This September, I found myself abruptly at the helm of a Daisy Girl Scout troop of twelve five- and six-year-old girls. Full of energy, challenging and sometimes exasperating, our troop has quickly swelled to seventeen Girl Scouts over the course of a few short months. In order to lead them, I had to draw on all of my interests and experiences — in child development and psychology, in outdoor education, in democratic-free schooling. Every challenge brings to mind the educators, mentors, and camp counselors who did things right — and those who stumbled, making mistakes that had ripples throughout my own childhood.
And no challenge has been more daunting than the COVID-19 crisis. One of the first things I did when I learned that our local schools were about to close was to stay up late, cobbling together lists of resources for my Girl Scouts and their parents. How should they talk to their children about handwashing and social distancing? What were some easy activities they could do in the time before our schools could figure out a broader remote learning plan? I knew that some kind of guidance would be sorely needed, and that this was a space where our troop would either rapidly fade into memory — or fill a necessary social and emotional need. I chose the latter, sending them posters about how they could wash their hands while singing the Girl Scout Law and arranging online meetings with an awesome scientist who told us what questions we should ask before we know someone can be trusted as a source of information for our “respect authority” patch.
This is undeniably a hard time, with routines disrupted and parents juggling multiple pressures simultaneously. I think about my Girl Scouts every day — but more, I think of their parents. And if I could share any wisdom in this time with them, it would be this.
Our children are looking to us for leadership
My first Girl Scout meetings were chaotic. To be fair, Daisy meetings often have an undercurrent of chaos — noise! and running! and tears! and laughter! — and while this chaos is completely developmentally appropriate, it became clear to me that these kids needed strong guidance and structure to get them through. Soon, I stopped looking around for another grown-up to tell me what to do (my default setting) and began to offer them structure and guidance myself. My co-leader and I established a routine to take them through our 90 minute meetings. Our girls arrive, find their name on a coloring page, and take a seat. A few of them are called to the front to hand out snack. We’ll do passive activities during this time, like reading a story, having a discussion, or listening to a speaker. Then, we clean up, gather in our Daisy circle for songs and games, do a craft, and then more cleaning before we link hands and sing our traditional Girl Scout goodbye song, “Make New Friends.”
It’s the time when we fail to plan that everything falls apart. Leaving a gap of too-much time inevitably leads to silly wrestling, misbehavior, and shenanigans. Someone will get too physical; someone else will scream, or cry. These moments are a good reminder of the strong guidance that children need.
My most useful tool for troop management, bar none, is the Girl Scout quiet sign. When I raise my right hand, my troop members know to raise their hands, stop talking, and look at me. They’ve learned to gently govern each other. “Shh! Shh!” they say. The moment we’ve re-established order, I heap on tons of praise. Then, I offer them an activity: Simon Says or Red Rover, more coloring or organizing their activity folders in preparation for going home. Honestly, it often doesn’t matter what I ask them to do — as long as I pleasantly offer a task, they gladly cooperate.
Quarantine often feels like these chaotic between times, writ large. Our days are both amorphous and packed — no particular schedule, but much to do, with multiple competing priorities. Establishing a daily rhythm for my child helps us through it. We’ve kept our expectations loose, but clear: complete two “academic” activities (and that can be reading, board games, writing a letter for a friend, or a craft) and one physical activity, and then we can have tablet or television time. Help with at least one household chore per day. Play ed-tech games while Mom showers. The first week was rough, but already we’re finding our rhythm — fighting less and finding small moments of daily joy.
Remember, too, that our children are looking for emotional leadership. Just like in Daisy meetings, unstructured time is a time when big feelings might come out. We all have fears — both children and parents. Our children will turn to us to know how to feel about this illness, the lives that are being lost, and the disruptions they’re experiencing from every day life. It’s important to provide a space for them to talk about their feelings while also not letting those feelings run wild. My daughter and I take drives to the local farm for contact-free produce and dairy pick-up. She’s quickly learned that’s a good time to talk about her feelings.
“I miss going shopping together,” she tells me. “I miss my friends. When this is over can our whole Girl Scout troop go to the mall to do build-a-bear?” She’s remembering the cookie incentive they had earned just before coronavirus struck. I assure her that, of course, as soon as we’re all together we will have loads of fun with the friends we’re missing.
“When will that happen?” she asks.
“Before you know it,” I assure her, and it’s not a lie. I know this time will pass, and we’ll find normalcy again. She nods, satisfied, and sleeps easier at night knowing that her parents aren’t worried, either.
But let your child lead you, too
What works for one child, and one family, won’t work for everyone.
