Then more weeks passed and the song grew shorter as names and verses were dropped one by one. Eventually she wanted to sing other songs instead. She settled into the new rhythm of life at home, and when we took walks outside, she was often hesitant to wave to the little boy across the street, the one whose hand she used to hold at day care every day. In midsummer 2020, I noticed she would sometimes study an illustration of a grocery store in one of her books, and it was clear she perceived it not as a once-routine errand but something more like a mythical wonderland: “We’ll go to the grocery store,” she would declare hopefully, “when the pan-etic is over.”
She was barely 2 years old when this new version of reality began. For the rest of us — older children, teenagers, adults — the shutdown cleaved our existence into a stark before and after. With the arrival of vaccines, we have begun to reemerge, eager to reclaim what was once familiar. But for toddlers who have now lived nearly 16 months in varying degrees of social isolation, the tether to before has long faded, and they now face after without clear recollections of the world to which they are returning.
“Toddlers are hardwired to keep developing, to keep gaining more understanding of what’s going on around them,” says child development psychologist and author Tovah Klein, who directs the Barnard College Center for Toddler Development in New York. “Toddlers are on a path to developing a sense of self, of who they are, separate from their parents but also with their parents as their security and support.” That process has continued unabated even amid a historic catastrophe, she says: “Children adapt far better than any of us might expect.”
Which explains why, when I talk to other toddler parents about their experiences, they often describe children who fully acclimated to life in the liminal place we’ve all inhabited for so long. Several parents tell me how their children grew so accustomed to seeing others wear masks that they were deeply unsettled when — in accordance with the most recent guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — vaccinated adults started taking them off. Brittany Brady, a 31-year-old nonprofit executive in Dallas, says her 2-year-old son was astonished when they traveled in early June to visit her family in the D.C. suburbs and he realized that his grandparents live in a house and not inside his mother’s cellphone screen. When Jason Thomas, a 44-year-old pastor in Houston, recently took his 4-year-old son to a grocery store for the first time in over a year, the boy clung to him: “I haven’t gone to the store in a really long time,” the child told his dad emphatically.
But the poignant moments and reentry jitters pass, Klein assures me, and the toddlers themselves are just fine: “The emotional burden is really on the parents to carry them through the transition and through all the changes that come after,” she says.
These youngest kids were born into one version of the world, and now they’ll grow up in another. But if there is a bittersweetness to watching them move through this process of reentry, perhaps it is less about the toddlers themselves, who will not suffer for what they don’t remember; perhaps it is more about the parents, who ache to see their children forget.
“I think I’m the one grieving a little bit for the things we lost, the opportunities we didn’t have, the friends that he did not make or keep because he was not in school or in relationships with anybody else,” Thomas tells me. “I’m not sure that what we would call ‘normal’ even resembles what he would call ‘normal’ anymore. His normal and our normal are likely to be very different now.”
Yet even if they can't be consciously recalled or clearly expressed, the pre-pandemic life experiences of toddlers have not been somehow erased by these months of disruption; these children are not reentering the outside world as "blank slates," as Carole Peterson, a professor of psychology at Memorial University of Newfoundland, puts it. The ability to form memory is present from birth, and even before, she says: Newborns recognize the sound patterns of books their mothers read aloud while they were pregnant. Infants can recognize faces and anticipate routines.
“The research that I’ve done suggests that by age 2 1/2, on average, children are making some memories that may last a lifetime,” Peterson says. Those earliest recollections may be mere impressions, fleeting vignettes of moments that carried particular emotional impact. “Memories of specific events are still going to be scarce,” she says, “but in terms of a sense of familiarity, that is going to be there.”
Even the youngest children may carry some visceral, intuitive knowledge of places and people they once saw frequently before the pandemic — though they probably won’t be able to articulate it.
“With the development of language skills comes the ability to encode memories in a verbally based way,” Klein says. “It’s not that children don’t have memories before that, but they’re very sensory-oriented. Their bodies and their senses do encode something, so a young child might go back somewhere they’ve been and have a vague sense of, ‘Oh, I know this place.’ ”
Brittany Brady saw this flash of recognition in her 2-year-old when she took him to a playground for the first time in many months, near a relative’s home in Virginia. Another child approached him as he played, she says, and she braced for what might follow.
“I’d been really, really concerned, because he’s been isolated for a year — so I’m thinking, ‘Will you not know how to play with other kids? Will you feel territorial?’ ” she says. “But he started playing immediately. He was playing, laughing, doing the things that kids do. And that was really powerful for me to witness.”
Other toddlers might struggle to adjust to settings that now feel completely foreign. When Jason Thomas’s 10-year-old son was invited to a birthday party at a roller-skating rink several weeks ago, Thomas decided to also bring Jesse, his 4-year-old. His younger boy has always been “a very happy, up-for-anything kind of kid,” Thomas says, but within minutes of setting foot inside the loud, crowded space — the first social outing his kids had attended in over a year — Jesse began to cry.
