[00:00:00] Jordan Heath-Rawlings: We’re going to start today with a journalist doing some math. Yeah, it’s not a great idea, but we have to illustrate a point here. So there are roughly 375,000 babies born each year in Canada. In recent StatsCan data 26% of parents with kids under one year old paid for childcare outside the home. So take those kids away, we’re down to 277,000 kids. 7% of Canada’s population lives in the Atlantic bubble or in the North, both places which have mostly been able to keep COVID under control. So we’ll eliminate that 7% of babies. So we’re down to 250,000 infants. Again, I’m just spit balling here to give you an idea. One more, 3% of Canadian families live in multi-generational homes with granny or grandpa or an aunt or uncle to help out. That knocks off another 10,000 or so [00:01:00] infants leaving us with roughly 240,000 babies born in Canada in the past 12 months to parents who did not live with their parents, did not pay for childcare, and lived in a region that’s spent a lot of the time on COVID lockdown.
Among that 240,000 are tens of thousands of babies who haven’t been indoors with anyone other than mom or dad, presumably they haven’t been helped by anyone but their parents either. Unless you count the doctor. It’s actually probably been a happy year for them because they don’t know any better.
They’re just here with mom and dad, but some of them, as a listener who wrote to us pointed out, are about to start daycare, about to go from zero socialization, to dozens of strangers. What do we know about how a first year of life with [00:02:00] almost no socialization will impact these babies? What about kids a little older who had just started to be social in daycare, only to vanish into their homes for a year? What about kids who this summer will be held by granny or grandpa for the first time? And we keep saying kids are resilient. They might be, but this is beyond resilience. It’s unprecedented. What do parents need to know here?
I’m Jordan Heath-Rawlings, this is The Big Story. Dr. Sheri Madigan is an associate professor in the psychology department of the University of Calgary. She holds a Canada Research Chair in Determinants of Child Development. Hello, Dr. Madigan.
Dr. Sheri Madigan: Hi, thanks for having me.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: You are most welcome. Um, I will tell you, we got the idea for this episode, uh, from a listener who wrote us with a question. Can I begin maybe by asking you that question?
Dr. Sheri Madigan: Yeah, sounds great.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: So this [00:03:00] is a listener named Diana who wrote that, “I’ve had a baby during the pandemic and he is about to start daycare. He has not been held by anyone outside of our household. No other adults have ever cared for him. Although my parents would have loved to help, travel restrictions during the pandemic prevented them from visiting. I’m worried for what this means for his socialization.” So, should she be worried?
Dr. Sheri Madigan: Well, it’s a really good question and actually a common one. So this has been a, a topic, and I’ve been asked to actually speak on a few times because I know that parents are thinking a lot about this and worried. I guess what I would say is that it is going to be a little bit difficult for kids to transition into a daycare environment because it’s going to be so new and novel to them.
Now the reality is that kids always find it hard to transition into a daycare environment because it’s new and novel to them.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Right.
Dr. Sheri Madigan: So that’s not different than how life was pre pandemic, but I think the big difference now [00:04:00] when kids are, are doing that switch over into daycare, is that they haven’t had a lot of interaction with other people and they’re going to be thrusted into an environment where everything is really, really new and the interactions are really new.
So I do think that’s going to take a little bit of getting used to for kids. And one of the things I’ve suggested is if it’s at all possible to try to do that exposure gradually, and to be really sensitive, that it’s going to feel different for kids. So you might want to try to, you know, have one hour on the first day and move up, you know, in half an hour or one hour increments over the course of the week.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Right.
Dr. Sheri Madigan: You know, so the kids aren’t going from entirely at home to entirely at daycare, but there’s like a gradual step-wise approach, and that might help them with the familiarization process to an entirely new environment.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: So you mentioned that, uh, you know, you’ve been asked to speak about this a lot because parents are worried about this kind of thing, and [00:05:00] that answer was super helpful, but how much, uh, when it comes to this, do we just not know? I mean, there’s never really been a mass experiment like this, right?
