The question that seems to be asked most among parents these days is: Are masks, social distancing, and the lack of interaction with other children stunting my kid’s social and emotional development?
The short answer, according to experts, is no. Most neurotypical kids are going to be just fine, even if we’re all still wearing masks and keeping our distance from one another a year from now.
Most socialization for children occurs organically through their interactions with caregivers, Erika Hernandez, a postdoctoral scholar of social development at Penn State, told New York Times Parenting editor Jessica Grose. In other words, just talking with your kids, asking them how they’re feeling and setting boundaries, is going to meet most of their socialization needs.
The recent news of a few promising vaccine trials means there may be a light at the end of this tunnel sometime soon. But even if it takes another year or two for us to find our footing, Dr. Hernandez said it’s important to remember that “development is a lifelong process. There’s not a skill or domain in which children can’t get better or work at.”
Also worth noting, said Lisa A. Serbin, PhD, a professor of psychology at Concordia University, is there’s a wide range of what’s considered normal socializing for kids among different cultures. For example, there are many cultures where small children grow up almost exclusively in the company of their siblings and cousins, and they have all the necessary social skills once they get to school.
That said, Grose spoke to four experts to try to pinpoint the minimum level of interaction kids need. Here are the highlights, organized by age range.
Ages 0-2: There’s no need to be concerned about your baby’s social interaction for the first 18 to 24 months as long as they’re being cared for by at least one attentive adult. That’s because their emotional repertoire is limited. Before 18 months, infants haven’t begun to grasp that other people have different thoughts from their own. All they can do is tell people when they need something.
Ages 2-5: Preschool-age kids are primarily learning moral reasoning (what’s fair and right) through their socializing with other kids. They can learn it from siblings. It can be a little more difficult for an only child, especially if they’re not going to school or daycare right now, but it’s still possible. Parents just need to be conscious of not always letting their child have their way. Now is also the time to reconnect with your inner child. Make-believe helps preschoolers learn about creativity and problem-solving.
Elementary school: Not to say that your kids don’t need your help anymore, but by the time they’re 7 or 8, they’ll figure out on their own how to get their social needs met, whether through FaceTiming or riding bikes around the neighborhood.
Remember that kids, just like adults, are going to have their ups and downs during the pandemic. This is a surreal, disorienting experience for all of us. If, however, you see your child feeling down or anxious for a week or more, intervene and maybe suggest a mental-health day off. If their mood doesn’t improve, talk to your pediatrician.
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