The cooler weather is reminding me of this time last year when we went into lockdown and connections with others were, and still are, disrupted. To prevent each other from the spread of the Covid-19 virus and variants, we are learning to live with physical distance, less social contact, and the wearing of masks in public. For some, zoom connections and fatigue are becoming part of our daily lives.
I am wondering about what young children in our communities are learning. Masked faces and fearful eyes may be a new human variant to them. I do wish though, that people would wear their masks over their noses so that we are all spared from looking up into the dark recesses of unwanted knowledge. My question is, if it takes a village to raise a child, what is this village communicating from behind masks to young children? In this blog, I explore some thoughts about connecting with babies in this new world of masks and physical distance.
I am reminded about an interaction with Roland, a young boy at that time, who had cerebral palsy, was blind and was a wise teacher of communication. He told me one day, “Tannie (aunty), I can hear you smile”. I did not realize that anyone could hear a smile until that day. Roland, who could not see facial expressions, had learnt to listen more carefully for a smile. This phrase and insight into communication has stayed with me. Until that day, I relied on seeing a smile. Roland taught me that a smile has different ways of being expressed. This has helped me to ‘smile’ at others from behind my mask, knowing that perhaps they will also hear the smile, and see pleasure in my eyes. I am grateful to Roland for helping me to see that communication is more than what we see and hear. Perhaps Roland would say that we smile with our whole bodies.
Young babies learn to ‘read’ social cues through facial expressions, such as smiling and eye contact. They also learn how voice and body language link to what they see in a smile. From about two months of age, babies can maintain eye contact and notice facial expressions. This mutual gaze between the baby and parent, called shared pleasure, has a positive effect on parent to child interactions and is key to much of the information that an infant learns. Shared smiles help to organize social and emotional connections between parent and baby. A smiling baby in the checkout queue in a shop seems to be able to organize even the grumpiest customer into a happy observer. At home, without masks, mutual pleasure and social interaction can be explored freely with primary caregivers. In public spaces, relating to a baby with a mask, we may need to be mindful that we smile with our voices and body language. Most babies are quite sensitive to subtle social cues, so it is important to remember that the way we communicate reflects our attitudes.
As a baby grows, communication develops into more than a smile and eye gazing. Babies learn to respond to subtle social cues, with a frown for example. Babies attempt to communicate with parents through their body language, gestures, and mood and caregivers are encouraged to notice this. From four months, babies learn to laugh in response to our laughing. They are also learning about other emotions, such as sadness and fear. A baby at a nine-month milestone stage of fear towards strangers and separation anxiety may need more reassurance when showing fearful signs looking at masked faces. If we are going to support babies through this pandemic, our village may need some awareness about what we are teaching young children through our actions.
Our village needs to nurture communication skills to develop precious relationships with young children. Let us be mindful that:
Smiles can also be expressed in voices.
Eyes may reveal our hearts.
Gestures and non-verbal interactions may communicate more than words.