NU Declassified: Raising Kids Under Lockdown

Anushuya Thapa, Reporter

Teaching classes from home can be tough, and doubly so when you’re raising children at the same time. Weinberg profs. Sera Young and Mark Witte talk about how parenting and teaching have changed under lockdown.

SERA YOUNG: My name is Sera Young. I’m a professor of anthropology at Northwestern and I do a lot with Global Health Studies. And my research? I work —

STELLA LUCKS: Wait, wait, wait, wait, Mom. What do you want for lunch?

SERA YOUNG: Oooo, this is Stella taking my lunch order. I would like a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, with Doritos. No? I would like –

STELLA LUCKS: I was asking like, something that Dad makes.

SERA YOUNG: Something that Dad makes? Tuna melt?

ANUSHUYA THAPA: From The Daily Northwestern, I’m Anushuya Thapa. This is NU Declassified, a look into how Wildcats thrive and survive at Northwestern. That was Weinberg Prof. Sera Young and her daughter, Stella Lucks. Young is currently working from home with her two daughters, Stella and Aurora. Stella just turned ten and her birthday celebrations happened under lockdown.

STELLA LUCKS: So, we had like this huge family chat thing on Zoom. And I had this birthday cake during it…and oh! There’s this thing that we put up signs in our neighborhood.

SERA YOUNG: This block that we live on, Harrison Street, is so special. The neighbors are so loving to each other. So, for example, when it was Stella’s birthday, every house had a sign that said ‘Happy Birthday Stella’ or there was a poem at one house, or there was chalk drawings.

ANUSHUYA THAPA: Despite being under lockdown, Stella’s special day remained special. But her life at home has definitely changed, and so has her mom’s.

SERA YOUNG: These days I’m also a full-time homeschooler in addition to everything else. I mean it’s interesting with these changes that COVID(-19) has brought about. It has added a lot of responsibility to my world because my professional responsibilities haven’t subsided.

MARK WITTE: I no longer have to get the kids to school or get them dressed and get them out of the house, so that helps. But then they’re around all the time so that’s a lot of interaction that would be happening with their peers and their teachers. There’s never a need to get them up in the morning because time no longer has any meaning. Everything seems like a big weekend.

ANUSHUYA THAPA: That was Weinberg Prof. Mark Witte, who is raising four daughters at home in addition to teaching two economics classes this quarter. Sometimes, the loss of work-life balance is put on display, especially when Witte is trying to teach a class of undergraduates.

MARK WITTE: The youngest really likes to get her face in there. She’ll come out and start talking while I’m trying to teach so I don’t want to stop so I’m snapping my fingers trying to catch her attention that you’re killing me here! It seems pretty rude but not sure what else to do. I guess I’ll get a squirt gun and blast them.

ANUSHUYA THAPA: With kids making guest appearances during lecture, it may be hard to maintain a work-life balance. But Sera is using breaks to carve out time for herself.

SERA YOUNG: I love my work and I love my family and so I get a lot of both of them. All the time. I still put hard stops on the workday and try very hard to not work at nights, like after dinner, and I try very hard not to work on the weekends. And more or less I’ve stuck to that during this period. Because it’s intense. All things are intense. And I treat myself to working on a puzzle on weekend mornings. We have one night a week called “No Moms allowed” and another night a week called “No Dads Allowed” and that’s where I can do whatever I want, when it’s “No Moms Allowed.” So last night was “No Dads Allowed” and me and girls watched Evita and ate gummy peach rings and I drank wine.

ANUSHUYA THAPA: The children, however, don’t seem to mind being at home as much as their parents do.

MARK WITTE: They seem to be fine with it. I’m kind of surprised. I feel really bad with people who only got one kid. That has to be really lonely and boring whereas they do a good job of entertaining each other, playing with each other, helping each other’s lessons, fighting with each other, whatever. It keeps them busy.

SERA YOUNG: They’re having the time of their lives because they’re having more time with their iPads than they’re normally allowed to. So they love to watch whatever junky cartoon stuff, or a high-quality “Scooby-Doo.” I can get behind that.

ANUSHUYA THAPA: But both Young and her children aren’t totally sold on the idea of homeschooling yet.

