Childhoods during the pandemic in Poland: mapping the uncomfortable areas of dissonance

Ewa Maciejewska-Mroczek e Anna Witeska-Młynarczyk

Warsaw, 19 de Maio de 2020

“[…] not all solitude is created equal”

Jane Brox

Children have been relatively spared by the coronavirus and, generally, unless suffering from other severe conditions, they have more often been talked about as a risk (as possible transmitters) than as a group particularly vulnerable to the novel disease. The media in Poland have been covering quite extensively such subjects like education or the limitations on movement during the COVID-19. Yet, the discussions about the quality of the online teaching or the phases of gradual return to schools provided us with little insight into children’s actual experiences. As researchers in childhood studies, we entered the new situation with curiosity about the ways in which the pandemic has resonated with  children’s diverse realities in Poland. Being sensitive to the idea of plurality of childhoods, we remained perceptive of the significance of children’s social situatedness and their embeddedness in diverse networks of power for their wellbeing during the pandemic.

It is our impression that many tensions and inconsistencies surrounding children before the outbreak have built up in the face of the crisis. Furthermore, the structural vulnerabilities have deepened along with the new situation of pandemic and the enfolding limitations in everyday life, making particular children more prone to affliction and leaving some of them quite distressed. In this text, we will move through three uncomfortable zones of dissonance: home (as a shelter, as a trap, as a lack), institutionalized invulnerability to the needs of vulnerable children, enabling/disabling children’s agency. We shall touch upon these unveiling paradoxes by referring to our current ethnographic work composed of: the research project on adoption in Poland (I), the University of Warsaw’s Childhood Studies Interdisciplinary Research Team’s initiative called The Children’s Pandemic Archive, as well as the internet ethnography we have undertaken during the crisis in relation to children’s experiences.   

Home is my shelter

At the initial phase of the pandemic in Poland, the Childhood Studies Interdisciplinary Research Team at the University of Warsaw, of which we are members, launched an initiative called The Children’s Pandemic Archive. We started to collect children’s works of all kinds (textual and visual) in order to document children’s experiences, feelings and thoughts on the pandemic, social isolation and other limitations imposed on everyday life in Poland.

A picture taken by an 11-year-old boy from Warsaw and sent to our archive conveys the meaning of home as a shelter, a safe space where you can stay hidden and healthy and help others by following the rules of social isolation. The “stay-at-home” slogan (in Polish zostań w domu) pinned into his green tent announces not only: I am responsible, I protect the vulnerable ones, I save the medical system from a breakdown, but also – I have a nice home, me and my family have memories of beautiful travels, I am surrounded by the adults who build my sense of citizenship and agency and they make me believe that my voice matters.

Early in our discussions about the Children’s Pandemic Archive we realized that many children’s experiences will not be well represented in the collection. For different reasons, many carers will not read or react to our call and there will be children who won’t show their interests in this initiative. We realized that the “stay-at-home” slogan, so eagerly taken up by the children who sent their works to our archive, had an ambiguous undertone as home was not a safe space for many.

The lost children

In Poland, schools were closed on 13th of March 2020. A few days later, an obligatory distance learning begun. Additionally, from the 31st of March 2020 till 19th of April 2020, children were forbid to leave home without adult supervision. Thus, those under 18 years old, for whom home was more of a threat than a refuge, could have felt literally imprisoned. Throughout the hauling time of a lockdown, we have followed the official statements and press conferences by the Ministry of Education (as well as other ministries) and we found hardly any traces of mentioning children who, locked at their homes, did not feel like in a shelter. Non-governmental organizations working in the field of child support, however, kept alarming the public opinion that child abuse and violence had rose significantly during the pandemic. The Empowering Children Foundation reacted to the troubled young people’s voices appearing on the helpline with the “Behind the Door” campaign, meant to raise awareness of the fragile situation of children forced to stay at home, and left only with a possibility of a vague online contact with the teachers or the social workers.

We also came across reports by non governmental organizations, journalists and local authorities uncovering that significant numbers of children simply slipped off the school radars. Some children were not participating in online teaching nor did they report any sort of work. These “lost children” were framed by the Minister of Education as a “group of children who do not eagerly approach school duties”. Saying this, the Minister passed the responsibility for the situation onto the children themselves. He presented the “lost” pupils as passive, indifferent and even malevolent – his words communicating  “invulnerability” (Cole 2016:4) to the lost children’s needs, as well as no sign of the realization that this performance meant an actual negligence of these young people, adding to the silencing of the existing inequalities. The outbreak made the invulnerability of the Polish state to the injurable children sadly obvious, as well as it brought to the frontline the adultist speech acts leaving no space for the children’s voices in the official narratives and policies.

The solitude of the injured and the freedom from the institutional pressures

As noticed by Alyson Cole vulnerabilities have many shades. Being a part of a vulnerable group does not automatically mean being “hurt” and we shall recognize the differences between “those who are injurable and those who are already injured” (2016:4). While working on the adoption project during the outbreak, we realized how some of the vulnerable children actually became injured while others experienced a sense of ease.

Talking to the manager of an adoption center in a middle-sized Polish city, one of us heard a story of siblings  – a boy (9) and a girl (3), who, after a few initial meetings face-to-face, were “rejected” by a prospective adoptive family just before the outbreak. Normally, the adoption center would provide the children with a psychological assistance and it would propose them to meet with another family (though this very adoption center was short of the families willing to consider siblings this age, so their files needed to be moved further to the regional office to be looked at). Yet, because of the pandemic no social worker could go to see them and learn whether they still wanted to be considered for adoption. The injured children got frozen both in the system and in their repeatedly raptured and violated biographies.   

Yet, we also took notes about the injurable children, for whom home became a refuge from the institutional pressures. Like two teenage children of an adoptive mother with whom one of us talked on zoom – children struggling with several learning difficulties and the consequences of early trauma. They have been to several schools and therapies, constantly under pressure of living up to the educational standards. The mother perceived the lockdown as a possibility to spend more time with children, doing things at their pace, enlarging the family spare time, previously used up by the everyday commuting to work in the city, while continuing the family trauma therapy via electronic media.

The unveiling paradoxes

During the pandemic, we have been noting the complex entanglements of vulnerabilities, childhood, state policies and care. The paradoxes kept unveiling. The last two vignettes make the dissonant melody hearable again: for some the closure came as a way out from the institutional pressures, while for others it exacerbated the pain and suspended the needed care, making the experiences of rejection difficult to bare. The situation of pandemic made the inconsistencies normally surrounding the children in Poland come out to the surface with greater intensity. The issues of dependency and (dis)empowerment come to the front. For some children the social isolation turned into a possibility of exercising one’s agency and releasing the tensions, while for others the, often already very tiny, box of prosperity shrank even further.     

Jane Brox, “The Riddle of Solitude in the Age of Coronavirus”, The New Yorker, May 16, 2020.

Alyson Cole, 2016, “All of Us Are Vulnerable, But Some Are More Vulnerable than Others: The Political Ambiguity of Vulnerability Studies, an Ambivalent Critique”, Critical Horizons 17:2, 260-277.

(I) The project titled Adoption as a process, institution and experience: an anthropological perspective was financed by the National Science Centre, Poland (Narodowe Centrum Nauki, NCN), grant number: UMO-2017/27/B/HS3/00645.