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Yes, Your Kids Will Be Okay

Decades of research shows that kids are remarkably resilient.

Four-year-old Ava was building a fairy garden with her friends at preschool when the pandemic hit. Now she’s stuck at home coloring by herself, with two working parents who are juggling Zoom meetings and entertaining a small child.

It’s the story of millions of children around the world. The pandemic has isolated them from friends and extended family, and taken away many of their usual activities. No more toddler time at the library. No more music classes that border on controlled chaos. No more trips to the children’s museums. Now parents are struggling with the impossible choices surrounding school options for the fall. Many are wondering “how bad” it will be for their children if they don’t physically return to school.

Keeping children cooped up at home is certainly hard on parents, but is it also having a long-term effect on children’s development?

I’m a professor in a developmental psychology program who studies what contributes to children’s outcomes, and I’m not worried.

Yes, these times are difficult, challenging, scary. They might be unprecedented in recent history, but they are not unprecedented. When you take the long view, human beings have been through a lot. We’ve survived multiple global pandemics, been through economic and political upheavals, and learned to deal with the many hassles and heartbreaks of day-to-day life.

We’re a resilient species. And guess what? Our kids are part of that species.

To be clear, for some families, the pandemic has brought extreme stress, financial hardship, or trauma. Children’s caregivers may have mental health or substance use challenges that are exacerbated by the pandemic. We know that extreme stress can have adverse effects on developing brains and lead to increased risk of behavioral, emotional, and physical health problems in children. These are the children, and families, that most need our support during the pandemic.

But for many of us, we’re concerned about whether missing out on playgroups, toddler time, and the normalcy of our old routines are going to derail our children’s development. It’s these concerns that I’m addressing here. These are the worries that we can spend less time agonizing over.

There is a lot of evidence in child development that as long as the environment is “good enough,” children’s natural dispositions and tendencies drive them forward. Part of what makes us so resilient as a species is that a lot of what we need to grow and develop is encoded in our DNA.

Pandemic aside, there is always quite a bit of variation in the way we raise children. Parents have (sometimes drastically) different parenting styles and rules. Cultures vary in the kind of behavior expected of children, and the environments those children grow up in. Children learn to walk and talk and crawl and play and learn, under a tremendous number of different circumstances around the world.

There are lots of things that don’t feel normal about day-to-day life during the pandemic. But “normal” has a wide range when it comes to child development. For children to develop, they need the opportunity to be active, to engage with peers, to interact with adults, to feel loved. The pandemic has taken away a lot of our normal activities and routines, but there are still safe ways for children to play outside (in parks and open spaces), to engage with friends (with masks, in pods, and yes, even through Zoom playdates), to spend quality time with family (lots of that!). It may be different, but for many families the changes that the pandemic has brought still fall within the “normal” range for child development.

Is the pandemic, and the many changes that have come with it, hard on children? Yes. Is it hard on parents? Absolutely. Is there strong reason to believe that these changes will have large, long-term detrimental effects on our kids? For the most part, no. So that's one thing us parents can take off the worry list.

More from Danielle M. Dick, Ph.D.
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