masks

On Masks… and the Antidote to Social Distancing for Children

By Alyssa Rapp, CEO of Surgical Solutions; Author, Leadership and Life Hacks: Insights from a Mom, Wife, Entrepreneur and Executive

As protective face coverings transform from hospital-only garments to commonplace accessories, the world is now dominated by images of people wearing masks. Whether in an airplane, returning to an office or enjoying some outdoor dining, observing people go through their regular routines with their faces half-covered harken back images from my days as an art history student studying the symbolism of masks.

What is a mask? In a clinical context, it is a piece of “personal protective equipment” (PPE) that protects both the clinician and the patient from transmitting bacteria, germs, and disease to each other.

In the artistic sense, a mask – whether the literal mask in The Phantom of the Opera, the figurative dark mask “worn” by The English Patient, humorist Jim Carey’s mask in The Mask,  or anything in between is a face covering that transforms its “host” into something or someone else, transporting the person wearing it through space and time.

From my modern dance days, I remember choreographic exercises where we would literally wear a mask and “move” in the style of whoever or whatever was portrayed. From a psychological sense, wearing a mask provides you with the freedom to “escape” and “transform” given that your “true” self is protected by a physical barrier between you and the rest of humanity. Costumes in general have a similar transformative effect but there’s something truly powerful about being able to lose your face, the window to your being, behind a shield.

So, what I can’t help but wonder is, how will having a generation of children who are comfortable wearing masks impact us (and them) in the decades ahead?

As a mom, wife, entrepreneur, and executive, I’ve been asking myself, in an era where children were forced to socialize through digital means for months on end, and are now re-entering the world with partial shields to their identity, will there be negative or lasting effects? While I don’t have the answers, I do have some ideas for fast-tracking their return to a normal degree of “socialization” in the months and years ahead:

1. More time outdoors re-calibrates the mind and body.

In observing our daughters’ return to outdoor athletic activities, albeit in appropriately socially distanced ways, I recognize that they are, not surprisingly, bouncing back to their normal behaviors and routines faster than an adult might. They are eager to play with friends and coaches and, frankly, act as if nothing has happened. Thank goodness for their resilience. Coupled with more natural vitamin D from the sun and fresh air, these combined activities and environments seem to help them be their carefree, authentic selves as if the Covid-19 era had never happened.

2. More time with other children (…besides their siblings).

Our daughters love each other, and love to fight with each other, like most siblings who are less than three years apart do, I suppose. But seeing them with other kids, again, albeit in appropriately socially distanced contexts, brings a sigh of relief. They are upbeat, playful, and eager for reconnection. They are hopeful, friendly, and competitive. Thankfully, they are resuming their pre-Covid-19 (“normal”) social behaviors in that context as well.

3. More time without screens.

I am seriously contemplating imposing a “screen break” on our children, akin to what was imposed by our town two years ago during spring break. We weren’t slaves to a screen as it were, but the screen break for all family members forced /inspired even more games, even more music, even more books. I have to believe this “antidote” to months of eLearning will be a “cleanse” for the brain before we return to the fall and what will likely be a hybrid of in person and eLearning.

4. More classic escapes into books or journals.

We marked the end of the eLearning calendar year in our home by buying a record player, Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong LPs, and new books for summer reading. Our girls also have journals, although they have heretofore used them more for doodling than writing. My hope, however, is that this summer, the rising kindergartener and third grader can escape into physical books, dive into daydreams or doodles in their journals, and rediscover the joy of getting lost in—and building their own worlds with—words.

Oscar Wilde purportedly stated that “Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he’ll tell you the truth.” Whether or not this statement applies to humanity at large during these uncertain times, masks do have the power to transform, hide, and shield. Aware of the power of masks, and concerned about the unknown effects of social distancing on children’s social-emotional development, I will strive as a parent to “offset” some of these unintended influences in the summer months ahead: with more outdoors time, more time with our children, more screen-free periods, and more tried and true escapes like books and journals. Ironically, if achieved, this Covid-19 era might have some truly positive externalities of bringing us “back to the basics,” reminding us of some classic ways to escape, reconnect, and recharge.