Dr. Sheri Madigan: Totally. I mean, we’ve never been through a pandemic like this. Um, and I think, you know, the last pandemic in the Spanish flu, I’m, don’t even know if there were daycares at that time. So this is really new. And I think that, I guess one of the things I can do is give a lot of reassurance to parents and saying that the person that your child is most interested in playing within the first year, is you.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Right!
Dr. Sheri Madigan: The parents or the caregivers, you know, that’s their familiarity. That’s the person they trust. That’s the person they seek safety and comfort from, and that’s where they learn how to socialize. So, a lot of our socialization skills came from these early months and years that we spent with our parents or with our siblings learning to have back and forth or what we often call these serve and [00:06:00] return interactions where, you know, the child will serve up a cue, uh, like maybe they say, “Bah,” and they point towards their bottle. And as the caregiver, we want to return that serve and say, “Yes! Bottle! Here it is”. And pass it over to them, so.
And then what they do is they carry those social interactions into their interactions with other kids. Well, well, like much later in, in development, it’s not until they’re three or four years old that they really start engaging with kids in like a back and forth interaction. But all of the learning for that comes really early on in development with their caregivers. So in some ways the pandemic, well, I think parents are missing the interactions with other friends-
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Yes!
Dr. Sheri Madigan: -And, and, and, and getting kids together and having them interact. I think that, um, kids, what kids really need young kids really, really need right now is those interactions and social exchanges with caregivers.
[00:07:00] Jordan Heath-Rawlings: How much of, um, socialization outside the family home is about getting kids just familiar with people who aren’t their parents or caregivers. I mean, that’s the first thing that occurs to me is that for babies, like the one I just described, you know, everyone is a stranger, which, which must be really strange.
Dr. Sheri Madigan: Yeah. And, you know, but this really interesting thing happens in child development where kids actually go through a period where they develop stranger anxiety. So around eight months or so, kids, you know, will actually start to act strange around people that, um, they don’t know. So this is not a new phenomenon. This has been around for a really long time. And what that’s about, you know, is up until the age of say eight months, um, they actually will go into, you know, you, you you’d give them over to a friend or maybe you give them [00:08:00] over to grandparents and they’d happily go. And it wouldn’t seem very bothersome to them.
But after the age of eight months, They start to say, “No, I want you”. And they actually act strange towards people they don’t know. And even strange towards people they might’ve seen in their first eight months, but don’t know exceptionally well. And from an evolutionary standpoint, what the thinking was is that, you know, kids could sort of attach or, or connect with a lot of different people. And after about that eight, eighth month of life, those are the people, the people that are likely to stick around are the ones that they’re really going to attach to the most in that time, you know, as, as caregivers who are likely going to parent them for, for quite some time. So this, this stranger anxiety is actually like an innate characteristic of children.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Huh.
Dr. Sheri Madigan: And, and again, not specific to the pandemic. But I think what, what parents have been worried about is that the kids are going to have really [00:09:00] intense stranger anxiety and really not be able to separate from the caregiver. And that may happen because they’ve had, they, haven’t had a lot of familiarity with other caregivers. Um, but that process of having that anxiety is actually an opportunity for families and caregivers to really scaffold change and to help kids through this difficult time of being around other people.
And that’s why I mentioned earlier that gradual approach. So we don’t want to just have kids be around a lot of new people when some of these restrictions lift, and hopefully COVID is over. You want to make that a real gradual transition because it is going to feel really different and strange to kids. So you would want to, for example, um, get together with one family or, you know, have the child maybe be held by one other person and get some familiarity with that person before they’re being held by maybe four other people. Um, so it’s like this, I think we’re going to have to be a little bit more sensitive to a gradual [00:10:00] exposure back to social environments for kids because they have been so isolated.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: A lot of adults have managed to keep some semblance of socialization through technology. Um, you know, we’ve seen a million commercials about how our devices can help us stay connected. Is that something that works for kids? I mean, I will just say anecdotally, uh, you know, we have a three-year-old and she loves talking to granny on FaceTime. I think she’s old enough to get it, but I would worry about somebody who’s never met granny in real life, uh, trying to use that as a substitute.
