On the sidewalk outside our house in California, I met our new neighbors: a mom and her small son. She and I were chatting when my 1-year-old daughter crawled to the boy and licked him on the nose. This was her version of a kiss, which usually won her praise at home, but today, it elicited a horrified look from the boy’s mom and me. She and I were both vaccinated against the coronavirus but our toddlers, of course, were not.
I apologized, picking up my daughter and placing her securely on my hip. “It’s okay,” my neighbor said. “He also gets excited when he sees other babies. We don’t let him play with anyone his age.”
I nodded. “Us too.”
After my daughter was born in August 2020, my husband and I were particularly strict about pandemic precautions. We wouldn’t see family unless they quarantined for two weeks (and later unless they were vaccinated), we didn’t go to public places, and we never had a babysitter. We also kept away from mothers’ groups and avoided play dates.
But now, a year later, I wondered if avoiding people (and other children) was still the right move. My daughter squealed when she saw babies on TV and hugged the phone when we FaceTimed her cousins. Because she grew up in a socially distanced environment, I worried that she, and little ones like her, might be missing out on something important. After all, the toddler years (ages 1 and 2), are an important time for language development and motor skills.
Luckily, the experts say that today’s toddlers shouldn’t have developmental consequences from a lack of playdates.
Sally Beville Hunter, a clinical associate professor of child and family studies at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, says that toddlers’ developmental needs can easily be met by parents or adult caregivers. “From birth up until about maybe 18 months old, children's play is basically with toys or with an adult guiding them,” she says. “It's called solitary play, and that's developmentally normal.” In fact, she points out that before 18 to 24 months, youngsters don’t even recognize other people as separate from them. “They're very egocentric,” she explains. “It's all about their own view of the world.”
Even when children reach 18 to 24 months — when they’re able to engage in “parallel play” (when a child plays on their own but observes others) — Hunter says, the age of a toddler’s playmate isn’t particularly important.
“Do they need socialization? Yes. Are they going to be permanently harmed from not playing with a group of other toddlers for a year or two? No,” she adds. “They're going to get socialization from the parents and from the people the parents are comfortable being with, even if those people aren't exactly their same age.”
Lauren Crosby, a pediatrician at La Peer Pediatrics in Beverly Hills, Calif., agrees that toddlers need human engagement, not necessarily peer engagement, to hit expected milestones. She suggests talking to toddlers to promote language development. “Talk to the child, even if it is an infant, about what is out in the world: ‘See the trees, hear the birds, that’s a bus going by,’ ” she says.
Although it’s comforting to know that toddlers won’t suffer developmentally from a lack of playdates, there’s still the question of whether they could suffer in another way. Since the start of the pandemic, the United States saw a huge uptick in mental illness in adolescents. With schools shifting to remote learning, young people struggled in isolation and, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, emergency rooms saw a 24 percent increase of 5- to 11-year-olds admitted for mental health problems. Further, a recent study found that suspected mental health-related emergency room visits increased 31 percent in those ages 12 to 17 in 2020, compared with the rate in 2019.
Meanwhile, when my daughter waves and jumps when she sees kids from the window, then cries when they walk out of sight, I wonder whether she feels lonely, or if she could be prone to anxiety or depression as she gets older.
Luckily, Crosby doesn’t believe a lack of connection with other children will affect toddlers’ mental health. “As long as they have a nurturing relationship with their caregivers, that is what is most important,” she says.
Still, experts warn that a lack of socialization for parents can have a detrimental effect on parents and, indirectly, their children.
The pandemic has been especially hard for parents who have endured school closures, child-care difficulties and isolation. A study in the journal Pediatrics found that, since March 2020, 27 percent of parents reported worsening mental health and, according to a study from Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, over 60 percent of Massachusetts parents of 5- to 7-year-olds reported feeling “nervous, anxious, or on edge” because of the pandemic.
Robin Gurwitch, a psychologist and professor at Duke University Medical Center, says that a parent’s emotions will affect their child, no matter how young. “Parents’ own emotional and mental health, their own well-being, can be picked up from newborns all the way through,” she says. “So, if you’re struggling with your own emotions, you’re struggling with how you’re managing things, your babies are great at picking up on that and they may become more agitated. They may have more problems with sleep or eating or even just managing their own emotions.”
Gurwitch cites Bessel van der Kolk, a psychiatrist and researcher, who theorizes that the body remembers traumatic experiences in more primal, unconscious parts of the brain. “While the child may not remember everyone wearing a mask, they will remember loving touches,” Gurwitch says. “Similarly, if you are stressed out and you and your partner are yelling a lot, they will remember, their bodies will remember the heightened stress and the tension from those periods.”
So toddlers may not be missing out when it comes to a lack of socializing, but parents could be.
In my short 14 months of being a mother, I’ve learned that playdates aren’t just for the kids. They’re also a time for parents to connect with one another, to compare notes from the park bench, to chitchat on the sidewalk in front of their homes. As my little girl grows up, she won’t remember who played with her in the living room, be it another kid, a grandparent or me. She won’t recall licking the neighbor boy’s nose, but she’ll remember me, which could mean that playdates are important after all, even if the kids stay home.
Jillian Pretzel is a California-based writer and mother of one. Find her online at jillianpretzel.com.