routines and a new way of life, I’ve been finding that my anxiety level has been creeping back up during the summer. The vast majority of my friends and family seem to have gone back to normal, pretty much giving up on social distancing. I feel that I want to shout out loud that there is still a pandemic on — the phrase that keeps coming back to me is the one uttered by Clark Griswold in the original National Lampoon’s Vacation when his family appeal to him to give up on their road trip to Wallyworld. “I think you’re all ****** in the head!” I understand the massive desire to get back to some kind of normality, I just don’t agree with taking the risks. I know that because of this, people think I am being ridiculous.

“You’re unlikely to get sick from it as you are relatively young and fit.” Yes, thankfully that’s true. But there’s a chance I could get it and be one of the unlucky ones for whom it has serious implications. The idea of having ‘long COVID’ doesn’t sound good either. And then, even if I caught it and had no symptoms at all, I could easily spread it to anyone else I come in contact with.

“I think it’s ok to sit in a restaurant as long as they have the windows open.” Yes, airflow reduces the risk, but why take the risk in the first place? Is it worth it? This is a highly contagious airborne virus; you need to take your mask off to eat, and you’ll be sitting close to your friends at the same table and potentially exposing yourself unnecessarily to the virus over a number of hours.

“There are lots of other things out there that you could get, or could happen, that could kill you.” That’s true, but there’s not many of those that we end up shutting down half of the world for because of the potential harm that they bring.

The more that people I know go back to normal, the less I want to see them, as I don’t trust that they have been careful in managing their own risk. I’m currently not prepared to sit in a restaurant indoors, visit my friends or family in their homes or have visitors to our house where they would spend their time inside. It has been difficult at times over the past few weeks where even those of us living under the same roof have had different opinions about the risks, but we’re managing our way through it.

Perhaps my anxiety partly comes from getting so wrapped up in following politics over the past half decade or so. I am deeply distrustful of our government and the people around them. I’m highly sceptical that they have our best interests at heart, or are competent enough to do a good job even if they did. Managing a pandemic at a government level must be unimaginably complex, and our collection of ministers are second-rate at best. I know that I have to take complete personal responsibility for myself.

“Look at the case numbers in the UK though, they are flat.” That’s been true for the past few weeks, but they are on the rise again. Have we ever had a good test and trace regime that we can rely on here in the UK? Would the government tell us the truth if the numbers were not good? We know that there is probably a two-week lag time between exposure and developing symptoms or becoming contagious yourself, so who knows how many cases are really out there.

I am in an extremely privileged and fortunate position of having a very caring employer who has allowed us to work from home since mid-March. We are unlikely to be asked to go back to the office any time soon. I know that for a lot of people things haven’t stopped or changed during this whole pandemic — they have had to get out to work, my wife included — and I am in awe of them. I also understand that we are social creatures and there is a need for us to meet and connect with each other. I just don’t understand why people would take unnecessary risks such as dining in restaurants with friends or meeting in each other’s houses when there’s no need to.

This weekend my wife and I took a rare walk into town together to buy a coffee. As soon as we got anywhere near other people I put my mask on and didn’t take it off until we were almost home, well clear of everyone else. Maciej Ceglowski’s post from back in April, called Let’s All Wear A Mask, is the kind of logical argument that speaks to me as he outlines his case brilliantly. But it’s clear from my stroll around town that masks are generally seen as an inconvenience and only worn for going into shops, if at all.

I am trying to check and question myself. Sometimes I feel like I’m probably the one in the wrong as everyone else seems to be taking it easy with a relaxed attitude to the risks, but then I just work through the logic again and find myself right back at the start.

Difficult decisions

For the past two days we’ve had major debates in our house about whether our children should be in school. I’m now working from home, and am certainly not planning on being out of the house much. Our soon-to-be 13-year-old made some very reasoned arguments this morning about why he shouldn’t go. I tend to agree with him. As he gets older I’m less sure of myself in terms of how much control we should have over his life. I’d never let him stay home from school on a regular day, but what’s happening in the world right now is so irregular that I’m not sure the old rules apply.