Dr. Sheri Madigan: Yeah. Well, I think, I mean, in young kids, we do want to think about screen time as, you know, an important thing to moderate. So any screen time is something we should think about at, and, and the pediatric guidelines are that kids under two don’t get any screen time and kids between two and five get about an hour a day, but there’s usually this provision for FaceTime because we know that FaceTime or video [00:11:00] chatting is really about connection. Um, and that connection is important. You know, it’s equally important for me to connect with my kids’ grandparents, cause that’s my mom, um, as it is for my kids to connect with them. So, um, I think that you can actually, you know, given the current circumstances we’re under, connection is really important, and if you can prioritize quality of screen use, I think that’s great. And that quality piece is that connection piece.
But I think that in young kids, one of the things that we have to do is make those interactions, even over screens, meaningful. I don’t know about you, but when my kids get on screens, sometimes what they’ll just do is, you know, put on all these emojis and it becomes just them playing on the screen and not really talking to their grandparents per se. So we’ve tried to create opportunities where it’s a little bit more meaningful and there can be this back and forth exchange with whoever’s on the other side of the screen. So I’ll give an example, like I’ll tell my. Mom, you [00:12:00] know, well get out your lunch and my kids get out their lunch, and then they talk to each other about what they’re eating, what they’re, what it tastes like. Um, what it-
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Right.
Dr. Sheri Madigan: -You know, what kind of juice they’re having or whatever it is. So they can actually have some meaningful dialogue. There’s ways of making that interaction more meaningful to kids and more sort of rich and opportunity for like language exposure and conversational turns, which is actually how kids learn language.
Maybe if they haven’t met them before, it’s going to be a little bit different to be on screens, but maybe that’s a nice introduction to other people, actually, even though it is on screens, they can learn to get familiar with other people in this strange world we live in. It just happens to be that those people are not physically there, but virtually there. Um, but at least it gives them a little bit of exposure to new and unfamiliar faces and sounds and, and, uh, language exchanges.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: As, um, these babies go to daycare, or even as, you know, a little bit older kids, um, [00:13:00] come out and maybe start school for the first time, and for parents who are concerned about socialization, you know, everybody’s kind of going to be going through the same thing or most of us anyway. What would you tell them to really watch for like, obviously things are going to be a little bit weird, but what would actually make you concerned?
Dr. Sheri Madigan: So most kids, they play side by side, uh, with other kids. So they’re gonna, until they, about the age of three, they’re not really gonna initiate a lot of social interactions with other kids necessarily. So if you were watching two kids play at a daycare, what you might see is that one’s playing with the paints and the other ones beside them playing with the trucks, and they might look over, they might be curious, they might go over and maybe say something, but they, they engage them in what we call parallel play. So it’s not necessarily interactive play.
Once kids are over the ages of about three, they start to actually initiate more social interaction. So, they’ll see a kid playing with [00:14:00] trucks and they’ll go over and they’ll say, “Can I play with those trucks too?” So just to give parents some expectation that it does take quite a lot of time before kids start doing a lot of social interaction with one another.
But one of the earliest things parents can look for is something we call joint attention and you can see this quite early in development even before the first birthday. And joint attention is when they might point to something, and you look over at, uh, you know, and, or you might point to something as a caregiver and they look over. So you kind of come and you have a joint point of, of looking or attention. Um, pointing behaviour is, is a great example of joint detention. So they point to the toy that they want, and they’re basically trying to get you to look at that toy, you know, as a communication strategy for like, “Hey, I want that”. Um, so you wanna see joint attention in young kids.
And if parents are, are, are feeling like they’re not seeing that kind of joint attention, then that’s something they could like go and chat with [00:15:00] their pediatrician or their family physician about. And just say, I’m not seeing these skills, um, in terms of us having like shared points of attention together. Um, because that’s something that we want to see quite quite early in development to make sure those social interactions are sort of, those foundations of social interactions are in place and joint attentions are really good example of like a foundational social interaction skill.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: So we’ve mostly talked about babies that have never really been socialized outside the house, and now we’re going to deal with that. What about slightly older kids who, you know, may have been, uh, socialized into daycare and to a big group of kids in a classroom, and then all of a sudden had nobody but mom or dad or caregiver for a year and are now going to go into their first year of school. Like, what do we know about sort of the, the all-on, all-off,, back to all-on, uh, strategy will do for them?
