Should I send my kids to school?

Any insight into the decision to send young children to schools and (likely) get Covid ,or try to quarantine them for months for a vaccine? A ton of people are simultaneously facing it, it’s a real doozy... two legit bad options.

For starters, I don't have kids. Whatever I know about what they need, or what's good for them, comes from random books and second-hand experience hanging out with my nephew.

I cannot give parenting advice.

But I don't think this is a just parenting advice question. It's a "how do I calculate the risks" question. Do you send your kids to school and risk them getting COVID? Or do you keep them at home and risk them losing out on valuable social experiences (as well as risk going a little batty yourself)?

Humans are generally not that great at calculating risk (check out my article about this in Inside Sources). If the human brain is anything, it's efficient. It tends to cut corners whenever it can, which is great for when we want to move things along, but not great for when we need to evaluate risk.

Humans are also social animals, so instead of measuring risk rationally, we naturally and unknowingly let our social environments push us into being more or less risk-averse than we need to be.

To make the right choice regarding homeschooling your kids, you may need to override what comes naturally. Here's how.

First, correct for stress. Stress makes people take risks they wouldn't otherwise take. It speeds up thinking, and keeps us from being as rational as we need to be. It also leads to sleeplessness, which in itself can compromise the kind of rational thinking necessary for appropriate risk assessment.

A lot of us are under an unprecedented amount of stress right now. Not only are our social, political, and environmental circumstances stressful, but our decisions alone can cause anxiety. It is very important (and I can't stress enough how important it is) to reduce your stress before you decide. It's natural to think that your stress can't go away until your decision has been made, but this way of thinking only makes us more impulsive. If you have to delay decision-making for a couple hours to do some breathing exercises, meditate, or take a nap, then do it. Or better yet, if you can set the decision aside long enough to get a few nights' good sleep, some exercise, and a couple days of healthy food in you, then you should.

Make your decision when you're in the most calm state possible. Don't rely on the final decision to make you calm.

Second, get the right information: facts, not stories. Humans love stories. We soak them in and make them part of who we are. When assessing risk, we should rely on statistics and probabilistic thinking (gathering data and estimating likelihoods), but our bias toward stories makes us likely to rely on anecdotes instead.

This is a problem, because the few anecdotes you hear don't represent the sum total of all experiences, and so they're not useful in assessing the likelihood of a bad outcome. You might hear a couple of parents tell you that they haven't been masking their kids and their kids are just fine. And you might judge from these two examples that your kids would be fine too. But two families' experiences can't tell you the whole story. Those kids could be highly unusual (outliers) in terms of how asymptomatic they are, for example.

Think of it this way: if you hear a story about someone who crossed the street, got hit by a car, and came out unscathed, you're not going to take a chance and walk into oncoming traffic. You won't do this because you're aware of the probability and you have a sense of the statistics: being hit by a car carries a high chance of being seriously injured if not killed - despite the occasional freak survival story.

An anecdote could involve a weird case. You don't want to bank everything on that. Stories are compelling, but a few stories alone don't make you ready to make a decision.

Third, avoid indecision by thinking of positives. It's true that both options - sending your kid to school or homeschooling them - are legit bad options, and this alone might be why the decision is difficult. Research suggests that indecision is more likely to occur when a decision is hard to make, and one reason a decision would be hard to make is that all tradeoffs you're thinking about are negative. On the one hand, your kid could get COVID. That's a negative. On the other hand, your kid could miss out on learning important social skills (and you could go insane having them around all the time). Also a negative.

Negativity keeps us stuck.

Try reframing your options in terms of positive outcomes. For instance, on the one hand, homeschooling dramatically maximizes the chances of your child not getting COVID, surviving, and being healthy. That's a plus. On the other hand, sending your kid to school means your child will learn to get along with others better as they navigate their way through life. That's a plus. Now, you're weighing two positive trade-offs: physical wellness versus healthy socialization. This reframing won't automatically lead to the "right" decision, but it can keep you from feeling emotionally weighed down and paralyzed by it. Rather than avoiding disaster, you're enabling good things. This is hopeful. Go from there.

Fourth, home in on the dealbreakers. Time-boxing our decisions can help us determine what we care about the most. If you had only 30 seconds to choose between protecting the physical health of your child (and family) and nurturing their social health, which would you choose?

With most decisions, taking our time is absolutely an important thing to do. We should generally slow down and weigh the pros and cons of our decisions more thoughtfully than we typically do. But when we slow down to the point of indecisiveness, we need to consider going the other way.

When we give ourselves only a short amount of time to make a decision, our thinking shifts from weighing all the pros and cons to focusing only on the dealbreakers. For instance, you may spend days choosing which car to buy, but when it came down to it, under the pressure of time, you'd probably choose the car with the highest safety rating, because safety is a dealbreaker. No matter what else a car has going for it, the last thing it should do is kill you.

This doesn't mean you should end up getting the car with the highest safety rating. Time-boxing just helps you understand yourself better. It helps you understand which trade-offs you value. That's important information. You can take it from there.

Fifth, think about how you'd mitigate the fall-out. We have more control over outcomes than we think we do. When weighing the pros and cons of things, we usually assume that those pros and cons are fixed. For example, either our kids risk getting sick (or getting others sick), or our kids grow up with no social skills (or whatever other cons there are to homeschooling). But we can mitigate the risk of sending our kids to school if we take precautions, like conditioning them to make masking a habit, or avoiding getting too close to others. We can also mitigate the risk of poor socialization by encouraging outdoor play dates with friends that include social distancing and masking (as an example). Or, if your family and another has quarantined to where you're both safe, then you can create a bubble where your kids can interact and socialize without much risk.

In other words, you can do things to change the risk levels of various outcomes. This is in your control to varying degrees. However, if your power to mitigate the fall-out is too limited - as it might be when your kids' school doesn't enforce masking - then this is key data to plug into your cost-benefit analysis. How constrained you are in minimizing the risk of potential outcomes may tell you what you need to know to make the right decision.

Cut yourself some slack. Times are tough and stakes are high. Good decisions are going to be harder to come by when times are uncertain like these. Push yourself to excel at decision-making, but if your fear of regret hinges on fear of shame or blame, then you must realize this and let it go. What you'll know a few months after your decision is unknowable to you now, so try not to let anticipated regret get the best of you. Trust the process. Follow the steps. And accept that some things are unfortunately, tragically, beyond our control.