One of the core principles of Girl Scouts — and something that distinguishes it from other Scouting organizations — is that it’s designed to be girl led. Even at the earliest ages, children get a say in their activities. For Daisies, this might mean choosing between a Build-a-Bear party or a trip to Medieval Times for a troop cookie reward— or, more commonly, between playing freeze tag or Red Rover. By the time my Girl Scouts are Juniors or Cadettes, I can reasonably expect them to plan most of their meetings and activities. Some troops choose to be travel focused. Others do lots of STEM or badge activities. Others take it easy and do very few badges, spending their meetings baking and chatting about school. That’s fine, so long as Girl Scouts, as a space, meets their social and emotional needs.
Every troop is different. Mine is active, inquisitive, and arts oriented. My Girl Scouts get crabby if I don’t offer them enough crafts, or silly-enough songs. They love the song “I’m Bringing Home My Baby Bumblebee” — we sing it at nearly every meeting. It’s okay that we haven’t learned an entire Girl Scout songbook, so long as they’re happy and growing. I’ve learned that the organization’s suggested Daisy programming (which involves a lot of sitting still and listening to stories) just doesn’t work for my kids, so I don’t fight them on it, and our lives are all better for that.
This is one of the founding principles of parenting in the time of coronavirus, too.
My only child is incredibly social; she’s happier and more cooperative if she can do a few skype calls a week. Right now, she dislikes writing — but hand her a watercolor brush and she lights up. Some children are more active than she is; they’ll cooperate more easily if you let them run and play and jump on a trampoline for a few hours first, before asking them to do anything “academic.” Have a child that’s obsessed with Pokemon? They’ll get better reading practice if you hand them a Pokemon guidebook than any staid leveled reader.
Children generally do better if you give them a list of options rather than a single choice. “Do you want to go for a walk or bounce on the trampoline?” is more appealing to your average kid than any decision that comes down from high. And it’s important to stay responsive, in this time of immense stress. The other day my usually very social daughter asked to play alone in her room rather than doing a craft. I knew it was likely that she simply needed some alone time, in this era of extreme togetherness, and so didn’t fight her on it. Our afternoon was calmer when she’d taken some time to recenter herself.
And families are, of course, abundantly different as well. Some of my Girl Scout families have essential employees in their ranks; others are now juggling simultaneous telework with full time parenting. Some children are being cared for by live-in grandparents. Some are now going to daycare by necessity. Some have no computers in the household; others have their own chromebooks. None of their daily rhythms are going to be identical. Any edict that children’s lives and resources magically look identical right now is going to fail. Each family needs to find the shape and rhythm of life that works for them, following the unique needs of their children while not ignoring the heavy expectations impacting individual parents right now, too.
Get fresh air every day
Spending loads of time outdoors is one of the fundamental principles of Scouting. From sailing to camping to hiking to identifying birds and plants, these traditional activities are an important component of most successful Girl Scout troops of the past and present. “Get the girls outside once every meeting,” suggested one 1952 Brownie Leader book, “It’s what they want from Girl Scouts, and it’s what they, as growing children, need.”
Of course, this has been challenging in our cold weather climate in the dead of winter. But I’ve loved seeing my troop members thrive as they’ve completed outdoor tasks, suddenly energetic in fresh air, more centered and newly capable, whether it’s going on a short hike or competing in a relay race. I’ve been sad to miss this spring season with them, but try to give my own little Daisy plenty of opportunities to work in the garden with me, to play hide and seek, or just muck about making mud pies. We go for walks with binoculars all the time, searching for birds. One day we dragged out a knot tying guide and built a shelter in our yard from sticks we’d gathered. It’s still standing, a few weeks later, despite the rather messy knots that tether it together.
Outdoor time gives us the opportunity to remember that life, despite its drastic changes, moves on. The daffodils are blooming in my yard. We’ve painted a birdhouse, and a pair of wrens are nesting in it. Soon, the garden will be full of tomatoes and peas and other delicious things. These things will all happen no matter where we’re spending our hours.
My Daisy and I sleep better at night when we get resh air. Our immune systems are stronger thanks to Vitamin D. I realize that not everyone lives in a place where outdoor play and social distancing are easily combined — but just throwing open a window and letting the sun shine down on us drastically improves our moods. Sometimes she fights me a little bit on going out, especially when she hears the siren song of vegging in front of the television, but inevitably, we spend hours out there once we leave the house, exploring, playing, and using up our nervous energy. In rain or shine, I’ve found there’s no cure for a crappy day like going for a walk — and with her little hand tucked into mine, I often find the strength to reassure both of us that it will all be okay.
A little incentive goes a long way
As a Girl Scout leader, I’m all about the badges.
I understand that not all leaders feel this way; in fact, several years ago, Girl Scouts USA tried to phase out most of their badge work entirely, replacing it with multi-meeting “journeys.” But as of last year, badges are back — with new badgework programming available through partnerships with companies like Goldlieblox and Northface, emphasizing STEM education and outdoor skills.
