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Never home alone: How parents are managing kids’ enforced togetherness

In the Kauffman household in Radnor, sister Shelby helps out brother Jake with his school work. (Courtesy of Carrie Kauffman)

In the Kauffman household in Radnor, sister Shelby helps out brother Jake with his school work. (Courtesy of Carrie Kauffman)

Even a roomy house can seem a little crowded these days. Parents and kids spending every minute together. Kids stuck with their brothers and sisters — lots of potential for sibling squabbles there.

How’s it going at your place? We asked around in Philadelphia’s western suburbs.

In one house, a 7-year-old boy and 10-year-old girl are actually playing together, an event that BC — Before Coronavirus — was rarer than a blue moon, their mom said. They’re building with Legos and painting together.

Another mother discovered how conscientious her 12-year-old is about schoolwork — he got himself up at 8 a.m. to do his online lessons. “Who is this kid?” she asked.

In a third family, two young siblings who are enamored with their older half-brother tussle with each other to get the closest to him. She’s nearly 5 years old, he’s 2 ½, but has 10 pounds on her. “He will sit on her,” said their mother. Used to be the tussle was over who would sit next to mom.

Surprised? So are the parents. As one mom from Tredyffrin put it, “I lucked out. Ask me in two weeks.”

In Radnor, 12-year-old fraternal twins Shelby and Jake Kauffman are collaborating on homework. One twin has special needs and is getting help every day from his sister, who knows he lacks a support group outside school.

“She has been more willing to lend a hand,” Carrie Kauffman, 44, said of her daughter. “There are positive things going on here.”

No doubt, this informal survey for WHYY News involved a small sample and was hardly scientific. Yet two psychologists didn’t flinch when they were told what the youngsters were doing.

“It is not normal for all of us to be home,” said Meghan Walls of Nemours/Alfred I. duPont Hospital for Children in Wilmington. “There is this unknown, from little kids to big kids; no one understands what is going on here. This is a true marathon and not a sprint.”

When things don’t go as smoothly, said Scott Roth, a private and clinical school psychologist in Highland Park, New Jersey, “traditional methods of discipline can still work, like timeouts and rewards [for good behavior] and sending eye messages. But there has to be a level of understanding that we are all in this. We can’t use our typical coping skills.”

In other words, there’s no parental playbook for this home game.

Tales of togetherness, all the time

The mothers who agreed to be interviewed, most of them businesswomen who often work from home, didn’t sound as if they were pampering their kids because of the strange situation we all find ourselves in.

“I read ‘Little house on the Prairie,’ they had fun with a pig bladder. You make the best of your situation,” said Jamie Jones, 39, of West Chester, whose 7- and 10-year-old were, on the day of our interview, painting together. Their usual behavior, which has included tattling on each other, had not been witnessed by their mother in the past week.

“They are being kind to one another. I am sure this will all end soon,” Jones said.

Amanda Wagenseller, 32, said her toddler, Brandon, has no problem mixing it up with his older, pre-K sibling.

“I [would like] them to figure this out on their own,” said Wagenseller, who also lives in West Chester. “If he wants something, he will tackle her. When he sits on her, she is dramatic. She cries.” And Mom acts as a referee.

Does this reflect BC tussling levels? No, Wagenseller said, but only because “I am separating them a little bit more.”

Big brother Jake Perine, 9 1/2 years old, never has to ask his siblings Charlotte Wagenseller, nearly 5, and Brandon Wagenseller, 2 1/2, where’s the love; he moves, and they move, says mom Amanda Wagenseller. (Courtesy of Amanda Wagenseller)

In Tredyffrin, the Kintisches acted quickly to squelch a potential child-out-of-control situation. There already was enough tension in the house: Jean Kintisch’s event-planning business is “on its side.” (She has company there: Kauffman’s organizing business has seen a few cancellations.) And Kintisch’s lawyer husband is now working from home, making Jean and their two at-home daughters a bit stressed.

Then, their oldest daughter, a graduating senior at Rice University in Houston, flew home after the university closed.

“When my oldest girl was home, there was a lot of upset and tears from her,” Jean Kintisch, 50, said. “It put everyone in check.”

Which put that daughter on a plane back to Texas, four days after arrival, to join her apartment mates. “She was frantic she was going to get stuck here.”

Meanwhile, when a window of opportunity for calm cracked at the Chester County home of Deb Gelber, 47, and her two sons, she decided to keep it open.

A manager with a life sciences consulting company, Gelber was on a conference call early one morning. Two hours later, she saw her 12-year-old, doing homework. The 14-year-old was still sleeping at 11:30 a.m.

If she had tried to wake him, she said, “100%, that would have wasted two hours of everybody’s day.”

Kids will be kids

Many of these mothers have added more structure to their children’s day. That’s an excellent move, the psychologists said.

For example, Jamie Jones, whose family owns a travel agency in West Chester, has added more chores to her children’s existing list of to-dos.

Bruno, the Kintisch family’s new yellow Lab, is not solely mom Jean Kintisch’s responsibility anymore.

Bruno, the yellow Lab, is the newest member of the Kintisch household. “He makes us laugh he makes us smile.” (Courtesy of Jean Kintisch)

In the Wagenseller household, it’s not so much restructuring but revising. Amanda Wagenseller has had to figure out where to put the little ones while the older child is doing his homework, whether it’s putting the toddler down for a nap or finding an empty table for his sister to work on.

“I have to be more involved now,” she said. “We are going to be stuck with each other for who knows how long?”

One theory why children might not be swinging from the ceiling fans right now is that school is a natural stressor for them — so they are more relaxed when they’re home. But Roth is concerned that as time goes on, and the economy possibly sinks further, parental stress will start to affect the kids.

Both psychologists, Roth and Walls, counseled that parents should take advantage of this extraordinary time.

For example, if one sibling has an issue with another, then talking about that when all is calm between the two can prepare the bothered sibling for the next time a squabble occurs, Roth said.

Right now, said Walls, parents are spending lots of time with their children, but if they are looking at them over their laptops, it isn’t quality time.

Set aside time every day for them, she advised.

“One on one, take a walk, leave the phone at home.”

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