How to answer (or smoothly deflect) all of your kids' burning coronavirus questions

April 29, 2020
Little girl covering her eyes
“It’s weird. It’s like a humongous weekend.” – My son on the pandemic. Photo by Caleb Woods on Unsplash

*EDITOR'S NOTE: This is part of a series of light-hearted columns dealing with life in the midst of newly difficult times.*

Kids love asking questions.

Which is great. We love their sense of wonder and desire to learn everything about the mysterious world they live in. The only problem is adults, sometimes, don’t have all the answers. That’s why, when moments like that arise, it’s important for us as parents to take a deep breath and – drawing upon our many years of schooling and the rich tapestry of life experience – be as direct and honest with them as possible. By which I mean wait until they aren’t paying attention and look the answer up on our phones. 

Take this new coronavirus, for example. Every day, there’s new information out there that is sometimes helpful and sometimes confusing. So, when my kids recently started asking questions about it, I was at a bit of a loss. Not because I don’t know how to talk to kids. Oh no. In fact, you could easily argue that I don’t remember how to speak to adults anymore since most of my daily conversations revolve around Legos and imaginary friends. But I realized that other kids are probably asking their parents the same questions. So I called up MUSC pediatrician Luke Emmanuel Edmondson, M.D., for a little help. 

The first thing he did was to give me three tips for speaking to kids about tough subjects. They are:

Keep it light.

“For younger kids especially, you want to avoid talking about anything too scary and that includes stuff they might be seeing on TV or the news,” he said. To which he didn’t add but probably meant to: “This obviously includes ‘Keeping up with the Kardashians.’”

Be calm.

Striking the right tone is key.

“You don’t want to put too much on a kid,” he said. “Use your parent voice so they know you’re taking it seriously. But smile and be reassuring.” 

Have a plan.

This one might make most people panic since, let’s be honest, many of us are just winging this whole parenting thing anyway. But Edmondson said it’s important to “know what you want to talk about before you do it.”

CORRECT: “Let’s talk about why you’re scared and ways to help you calm down.”

INCORRECT: “You being scared reminds me of that time on ‘Dukes of Hazzard’ when Bo and Luke saw this guy rob a bank, so they hopped in the General Lee – they were so cool, they used to always jump in through the windows, though I’m not really sure why they did that … kind of seems like just using the handle and opening the door would be faster … ”

Armed with this information, I went back to my kids and had them ask me anything they wanted to know about the coronavirus. I took a stab at answering their questions before letting the adults in the room – the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Dr. Edmondson – have the last word. Most of the time.

So on to my kids’ questions. 


Q. Dad, what is the coronavirus?

Me: Wow. OK. Tough one right out of the gate. The coronavirus – or “novel coronavirus” as we grown-ups like to call it, because it is a fictitious prose narrative of book length – is an infection that can make you really sick and, in some instances, die. If I’m not mistaken, scientists believe it originated from bats. So, obviously baseball players would be at the highest risk of contracting it. You should be fine.

CDC: It is a virus which can cause a respiratory illness, known as COVID-19, and can easily be spread from person to person. Some people who contract it have pneumonia in both lungs, multi-organ failure and, in some cases, die. It was first identified during an investigation into an outbreak in Wuhan, China. 

Me: Nailed it.


Q. Why can’t I play with my friends?

Me: Because all of your friends are annoying.

Edmondson: That’s tough. Of course, you want to play with your friends. But these viruses spread from one person to another through the air and on surfaces. So, in order to keep as many people from getting sick as possible, we need to keep everybody separated.

Me: That too.


Q. Why do we have to be so far apart? Why can’t we just not touch each other?

Me: It’s just good practice for when you become teenagers.

Edmondson: These viruses are tiny, and they usually spread in respiratory droplets. You can’t always see them. Every time somebody coughs or sneezes, we spread it, whether you see it or not. If you breathe it in, or then touch something they touched, you can get it. The further apart you are, the less likely those droplets will reach you.


Q. I’m scared me or one of my friends is going to get it and die.

Me: Relax. Kids aren’t as likely to get very sick with this thing. Scientists don’t fully understand why, but you guys seem to be less affected by it. Sort of like how you and your sister can watch the same episode of “Paw Patrol” over and over without getting brain damage.

CDC: The people most affected by the coronavirus are older adults and people (of any age) who have serious underlying medical conditions, such as heart disease, diabetes or lung disease.


Q. I don’t mind being out of school, but you and mom don’t really teach us much. Not to be rude, but you kind of just look at the textbook, get frustrated and then start yelling, “Who does multiplication like that?!” and then storm out of the room.

Me: I’m sorry – was there a question?


Q. What do you do if you get the coronavirus?

Me: I’ll tell you what you do. Actually, I have no idea what you do. But anytime I’m lost or scared I just eat a bunch of chocolate chip cookies and Doritos. So try that. 

Edmondson: The first thing is don’t panic. You’re probably going to be OK. Stay away from everybody else. Any child can do MUSC’s virtual care visit. For most people, it will just be a mild illness. Self-quarantine, take Tylenol and rest. We want you to call your doctor if you’re breathing fast or having a hard time breathing. Then, if your doctor is worried about your condition, he or she might send you to the hospital.


Q. Can you get your pets sick?

Me: Look, how many times have I told you Sky Zone is closed?! Sorry. Reflex action. I think the pets are safe. Speaking of which, has anybody fed the bat today?

Edmondson: Some have gotten sick, but it doesn’t seem to be a big issue. Cats and dogs rarely get the same viruses we do, so your pets are most likely fine. Assuming you don’t have a pet bat.

Me: (*Awkward laugh*) Ha! What? Of course not. 


Q. What should I do if I recently did some business travel in an area with ongoing spread of COVID-19?

Me: Wait. What? 


Q. Is there a vaccine?

Me: I’m not a scientist, but if I’ve learned anything from Hollywood, it’s that right now, scientists all over the globe are wearing lab coats and using dry-erase markers to write complex formulas on a huge pane of glass while their colleagues look on, hands pensively on their chins, nodding occasionally.

Edmondson: Not right now, but we are working really hard on finding one.

Me: Or that.


Q. When can I hug Nana again?

Me: That’s really sweet. But not until she apologizes for making fun of my haircut.

Edmondson: We just have to be patient with this and keep the ones we love at a distance. It’s for their own safety. And it won’t be forever. So we need to be smart and wait until the doctors say it’s safe to be around them again.


Q. Will you be picking your nose less now?

Me: (Stunned silence.) 

Q. Dad?

Me: No.


So there you have it. The right way to talk to your kids as well as answers to their most common coronavirus questions. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to get back to an important meeting with my daughter, the Easter Bunny and Elsa from “Frozen.”