A few weeks ago, I met my sister and 15-month-old nephew for a walk in the woods. I hadn’t seen them as much I would like, due to COVID safety restrictions, but felt compelled to spend time with my favourite baby, so we sanitized, put on our masks and headed out for some socially-distanced time in nature.
Very conscious that my mask covered the lower half of my face, I tried to express my joy at seeing my nephew with my body language and overly excited tone of voice. (The phrase “apple of my eye” takes on a whole new meaning when that’s the only part of your face which can convey emotion. Can he tell, by my eyes, that I’m smiling?) As he wobbled up to me, on unsteady toddler legs, I bent down to greet him and the very first thing he did was reach for my mask and pulled it off.
This tiny gesture, made by tiny hands, set my brain a-whirling. I have an academic background in human development and the researcher in me was awakened. Did my nephew reach for my mask because it looked silly and he wanted to touch it? Or did he reach for my mask because he longed to see my face?
Being born only months before our first national quarantine, my nephew knows no other way of life. His first experiences on this planet have been of faces covered in masks. My sister told me that he naturally extends his hands for sanitizer when he sees his parents applying their own. I wondered, how is COVID affecting the development of small children? My natural curiosity soon turned an ugly corner into anxious fretting.
What will become of a generation of toddlers who could not see facial expressions? Who cannot spend time around family? Who are being raised to avoid skin to skin contact with people other than their parents and siblings? Will COVID become this generation’s childhood trauma?
Could there possibly be anything good that comes of this?
After some serious brooding, I concluded that almost all generations are shaped by childhood trauma and that most of us rise above it. Some of us even use these experiences to better ourselves and our society. My grandparents’ childhoods were marked by war and famine. As a result, they became resilient and self-sufficient.
Our society became acutely aware of safety and vowed to work tirelessly to prevent another war. My parents were raised in the civil rights era, a time when violence was ripping Band-aids off previously accepted culture. My parents grew up to become open minded and accepting. Our society created new standards for human rights. I was raised in a generation which experienced Columbine and 9/11. Fear was the predominant emotion felt by most adults at that time society became aware that fear, unleashed, can create a dangerous us versus them mentality or, recognized, can be used as inspiration to come together in community.
Yes, this generation of children are being raised in a time unlike we have seen before. Yes, that certainly has its drawbacks and limitations. However, when I sat down to truly think about my nephew’s experience, thus far, I was able to discover some benefits. For instance, my sister’s husband, who works in the movie business, was able to stay home for more than 6 months shortly after his son was born. How many children are able to spend their first months in life with both mom and dad to care for them? When I had children, my husband was able to take one week off to spend with us.
Children all over the world are spending more time with their parents than ever before. People are watching movies together, playing games, reading books and going for walks. This, if you asked me, far outweighs the temporary cancellation of swimming lessons, toddler playdates and music groups. This generation of children is less likely to be latch-key kids (as I was), or day care kids (like my children were). They will have a strong foundation of being raised by parents who are able to spend quality time with them. Families are more present and connected than they have been in generations. That’s got to mean something, right?
While the researcher in me will continue to be curious about the impact of COVID on toddler development, I am doing so with hope and not fear. I am certain that COVID will affect family dynamics and a child’s perception of the world, however, I am also certain that these children will rise above it all to create something beautiful as a result of the lessons we are all learning during this time.