SERA YOUNG: I can assure you I was not put on this earth to homeschool my children. This is not my forte. Some of it is just the technical issues with all the software and uploading, and finding, and getting the password. It’s just hard to teach your own kids. They feel much more comfortable being mad at me for whatever crappy thing I’m making them learn than students in my water insecurity class this quarter. There’s familiarity that breeds contempt at some level.

AURORA LUCKS: I only like my dad teaching me.

STELLA LUCKS: Well they’re interesting but like…it’s also really odd. It’s really kinda annoying sometimes. Like they don’t understand how it’s supposed to go! Like a math problem is supposed to go that way, and it’s not going this way.

SERA YOUNG: Homeschool is unpleasant for a lot of reasons, but there’s also opportunities that we wouldn’t have if life was as normal. For example, it means Stella’s really learning to cook! You saw her come in now and take my order for picnic lunch. That’s pretty exciting. This morning she made these fairly complicated breakfast tacos. This is not something we would have had the time nor the oversight to do if life was normal.

ANUSHUYA THAPA: And having to do school at home is giving Stella a new perspective.

STELLA LUCKS: I used to think that school was OK and kinda boring I guess. Now I kinda appreciate it.

ANUSHUYA THAPA: Both Witte and Young have found unexpected ups and downs when it comes to the Zoom-ification of their children’s learning.

MARK WITTE: Now they’re all reading a lot and sharing books and discussing them. The math and reading, I’m feeling pretty good about both of those. The other parts of their education I’m feeling more worried. It’s hard to motivate some of the history and social studies things without moving around the tables and bringing in games and things like that. The reading and the writing have held up pretty well.

SERA YOUNG: Through this time we’ve been able to give Aurora a lot of attention with reading and Spanish and English. She’s miles ahead of where she was a couple of months ago, so that’s been great. I don’t know how much the kids miss in terms of social interactions? They don’t really want to screentime playdates or anything like that. I don’t know what kind of social pariahs they’ll emerge from this as, but it’s been good for their learning.

ANUSHUYA THAPA: Young’s family has organized a schedule to keep them on track.

SERA YOUNG: Julius and I wake up early and do some work before the girls get up. I do breakfast with them and we read a book during breakfast. We’re somewhere between Nancy Drew and Encyclopedia Brown Mysteries. And then at 9:15 or 9:30, I go to the guest room and I work for a few hours until 12:30 when I take over on homeschooling.

ANUSHUYA THAPA: While a majority of it is school curriculum, she makes sure to include arts and crafts projects in her schedule. So far, she and the girls have worked on fuse beads, plasters of Paris, and even a puppet theatre to stage an adaption of “The Lady, or the Tiger?”

STELLA LUCKS: We’re trying to finish the story. We didn’t make the story.

AURORA LUCKS: We just wrote out the lines.

STELLA LUCKS: We made like sock puppets and stuff, and the theatre has castle kind of things.

ANUSHUYA THAPA: The puppet theatre fashioned in the shape of a castle. It has white curtains and is decorated with multicolored block letters that spell out the name of the play.

SERA YOUNG: I secretly love doing craft projects, or not-so-secretly love doing craft projects, so this is a good excuse to do some of these things. Maybe we would do some of these things on the weekend. But we would have never spent so much time on it if we were only working on it here and there.

ANUSHUYA THAPA: It’s not just that they are parenting while working from home. They’re parenting during an on-going global pandemic.

SERA YOUNG: In terms of parenting, what I’m really worried about is my kids not getting sick. I’m a public health person and well. I understand the concept of risk. But there are so many unknowns about the transmission of this disease. That’s my big concern.

MARK WITTE: I do worry that it’s an inferior education that they’re getting. That it’s just not as intense and that it’s degrading some of their friendships they could otherwise be building. My guess is they may look back at this as a really great time where we’re all together as a family and interacting and it’s kind of an adventure.

ANUSHUYA THAPA: That’s all for this episode of NU Declassified. Thanks for listening. This episode was reported and produced by me, Anushuya Thapa. The audio editor of the Daily Northwestern is Molly Lubbers, the digital managing editors are Kalen Luciano and Heena Srivastava, and the editor in chief of The Daily is Marissa Martinez.

Email: [email protected]
Twitter: @AnushuyaThapa

Related Stories:
Parenting during a pandemic: Parents juggle work, childcare and the unknown
Professors spent Spring Break adapting their classes for remote learning
Evanston childcare centers that are still open take extra precautions