From The Guardian: How do coronavirus containment measures vary across Europe? — 16 March 2020

From The Guardian: How do coronavirus containment measures vary across Europe? — 16 March 2020

Despite the almost all of the rest of Europe deciding to keep their children at home, the UK has decided not to. I am deeply distrustful of the government, but I can see the reasoning as to why they would be kept open:
– Parents who are unable to work from home may need to ask elderly relatives to look after the children
– We have vulnerable children across the country who rely on free school meals to keep them nourished
– Schools aren’t really set up for teaching via remote means.
For our family, we are fortunate enough where only the last point impacts us.

It’s still not a slam-dunk. My wife works as a teaching assistant in a primary school and she is providing a valuable service to society by continuing to go, for all the reasons above. (She is amazing.) I’m a Vice-Chair of Governors at another primary school; we have to rely on advice from government, Public Health England and others on what to do, and my role is to support the school in this. We also have a friend who works as a Paediatric Matron at a local NHS hospital, and she is still sending her children to school — if she felt that the risk was significant, she would keep them at home.

It’s a tricky one with no easy answers, and I am sure that there are so many people going through similar dilemmas right now.

Something is wrong on the internet

This article by James Bridle is being shared everywhere and for good reason. I’ve seen first hand one of my children wandering to a seemingly innocent YouTube video called something like ‘Try not to laugh’ which interspersed cartoon sequences with video of real bus crashes and a death metal soundtrack. The deliberate shock material the most upsetting thing to me, although the weird farms of auto-generated CGI videos that are then being watched by robots in order to generate income from the advertisements is pretty disturbing. I assume that Google doesn’t mind too much as they take their cut of the advertising revenue. Just think of the external impact of the energy resource usage that is going into this.

My mind is blown by how quickly there is a grotesque race to the bottom as soon as a new technology platform is introduced. YouTube’s launch in 2005 feels like yesterday and here we are already.

A little respect

Raiders tournament, June 2017

Berkhamsted Raiders tournament, June 2017

A couple of weekends ago I spent an entire Sunday sitting in a field watching my two young boys competing in the Berkhamsted Raiders football tournament which traditionally marks the end of our season. Raiders is a great club to be a part of — we have won FA and European recognition for the club, and particularly how it is run in the spirit of respect and fair play.

If you turn up at a match at our club you will always find someone has put up a ‘respect barrier’ rope along one of the lengths of the pitch, the idea being that the supporters from both teams stand behind this to watch the match. This gives the players, coaches and referee a bit of distance — a brilliant idea, particularly when the match is getting heated and temperatures are running high. It’s always the job of the home team to get the respect barrier up before the game. If the person putting it up has managed to untangle the rope and get the support poles into the frozen ground, an aerial view of it would look like this:

Typically when the supporters turn up they cluster at each end with people that they know. Here they are, eight supporters of each team closely watching the ball which is dangerously close to the goal on the left:

The problem with this setup, especially when the ball is close to the line near the respect barrier, is that not everyone can see. If the action is directly in front of you it’s fine but if you are at the other end of the pitch or even a few people deep, the angle to the ball means it becomes very hard to maintain a clear line of sight. Everyone is straining to see which only makes the situation worse:

Ladies and gentlemen, there is a solution to this problem! I’d love to take credit for it but it has to go to a fellow parent from another Raiders team who suggested it to me. Instead of having the respect barrier completely parallel to the length of the pitch, it can be configured in a ‘V’ shape as shown below:

Assuming that people don’t push so far forward that they strain or break the respect barrier (showing very little respect in the process), everyone at the front should then have a reasonable chance of seeing the action wherever it is on the pitch. Occasionally this can be difficult to do where one pitch sits alongside another one, however the ‘V’ doesn’t have to be very deep in order to have a massive impact on visibility:

Hopefully, armed with this knowledge we’ll be able to go into next season being able see even more on-pitch action than before. Well, at least at our home games.

