Each decision for children not yet vaccinated looks like an unsolvable equation.
There was a brief moment and brilliant in the early summer when decisions about Covid and my family seemed manageable. My husband and I were vaccinated and had returned to some of our favorite indoor activities like comedy shows and the gym. Our children were in a mostly outdoor day camp with procedures we trusted, and the local case rate was low.
But while July turned into August, and the threat of the Delta variant increased and news about breakthrough infections emerged, my understanding of the risk of a given activity foreach of us - but especially my 8 and 5 year old children, who are too young to be vaccinated - has gone completely haywire.
A trivial question we faced was: should we let our child go on a date with a new friend? Well, just let me check the case rate in this zip code and multiply it by the number of pediatric hospitalizations, then subtract the loss of normal joy and socialization that my child will experience by missing out on another experience. typical childhood.
I would have predicted that this new level of uncertainty would make me more anxious, as I had felt during the most of 2020. But instead, I've been pretty numb to it all, bombarded with too many stats and too many confusing choices to feel anything but dead inside when faced with a new decision. It's likeif all my old ways of looking at risk levels were completely shattered.
I wanted to understand why I had this answer, which I felt was counterintuitive , so I spoke to psychologists who have researched risk. preservation. And I'm not alone.
Like Paul Slovic, president of Decision Research, a nonprofit institute that studies decision making, and professor of psychology at the University of Oregon explained: Evaluating new information is hard mental work, and "the brain is lazy ". It is especially difficult for people to assess risk and act with compassion when we are bombarded with numbers, or as Dr. Slovic says, “Our feelings don't do arithmetic very well. "
Quoting the work of Daniel Kahneman, economist and psychoNobel Laureate, Dr Slovic explained that we think about risk in two fundamentally different ways : fast and slow. “Fast thinking is intuitive, it is based on our intuitions, which come to us very quickly when our attention is turned to a problem. The feelings tend to be b positive or negative, but they boil down to: Should I be afraid of this thing or not? "When we have feelings that are validated by experience, then experience is a very sophisticated and reliable mechanism to get us through our day.
Slow thinking is more analytical. "It's a more deliberative process," said Ellen Peters, director of the Center for Science Communication Research and a colleague of Dr. Slovic at the University of Oregon. It involvesread, analyze numbers and think seriously. This can lead to better decisions in some scenarios, but sometimes, "The world is so complex that we end up spinning our intellectual wheels," said Dr Peters. It is also a more recent phenomenon in evolutionary history - our old counterparts weren't thinking slowly, they were worried about the grizzly bear outside their lodge.
Dr. Slovic has proposed a hypothetical situation to illustrate how our feelings do not always match the onslaught of modern facts: we are likely to be very upset if we hear of two cases of Covid in our child's school, but we probably won't be doubly upset if we hear there are four cases. As Daniel Kahneman explained in his book "Thinking, Fast and Slow", "the degree of concern is not s.sufficiently sensitive to the likelihood of harm. ”
Since we have been battling the virus for 18 months, we may no longer respond as we usually do when we hear more bad news. In these scenarios, some parents will overestimate the risk to their children, Dr Peters said. But others will experience a phenomenon called " psychic numbness ", which Delia O 'Hara of the American Psychological Association described as " the " indifference that sets in when we are faced with an overwhelming calamity ". Psychic numbness sounds a lot more poetic than "dead inside " and I appreciate that I'm not the only one feeling this, as I no longer trust my emotions to guide me properly. As parents rush into fall, unsure of when a vaccine might be available for our young children, how do we deal with the uncertainty and overcome our numbness? There is no magic bullet that will solve our feeling of unease - we are still in a pandemic, it is normal to feel uncomfortable. But at least having some control over the choices we make is essential, Dr Slovic said. One way to regain that control is "to listen to the experts who you think are really knowledgeable and who you can trust, whether local or national," he said. "You should take their advice and hope for the best. " In our case, that means sending our children back to school with their masks on, and fingers crossed.
Another way to bring back a measure of control over the risk in your life is toTry to think ahead of time about what your values are and eliminate times when multiple values might clash, Dr Peters said. The example she gave was a family reunion: You might deeply appreciate your kids seeing extended family members, but you also don't want your unvaccinated kids exposed to Covid. Thinking about those tradeoffs early on "may seem more of an emotional and cognitive burden, and it is, but you will be more stable in the long run if you think about it ahead," she said. .
Something that I personally find soothing is remembering that I cannot eliminate danger to my children in all situations. Part of maturing is learning to assess risk, and while it may be painful to see your child embarking on a dangerous world, this is the only way they can grow.
After some discussion, my husband and I allowed our oldest daughter to go play with this new friend this summer. We felt comfortable with the Covid risk at this point, and our daughter was more than happy to go to her friend's house. About 10 minutes after the game started, we got a call from the father of the house. The kids had jumped off the top bunk, and my daughter cut her head off with a ceiling fan.
Although she was bleeding profusely, she was finally fine, and she learned the hard way that jumping off the top bunk is a really dumb idea. While we cautioned her about the safety of Covid, we didn't think about talking to her about throwing her body from a great height. She had to live with this risk alone.