“He kept saying, ‘I want to go, I want to go,’ ” Thomas says. “I tried to find the quietest possible spot for him, so we could talk and he could look me in the eyes and I could say, ‘Hey, I’m here. I’m not going to let anything happen to you.’ He just cried and said, ‘It’s too loud,’ and he had just never had any reaction like that ever before. I just kept talking him through it and checking in on him, and then he did start to calm down.”
Kendall Ashley, a 33-year-old freelance editor in Colorado, had recently begun to take her then-14-month-old daughter to weekly play groups in early 2020, watching as her toddler began to feel comfortable and eager playing around other children. Then the shutdown began, and her daughter has been home ever since. Ashley says her now-2-year-old is obviously curious about other kids but often unsure of how to interact with the children she sees outside at a distance, or the older cousins she’s visited only a few times.
But in recent months, Ashley has felt safer bringing her daughter with her on errands in their Colorado community, and she’s watched her child form a surprisingly strong attachment to “the little girl,” as her daughter calls her — a towering poster of a smiling child on display at a Target store. The larger-than-life poster child has become a fixture of their shopping routine ever since Ashley once parked her cart beside it and noticed her daughter riveted by the image, grinning and tentatively reaching out to touch it.
“From that point on, anytime we go to any store, she immediately asks, ‘Can we see the little girl?’ ” Ashley says. “It’s her favorite thing.”
It is difficult to be certain how much these encounters are shaped by the constraints of the pandemic; to the children involved, it is simply the reality they know. Only the adults around them can fully grasp the broader context and all the complex emotions it evokes.
Perhaps Jesse would have felt overwhelmed by the cacophony of a roller rink under any circumstances. Maybe Ashley’s daughter would feel drawn to a vivid poster of a little girl even if she regularly played with other children. And Greg Campbell’s 3-year-old son, Declan — who has been inseparable from his older sister, Annie, during their months together at home in Upstate New York — might always have developed a particularly deep attachment to his sibling.
But Annie has recently started playing with other kids in the neighborhood, and when she left the yard one afternoon to meet another girl, Declan ran after his sister with particular urgency. “Annie, you’re my best friend! Come back!” he called, and Campbell says he couldn’t help thinking that the family’s prolonged isolation had something to do with what he was seeing.
“I thought it was so cute, but I also thought, ‘Oh, this is part of the picture of this time of covid,’ ” he says. “They’ve been playing together and becoming closer by necessity — that’s what this time has meant for them.”
After her family returned from their recent travels, Brady made plans for her son to start attending preschool again near their home in Texas, and she took him to visit his new classroom.
“When we first got in there, he turned to me and said, ‘Mommy, home, please?’ And I almost lost it,” she says. “But we stayed, and then five minutes later he was running through the day care trying to see what else he could see. And the next day he asked to go back to school.”
She is eager to see him return, but she’ll also miss all the time they’ve shared at home, she says. “There were moments where seeing things through a child’s eyes in a pandemic was deeply, deeply calming and affirming,” Brady says. “This does not last forever. This is a stage, it is a time in our lives, it will get better, it will change. Seeing how excited my son was just to be at home, how little things made him so happy, it reminded me that there’s a lot of strength within the human spirit.”
Klein has seen this same resilience in the toddlers she has worked with throughout the pandemic. “You hear the same thing over and over when children go back to school or to pods — that they needed some help adjusting, they needed a little extra nurturing and support, but once they were back in those routines, they bloomed again,” she says. The outlook is more complex for toddlers who have experienced trauma in the pandemic, she adds — for those who lost loved ones, who were exposed to violence, or experienced food or housing insecurity. “But for the children who were provided stability,” she says, “they really bounce back when they sense that adults will keep them safe.”
It could also be that this chapter of our collective history is — in some ways, at least — perhaps less singular and extraordinary than it feels to us right now.
“There is always a context for childhood. For some kids, it was the Great Depression. For many people, it’s war,” Klein says. “So, this is the narrative of this generation of children. They have a story. You wouldn’t have wished for this circumstance, but children always keep showing us that they’re going to develop and adapt no matter what. We just have to support them through it. We have to follow their lead.”
On a recent afternoon, we took our daughter to play outside with a few of the children she’ll join at preschool this fall. The little boy who lives across the street — her long-ago friend from day care — was there too, running with a pack of laughing kids in a sunny backyard, and our 3-year-old offered a shy hello. She watched the others from a distance at first, then gradually drifted closer. She picked up a pastel stick of sidewalk chalk from a bucket, drew a stripe of pink across the slats of a wooden fence, and smiled. I watched her move in this new-but-somehow-familiar space, and understood how we begin again: We open our doors, step outside, see our friends and speak their names. We look around and slowly remember: Oh, I know this place.
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