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Masks and Young Children

by Carol Castanon
Secure Beginnings Parent Consultant

I’ve been hearing concerns some parents have about mask-wearing, and how children might be affected by seeing people from the “eyes up.” Parents and grandparents have expressed worry that children will not see the full expression of others. Others worry that children will become fearful of other people.  As parents and caregivers, the wish for an optimal social and emotional experience is absolutely preferred. We may have an image of what this looks like, and it does not include a pandemic! 

Before the pandemic, there was a free moving exchange of touch, toys, shared spaces, and food. There was even a public health expectation that families reduce isolation by being in the company of others. Kin, childcare providers, nannies, teachers, and friends were all part of the delicious mix of “others” before COVID-19. Grown-ups might have asked children to acknowledge others with their voices, their hands, or their kisses as there was a shared excitement of being in the company of others. Children shared play spaces, freely moving from swing to slide or play kitchen to block corner. Toys were intended to be shared, or hands waited to be next to hold the baby doll, block, or stuffed animal. Books were read together among friends.

The ingenuity of adults is impressive. Some families are forming pods or bubbles of selected family and friends. Parents in one-home and two-home families are experimenting with “work-on” and “parent-on” schedules, redefining what is possible. Families are temporarily leaving their homes to find helping hands with grandparents, and grandparents are temporarily moving to their grown children and grandchildren. Childcare providers have learned cleaning rituals which make the care of children possible while parents work. Early childhood teachers are singing new songs about cleaning hands and keeping space between bodies. Small childcare or early years classroom groups rotate inside and outside, while some groups have discovered that the outdoors is the classroom. Adults might be reassessing their busyness before the pandemic and finding a new and slower cadence.

The ingenuity of young children is equally impressive. While, like adults, a child might yearn for friends and family, a young child’s vision of their “social wants” is really connected to what they have experienced in the past. There is comfort in what is familiar.

Parents might want more social opportunities or experiences for their little ones, but the fullness of what young children have in family or small pods actually fulfills their emotional and social development.

A young child’s ingenuity is often adapting to the needs of their grown-ups.  We ask young children to wait, wash up, rest, eat, clean up, be gentle, get dressed, etc. Young children learn to accommodate, in fact partner, with their grown-up to do all these things.

Young children need love, predictable care, and to be accompanied when they have big feelings.

They want to be seen and heard. They want someone to play with and someone to snuggle with. They want to be outside! When you think about the pandemic and what may be missing, remember what little children want. Little ones have the least complicated wants. They want their grown-ups, play, love, and joy.

This brings me back to masks. Masks create a limited facial view of others.  A child’s first language is non-verbal. They read eyes, hands, posture, and the moving shape of a mouth. Children are sensitive and attuned to the emotional, non-verbal energy of their adults, whether their adults are anchored and steady or distracted and distant. For hearing children and adults, sounds attach to experience. Sounds share feelings and information eventually becoming the vocabulary of language. This language then becomes the tool children use to say how they feel and what they need. The spoken and the unspoken become the ways we communicate. Communication is then practiced throughout our lifetime to include joy, love, conflict, grief, fear, anger, etc. 

Let’s look more closely at what adults can do to support the experience of masks for young children. Remember that play is the language of childhood.  

* Baby dolls, play masks, and doctor play are great ways for children to work through their experiences with the pandemic.  

* Mask Charade might be a fun way to guess what people are feeling or pretending. Grown-ups have to take turns guessing too!

* Photographs are a great way to play with masks on and off. Take pictures of just eyes and then just mouths and see if young children can mix and match the images, or recognize people by a body part.  You could add photos of just hair, or just hands, or just feet!  

* Books help a child organize their life experiences. Make a book about COVID-19 and include the story of masks, doctors, and taking care to be careful so others do not get sick. Use the language of COVID-19 so children know the specificity of this virus.

Additionally, masks give us the opportunity to talk about the other, the elder, or the vulnerable. It is a real-life experience of empathy and value for others. 

Finally, children, young and old, depend on their grown-ups to be the anchor. Your ingenuity along with your message of “we can and we will get through this together” will endure through COVID and beyond.