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The lasting impact of social estrangement on our little ones


Disasters have a way of illuminating our capacity for caring for each other, showing compassion in ways normalcy forgets. When it’s close to home, we lean in, reminded of our essential interdependence as social beings. We have been quite beautifully designed to be with each other for each other; belong, bond, bolster, bind. In fact, family — for all their misgivings — is usually where we seek refuge, where we hunker, where we’re safe. And yet despite a year of social segregation, we have discovered new and novel ways of staying connected.

As a species, we spend an inordinate amount of time fostering networks of support. Adversity heightens our need for kinship and it is undoubtedly that sense of belonging and connection that is essential to our species, it’s how we thrive, belong, feel safe.  

Given our need for a collective, being at the helm of a children’s museum mid- (or with any luck, navigating out of a) pandemic, I do wonder what the pervasive social estrangement of last year has meant for our littlest of social beings. 

Babies, we know, learn to respond with a smile at two months, a sign of higher mental function and a sign of socialization. In response to those around them, they squeal gleefully in delight at three months, laugh out loud at four months, mimic talking mouths with captivating babble…and so the developmental milestones continue. 

In the preschool years, interacting with others through play, we see physical contact, formation of friendships, learning of rights and wrongs and so much more, all of which are essential components of social development. Before they even hit any formal institution, these social experiences are critical for young children. They impact temperament, a sense of attachment and independence, communication skills and emotional regulation. For those of you who have watched the documentary Babies from 2009, tracking the early development of babies in four vastly different countries (Namibia, Mongolia, USA and Japan, you will have noticed that regardless of culture, creed and conditions, the socialization of babies is a common denominator. 

Back to my question, will we see lasting impacts of the pandemic on the social development of our littlest?

 Many parents I have spoken to are indeed worried about their child’s social development. With unsettling experiences of isolation over the last year, nearly three out of four parents say that they worry about their child’s ability to socialize with other children as the world goes back to some sense of normalcy. We know that interacting with other kids through creative play builds their range of communication skills – their ability to empathize, advocate and listen. We also know that closed and/or unaffordable day cares, inaccessible parks, few (if any) social gatherings, have all translated to limited cognitive and social stimulation opportunities. One might say that an otherwise benign virus, as many parents have feared, could have had lasting effects on our youngest; but is this really true?

My friends with younger children — toddlerhood to elementary age  — have shared despairing fears around the impact of social seclusion on their kids. Few have cited specific telltale behaviors that seem out of sorts developmentally. One such example is young children demonstrating a heightened sense of just about everything. 

The primary way young children learn is through modeled behavior: observing the world around them, ‘monkey see, monkey do’. With our own pronounced paranoia in an exceptionally sanitized world it seems that we are rearing our own little army of canaries. “They didn’t wash their hands, mama,” “Susie’s not wearing a mask, mama,” “My dad didn’t brush his teeth.” No infraction untold, no crime unshared. At this young age, life is all about deciphering a strange world, learning the rights and the wrongs; and in this overly regulated world, these translate into policing a pandemic. This really isn’t something one wishes to burden our little ones with, so we parents can model this by refraining from finger pointing ourselves. Our kids have been dealing with their own cluster of complications; the last thing they need is to have to be social stewards.

Ultimately, the impact of the past year is likely to be minimal on the social development of young children. One year of unconventional behavior I don’t think will not be enough to undo our innate human social instincts. 

In most cases over the last year, lost social opportunities have been mitigated with greater parental interaction. Parents have leaned in. Nothing short of superheroes, cape-adorned, parents have hunkered down at home dedicating quality time to their littles (while navigating zoom fatigue, everyday ennui and limitless languor). But at a price. Never has parenting been so challenging or so stressful. We wear so many hats . . . every day – educators, playmates, short-order cooks, therapists, paramedics and so much more. There really ought to be some sort of badge of honor – distinctions for dads, medals for moms – awarded to parents with young children who have survived the pandemic. “I survived,” that’s all it need say.  

History reminds us that children have survived far worse over time. They are far more resilient than we give them credit for. As the world reopens, they will revert right back to socializing with their peers. Development of social skills is after all a life-long endeavor not to be stymied by the oddities of the last year.  

At the Museum, as we gradually continue to reopen, I look forward to seeing children play with their peers safely. We are social distancing but over the coming months, I hope the six feet becomes three and eventually I look forward to seeing our littlest of friends at the favorite water-wise exhibit, shoulder to shoulder. 

The pandemic has illuminated the importance of leaning into quality time with our kids. Doing our part in their everyday development. Much socialization really does happen implicitly in the home through everyday interactions. This is as important as learning to socialize with the outside world. Perhaps as the world reopens we might consider to periodically “pretend like it’s a pandemic” for just a day or so, such that we can intentionally slow down and allow ourselves the space and time to purposefully socialize within our own respective nuclei.

*Note: Opinions expressed by columnists and letter writers are those of the writers and not necessarily those of the newspaper.

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