I’m worried about my under-socialized COVID toddler 

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Years ago, in a university sociology class, I remember learning about unsocialized children. Children who spent months hiding from invading armies in barns and basements. Children chained to cribs by cruel parents. Children, quite literally, raised by wolves.

And while most modern families will never encounter such extreme situations—not even in the midst of a global pandemic, during which many of us were safely nestled in our own homes—my professor explained that those instances illuminate a universal, and now very relevant, principle: lack of socialization goes hand-in-hand with trauma. Happy children, he said, were made that way by exposure to caregivers, friends, and playmates. Without these outside influences, he claimed, children suffered.

Fifteen years later, I wish I could introduce that professor to a test case who defies his simple binary: my very happy, yet very unsocialized, two-and-a-half-year-old son. Finnegan is a wonderful whirling dervish of a child. He peels bananas from the bottom up. He exclaims “What the shark?” when something surprises him. And, due to a combination of circumstances both unique and universal—a premature birth, a long recovery in the hospital, and, then, COVID-19—he’s spent very little time with anyone other than me, my husband, and my mother, who joined our quarantine bubble this winter. Which is why I also wish I could ask my professor the question that’s been on my mind all these two-and-a-half years: Will my boy be alright?

I know I’m not the only parent asking myself this. After all, for many parents of kids Finnegan’s age, life has been one long nesting phase. First, there was the normal post-birth convalescence, that time we spend shepherding infants through a haze of upside-down days when their impossibly-soft bodies rely on us for everything. Sleep comes in snatches. Food languishes, forgotten, in toasters and microwaves. Everyone smells like milk. Later—we thought—the fog would lift. We were poised to enter an era of playdates, activities, and community events. We expected our world to expand to include educators, daycare teachers, extended family, and other kids. It was from these people that our children would learn to express themselves, tolerate frustration, and navigate social situations. But then of course COVID-19 struck, forcing millions of families to stay at home and separate from all but our closest kin.

Even now, as vaccination rates rise and infection numbers fall, life remains interrupted for many of us stuck at home with unvaccinated kids.

How my son will be impacted by his early years in isolation is the kind of keep-me-up-at-night, unanswerable question that I nevertheless can’t help but seek an answer to. I google leading questions such as “When is it too late for kids to make up for lost time?” I read articles about how to help Finnegan forge bonds virtually. I even pepper people with invasive questions.

“Do you think a lack of exposure to others has damaged our kids?” I recently asked my friend Tim, whose son, Ben, was born three months after Finnegan and has been cared for at home by Tim’s husband for his entire life.

“For a long time, yeah, I did,” he replied. “One day we were walking around the block, and Ben could hear a little girl playing, but he couldn’t see her because of the snow banks. He kept asking, ‘What dat? What dat?’ I honestly think he didn’t realize there were other kids or people in the world.”

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Photo: Justine Feron

For a while, we traded these kinds of anecdotes. Like the fact that Finnegan doesn’t know stores exist, and thinks the only way to purchase things is to “get box at door.” Or the time when, after a yearlong separation, Ben reunited with a close family friend and didn’t recognize her. Or how Finnegan is now such a diligent mask-wearer that he sometimes insists on donning one indoors. These tales are today’s version of Kids Say the Darndest Things, and they’re funny and frightening in equal measure.

Earlier this year, both Tim and I had second children. Mine, named Kipling, was born in February 2021, while his, Lucy, arrived in March 2021. Though I put off telling most people about my pregnancy until its very end—few things are as awkward as revealing you’re pregnant to co-workers over Zoom and having them ask you to stand and show them your belly—I was still the recipient of several anxious reactions.

“Oh, a pandemic baby,” those people said, often with grave expressions on their faces. “Are you worried about that?”

But it wasn’t, and still isn’t, Kip who I fear for. At only four months old, Kip’s pandemic losses will likely be limited to the playgroups and Mommy and Me yoga classes he’d have slept through anyway. It’s Finnegan I fret over: my curious, ebullient, beautiful kid, who is prone to “making strange” with the neighbours we pass on our block, who has only recently started speaking in sentences, and who is a bit of a bull in a china shop. How much of this is innate and how much imposed by lack of socialization, I may never know.

But I have been getting clues from my family’s old home movies, which my mom recently unearthed, along with an ancient VHS player, from the deep recesses of her garage. In one of them, filmed in the early 1990s at the Canadian Museum of History, my then-two-year-old brother, Josh, wantonly wanders the exhibits: licking a totem pole, bashing the receiver in a British-style phone booth, and ramming against the walls of a fiberglass igloo. At one point, he clambers clumsily into a canoe, eliciting eye-rolls from the teenage girls already occupying it. All the while, Josh appears absolutely joyful—and more than a little under-socialized. In fact, he looks like the kind of kid about whom someone might once have asked, “Was he raised by wolves?”

But of course Josh was raised by my parents, and turned out just fine. So there’s something consoling about seeing the parallels between how he and my son scramble about, free from inhibitions or regard for others. Maybe, I’ve allowed myself to hope, Finnegan’s tendency to clomp to the beat of his own drum isn’t caused by COVID isolation at all; it’s simply inherited. And perhaps, if we’re able to enroll him in preschool this fall as planned, by the time he encounters a canoe full of people, he’ll have learned not to launch himself into it. 

My fellow toddler parents are growing more hopeful, too. Now that summer is here, Tim says he’s begun venturing out on playdates with both Ben and Lucy. “I had driven myself insane thinking there was no way Ben could bounce back after spending half his life with so little human contact,” Tim said. “But he’s doing great.”

And so, between our two families, maybe we’ll be able to upend my old professor’s assertions and prove that today’s under-socialized toddlers will, in fact, be alright.

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