Dr. Sheri Madigan: Yeah. I mean, I think it goes back to that gradual [00:16:00] approach piece, you know, that I think we have to be sensitive to, um, the way that our lives have been transpiring lately. So it’s relatively quiet …ish in our home. I mean, there’s, there’s noise and children and all that stuff, but kids are pretty, pretty used to like quite, um, like not a lot of chaos, for example. And, you know, even if you think of how we used to like run, run kids to ballet or run them to hockey practice, and there was always this like coming and going and moving. And I think families have been pretty bunked in for a variety of reasons, including the restrictions that we have, and a lot of these extracurricular- curriculars have been canceled.
And so like family life has actually become quite simplistic. Um, and I’ve heard some people say they sorta like that actually, um, the simplicity. But I think when with that simplicity comes a little bit more predictability for kids and understanding like how the day is going to transpire, which can be comforting for a lot of kids, [00:17:00] but once we get back into things, you know, we might be doing a little bit more juggling. The house might feel a little bit more chaotic because we’re coming and going a little bit. And I think we really need to be sensitive that that shift might be hard on some kids, especially the younger kids.
You know, I encourage parents to be mindful about how, how drastically or dramatically, we kind of shift from this, like, bunked in, um, social isolation approach to, like, heading out and, um, spending time with lots of different families or running kids around to different activities. I think we should really take a gradual approach to that, knowing that, um, it will be quite a shift.
And I think. Probably a lot of parents out there are really excited to get back to, um, you know, socializing with other families, meeting people at the park, doing things and, and that’s really important. And it’s really good for our mental health as parents to be able to do that. Um, I guess I would just suggest to do it gradually and maybe one family at a [00:18:00] time and not make it, um, you know, make it as, uh, sort of seamless as possible in, in, by being sensitive to, like, dramatic shifts are going to be hard for kids. So take it one step at a time.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: When you hear the phrase, uh, and it’s been used a lot over the past year, “kids are resilient”. Uh, what do you think of it?
Dr. Sheri Madigan: So I do think that people have been resilient, um, and have shown resilience over the pandemic. I think that sometimes people think this is just an innate trait, so you’re just, you are, or you’re not resilient or you have varying levels of resilience, but actually resilience, like from a theoretical standpoint in the, in, in like the research world is, is, is kind of a two-part piece. There’s two steps to resilience.
So oftentimes people have adversity, which we’ve all had right now because of this pandemic and the various restrictions and limitations associated with it and have to overcome adversity. So, [00:19:00] um, That’s a piece everyone’s experienced, but resilience or being resilient is actually the second piece of that is knowing to go to people to help you through that difficult time.
So you want to be resilient in knowing that this is hard. Now the ways to get out of this, and part of my coping strategy solution, is to rely on person X or person Y, or this particular resource to help me overcome that. So we don’t just overcome adversity. We overcome adversity by relying on our supports and saying out loud, “I need help”. Or going to the person that you think might be best able to give you the resource you need to get through that difficult time.
And I think so many people are showing remarkable ability to overcome adversity and draw on those supports. And I think it’s been really challenging for parents because a lot of the supports we used to rely on, like [00:20:00] grandparents to pick up kids after school or take them to extra- extracurriculars, have not been an option, we’re trying to keep parents, our grandparents safe for a long time. Many people were not even interacting with the grandparents.
I think people have had to get a little creative on who they draw on for resources and support. And I think that in talking to a lot of families, that’s that those creative solutions have been, you know, difficult. So I can really empathize with families in, in wanting to get past this pandemic and be able to rely on those supports again.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings:You know, from, from your position, uh, as a Canada Research Chair, what is the opportunity in this, as, as weird as it sounds, to learn about socialization and development in young children? You know, as we said at the beginning, there’s never been anything like this on a massive scale. What kind of research will you and others be doing in the coming years to kind of quantify whatever’s going on here?
Dr. Sheri Madigan: Oh, well, I think it’s a great question. And, and, you know, one of the [00:21:00] things we’ve thought a lot about is we, you know, especially given the interest in this topic is, how are kids doing, how are their social skills?
