A Pandemic Lesson: Family Togetherness Makes Children Happy

The lockdown provided children and parents time to learn they like one another.

By Peter Gray Ph.D. Freedom to Learn

Key Points:

  • In surveys, children have reported feeling less anxious during the months of pandemic lockdown than they did previously.

  • When asked to name one thing they liked about being in lockdowns, children’s top response was time with their families.

  • Increased time together appears to have helped children see how much their parents truly cared for them.

In April and May of 2020, one and two months after schools were locked down, the nonprofit organization Let Grow conducted surveys of children throughout the United States, ages 8 through 13, and of parents of children in that age range. I already reported on many of the findings from those surveys, here and here. To review, the surveys revealed that, overall, children were actually less anxious during these months of lockdown than they had been prior to the pandemic. They were finding interesting things to do, sleeping more, communicating with friends online, helping out at home, and gaining new respect and appreciation from their parents because of how well they were managing themselves. By their own and their parents’ ratings, they were far more likely to be happy than sad. I recently conducted further analyses of some of the open-ended questions in the children’s May survey and discovered something that has opened my eyes to the importance of family togetherness for children’s well-being.

One open-ended item asked the children to complete the sentence, Something I like about this time is _______.  To get an overall picture of how the approximately 800 children responded to this, I sorted the responses into various categories based on their contents. Prior to this analysis, I had expected that the most common category might be the one I labeled as Time to Pursue My Own Interests (because of the free time they had after schools and other activities had shut down), or More Sleep (because of not having to get up early for school), but it turned out that these ranked only second- and third-most-common: 30 % of responses fell into the Time to Pursue My Own Interests category and 16% into the More Sleep category. By far the most frequent category of response, encompassing 47% of the responses, was More Time with Family (often stated as more time with my mother, or father, or both; or as more enjoyable time with them).

I also reexamined a report of another survey, conducted by Jean Twenge and her colleagues (here) of about 1500 teenagers, also in the Spring of 2020. Twenge and her group found, as did we, that in many ways these young people were doing better psychologically during the pandemic than they had before. Most notably, they were less likely to be depressed, by the measure of depression used in that survey. The researchers also learned that the teens were getting more sleep, reported themselves as becoming stronger and more resilient, and—á propos of my theme here—reported that their families had become closer and were more likely to eat dinner together than before the pandemic. Remarkably, the teens also reported themselves to be less lonely than they had been before the pandemic. That makes sense if we assume that the reduced loneliness was because of the increased closeness of family.

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