Published on February 16th, 2022 | by Rebecca Rolland


I Worry About My Young Son’s Memories: What is growing up in Covid times doing to our kids’ development?

“Wake up, mama!” My five-year-old son Paul runs downstairs at seven in the morning, mask-less, and I curl up under the covers and call to him, “Okay, goodbye!”

He goes to climb up on the bed to hug me—and jump on the bed—and I tell him in no uncertain terms to put a mask on, or leave, or he’ll get me sick. 

“I am so angry at you, mama!” he says, and runs off stamping to the room upstairs.

That moment was three weeks ago, as the Omicron variant of Covid was spiking, and all the fear around so many new infections felt fresh again. Now, on the other side of that wave, I can see my overreaction, but right then, I spoke on instinct, out of panic and fear.

As a speech pathologist, I know that a sudden warning and sharp rebuke to a small child wasn’t the best, in terms of his understanding of the situation, or even a change in his behavior. Since we’d already talked about the need to wear a mask around me, a simpler “Mask, please” reminder would be far more effective, and far less startling than a half-shouted warning. But, in the moment, the panic about waking up to a jumping sick child on my bed outweighs the knowledge about how to speak effectively to kids. Even a researcher in how to talk with kids doesn’t always get it right when under stress. As for so many parents, knowledge about what works best in theory often falls away when it comes to in-the-moment application.

Still, my son had been diagnosed with Covid three days back. When I do his rapid test later that evening to check progress, the test is brightly positive after only ten seconds. 

“Very contagious,” my ten-year-old daughter Sophie says, after giving it a glance. “He definitely should be wearing a mask.”

Then she and my husband Philippe turn to look at him, running around the room in an imitation of Captain Underpants. And then they turn to look at me. It’s dinnertime, but I’m sitting six feet away—at least—with a cloth mask under a KN95. I’m the only one in the family who doesn’t have Covid—yet—and I’ve wanted to keep it that way. 

All of us thought it was probably inevitable that I would get Covid from him. Luckily, I managed to avoid it—a positive outcome, certainly—but one that made me even more anxious afterward about how to keep it that way. But, like all the families taking care of young kids, I saw the impossibility of staying away from your child for any longer than five minutes before “mama!” or “daddy!” rings through the room. There’s only so many times a day you can say “Please, wear your mask”—and even if kids accommodate this at school or in public places relatively easily, at home among close family, kids are conditioned (hopefully) to feel an ease, a break from this heightened sense of protection at all times. And there’s only so much you can do to play robot games from a distance or try to help with a puzzle from six feet away. 

So I give in and come close to him, and then worry later whether I’ll have caught it. I give in, and then wonder out loud that evening, to my husband, whether it wouldn’t be better just to go maskless, and let nature (and hopefully my double-vaccines-and-booster) take their course. At least then there wouldn’t be the risk of quarantine number three, after the first ten-day quarantine we all endured on vacation, when my husband and daughter got diagnosed, and now the second, during a frigid January in Boston, with my son. Almost half his class is currently quarantined.

Photo by Vitolda Klein on Unsplash

Also, I know that, for a child of Paul’s age, it’s hard to keep a conditional rule in mind. That is, I’ve reminded him that, since I’ve never gotten Covid, he should wear a mask around me. But since the rest of the family has recently recovered, he doesn’t need to be as careful around them. The idea was to keep him from having to wear a mask fulltime—but the result has been that he’s had a hard time remembering. Or worse, his face falls when he sees me, since he has to put a mask on.

But the urge in me is still to stay healthy, or try, even if it means keeping my distance from my Covid-positive son, and being the odd one out, who seems paranoid even, only removing my masks to sip from a cup of tea, then quickly putting them—both—back. The urge is one of self-protection, yes, but also of deep-seated fear. While I know most boosted people don’t become very ill from Omicron, I fear I’d be one of the exceptions. And with little in the way of childcare or close family for help, I fear desperately that there wouldn’t be anyone to care for my kids if my husband and I weren’t there.

At the same time, I know how lucky we are—how so many families are dealing with truly sick children or dying relatives, or whose entire families have been decimated. I know how many families are making do with the caretakers they have, with pulling it together and getting through far worse than we’ve ever experienced. I’ve tried to keep that in mind as I balance caring for and protecting my kids with wanting them to have some semblance of normal lives. 

And yet it’s the small things that break my heart, the things I almost wouldn’t notice if I didn’t stop to see. My son, recently turned five, was three years old when the pandemic started. Those ages, from three to five, are such a strange and particular time for this chapter in our history to have hit. As a speech pathologist with a background in child development, I know how important these years are in forming an understanding of what the world is, and how it works. If he were only a baby, I could give him a few new toys and watch him go at it, hit a rattle or bounce a ball with glee. If he were Sophie’s age, he could use more of his language and executive functioning skills to rationalize why he can’t have all the fun in the world. Of course, it’s hard for her—the lack of in-person friendships is probably the hardest—but, even at the worst of times, she has more of a vista, a sense of history and of the future, than he does. 

That lack of vista also makes his in-the-moment hopes and wishes all the more poignant and sad.

“Can I go and jump in a bouncy house?” he wants to know. “Can we have all my friends over and play monsters?”

