A Three Part Series
Dr. Corinne Masur
Parents are all worried about what effect this pandemic year will have on their children’s development.
And of course, it’s complicated. There’s the concern about how children will be affected by all the health worries. And then there’s the worry about how they’ll be affected by not being able to see friends easily. And THEN there’s the worry about how disruptions in their educations will affect their academic and intellectual progress.
So, let’s break it down:
The effect that the social limitations and the school interruption will have on your children will depend on their age and stage of development. So, we are going to talk about this by age group – and in this part of the series we will talk about:
0 – 2
Babies do not require social interactions outside the home.
You will often hear people say that they are sending their babies and toddlers to daycare because they need the socialization. Well…this is not exactly true. Older babies and toddlers often enjoy seeing other babies and toddlers. They will be interested in them, laugh at their antics, cry when they cry, etc. but actually, they do not NEED to be with other babies and toddlers to develop well. What you provide for them as loving parents is what they need. Babies and toddlers require their parents’ love and attention and social feedback. What you provide at home for them is what babies and toddlers need the most. Talking to your baby, reacting to your baby’s facial expressions and verbalizations, playing with your baby, reading to your toddler, setting normal limits and teaching basic rules is what children of this age need. They are FINE at home. In fact, some parents have noticed that they are getting to know their babies and young children better than they did before when daycare or babysitters were involved – and they have found this to be a good thing – for themselves and for their children.
2 – 4
You will be surprised to know that what was said above is also true of older toddlers and young children.
At this age, interaction with family members, play with family members and learning basic rules of socialization (what hurts another person, what’s fair, etc.) is what your child needs. Is it fun to see other young children? Does it give Mom or Dad a much-needed break to get together with families of other young children? Yes, of course. But remember, for millennia there was no school at all and up until recently, very few children went to daycare, and many children did not even go to preschool or nursery school – and they did fine.
At this age, children want their parents’ approval. And if they say “NO!”, it’s the parent they are saying it to. At this age toddlers and young children are just beginning to develop a sense of themselves as separate and independent human beings – and they do this best in the context of the family!
So, in essence, if you are not feeling safe about sending your children to daycare or preschool or setting up playdates, this is FINE. You may have to spend extra time on the floor or outside playing – but you are NOT damaging your child in any way.
4 – 7
Children of this age love to play and socialize.
Starting around age 4, most children love to have friends. In fact, they start to create their own small worlds with their friends – and this is the beginning of being able to operate as people separate and apart from their parents. As children get to be 5 and 6, they often develop best friends and are pleased to play with these friends without the intervention of their parents. Socializing at this age is an important part of their development.
As a result, even during a pandemic, it is helpful to allow 4 to 7 year olds some time with other children if you can do so safely and comfortably. Playing outdoors, going to a local park, riding bikes and scooters, playing running games with masks can all be possibilities. And if you can find one or two children whose parents’ views on COVID safety are in line with your own and regular play get togethers and be managed, even better. HOWEVER, again, what you can comfortably provide for your children is what is most important. Children of this age are hungry to learn about the world – and if you are not comfortable organizing play dates or pods, if you can take them on outings, read to them, play together for an hour or two a day and teach them the rules of interaction with others, they will be getting most of what they need socially. You may not believe that this is true – but again, in many societies, children do not even start school until age 6 or 7.
7 – 11
At this age the peer group is what kids really care about. By this time children are keen observers of other children and their behavior. They know who they like and who they do not like. Their relationships are complex and alliances can be strong…until they shift. Children of this age generally love to be with other children they know. Games with rules are of great interest and playing games can take up hours.
Given this, allowing your children, if they are at home for school, some time to play with other kids each day is important. If you are not comfortable allowing them to get together with other children this often, then allowing them to play video games with other kids can fill the bill during this unusual time. Zoom conversations and virtual play dates are also an option if your child likes them. And if you can manage to allow your children to get together with friends outside once in a while, even better. It may not feel like enough to them or to you – but a year spent this way will not ruin their social development. Learning social skills is a lifelong process – and again, do not underestimate what you provide at home. When you say things like, “No, we cannot play that game AGAIN” or “No, you cannot have the last donut” or “Figure out what to do when you’re bored” you are providing your child with necessary social feedback. These are basically the same things they learn from their peers when they play together. At this age children are learning what is fair and how often they can expect to get their own way. They are taught by their peers what they can and cannot do if they want people to like them, what is right and wrong, what rules are and how often they have to stick to them. When you interact with your children at home you are also teaching these things just in the normal course of everyday life.
11 – 20
Kids of this age often seem to care more about interacting with each other than they do with you.
Social contact with others their age is important. This time of limited social contact is especially hard for this age group.
Parents will need to work on their own flexibility and patience with children and teens during this quarantine/pandemic time because kids of this age will feel deprived and angry if they do not get to see their friends.
If you feel comfortable allowing this, perhaps you can let your child get together with certain friends at your house – or you might allow them meet up outside at a park. But if you do not feel comfortable with this amount of contact then in this case, technology is your friend. Perhaps some loosening of limits on phone/pad/computer use will be necessary. Kids need to be able to text and Instagram and Facetime and IM for at least a few hours every day. Most will want to have their phones with them all the time.
Summing it Up
So – in summary, from a social standpoint, the pandemic and the quarantining required is NOT ruining your child or his/her social skills. It IS hard; it IS limiting and frustrating. It DOES require us as parents to do more than we ever thought we could. But a year of limited social contact will not stunt the development of your children.
What can parents do?
– When you are not working, play on the floor and outside with your babies, toddlers and young children as much as you can manage.
– If you have reached your limit with meeting your children’s needs and feel you just cannot do it all, bringing in an older teen or a babysitter or nanny (whose COVID safety you trust) to help at home may be necessary and may ease your burden.
– If you are working either from home or from your work place then day care or a sitter may be the only way your family can realistically manage AND allow your children some socialization time. Parents who are trying to help their children with virtual school while working are finding that this is just not possible.
– Set reasonable limits on device use for older children. These can include no phones during school or homework and a set bedtime after which no phone use is allowed – but otherwise? Let them go for it!