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What parents got wrong in Week 1 of coronavirus isolation — and what they hope to change in the weeks to come

RIver Flynn blows bubbles next to her home on Taylor Street in Auburn, Maine, as her mother plays with her sister Rowan and brother Rory.
RIver Flynn blows bubbles next to her home on Taylor Street in Auburn, Maine, as her mother plays with her sister Rowan and brother Rory.Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal/Associated Press

So you started the quarantine with color-coded Excel spreadsheets for distance learning and dreams of teaching your kids to bake bread. Now, at Week 2, the little scamps are on a steady diet of YouTube, and the closest you’ve come to bread-baking is prowling for a Peapod delivery window at midnight.

Turns out pandemics sap the will of even the most conscientious parent.

Reading’s Dave Kimball, a new business director at an ad agency, is working full time alongside his wife while caring for his two young children. He quickly realized that his ambitions, which included a calendar that outlined a new activity for each hour of the day from 7 a.m. until 5 p.m., wouldn’t last.

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“We tried to have a clear plan mapped out that included an educational focus, arts and crafts, lunch, outdoor time, and reading. Not only would it help our kids to have this structure, but it would also allow my wife and me to be more productive during our own workdays,” he says. “The reality is that it was hard to stay on track.”

He’s since pulled in outside reinforcements: his sister-in-law has signed on to do storytime on Google Hangouts, for example.

And as parents settle into the languidly disjointed rhythms of full-time childcare — often while muting Zoom calls, holed up in basements and bedrooms — it’s important to remember that this is a marathon, not a sprint. For a generation accustomed to operating in a framework of schedules and achievements, for whom being busy is a badge of honor, the universe is sending a novel message: Mediocrity is OK.

“On Sunday night, I created a lesson plan. On Monday, my fifth-grader slept through the first lesson, ate her way through the second, complained through the third,” says Acton’s Michelle Doughty. “Now we take each day as it comes.”

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Many families have been sharing tips at Coronavirus Homeschool, a Facebook group with more than 7,000 members featuring posts that range from aspirational (math apps!) to desperate (tales of clogged toilets).

Overall, the tone has settled into one of realism.

“What doesn’t work is trying to do an hour of writing. Next week, I’ll cut in half,” says Amy McDonald Maranville of Somerville. “What works is screens. Screens forever. And you can quote me on that.”

“We’re just in survival mode,” says Brookline’s Kelly Dunham Cote.

So how do we navigate this strange new world? Surely there’s a middle ground between complete mayhem and “Little House on the Prairie.”

First, a breather.

“I think you have to say that school is over. Formal academic learning is over,” says Anthony Rao, a Boston-based child psychologist, lecturer, and author of “The Power of Agency.”

Even under normal circumstances, kids burn out during springtime, he says. So ditch the apps and enrichment materials unless your child truly enjoys them. Instead, he says, acknowledge that life has taken an unusual turn and empower them to engage with their current reality.

“Get them involved in things that involve real-life projects around your own home: cleaning up outside, pulling things together to donate,” he says. Don’t pretend this is business as usual; it isn’t.

“This isn’t something we can conceal from kids. They’re smart, and they’re more resilient than we give them credit for,” he says.

Keeping productive channels mental and physical energy.

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Also make sure to take plenty of outdoor breaks, both to keep them moving and to avoid what Rao calls “learned helplessness.” Sinking into a sedentary state creates a breeding ground for anxiety.

“Get them to cue into how their body is feeling. Take a quick walk, a mini-break, then go back in. This is going to become the new normal for us,” he says.

Speaking of a new normal: If you’re used to being in control at the office, it might be really hard to relinquish that control at home. But you can’t treat your rec room like a conference room. You don’t need to be on, or conscientious, at all times. Your new mini co-workers will surely rebel at the water cooler.

“You can’t replicate the productivity or efficiency of your work with your kids. Remember: This is a time of year when we try to wind things down,” he says. “I’d rather kids get a heavier dose of learning in late summer.”

For now, Rao says, “don’t fear the word ‘bored.’”

In fact, he says, boredom is a good thing. So resist the urge to orchestrate their daily schedules.

“It’s almost detox, if you will, for all of us,” he says. “Allow their mind to go to that boredom phase.”

Left at loose ends, they can invent their own fun. He suggests leaving open-ended “stations” around the house, such as art or music (mute your conference calls first, please). But let them discover those activities on their own. We parents have enough to worry about.

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“At the moment, I see a big opportunity to reset and look at things in a new way. Our family is spending more time together; there’s more time for things we enjoy,” says Medford’s Erica Jackson. “On the flip side, I hope I still have a job in two months. I’m worried about my elderly relatives who live far away. … I worry about the long-term psychological impact on my child in spite of efforts to be calm.”

In other words, there is no need to color-code learning opportunities in the midst of vast global and existential despair. And if you really can’t let go of perfectionism? With no end in sight, there are plenty of tomorrows in which to start fresh.

“Every day, I’m granting myself a do-over. I can’t afford to give myself an F every day at homeschooling or parenting during a crisis,” says Arlington’s Kris Wilcox. “Every day at home together, I figure this out a little bit and screw up a lot.”


Kara Baskin can be reached at kara.baskin@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @kcbaskin.