From Grandparent Visits to Friend Hangs, The ‘Decision Tree’ Can Help You Figure Out How to Begin Socializing Safely

social distancing decision tree cat

Here’s where I’m at

Recently, my husband and I came to a thoroughly unsurprising realization. To get through the summer, we would need some childcare help. After all, the past 10 weeks have been, um, illuminating, and I’m wildly impressed with our ability to tend to our two kids, our careers and our home without anybody getting fired or ingesting sunscreen. (OK, fine, the latter happened just once.) But as we look toward summer, with no school, no camp, demanding jobs and nothing but our three window A/Cs to cool us, we just…can’t.

So, after reading one thousand articles about the spread of viral droplets and CDC guidelines for school reopenings, I reached out to a daycare teacher I know to see if she’d be willing to put together some sort of home camp for my children. Everybody would be outside and masked as much as possible and we’d all be very honest about exposure risks and comfort level.

The good news? She said yes! The bad news? As I went to bed that night, giddy with thoughts of not having to tend to somebody’s potty trips, snack requests and jellyfish drawings 24/7, my mind started to spiral.

How does one decision affect another?

See, now that new cases and deaths in New York State (where I live) have dropped and the governor has permitted groups of ten to congregate (provided they observe social distancing), we’ve begun to ever-so-slightly open our formerly sealed quarantine. We ate burgers (unmasked) in my best friend’s backyard. We met up with my son’s schoolmate for a (masked) scooter ride in the park and didn’t freak out when the kids bumped into each other. We’ve even discussed opening our entire “pod” to a neighboring family—meaning playdates, shared meals, the works. We have dreams of seeing the grandparents this summer.

How would this new childcare situation affect all those other potential social interactions?

The answer, it clearly seems, is that it does. After all, while many have touted the Canadian concept of the double bubble—where you essentially pick one other family to quarantine with—epidemiologists tend to agree that it only works if you close your door to everybody else. And that is easier said than done. Plus, it doesn’t allow for the nuances of contact that are seemingly less risky  (socially distant outdoor time) than others (an indoor dinner party). That’s why I think it’s useful to look at social interactions not as a series of discrete or intersecting bubbles, but rather as a tree of decisions. If you choose option A (a big limb, say “childcare”), how does it affect options B, C and D (smaller branches that grow out from it, say “grandparent visits,” “outdoors scooters dates” and “having friends over to grill”)? And do you really have room for all those branches anyway?

You can use the tree to decide

This reminds me an article I recently read by the brilliant parenting author (and Brown University Economics Professor), Emily Oster. Here, Oster maintains that when weighing things like grandparent time or daycare, parents don’t need an answer, they need a framework for making a decision. To do this, she says, one must frame the question, mitigate the risk, evaluate the risk and the benefits, then make a decision.

Let’s apply this to my tree. The question: Does hiring a private camp counselor this summer mean we shouldn’t do scooter dates with friends? First, let’s mitigate the risk. For “camp,” both my kids and the counselor can wear masks, stay outdoors and wash hands every hour. Still, it’s basically impossible for this hypothetical counselor to stay six feet away from my kids, who are three and five. In other words, if she were infected, she could infect my kids. On the other hand, the scooter date can stay entirely contactless and we can observe social distancing guidelines the entire time. Plus, it would involve only young, healthy people. In other words, it’s on the low risk end of the spectrum. Decision: Yes, we could still do scooter dates. (We’d, of course, disclose our arrangement to both parties in advance.)

Now, let’s look at a different branch of the same tree: Does hiring a private camp counselor mean we shouldn’t see our own parents? In this instance, our parents would drive from several states away and have to come into our home. Though we can tell our children not to touch Marmie and Pops, that’s a harder situation to actually monitor. And we’d be dealing with a more vulnerable population. In other words, it’s the higher risk end of the spectrum. The decision: No, we could not see grandparents unless new health guidelines emerge.

This is where the tree metaphor gets messy, and we have to weigh the benefits

One thing’s for sure: It’s now clear that we cannot simultaneously do childcare, grandparent visits and playdates, and we simply have to choose which is most important. (Time away from kids? Family connection? Socialization for my children? Ahhh!) But in truth, this is a good life lesson: You really can’t have it all.

I hate to disappoint, but we haven’t actually made any decision yet. Some days, I think that I would give up every other shred of human contact in order to get childcare. Other days, I think a trip to a lake house with my parents is the only way to save summer.

The bottom line? The decision tree is complicated, but so far it’s the only way I’ve found to work through these problems and move ahead with a plan. It’s imperfect sure, what isn’t these days?

(And if you’re reading this, Mom, you’re welcome to make things easy by signing up to be my camp counselor!)  

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jillian quint

Editor-in-Chief, Avid Reader, Wallpaper Enthusiast

Jillian Quint is the Editor-in-Chief of PureWow, where she oversees the editorial staff and all the fabulous content you read every day. Jillian began her career as a book editor...