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COVID-19 shows our children must learn to tolerate ambiguity

Two years into the pandemic, it appears this hope was almost completely misplaced. Not only did we not come together, we’ve hardened divides that may keep us at odds for years to come.

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Parents, regardless of their political or other beliefs, want to keep their children safe. But given how politicized our information networks have become, we cannot agree what it would mean to do this. You trust your expert, and I trust mine. This causes deep distrust and division, as has been well documented.

Young people cannot move forward if adults retreat into anger, despair, and simplistic rigid thinking. They need us to model emotional strength in these extraordinarily challenging times.

A less-discussed but related issue also looms large and deserves our attention: the importance of tolerating ambiguity.

The pandemic was unprecedented and unpredictable, and yet we wanted certainty. We wanted to hear that it would simply go away, or that we could do something to make it go away. Unfortunately, neither approach is an option.

COVID wasn’t just going to disappear, and no matter our vaccine status or our willingness to follow guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, our lives have been completely disrupted, often in tragic ways.

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We need to deal with, not retreat from, this fundamental uncertainty and ambiguity. Failing to do so leads to a false sense of security and dangerous self-righteousness. Tolerating ambiguity would go a long way in helping address the mental health crisis that is gripping this country.

Psychiatrist Dan Siegel cites the importance of developing our “windows of tolerance.” When faced with a difficult situation or difficult feelings, it is tempting to retreat to the opposing reactions of helplessness or rigidity. Siegel suggests that we should learn to get comfortable with difficult emotions and complex situations. Instead of retreating or rushing to attack people with whom we disagree, we should develop better coping strategies.

The weeks ahead are going to present important challenges with long-term effects. Battles over masks in school have been tearing communities apart and leading to new battles over what should and shouldn’t be taught in schools. If we continue down this path, our anger is only going to intensify while our windows of tolerance shut.

Narrow and rigid curriculum battles — too much anti-racism, not enough anti-racism — keep us from learning more about our complicated past. If we can discuss them without political interference, and reach consensus, even if imperfect, it would serve as a foundation for a better future in which young people learn how to tolerate ambiguity without resorting to violence or despair.

Parents, pundits and politicians need to model this tolerant behavior. Enough with the childish anger. Enough with wishing away reality. We all need the emotional strength to deal with uncertainty and with the certainty that mistakes will be made. Instead of looking for things that will further divide us, we need to remember the hope that COVID-19 might bring us together. Our children have suffered enough. When our masks come off, they deserve to see us united and committed to their futures.

This guest essay reflects the views of Jeff Frank, a professor and chairman of the education department at St. Lawrence University in Canton, New York.

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