I think of the Greek movie Dogtooth, directed by Yorgos Lanthimos, in which the kids are kept inside for years and develop their own vocabulary. While that movie is darker than my own situation by leaps and bounds (no spoilers), I still have that haunting image of seeing a world beyond your grasp, knowing it is out there but unable to engage with it meaningfully. What is an airplane? A car? A driveway?

Photo by Karsten Winegeart on Unsplash

Paul’s isolation is less extreme, of course. But he missed nearly a year of school, and has spent so much time indoors, as compared to my daughter at that age.

“What are these black-and-white cookies?” he wants to know, holding out a pack of Oreos.

“Oh, they’re very spicy,” Sophie tells him, with a sly smile. “You better give them to me.”

For now, at least, he believes her and hands them over. It won’t work long—she’s done the same thing with red Skittles. Typically, she’s patient with him, indulges him even, so I let this little lie slip.

“And what is this thing?” he asked on a recent trip—one of the few times in memory we ate at a restaurant outdoors. He pointed to a cheeseburger with lettuce. “It is like ground beef—with a bun?”

“You don’t know what a cheeseburger is?” Sophie asks. 

The same goes for hot dogs and cotton candy, all the trappings of baseball games and carnival rides. They focus on food, but in my mind, it’s not the food that he’s most missed, but the sights and smells, the roar of an audience laughing at a magic show, the tick of a Ferris wheel, the blinking lights of a video game arcade. And far more than those particular experiences are the chances to roam further, to meet old friends and meet new ones, to explore without fear.

Of course, these are all stereotypically American experiences—middle-class American experiences—or more specifically, the stereotypical experiences that I remember from my own middle-class childhood. Who’s to say that it’s these memories that represent happiness, or childhood pleasures, rather than others that look and sound totally different? Proust, in recalling the pleasures of his own childhood, certainly wasn’t eating hot dogs. Perhaps I’m only projecting a longing for the things of my childhood onto my kids. So often we want the happy memories from our own childhood, even if they were imperfect, to be passed on to our kids. Perhaps, in a way, we even want the longing, want our own children to share our nostalgia in later years. 

And yet, all of us are situated in a particular place and time. All of us have our own memories, informed not only by our childhoods, but by everything we remember living vicariously, in movies and books. And so many of our memories feel important because of the social connections, the people we were with, or the novelty of the experiences. How much of this novelty and social connection will this generation of kids miss out on? How much of the social language—of meeting on the playground, resolving conflicts with friends, chatting with older and younger relatives—will go missing for him and others like him?

Photo by Hello I’m Nik on Unsplash

I can’t help but wonder what all these changes will mean for the way he sees the world in later years. How will he feel to realize there were birthday parties to be had, friends to get to know, soccer games and field hockey tournaments? How will he feel to realize the missed learning, not just about the alphabet and numbers, but about the small sensory pleasures of childhood that mark the mind and heart for years to come? And what mark will it leave on him to remember his mother in a double mask, waking in the morning, telling him to put a mask on or leave?

I hope this will not be what he remembers. Yes, part of me fears it will be; fears that once those memories are in a child’s mind, they push out the other, happier ones, at least for a while. As research from Dr. Carole Peterson from Canada’s Memorial University of Newfoundland, shows, children at about age three start to form more explicit, detailed, adult-like memories. And yet, she also speaks of a kind of “childhood amnesia,” in which children’s memories are mostly implicit till around age seven. Equally important, as her recent studies are finding, are the ways in which we talk about experiences with our kids. One study even found that, when parents were warm and spoke a lot about the past, their children recalled more about their early lives, as compared to when parents were less warm or didn’t speak about the past as much.

At the same time, in terms of our life circumstances, I know we’re relatively lucky. No one in my family have gotten very sick or died. So many of my parent friends and friends’ kids have had Covid over the past two years, some serious, and nationally, one child loses a parent or caregiver for every four Covid deaths. From April 2020 through June 2021, more than 140,000 children lost a parent, grandparent, or caregiver who provided them with love, care and basic needs.

At this point, there’s no real comparison for us to know how any of this will affect children’s memories.

While the grieving and trauma of death is the most tragic, we know less about the more subtle challenges: the dimming of memories, or the absence of richer ones. I sense already that vocabularies will be dampened, since a wide range of words links to kids having a wider range of (lived and read-about) experiences. In addition to linking strongly to family income levels, a child’s vocabulary development depends on hearing words in a meaningful context. Reading surely helps, but when your real-life context is limited to a few empty streets in your neighborhood, it’s harder to find a wide range of things to talk about. But that may be only the start. What else will there be: trouble with using language socially, with knowing how to resolve conflicts, with meeting and talking to new people, with knowing whom to trust?

But another part of me hears Paul coughing and telling his teachers casually over Zoom, “That’s right, I have Covid-19,” and thinks that maybe, just maybe, he understands that everyone around him is trying their best. Maybe he can sense our longing for him to have all those moments of childhood—our wish to bottle them up and keep them for him, preserved in time, for him to open when everything is better, when he can fully live.

courtesy of the author

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About the Author

Rebecca Rolland is the author of The Art of Talking with Children, out 3/1/2022 from HarperOne. She teaches at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and Harvard Medical School, and she lives in Boston with her family. Find her at her website or on twitter.

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