Written by Matt Richtel
Alice McGraw, 2 years old, was walking with her parents in Lake Tahoe this summer when another family appeared, heading in their direction. The little girl stopped.
“Uh-oh,” she said and pointed: “People.”
She has learned, her mother said, to keep the proper social distance to avoid risk of infection from the coronavirus. In this and other ways, she’s part of a generation living in a particular new type of bubble — one without other children. They are the toddlers of COVID-19.
Gone for her and many peers are the play dates, music classes, birthday parties, the serendipity of the sandbox or the side-by-side flyby on adjacent swingsets. Many families skipped day care enrollment in the fall, and others have withdrawn amid the new surge in coronavirus cases.
With months of winter isolation looming, parents are growing increasingly worried about the developmental effects of the ongoing social deprivation on their very young children.
“People are trying to weight pros and cons of what’s worse: putting your child at risk for COVID or at risk for severe social hindrance,” said Suzanne Gendelman, whose daughter, Mila, is 13 months old and before the pandemic had been a regular play-date buddy, Alice McGraw.
“My daughter has seen more giraffes at the zoo more than she’s seen other kids,” Gendelman said.
It is too early for published research about the effects of the pandemic lockdowns on very young children, but childhood development specialists say that most children will likely be OK because their most important relationships at this age are with parents.
Still, a growing number of studies highlight the value of social interaction to brain development. Research shows that neural networks influencing language development and broader cognitive ability get built through verbal and physical give-and-take — from the sharing of a ball to exchanges of sounds and simple phrases.
These interactions build “structure and connectivity in the brain,” said Kathryn Hirsh-Pasek, director of the Infant Language Laboratory at Temple University and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. “They seem to be brain feed.”
In infants and toddlers, these essential interactions are known as “serve-and-return,” and rely on seamless exchanges of guttural sounds or simple words.
Hirsh-Pasek and others say that technology presents both opportunity and risk during the pandemic. On one hand, it allows children to engage in virtual play by Zoom or FaceTime with grandparents, family friends or other children. But it can also distract parents who are constantly checking their phones to the point that the device interrupts the immediacy and effectiveness of conversational duet — a concept known as “technoference.”
John Hagen, professor emeritus of psychology at the University of Michigan, said he would be more concerned about the effect of lockdowns on young children, “if this were to go on years and not months.”
“I just think we’re not dealing with any kinds of things causing permanent or long-term difficulties,” he said.
Hirsh-Pasek characterized the current environment as a kind of “social hurricane” with two major risks: Infants and toddlers don’t get to interact with one another and, at the same time, they pick up signals from their parents that other people might be a danger.
“We’re not meant to be stopped from seeing the other kids who are walking down the street,” she said.
Just that kind of thing happened to Casher O’Connor, 14 months, whose family recently moved to Portland, Oregon, from San Francisco. Several months before the move, the toddler was on a walk with his mother when he saw a little boy nearby.
“Casher walked up to the 2-year-old, and the mom stiff-armed Cash not to get any closer,” said Elliott O’Connor, Casher’s mother.
“I understand,” she added, “but it was still heartbreaking.”
Portland has proved a little less prohibitive place for childhood interaction in part because there is more space than in the dense neighborhoods of San Francisco, and so children can be in the same vicinity without the parents feeling they are at risk of infecting one another.
“It’s amazing to have him stare at another kid,” O’Connor said.
“Seeing your kid playing on a playground with themselves is just sad,” she added. “What is this going to be doing to our kids?”
The rise of small neighborhood pods or of two or three families joining together in shared bubbles has helped to offset some parents’ worries. But new tough rules in some states, like California, have disrupted those efforts because playgrounds have been closed in the latest COVID-19 surge and households have been warned against socializing outside their own families.
Plus, the pods only worked when everyone agreed to obey the same rules, and so some families simply chose to go it alone.
Experts in child development said it would be useful to start researching this generation of children to learn more about the effects of relative isolation. There is a distant precedent: Research was published in 1974 that tracked children who lived through a different world-shaking moment, the Great Depression. The study offers reason for hope.
“To an unexpected degree, the study of the children of the Great Depression followed a trajectory of resilience into the middle years of life,” wrote Glen Elder, author of that research.
Brenda Volling, a psychology professor at the University of Michigan and an expert in social and emotional development, said one takeaway is that Depression-era children who fared best came from families who overcame the economic fallout more readily and who, as a result, were less hostile, angry and depressed.
To that end, what infants, toddlers and other children growing up in the COVID era need most now is stable, nurturing and loving interaction with their parents, Volling said.