Have you noticed that epidemiologists are appearing all over the news? Kids have, which is leading some to go through a phase of experimentation. Walking in on these behaviors can be shocking and distressing for parents. But rest assured, pornographic tropes aside, playing epidemiologist (at least at a young age) is truly about curiosity and nothing more!

But is epi-play truly harmless? Well, it depends on a few factors, so first, let’s take child development into consideration. Below is an overview of developmental stages and how a child’s interest in epidemiology might be expressed at every age:

Ages 3-6: During this phase, a child may begin to display interest in the patterns of disease that surround them. For instance, he may wonder why Milo from preschool has puked four times this year during circle time. Could it be due to the fact that Milo, despite assuring his teacher after his morning potty attempts that he scrubbed his hands with warm water and soap for the duration of the alphabet song, instead just licked them clean?

Ages 6-10: It is at this stage that the curiosity might lead to “playing epidemiologist” with peers which can invoke provocative inquiries like, “If masks can prevent people from getting Covid and dying, why doesn’t our state’s Governor require everyone to wear them?” It's okay, remember questions from school-age children come from a place of innocent bewilderment rather than a sassy impulse to influence those in power to use policy to promote population health.

Ages 10-14: Developmentally this is a pivotal and highly dangerous phase. With the onslaught of puberty children transition out of an egocentric “me” stage and gain a greater appreciation of “us.” Thus their grasp of the gravity of how exposures could impact disease across large populations is blossoming. You may find the epidemiologist play has ballooned to involve behaviors such as creating cleaned analytical datasets.

Ages 14-18: It is the job of the responsible caregiver to right a delinquent teen’s path! If you suspect your child is persisting in playing epidemiologist, we recommend a few approaches including having a no locked door policy in your house, using Comcast’s parental controls to block all data dashboards, and regularly checking their Google search history for suspicious searches such as “Advantages of absolute measures of association” and “What the actual fuck was wrong with people in 2020?”

No matter how old your child is, there are a few rules of thumb to keep in mind when assessing if your child’s epidemiologist play is healthy. Normal curious behaviors DO include exploration but DO NOT lead to intellectual arousal (at least not intentionally). It is a good sign if your child approaches the subject with naivety and with a vague sense that epidemiology is somewhat silly!

But what if you happen upon your child playing epidemiologist with one or more other children? First, take a deep breath. An adult’s panicked reaction can send a message that the child is too young to grasp but ultimately and unintentionally reinforces the behavior. Given this, feigning disinterest and casually walking away from epidemiologist play is usually the most effective option. However, if you do not want to see further epi-play under your roof, there is a swift way to put the kybosh on it without shaming your child. With a firm voice and steady eye contact with the child simply say, “We have a rule in this house not to study the distribution and determinants of disease in populations.”

Further, it is good practice to redirect children’s potential epidemiological energies by providing toys that offer an appropriately medicalized perspective on health such as a stethoscope, bandages, and a play-tablet of itemized patient Explanations of Benefits. Additionally, in casual moments you can make suggestions like, “But wouldn’t it be more fun to pretend you are a REAL doctor?” And don’t forget to tell children if they instead opt to “play doctor” they get to examine each other’s private parts!

This, like many aspects of parenting, is all about keeping the interests of your child at the forefront. After all, our children’s lack of full awareness of this nation’s crushing failure at controlling a raging pandemic is a blessing! Young children, who are often asymptomatic when infected with coronavirus, can enjoy the luxury of ignorance that their weathered parents who have accumulated multiple risk factors resulting from decades of balancing their way through an American life with no safety nets, simply cannot afford.