And, and one of the things we can do is, is take a look at how their skills are now, how this cohort of young children who have lived through a pandemic for basically their entire lives, how are they doing in comparison to kids pre pandemic, um, who didn’t have these circumstances? And what we can do is actually compare their social skills. And we have a variety of measures that we use to look at that and say, well, are the social skills of kids who are born in a pandemic any better or any worse than they were, um, compared to kids pre pandemic? So that’s actually something we can look at, but I’m sure, probably to the frustration of many parents, that research takes time. Um, and, y’know, we don’t have answers right now.
The other piece we’re really interested in is, is how parents are doing, you know, cause this has been, we can talk [00:22:00] about the kids and the socialization, but I think like for many parents they’ve been stripped of a lot of their, um, social support network.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Yup.
Dr. Sheri Madigan: And that’s been really hard. So one thing we’ve been doing is looking at the mental health of parents and seeing if that actually has any connection to how kids are doing. So we look at both parents and kids to see, you know, everyone’s saying, for example, “Are the kids alright?”. And one of the, my questions has been like, “Well, if we can help the parents be alright, we’ll help the kids be alright.” so I think that we’re quite interested in how parents are doing, because we think that has a direct impact on how kids are doing.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Well, before I let you go, then how is parents’ mental health during this? I could give you my answer.
Dr. Sheri Madigan: Personally. I’ve seen people who have actually shown remarkable resilience over the panic- pandemic, but they’re really starting to tire. So even sort of my friends who I would think are unflappable are, are really struggling this time.
What we did see research wise [00:23:00] is that, um, so we’ve been following families for a really long time in Alberta, and they filled out surveys about their mental health and how they’re doing in terms of their anxiety and depression. And we surveyed them at the outset of the pandemic in may and June and asked them how you doing now. And we were able to compare that to how they were doing pre pandemic. And unfortunately, what we saw was a doubling of mental health concerns. So about 19% of the, um, the moms in our sample told us pre pandemic that they were struggling with depression. And we saw that jump and nearly doubled to 35% in the pandemic. And we found a similar pattern of findings, um, with anxiety. So we are seeing quite a big. Um, shift in mental health amongst parents completely understandably.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Yeah.
Dr. Sheri Madigan: I think the next piece for us is, is, um, to see if that’s been maintained over time. Because when we surveyed families, there was quite a remarkable shift in what everyone was [00:24:00] enduring. You know, kids were all of a sudden at home being homeschooled, but I wouldn’t say being in class all day, I think there’s been a shift where that’s happening now, where they have a more, um, intensive schedule now than they did at the beginning of the pandemic in the spring of 2020.
But also we were trying to figure out this whole work-from-home thing and how we figure out, you know, homeschooling with work-from-home and a lot of people without childcare. So it was a really different circumstance at the start of the pandemic. So I’m not surprised to see that a lot of people really struggled with their mental health.
I think the nature of the pandemic has shifted and the landscape has shifted and now we’re all just really tired and, um, burnt out and no one’s had a holiday. Um, you know, our work lives and our home lives have really blurred together. And I think that that can be a struggle for a lot of people. So one of the things we’ll do next is, is, is, uh, see how families are doing, you know, throughout the pandemic. And really, the goal of all that is to try to come up with policies and [00:25:00] resources that we can recommend so that parents can start to feel better and to focus on their wellbeing.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Dr. Madigan, thank you so much for taking the time. This was really helpful.
Dr. Sheri Madigan: Yeah, my pleasure. Thanks so much for allowing me to come and talk on your show.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Dr. Sheri Madigan of the University of Calgary. That was The Big Story, for more from us head to thebigstorypodcast.ca. Find us on Twitter at @TheBigStoryFPN, email us thebigstorypodcast, all one word, all lowercase, @rci.rogers.com [click here!]. And of course, please follow, like, subscribe, rate, review, whatever it is you want to do in your favourite podcast player, we will be watching for it, and we appreciate every one.
Thanks for listening. I’m Jordan Heath-Rawlings, we’ll talk tomorrow.
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