How The Pandemic is Affecting A Toddler’s Learning: Parents Are Their Child’s Best and First Social Models

The New York Times ran a ridiculous piece today about the effects of the pandemic on early learning.  It had quotes from staff at programs for music class about the amazing motor and cognitive benefits of clapping in time to a song and imitating animal sounds.  It had quotes from parents in wealthy NY suburbs, concerned that not learning turn-taking and social skills in class would affect their children’s performance at preschool.  And of course, it showed stills of music class on Zoom, with toddlers looking at a split screen with the adult singing and the other children visible in little boxes.

Do not fear:  very young children aren’t losing out.  Their social skills won’t be permanently crippled by being at home with their parents.

The parents of typically-developing very young children are the original and best source of socialization and language skills.  There is no substitute.  Parents are MORE than capable of providing the right stuff.

Parents might be missing the benefits of having someone to share the long hours of childcare, and the opportunity to connect with other parents, but very young children under 3 without any developmental delays are able to do just fine without their movement or activity class, AS LONG AS THE ADULT(S) CARING FOR THEM ARE WARM, INTERACTIVE, RESPONSIVE, AND FOCUSED ON THEIR NEEDS.

As a therapist working in Early Intervention programs, my job has been to instruct parents in how to promote development, and how to manage behaviors that arise from delayed development or disabilities.  But it also has been about teaching some parents how to play with children under 3, how to pick out toys that match their current skills, and how to deal with the typical tantrums and defiance that come with the territory.

 Many parents have no idea what to do, and a few, frankly, really don’t want to deal with the sometimes boring and tedious job of caring for and playing with very young children.  I see a fair amount of outsourcing parenting when people can afford to do so.    And I understand it rather than condemn it.  This is real work, and not everyone wants to do it.  For generations, the wealthy have hired people to raise their children, because they could.  Why vilify middle class modern parents for the same thing?  But don’t think that a very young child is missing out on important social skills when they can’t go to music class.  The owners of the class are missing their income.  The babies will be just fine.

Very young children are wonderful, but they require a tremendous amount of energy.    It can be draining, in a way that getting out a project update is not.  Raising children is work.  Hard work.  There aren’t that many professionals willing to state the obvious:  young children take much more than they can give in those very early years.  They can’t converse.  They can’t joke.   They can adore you, but they can’t reciprocate cognitively or socially in the way an adult needs.  Regardless of how much you adore them, it is work.  Rewarding and important work, but hard work.  Done alone in a pandemic, while a partner is focused on earning a living, it can be isolating and exhausting.

Enter infant music classes and Mommy-and-Me groups.

These are terrific for breaking up the long days of childcare and getting adults together, but most 14-month olds don’t socialize with peers.  They don’t have the mental ability to do so.  The adults do.  This has real value for adult mental health, but please don’t lie about who is getting the most out of the class.  Accept that raising very young children is hard work, and make sure that caretaking parents are able to take care of their own needs.

But do not buy the idea that without going to music class, a young toddler is risking a loss of social, emotional, motor, or cognitive skills.  But their parent might be.

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