Kids Need Time with Kids!
Why this mom thinks some COVID risk is worth it to socialize children
By Aurora Hvidsten
I found out I was pregnant in February 2019. And like many first-time parents, I was thrilled.
Every day, I envisioned life with my new baby: dinner at Nainie and Pappy’s house, strolls through the farmer’s market, parent-and-me dance classes, playdates at friends’ houses, the perfect day care, the Children’s Museum, birthday parties, swim lessons — the list was endless. In my head, our future life would be full of experiences, and almost all of them would involve close time with other people. My son was born in late October 2019, and life was exhausting, messy, beautiful and so hopeful.
I am also a preschool teacher. My career began as a babysitter at 15 and is still going strong 21 years — and a master’s degree in early childhood — later. I felt my teaching experience and years of schooling prepared me (ha!) for this exciting new chapter in my life. I knew with confidence that my child would be rooted into a beautiful, vibrant community full of people-based learning opportunities.
And then my mom called in late February of 2020 panicking about COVID-19, which was still overseas at the time. “We aren’t going to be able to leave our house, it’ll be everywhere. It’s going to change everything.” Mom, I thought, that’s insane.
But of course, she was right. In March 2020, just two months after returning from my maternity leave, things started closing down. When my school announced plans to close, I naively thought it was just for two weeks.
The idea of a bonus two weeks with my son sounded kind of nice, actually. I had plans for some good books and daytime naps with Bear, maybe binge-watching a good series on Netflix. Yet, here we are, two years later, constantly riding the wave from one COVID shift to the next, but never touching ground onto the feeling of “before.”
I find myself thinking a lot about the long-term effects on my son. Not the fear of catching COVID per se (though the anxiety children have about catching it is palpable), but the lack of connection with people outside his nuclear family. Once we realized the pandemic was going to go on for much longer, I felt I really had to put some serious thought into how long we could be isolated before that had more long-term effects than catching COVID.
I know, both personally and professionally, how essential interactive relationships are in infancy and early childhood. I know firsthand how much children grow and gain from social experiences like going to the grocery store, the zoo, the library, a birthday party and, of course, school.
It’s not just that my son might like being around other people, he needs social interaction, and not just with his parents. Swiss child development expert and psychologist Jean Piaget taught us that children learn through interaction with their environment. They find an object, and their brain grows from interacting with that object.
Russian-born child psychologist Lev Vygotsky took it a step further and showed us that yes, children learn from their environment, but ultimately, development hinges on interaction with other people.
And there are simply some things that cannot be learned from the parent/child relationship that must be learned from peers, teachers, neighbors, grandparents, cousins and others. I’ve jumped up on my teacher’s soapbox many times over the years to tell parents how much kids truly need to spend time with other kids. Children without siblings might enter preschool with a sharp learning curve because they haven’t had the chance to learn life skills from other children, like brothers and sisters. We are social creatures, and from our earliest years we crave (and need) to be around other people of all ages. It is how we learn and grow as people.
So, how do we balance the risk? Where is that fine line between being COVID-safe and denying my child essential life experiences? I think we all find ourselves weighing those risks. On a daily, weekly, monthly basis.
That line ebbs and flows as risk increases or decreases. It will look different for each family as all of us find ourselves in unique circumstances. In our household, we are privileged to have stable health (no one is immunocompromised), and we have access to insured medical care, so we can make choices that others may not be able to make. I know that the pandemic has hit many households much harder than it has it ours.
When the pandemic first began, it didn’t feel so bad to miss out on a birthday party or Saturday shopping trips to a packed Trader Joe’s. I think we all could use a little more room in our lives to take things slow, recharge and spend time with our close family members.
But how long do we do that before we need to think about ways to re-enter the world not just for our own benefit but for our children’s? When, and how, do we assess the risks of experiences like going to day care or school, shopping with parents, traveling or attending birthday parties?
I am not a medical professional, but as an early childhood professional I can say that some experiences are irreplaceable. To me, trying to find ways to have your child or children experience their community and spend time with other children and people is worth some COVID risk. School is an invaluable experience; it is where children learn about themselves in relation to their community, where they learn important social emotional skills, where they begin to root themselves into something beyond their family.
Even if we could all teach our children basic academics, we cannot replace the unique play experiences that flow child to child, or lessons learned from watching an older child master a skill.
Spending time with relatives can be a child’s window into invaluable intergenerational learning, including other languages, norms and cultural wisdom. Even going to the grocery store or the post office helps scaffold children’s learning about social and community roles and can enrich their play and their understanding of the world around them.
I am not the first teacher to notice a difference in my incoming students. The adjustment to being at school and interacting with others has taken significantly longer than any other year. Researchers the world over are paying attention to just how much children might be missing out due to the pandemic — a missed birthday party might not be that detrimental, but all social experiences? It will have an effect.
However, researchers have also found that children under 5 are faring the best out of any other age group (including adults) during the pandemic. The bottom line for those in their earliest years of life is having a loving stable home; that is truly the golden ticket. And I know for all of us that we’d rather have to catch up socially than lose a child.
But keeping this all in mind, and weighing what feels safe for each specific family, I encourage those of us with young children to find ways to bring ourselves back out into the world, like the birds do after a long, cold, hard winter. There are other birds to be found who need us as much as we need them, and we can find ways to safely connect.
Aurora Hvidsten is Mom to 3-year-old Bear and is the co-teacher for the preschool/preK students in the Unicorn class at Santa Fe School for the Arts & Sciences.