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The Squirrel in the Coal Mine

by Allan Shedlin

Founder, DADvocacy Consulting Group


The following was written 11/4/2020, mere hours after Election Day 2020 closed and the chaos of absentee ballot counting commenced…

As Election Day loomed, I watched the frenzy of backyard squirrels burying nuts for winter storage. Perhaps it was my imagination that their annual preparation for cold weather when food is scarce was more frantic than usual.

Perhaps it wasn’t far-fetched to imagine that the squirrels, much like canaries taken into coal mines as an advance-warning system to miners to detect deadly gas risks, were serving as sentinels for what lay ahead for the election and its aftermath. After all, we’ve been bombarded with advice to “vote like your lives depended on it.” We’ve also observed storefronts boarded up, National Guard troops placed on standby, battalions of lawyers assembled to challenge vote counts, a “non-scalable” fence erected around the White House (the “people’s house”), and an embattled incumbent inexplicably advise radical “militias” to “stand back and stand by.”

Accumulated stress can seem unbearable to parents

Of course, all of this is compounded by a backdrop of pervasive uncertainty exacerbated by a motherlode of such oft-cited challenges such as a worsening pandemic, natural disasters, racial tensions, economic hardships, and climate change, it's understandable that so many of us are feeling vigilant and hyper-reactive to each new stressor.

With each sunrise and sunset post-Election Day, we’re reminded life still goes on. We’re also reminded of the prospects of ongoing uncertainty and how unnerving and difficult that is. For parents whose children look to them for predictability, certainty, and reassurance, this becomes an additional stressor.

There is no shortage of websites offering tips on how to handle all manner of challenges for parents and kids alike. But it’s clear that we can’t Google or Amazon our way out of the pervasive uncertainty that defines our lives as the holidays approach.

These are moments during which it’s important to remind ourselves about those circumstances that are within our control and those that are not. It’s also a time to acknowledge that we need each other.

Guided by your child’s age and what you know about their sensibilities, here are some specific suggestions for what parents, teachers, and others on the front lines with children can do to calm fears that may interfere with healthy functioning:

What Adults Can Do for Kids

  • Acknowledge that these are scary times that provoke a range of worries and scary thoughts. Encourage but do not force kids to share these thoughts with you.

  • Provide reassurance that you are taking all the steps you can to ensure their safety – be specific. Ask kids if there are other steps they can think of.

  • Be mindful of the ways our lives have changed and talk about the things in our families and society that we tend to take for granted and may not fully appreciate until they are threatened.

  • Use this time as an opportunity to consider what is truly important – what merits getting upset about and what does not.

  • Exchange extra hugs with your child (and vow not to be sparing with them in the future).

  • Point out that although there are some very frustrated, angry, and disturbed people in the world, most people behave reasonably most of the time. Talk about what makes people angry and discuss various ways in which one can show anger and deal with frustrations.

By allowing kids to help us adults through difficult times, we empower them and demonstrate that they are vital members of our families and of the broader global community. When we listen to kids and talk respectfully with them, we show they are important to us.

Here are some specific ways kids can help adults:

What Kids Can Do for Adults

  • Broaden our ways of looking at issues, situations, and possibilities.

  • Help us appreciate the value of vulnerability.

  • Demonstrate the value of asking good questions, not just finding “right” answers.

  • Remind us about the importance of various childlike (not childish) qualities, such as: playfulness, flexibility, humor, imagination, enthusiasm, willingness to make mistakes, sense of wonder.

  • Help us understand the responsibilities and obligations of power.

  • Reconnect us to what is truly important.

As we spend more time with family, it is useful to remember that the ways in which we interact with our kids, day in and day out, are more likely than anything else, to help them deal with the emotional shrapnel caused by the unrelenting media blitz that continually pummels us all.

As we watch tomorrow’s sunrise let’s embrace it (and our children) with gratitude.



Allan Shedlin has devoted his life’s work to improving the odds for children and families. He has three daughters, a “bonus” son, five grandchildren, and three “bonus” grandchildren. Trained as an educator, Allan has alternated between classroom service, policy development, and advising. After eight years as an elementary school principal, Allan founded and headed the National Elementary School Center for 10 years. In the 1980s, he began writing about education and parenting for major news outlets and education trade publications, as well as appearing on radio and TV. In 2008, he founded REEL Fathers in Santa Fe, NM, and now serves as president emeritus. In 2017, he founded the DADvocacy Consulting Group. In 2018, he launched the DADDY Wishes Fund and Daddy Appleseed Fund. In 2019 he co-created and began co-facilitating the Armor Down/Daddy Up! and Mommy Up! programs. He earned his elementary and high school diplomas from NYC’s Ethical Culture Schools, BA at Colgate University, MA at Columbia University’s Teachers College, and an ABD at Fordham University. But he considers his D-A-D the most important “degree” of all.

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