Back when the first lockdown was lifted, and we entertained friends for the first time, my three-year-old son ran to the front door and shouted, “look Mummy, real people!” A few months feels like a few years to a toddler and my son hadn’t played with someone his age since restrictions set in.
We have heard a great deal about the impact of lockdown on new mothers and teenagers, but what about what it has done — and is doing — to younger children? Toddlers are, of course, endlessly adaptable; but they are also malleable: their experiences can have life-long consequences. The ‘Babies In Lockdown’ report, commissioned by three leading parenting groups and published in August, concluded that “the pandemic will cast a long shadow”, pointing to the fact that, just when they are meant to be building their social skills, emotional intelligence and confidence, children have been prevented from properly engaging with the world. They desperately need routine. And now, only a couple of months after things started getting back to normal, life has been disrupted again by this second lockdown.
I’ve definitely noticed little changes in my son’s behaviour over the past month. Largely harmless, they reveal the imprint of this pandemic on his still-emerging character. He puts on his mask when he plays shops and now scrubs his hands with a nail brush, talking about germs. I once assumed it was impossible to impose hygiene standards and social distancing rules on toddlers, but as Natasha Rawdon-Rego, founder of Wimbledon’s Oak Nursery, attests, her children have adapted — perhaps too well. “It is almost like they police each other,” she says. The physical freedom of being a toddler is being restrained and they are becoming enthusiastic enforcers. One friend’s toddler will protest when she sees crowds on TV, or people hugging; another arranges her dolls into small groups so they are appropriately spaced. When organisations like the Beavers issue Covid Codes of Conduct for children aged six to sign, it’s surely time to question the value and legitimacy of all this.
In many ways, these new rules are much worse than the ‘stranger danger’ parental paranoia of yesteryear: we are now telling kids not to physically engage with people they actually know. My three-year-old is a potential super-spreader and his grandparents are potential victims. But how different and more challenging would this pandemic have been if it had been the other way round, with children in the vulnerable category needing to shield? That was precisely the case with the polio epidemic in the first half of the twentieth century. Playgrounds were shut, swimming pools were closed, and social distancing rules were put in place, especially in middle class areas (it was found that working class kids living in less sanitary conditions were actually more immune). Did the fear and restrictions scar baby boomers for life? Not really. Most not directly touched by this epidemic can barely remember it.
All this suggests we need not fixate on the impact new societal rules are having on kids. Although it won’t convince the Covid-sceptics, evidence from Asia points to the fact that mask-wearing can actually have a positive effect on a child’s communication skills, because it makes them more perceptive of eye and facial expressions.
More important than any social rules, though, is what is going on in the home. As psychotherapist and author of The Book You Wish Your Parents Had Read, Philippa Perry tells me, “the greatest shaper of a child will be their environment and the mood of their parents, so they will pick up on what is going on at home.” She adds “whether that is more lovely togetherness and family time and more attention, or more worry, fretfulness and panic, they’ll take in whatever is going on like a sponge and it will be a formative experience.”
With everyone confined to their homes, lockdown has revealed socioeconomic disparities like nothing else. Quality internet connection for schoolwork or a garden for exercise have become key social dividers. Investigations by academics at Oxford Brookes have shown the unsurprising detrimental impact the closure of free public spaces such as playgrounds and libraries has had on those families without books or a garden. They also found that toddlers from low-income families ended up having higher daily screen use than those from wealthier families. But could this be a blip we all recover from?
The youngest generation have been dubbed coronnials: born in the time of Corona to millennial parents, usually into dual income households. The defining characteristic of coronnials will not be their high standards of hygiene — or even the disruption of schoolwork — but their response to the major and lasting shift in their parents’ working patterns. Those children whose parents are able to work from home will end up seeing far more of mum and dad than any other generation before them. “For a lot of parents who work full time I think this has been a real opportunity,” observed Rawdon-Rego speaking of her families in firmly middle-class Wimbledon. “During lockdown on-line nursery, I went round the circle and asked if anyone wanted to share how they felt and one boy put his hand up. I asked him how he felt and he said ‘Happy, because my daddy doesn’t have to go to work anymore.’” So many parents who have worked from home feel that they have been gifted time, which largely explains why they are loath to return to the office. The length of this pandemic also means that new habits and new schedules are forming which are unlikely to be reversed when we return to ‘normal’ whenever and whatever that looks like.
Covid has also momentarily paused the incessant activity-driven parenting common among middle-class millennials, who have been encouraged to think that family time has to be memorable, productive and worthwhile. In perhaps a sign of the times, the Hoop app — which offers personalised lists of family activities and which had been downloaded by 1.5 million families in the UK — went out of business during lockdown and does not look likely to return. Perhaps parents have realised that all those toddler raves, samba dancing, Brazilian drumming and coding camps made for great social media posts, but in reality were exhausting and expensive. Fresh air, independent play and occasional boredom are just as rewarding.
But those whose parents are unable to work from home — which in towns like Barnsley is 8 out of 10 workers — are bound to suffer disproportionately. Services that provide childcare have been restricted or closed, while parents have been unable to lean on friends and family who might ordinarily step in to help. The impact of the stress caused by this situation should not be underestimated: an NSPCC report on the risk of child maltreatment in lockdown found that “increase in stressors to parents and care givers” could “increase the risk of physical, emotional, and domestic abuse” as well as neglect and online harm.
And for those children for whom home is not safe, lockdown has been a terrible experience. Social workers dreaded the closure of schools back in March because of the crucial structure they provide for vulnerable children. One Met police officer in Hackney tells me that in ‘normal times’ cases relating to minors are normally referrals from social workers or schools, but under lockdown his unit saw an increasing number of children ringing 999 themselves (which inevitably meant theirs were emergency or at least very serious cases). Meanwhile, social workers are finding their work is compromised by social distancing: it is very difficult to talk to a child about potential abuse or a care plan over video or in a mask.
Fortunately, schools have remained opened since the second lockdown kicked in. But other institutions are once again threatened, meaning that children will yet again be confined to home. More time spent together as a family will be the force that shapes this generation, for better or worse. Fundamentally, there will be a divide, more evident and visible as time goes on, between children whose family structures nurtured them during the great pandemic, and those whose circumstances exacerbated the crisis and compounded their disadvantages.