Sometime in July, we met up at a local playground with friends whose children are the same age as our 7- and 4-year-olds. Everyone was masked, and it was basically the first time we had socialized with people we weren’t related to since March. For the first 20 minutes of the play date, the children completely ignored each other. They’d make brief eye contact and then go careening off to different parts of the park.
As I watched the children appear to flee from social connection, I broke into a light sweat: Had they forgotten how to relate to other kids while under quarantine?
When we asked New York Times readers for their most pressing concerns, some version of the above was the most frequently asked question: How will masks, social distancing and lack of interaction with other children affect their kid’s social and emotional development? For example, reader Ariel Wittenberg, mom to a 7-month-old in Arlington, Virginia, wrote, “The thing that keeps me up at night is what it means that my daughter essentially has no idea other babies exist. Is she going to have problems socializing in the future?”
The short answer is: The majority of neurotypical kids will be able to socialize just fine, even if we’re still wearing masks in a year. A lot of socialization happens implicitly through interactions with caregivers, said Erika Hernandez a postdoctoral scholar of social development at Penn State. Just having conversations with your kids, asking them about their feelings and setting boundaries (no, you can’t hit Dad) gets you most of the way to the socialization they need.
And even if there are some social setbacks in the next year or two, Hernandez said, “development is a lifelong process. There’s not a skill or domain in which children can’t get better or work at.” It’s also worth noting that there’s a “huge cultural variability” in what’s considered “normal” socializing for children, said Lisa A. Serbin, a professor of psychology at Concordia University in Montreal. “There are many cultures where small children rarely see anyone but their cousins and siblings, who they know very well. They turn out just fine once they get to school. They have social skills,” said Serbin.
With the caveat that this particular pandemic is unique, and we won’t definitively know how it affects anyone of any age for years to come, I asked four experts in child psychology and social development for their thoughts about the minimum level of interaction kids need, organized by age range.
Ages 0-2: “If you have a baby during this pandemic, you’re good for 18 to 24 months,” as long as you have at least one knowledgeable and attentive adult on hand, said Sally Beville Hunter, a clinical assistant professor of child and family studies at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. That’s because infants are mostly playing by themselves with toys, or having face-to-face interactions with adults, and they only have a limited emotional repertoire that Hunter called the “Inside Out” feelings — after the Pixar movie that depicts joy, fear, anger, disgust and sadness inside a child’s head. They don’t care about other children’s emotions.
“Children who are that age can’t meet each other’s social needs. They only can tell people when they need something,” Hunter said. Before 18 months, children haven’t started the developmental task psychologists call “theory of mind,” which is the understanding that other people have thoughts different from their own thoughts. Enjoy your tiny narcissists!
Ages 2-5: What children are getting from socializing with other kids in the preschool years is moral reasoning, said Hunter. “They need to learn what is fair and what is right, and they learn that from being with other children,” she said. They can learn that from siblings; if your kid is an only child, though, it’s tougher for them to learn that from parents. That’s because adults tend to allow their children to choose the games they play, whereas when kids are interacting with peers, they will learn that they don’t always get their way.
That doesn’t mean your child is doomed if they’re not going to a school or day care right now. “If it’s safe to do so, getting outside and meeting up for a peer group interaction, even just a little bit every week” should be enough, said David J. Bridgett, a professor of psychology at Northern Illinois University. Bridgett also encouraged parents to find their “inner child” and “do make-believe and pretend-play” with their preschoolers. Pretend-play helps children learn about creativity and problem-solving, he said.
Elementary school: “I’m not worried about them at all,” said Hunter. While the very youngest elementary students may need the same support preschoolers do, by the time children are 7 or 8, they’re finding ways to get their social needs met, whether that’s through virtual interactions (FaceTiming while playing Roblox, anyone?), or riding bikes together around the neighborhood. My kids have taken to playing hide-and-seek in our building’s courtyard with other children from the surrounding apartments.
A note on masks: I asked every expert I spoke to whether they were worried that being around masked children and adults would make reading social cues more difficult for this generation of children. No one was concerned about it, and in fact, both Hernandez and Bridgett thought children may develop other skills more as a result of mask wearing — they may become better verbal communicators and learn to look people in the eyes more as they’re speaking.
When to worry: Everyone — kids included — has ups and downs during the pandemic. “What you’re looking for is a pattern of downs,” said Hunter. If it’s lasting for a week, and it’s because of distress from our new versions of school, she said she’d suggest a mental-health day off for the child, which she probably would not have recommended pre-COVID. But if your child’s grades are suffering, and their being upset is lasting weeks or months, it’s time to talk to your pediatrician.
By the way, about 15 minutes into that first play date in July, the kids stopped ignoring each other and started chasing each other on their scooters. Turns out they just needed a little while to warm up and leave their worries at the chain-link fence.