small boy in striped shirt pulls cloth face mask down to reveal smile

Grown Ups Made A Mess Of Masking. Now We’re Asking Our Kids To Do Better.

In most schools masks are now optional. Can children navigate the confusion better than we did?

There has been a lot of judgment over the last two years of the Covid-19 pandemic — judgment none of us have been able to avoid or stop ourselves from indulging in. Masks in particular have become the signifier of your moral compass: Either you wore one because you cared about others, or you didn’t wear one because you didn’t care about others.

Now kids are being given the option to take their masks off in school, in grocery stores, in the library. The same kids who have been told over and over again how important it is to wear a mask, who have heard their parents make comments about the other people in the pharmacy line not wearing masks, who have signs throughout their school reminding them to pull their mask up over their nose to protect their friends.

I remember how smug I felt in the summer of 2020, taking my 5-year-old daughter to vote in a primary election. We were both masked up, safely standing at least six feet behind the person in front of us, when an older man walked in with no mask. “Hey! How come he’s not wearing a mask!” my kid shouted. I didn’t even attempt to hush her, there wasn’t a flush of embarrassment — Yeah. How come you aren’t wearing a mask?

That kind of attitude continued for us until vaccines became available in 2021. And then, we got optimistic that masks would go away soon. That summer, our school district said they would only be “recommended” and not mandated. Our now 7-year-old was excited to start second grade by showing off all of her missing teeth.

And then Delta came. And we put the masks back on. And we canceled a trip to Disney World. And then our kid got vaccinated and we talked up how helpful the shots were and how they could protect her more than a mask did. And then Omicron came.

The pandemic has not paved a smooth way to accepting other people’s personal choices.

It’s no wonder with all the back-and-forth that’s happened over the last two years, that everyone — including kids — are a little unsure about new mask changes. Which is why, as soon as I received the automated message from my daughter’s school about the mask mandate moving into a mask optional zone, I knew I needed to talk to her.

Some people are still going to wear a mask, I told her. “But I don’t have to because I’m vaccinated,” she said. Right, but there are vaccinated people who might want to wear a mask, too. And that’s OK. “Our principal says it’s a personal choice now,” she said. Exactly, which means nobody can tell you that you’re wrong for not wearing a mask. “Because I’m vaccinated and I’m fully protected,” she said.

And so on and so on.

I worried over the weekend before the big change. I put a mask in her bookbag because she asked me to — “Just in case,” she said — and I fretted over what someone might say to her. “What if a teacher tells her she’s not safe without a mask? What if someone tries to shame her for not wearing one?” I asked my husband.

And then I worried in the other direction. My kid doesn’t have a mean bone in her body, but I sat her down again, wanted to remind her just how important masking can be to some people. That she didn’t need to mention vaccines if she saw someone with a mask. That it was no big deal for them to keep one on, even if she felt totally safe and comfortable without one.

“Mommy, I know,” she told me. “It’s a personal thing.”

The pandemic has not paved a smooth way to accepting other people’s personal choices. The pandemic has filled us all with rage and anger and jealousy. We’re mad that people ask us to put on a mask when we feel safe without one. We’re mad that people aren’t wearing a mask when we’ve asked them to put one on because we don’t feel safe. We’re angry that this has become like a group project, except everyone’s working on a different portion and nobody’s matches up and it’s Sunday night and oh god what are we supposed to turn in now?

It’s a gray area now. And the best thing we can teach our kids is how to understand risk and safety, to make the right choice for them, and then to honor the choices of those around them. Between vaccines, new Covid-19 treatments, and the fairly recent news that wearing a high-quality mask — even if you’re the only one doing so — still offers some protection, it’s clear we aren’t in 2020 anymore. Masks don’t have to be “hygiene theater” and the absence of masks doesn’t have to be a scarlet letter signaling that you don’t care about other people. Kids learn very quickly to respect each other’s boundaries, to say nothing if you can’t say anything kind, and to love each other despite their differences.

As long as you’re modeling that behavior at home, they will at school, too.