I understand that effort should always be rewarded for children, not necessarily achievement — that incentivizing certain tasks can send the message that it’s not worth trying unless you’re somehow paid for it. But I’ve also seen the way my Daisies have blossomed when offered a badge. How can you get a child to try something new and scary, like climbing a rock wall, ice skating, or speaking in front of a room full of people? Sometimes the thought of a shiny new badge is just what’s needed. My Daisies’ vests are colorful scrapbooks of what they’ve accomplished and experienced, with the backs decorated with fun patches celebrating their participation in campfire singalongs, toy drives, and more. Their vest fronts are already emblazoned with a rainbow of petals representing the lines of the Girl Scout law they’re learning, not to mention badges they’ve earned for astronomy workshops and cold weather outdoor play.
If your kid is a reluctant or fearful participant in something, a little incentive can be a real motivator. During our quarantine, Girl Scout fun patches have helped my kiddo learn about the census, 2d traditional animation, and handwashing. I also let her earn stickers for helping out around the house. When she’s amassed enough stickers, I let her pick a small toy — an LOL doll will usually do. Not quite earning an incentive can be a chance to learn, too; during our second week of quarantine, when my child was feeling particularly slothful, not earning an LOL was a powerful lesson. I wasn’t angry that she didn’t help out around the house as much as I’d hoped, but you can bet that this week I’ve gotten a lot of cheerful offers to help empty the dishwasher and make her bed.
Your children are more capable than you know
It’s easy to get complacent, to hand your child a screen and clean the house all by yourself while they’re zoned out, to let them never be challenged by trickier books or work, to do tasks for them. Often I wonder if my Daisies are really capable of doing a project, understanding a concept, or listening to a speaker — but I’ve never regretted letting them try.
Generally, my daughter seems capable of about ten percent more than I assume at any given time. While stickers are great, a polite request to help me with a household task and lots of praise for trying is often all she needs to achieve something new. Last week she folded all of our family’s dish towels; this week she matched and balled up socks. Her dad explained the science behind the food storage bags he was using to store rice, and the next day she dropped “porous” into casual conversation. Children want to feel challenged and, more importantly, they want to feel useful. A child who is a contributor to a fully functioning household — who is assumed capable of understand things that grown-ups are doing, who helps, and who is be self-reliant in solving problems — is less likely to make trouble for themselves and their parents. Early Girl Scout lore was built on this principle — “Brownies” are named after invisible household elves who might clean an entire household for the fun of it when a grown-up isn’t looking. When a little girl tells her grandmother she’d love to meet one, she’s told to look in a mirrored pond, and discovers, to her surprise, her own face looking back.
Isolation might save us — but communities will help us thrive
It’s easy to give into despair, when we’re all alone in our houses and watching the news trickle in from our facebook feeds. And make no bones about it; it’s a difficult time, with families falling to ill health and deaths, in some areas, at their peak.
But even though our health depends on our physical isolation, I’ve found that the emotional connections between us are what truly help my family to function on a daily basis. There are so many ways to reach out to others right now, while still maintaining quarantine and safe social distance. This is especially true if you’re experiencing general good health. An elderly neighbor might need food dropped off on their doorstep for contact-free delivery. A local healthcare worker might need masks sewn or a card to brighten their day. We maintain a free little library on our curb, which I stock with gloved hands and whose contents are frequently disinfected. It’s never seen more use than now, in this time when many libraries and bookstores are inaccessible and ordering books from Amazon seems to be an unnecessary strain on an already stressed system. Today, a friendly lunchroom monitor left a note in a lunch she dropped off on our front steps for my daughter. My child’s face lit up. These connections to one another remind us that the communities that make us human still exist, that love tethers us together even at difficult times.
The mornings when it’s most difficult to wake up, remembering the dark world that we still face, I try to ask myself: who can I help today? Because we might be isolating for the greater good, but we’re really not isolated at all. It might be as simple as a friendly video chat to a friend or a text that asks, “How are you doing?” I reach outside of myself to remind myself that there’s a greater community here, and it’s the reason why we’re doing all of this. To protect though who are vulnerable, to stop the spread of this terrible disease. Remembering this makes me feel better about the solitude, which isn’t really solitude at all.
And conversely, these communities can help us thrive in terms of health and general physical well-being. They can connect people with resources they might not have — the ER doctor in need of N95 masks and the construction worker who has a box of them to donate; the elderly person who can’t find toilet paper with the prepper who has stocked dozens of rolls. I’m lucky that my daughter belongs to a troop of children who will write her letters and emails when she’s feeling down, and privileged to belong to a strong community, myself. The WhatsApp mom friends who trade sources of local produce, gardening knowledge, and disinfected secondhand bicycles for children who have outgrown their own keep our families safe, functional, and emotionally secure. And most importantly of all, they keep us sane. Because we’re not alone in any of this.
So if you, or your child, is feeling sad, missing the lives you used to live, try thinking like a Girl Scout. Do a good turn daily, for the greater good of all of us — and of yourself, too.