Raising confident, competent children

My employer has recently signed up to the CityMothers network which gives staff the opportunity to network with other working parents and attend seminars and events organised by the group. Yesterday morning I went along to my first one, hosted at the law firm Bird & Bird, on ‘Raising Confident, Competent Children.’

The presenter, Anita Cleare, was excellent. I gathered from the comments of other attendees that some had been to her seminars a few times before; lots of them had very glowing feedback about her presentations and a few mentioned that they had taken action based on her advice which had changed their home lives for the better.

The seminar was good in that it reinforced to me that my wife and I are already doing—I think—a reasonably good job with our children. Time will tell! However there were also a few tips that I picked up as well as some tweaks that I think we need to make in terms of how we deal with certain situations.

The session was divided into six subject areas and here are my notes from each one:

Encouraging cooperation

  • If you need your child to do something and have a request of them, use the following process:
    • Get close to them
      • Makes you more difficult to ignore
      • Means that you do not need to raise your voice
    • Use your child’s name
    • Give a clear instruction—don’t be ambiguous
    • Pause for at least five seconds
    • Praise them if they do as you ask
    • Repeat once if necessary—don’t ask more than twice, otherwise you are giving a signal that it is okay to ignore you
    • If you are ignored twice, back up the instruction with a suitable consequence.
      • This will be difficult at first
      • Make sure you keep calm and do not shout
  • This is all about getting into a habit of listening and doing what is asked the first or second time

Being considerate

  • Children are unable to truly empathise when they are young—they are unlikely to truly empathise until they are much older—however they can learn the behaviours of kindness
    • Listening
    • Taking turns
    • Ask what others would like to do
    • Etc.
  • As a parent you need to model good behaviour for your children
    • Avoid criticising others
    • Point out others’ good points
    • Praise your child for being helpful
    • Ask your child about feelings
    • Encourage your child to make amends
    • Provide a consequence for inconsiderate or hurtful behaviour

Social skills

  • Encourage friendship
  • Expect appropriate behaviour from your child and from visitors
  • There was a tip from someone in the audience where she is part of a group that take it in turns to have random Friday off and have the kids over in a group. “This is a lot easier now the children are older.

Having healthy self-esteem

  • There is a self-reinforcing cycle about having or not having self esteem. If children don’t have it they will exhibit behaviours such as giving up on things easily, not making friends etc.
  • Things that are related to positive self-esteem in children:
    • Thinking and believing good things about themselves
    • Receiving lots of praise, affection and attention from parents
    • Having achievements recognised
    • Having clear limits and appropriate discipline
  • An example was given about a child who comes off of a football pitch and says “I had a rubbish match, I played terribly.”
    • Don’t contradict this, especially with an untruth such as “No, you played great!” Instead, help them interpret this and think about what they would do differently next time.
    • What they said was perfectly reasonable as long as they are not globalising and catastrophising it such as “I don’t like football, I’m rubbish at all sports.”
    • Try to help them to look at what happened objectively and avoid negative thinking.
  • Someone in the audience raised a point that their elder child says to their younger child that they are better than them at something and this makes it hard for the younger child to gain or keep self-esteem.
    • Again, don’t contradict this if it is true—don’t say “no you’re not!”
    • Instead, try to help interpret why this is (“he’s two years older than you”) and look towards the future (“when you’re grown up you may be better than him at that.”)
  • Encourage your child to set goals and work towards them.

Problem-solving steps

  • Children need to be guided through the process of problem solving, i.e.:
    • Define the problem
    • Come up with solutions
    • Evaluate the options
    • Decide on the best solution
    • Put the plan into action
    • Review how it worked and revise the plan if necessary
  • How to help them do this
    • Set a good example and model doing it yourself
    • Play games that promote thinking
    • Encourage your child to find answers
    • Prompt your child to work at solving problems
    • Congratulate your child when they solve a problem on their own
    • Involve your child in family problem-solving, e.g. “What do we think we can do so that we aren’t shouting at each other to get out of the door every morning?”

