IT IS a mystical combination of instinct and example that tells us how important the connection is between our face and the face of our children. Our face is the place their eyes first focus, where they learn to read emotions and where language first begins.
At first, children play mainly in their own world, needing little more than mum, but at the age of two social curiosity breaks through and they start to want to play with their peers. The exquisite yet frustrating journey of life with other humans has begun!
In summer last year, when my son was eighteen months old, I began introducing him to playgroups. On the threshold of lockdown he turned two and, just at the moment when interactive play would start, all our potential ‘socialising’ ceased. He seemed fine but as the days passed, I grew anxious about our isolation from other mothers and infants. When would the children’s centres open again?
Six months later was the answer. In mid-September. But not all did. The complexities of the new guidelines and the financial burden of limiting numbers proved too much for some. Term places of the remaining ones were booked within minutes. For some Stay and Play ‘drop in’ centres, spaces were available only for two or three weeks ahead.
Our local children’s centre was a popular one before the lockdown. I recall the scene on entering: toys exploding from all sides, kids jostling for space, studying each other intently or knocking one another out of the way, mothers with babies in the corner talking quietly, sharing worries, experiences, tips on leggings and nappy cream.
Returning after these months, I was surprised to see the room was almost empty, the great baskets of puppets or dinosaurs hidden away. In their place, ‘pods’ drawn on the floor using gaffer tape, like square islands. Each individual child in his own ‘station’: with a rattle, craft, or other sedentary items chosen for him. The healthy scramble for chalk or a ball – and oft-repeated instruction to ‘share please!’ no longer applied.
Adding to my foreboding came the instruction to us, the mums and child carers, to wear masks. In the absence of specific guidance for children’s centres, I found out that managers were left interpreting guidance from other community settings. Hence the masks.
For any mum coming to children’s centre for the first time, the business of mingling is nearly always a bit awkward. The chances are you have little in common with the other person except producing babies around the same time or living close by; the conversation turning on potty training or favourite toys is invariably stilted.
Try it while wearing a mask. For a start, it wipes away the welcoming smile that generally kicks off the conversation. We have been accustomed from birth to read other people through their face and, by extension, their body language. A smile is deeply reassuring to an adult, as it turns out, as much as to a child. Masks remove that ability to connect. In this environment, how can we expect young children, who copy by example, to learn these vital life skills?
And what of the impact of masks on the children themselves? Common sense as well as psychologists tells us that children read emotional signals from the face and that covering it is unsettling or disconcerting. Young children learn language through looking at the face, at expressions and at mouth movement, as well as through hearing. Masking makes it cruelly harder for children to engage in communication, the main reason for taking your child to the centre in the first place.
It is all too easy to dismiss these concerns with claims that children can easily adapt. There is no evidence to support or justify such a social experiment with our children. Importantly, psychologists at Oxford Brookes University launched a study into social distancing which looks at its effect on children’s development. It is part of a wider project investigating the effects of Covid-19 lockdowns on language development in different countries on the self-evident premise that ‘the environment in which children grow up is key to their cognitive development including language and behaviour, and (is) closely linked to their achievement later in life, health and wellbeing’.
The preliminary findings of the study are alarming. To start with, 75 per cent of the 500 families participating reported an increase in toddler and baby screen time. The worst affected were those already disadvantaged, who relied most on children’s centres to provide toys, books and games that they did not have at home.
Masks are also frightening. I intrinsically associate them with people who wish to do harm. Darth Vader still scares me. Hannibal Lecter masked in The Silence of the Lambs remains printed indelibly on my mind. About five years ago, turning a corner in West London, I jumped out of my skin at the sight of a teenage boy wearing a bandana across his face. Masks restrain people, they hide identity, they dehumanise. Why would young children not be frightened by them too?
As to our new children’s centre session, well, it ended after a measly hour so that the staff could spend two hours following cleaning guidelines in preparation for the afternoon group. We said goodbye with exaggerated warmth. Most staff members seemed to feel as trapped as I did. Trained in child development, often with children themselves, they were clearly uncomfortable. But when I mentioned concerns about the impact of lockdown on my son’s development, the response was a sympathetic sigh – a mutual recognition that acknowledges this isn’t right. They are, I suspect, too afraid to challenge policy, as am I. Meanwhile my concern for my son – and other infants – grows.
If the cure risks harming children – who neither suffer from or transmit Covid 19 – which such unnatural social control measures for tiny children must, surely this should be taken account of by the lockdown architects? Rishi Sunak recently ordered officials to publish the economic cost of lockdowns alongside the infection figures. In addition to that, the government should be publishing the psychological and developmental impact of these policies on children. These analyses must have been undertaken before the restrictions were imposed. So publish them.
There is no place for masks in environments where children are nurtured. There is no place for ‘pod’ social control and management of infants in child centres.
In a recent open letter, launched by the parent campaign group, Us For Them, health professionals from across the board raised the alarm about permanent psychological damage to the young being caused by lockdowns. I worry greatly about the possibility this may happen to my son, and I am not alone. It flies in the face of promises to put the child first.
Do the vulnerable and over-seventies really support a sledgehammer strategy that risks permanently hindering children’s development? I am sure they don’t.
Does our society accept harm to children as the collateral damage of a war waged on a virus? If not, now is the time to speak out.
The sceptic’s position is not an irresponsible libertarian one that would put everyone at risk. Rather it questions the cost benefits. It asks about the impact of Covid-19 measures on wider public health. It questions their rationality and their efficacy. What it rejects is a myopic focus on a single priority – infection rates – at the expense of everything else. It demands our government balance the wider factors which feed into society’s health and wellbeing, the most important of which is maintaining a normal, healthy life for children.