How do you explain coronavirus to a 3-year-old?

Sometimes, they ask you about it first.

We had spent the better part of the past week with my in-laws in southern Indiana and just returned home today–experiencing the new COVID-19 reality of the Chicago area: where you can drive from downtown to O’Hare in less than 20 minutes during rush hour on a Wednesday evening; where you can pick up dinner at your local Potbelly’s and be the only car in the parking lot and one of very few on the streets; where you can watch a Metra train speed by–probably on time for once–with almost no passengers aboard.

The measures taken by Chicago–closing schools, shutting down Catholic Mass, and closing all bars and restaurants–happened a few days before they trickled down to southern Indiana. Watching Chicago news from Indiana this past week was like being on some kind of Looney Tunes conveyor belt leading toward an Acme buzz saw. You knew you would end up at the end of the line eventually, but you desperately wanted to fight the inevitability.

And so, aside from the headlines, we lived a pretty normal pre-corona life for the past week. But by this morning, even southern Indianans couldn’t buy a banana.

We talked exhaustively with all of my in-laws about the impending social distancing and closures, and apparently my precocious three-year-old daughter was listening more closely than we ever give her credit for.1 During the long drive home2, she piped up from her car seat in an alarmed voice, “Why is everything being canceled?!” We had not previously said a word to her about coronavirus or cancellations, aside from telling her that we thought the McDonald’s would be open and it was actually closed. She pieced this together herself.

In a moment of parental befuddlement, we changed the subject and didn’t really provide an answer. Nevertheless, she persisted once we were home, musing over a peanut butter and jelly sandwich3, “Maybe we can ask God why everything is being canceled.”

After picking my jaw up off the floor and fighting back a tear or two, I gingerly explained that a lot of people were getting sick and that they were canceling a lot of things so that other people wouldn’t get sick, too. I mentioned for the first time that she would not be returning to preschool for a while or going on playdates or eating at restaurants or attending the weekly Mom’s group.4

“Oh, you mean because Charlie has a cold?” she countered, thinking of her little brother’s coughing fits and runny nose for the past two days. We explained that it was because other people are getting sick and that no one was going to school or doing any of those things right now. This news was a bit stunning to her. I also mentioned that we could ask God to help the people who were sick and to make the sickness go away, which seemed to be a good idea to her.

Later that evening, as my wife put her to bed, she looked at her sticker chart, for which she collects multiple stickers each day, pending positive behaviors. When she fills the chart, she gets to do something fun with her uncles or, in this case, her dad. We had already designated this sticker chart to culminate in a daddy-daughter date at one of her favorite local restaurants that we don’t frequent very often.

“And when I fill this sticker chart…” she paused to think, shifting gears after coming to a realization. “We should pray to God that people don’t get sick anymore so then we can go to places.”

She continued.

“I don’t understand…” she whispered to herself. Theresa asked what she didn’t understand and Maddie said, “I don’t understand…we can ask God to do that, but we can’t see Him.”

Jaw, meet floor. Oh, perhaps you’ve already met. I am frequently astounded by Maddie’s logic, but these conversations today have taken the cake. From coronavirus to social distancing to the existence of God. It’s been quite an evening over here.

Like all the rest of us, my daughter is trying to make sense of a necessary “new normal” that is hard to comprehend in the first place and racks up additional ramifications for life as we know it with each passing hour. Maddie’s life is finally opening up to the outside world in new and exciting ways with multiple days each week at preschool and other engagements. Now the walls are closing in on her in the same ways that they are for all of us, and her 3-year-old brain is trying to sort it out just the same as my 37-year-old one.

I have so many thoughts on everything that is happening, especially since these restrictions and separations are hitting us during my parental leave from work and as we adjust to life with a newborn baby. Suddenly the entire world is on parental leave and experiencing the social isolation that normally comes with caring for a newborn or having a lot of young children.

But unlike the newly drafted WFH5 Army, my newborn-inflicted and two-other-kids-fortified quarantine does not allow for hours of free time to binge new TV shows, bemoan the inability to eat out or start a new side hustle. As I type this, I am squandering sleep time before my morning wakeup call tomorrow to head to our basement to play baby dolls with my 3-year-old and Little Tikes basketball with my 1.5-year-old.6 Now I’m wondering if tomorrow’s games with the 3-year-old will include new plot twists involving illness, cancellation or divine existential questions.

We are barreling headlong into a new stage of parental questioning in which the truth might set us free, but will also lead to potentially more difficult follow-up questions and the lack of a satisfactory answer. But maybe dealing with that is the greatest life skill of all.

  1. It’s a real problem. I’m so bad at censoring myself in front of her.
  2. featuring an episode in which our party of five stood outside a McDonald’s in the pouring rain waiting for a manager to deny us the opportunity to slip inside for our three-year-old to use the restroom
  3. made on bread that my wife had blessedly just happened to put in the freezer before our trip
  4. which we had just played earlier in the week at her request: “Daddy, can we play a game where we take our kids to a place where they can play while we talk about things?”
  5. Work From Home…it took me a minute to figure that out when I first saw it
  6. It makes one heckuva bunker in times like these.

Leave A Note For Dad