Becoming independent

  • If you’re a working parent, don’t compensate for your absence by running around and doing everything for them when you are at home—you’re not helping anybody in the long term
  • Give the children simple jobs to do
  • Know they won’t be able to do them very well at the start but they will get better
  • You need to teach and show them how to do it or they won’t do it
  • Examples (for my family) are making their own beds, putting dirty clothes in the wash basket, tidying up, feeding the cats, putting things in the dishwasher
  • Families live in houses and families need to take responsibilities for the things that happen there, not just the grown-ups
  • Children doing jobs will create more quality time for you as a family!
  • Morning traps
    • Getting up late
    • Rushing
    • Not being organised
    • Taking over and doing everything for your child
    • Giving too many prompts and reminders
    • Can be all about priorities and power. Align the priorities and hand over power. Structure it so that if these things are done they can play or have a reward. Ramp it up gently—if there are five things to do then the first day reward them if they do one thing on their own!
    • Someone in the audience says this has been amazing for her family life—her child has to be at the door ready by 8:15am and then gets to use the tablet in the evening.
    • Suggestion from someone of having a stopwatch to see how fast they can get ready for school
  • Have a set time for homework

It was definitely worthwhile and good to have some time to reflect on how we do things in our house. The view from the office was pretty fantastic too:

The Art of the Brick

We took a family trip to London today to go and see The Art of the Brick exhibition in the Old Truman Brewery near Spitalfields. Our boys (aged seven and five) both enjoyed it and we wandered around to a lot of excited calls of “Daddy!” and “Mummy!” as they came across new things.

Although a lot of the artefacts in the exhibition were impressive, the notes about each exhibit came across as pretty cheesy and at £47 for all of us to get in it didn’t feel like great value for money. Still, we had fun and enjoyed a look around the market afterwards. Photos from the exhibition are below.

[simple-flickr set=72157648671375860]

Children and technology

At bedtime tonight my two boys spent 20 minutes walking me through their Minecraft book and excitedly telling me me all about the worlds they have created, the things you can build and the characters you can encounter. They’ve been reaching for the iOS version of the game at every opportunity we give them. As much as I enjoyed talking to them about it I always feel so paralysed and conflicted about the children and technology. Half of me wants to just embrace getting computers, Raspberry Pis etc. to encourage them and the other half of me is scared of losing them to computer and video game addiction and/or the perils of the Internet.

It feels weird that the adults in the house have pretty much unrestricted use of technology and the kids just have a little bit of time playing games. When I was little in the mid-80s to mid-90s it was the other way around—I spent endless hours on the computer and it eventually led me to a Computer Science degree and a career in technology—but those times were different. With my old Acorn Electron, BBC Micro or A3000 I was limited to playing around with the programs I had on disk, typing in ‘listings’ that were printed in magazines or writing programs of my own. I know a bit of the answer is to sit with them in order to make sure the time is spent well but this isn’t always practical and a big part of me wants them to spend time exploring and creating on their own without me supervising their every move. They should soon be showing me things that I didn’t know! By restricting their interactions with technology could they be missing out on possibilities to learn and grow?

I’ve toyed with the idea of buying a refurbished pre-Internet computer and showing them how to program it but if it doesn’t spark their imagination it would be a bit of an expensive mistake. They talk about their friends having consoles but I’m not sure I want an XBox or PlayStation in the house due to not having time myself to understand how to make them safe for the children. We can restrict the games to family-friendly ones but I assume they come with lots of social features and I’d like to turn some of those off until they are a bit older.

I realise as I type this that these are all ‘first world problems’ and in the grand scheme of things this isn’t a big deal but it continues to play on my mind as they get older. I’m sure we’ll work it out.