Kids in school in masks: what could possibly go wrong?

Getting your kids to wear face coverings in school may prove to be challenging. NCSE Executive Director Ann Reid provides some helpful advice.

Two children in masks.

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My two sons attended a Catholic middle school where they had to wear a blazer and dress pants and button-down shirt and tie every day. Also shoes and socks. You might think those last two items would go without saying, but you never met my boys as teenagers. They could leave the house in the morning looking more or less presentable and come home looking like they’d been chased by zombies through the Dust Bowl all day. I have mercifully lost count of how many ties, blazers, and socks—alone or in pairs—failed to accompany them home. Another mom, unwilling to buy a new pair of shoes, physically marched her son through his school schedule until they found his shoes rolled up in the wrestling mat in the gym. And yes, he’d appeared at carpool time in his stocking feet. (“Where are your shoes?” “Shoes?”)

What on earth do these stories have to do with the coronavirus? Well, first of all, it feels like day 2,456 of the pandemic, and a little levity never hurts. But really I’m just imagining what it’s going to be like for millions of parents who will have to persuade their kids to wear masks to school—and hope that they keep them on all day.

So I thought I’d just round up some sources of advice.

For young children, I found the following list in several places (here, for example):

  • Look in the mirror with your child with face coverings on and talk about the experience.
  • Put a cloth face covering on a favorite stuffed animal.
  • Let your child decorate their masks so they’re more personalized and fun.
  • Show your child pictures of other children wearing them.
  • Draw one on their favorite book character.
  • Have your child wear the face covering at home to help her get used to it.

Let’s face it. Young kids are a challenge because they might be frightened or easily distracted, but middle and high schoolers are a bigger challenge because they bring attitude to the game. (And let’s not even get started about adults.)

One thing we know at NCSE, learned from years of experience helping teachers cover evolution and climate change accurately in places where many in the community may reject or be leery of the science, is that persuading people to change their minds about something they feel strongly about takes more than just reciting the facts. Your communication approach matters, and the messenger matters. With that in mind, I’ve gathered a few resources that describe some best practices in persuasion, and a few examples of messengers that might resonate with different audiences.

If you want to do the persuading yourself …

You might try getting some advice from Gary Noesner, former hostage negotiator:

“[S]tay calm and patient and understanding and acknowledge their points of view, and ask them to consider thinking a little differently, and that’s the best you can do.”

Or marketing professor Jonah Berger:

“Rather than trying to persuade people, getting them to persuade themselves is often more effective.”

Or communications facilitator Erica Etelson:

“If you are sanctimonious about your behavioral choices, people who don’t yet subscribe to them will be annoyed and disgusted, and they will not contemplate changing their ways.”

If you don’t want to be or can’t be the persuader yourself …

Ask yourself, whom might your teenager (or reluctant relative) trust? How about a local influencer?

"'At first I thought the corona thing was a fluke. Just a way for the government to have control and power over people,' he said. Then he started hearing about people he knew getting sick and in some cases dying. 'It hit home' hearing it from people he knew, he said. So he was pumped to sign on to the city’s billboard campaign."

Or a pro football player whose COVID-19 was severe enough to land him in the ICU:

“The last thing we want is to put people who are vulnerable at risk. There were people dying in the hospital, so it’s real. The thought I would leave with is this: you might be OK, but your neighbor might not be. Try to think of everyone in this situation.”

For some people, a Republican governor might be the best messenger:

"'If someone is wearing a mask, they’re not doing it to represent what political party they’re in or what candidates they support,' he said as his voice began to waver. 'They might be doing it because they’ve got a 5-year-old child who's been going through cancer treatments. They might have vulnerable adults in their life, who currently have Covid and they’re fighting.'"

All this to say, if you have a teenager who doesn’t want to wear a mask or a relative who refuses to, and your arguments aren’t working, try to think of someone your loved one trusts or looks up to (and who isn’t their mom, or their annoying cousin) and try sending the message through them.

Erica Etelson, mentioned above, ended her wonderful article in Yes magazine with these wise words from Malcolm X:

“Don’t be in such a hurry to condemn because he doesn’t do what you do, or think as you think or as fast. There was a time when you didn’t know what you know today.”

I realize that I have provided no guidance on ensuring that your teenager doesn’t lose his mask at school. I know my limits.

NCSE Executive Director Ann Reid
Short Bio

Ann Reid is a former Executive Director of NCSE.