Limitations of Human Development in Times of Uncertainty

The following piece was written as part of The Pandemic: Science and Society course offered from Aug. 17 – Sep. 4.

As the Covid-19 pandemic continues to play out, it has become clear that there are many underlying struggles that have stemmed and caused every community to be affected in one way or another. Viewing the pandemic through an evolutionary anthropological perspective, the course of human development has been interfered with by multivariable factors that vary from household to household and result in this inconsistent change. In her lecture, Dr. Robin Nelson discussed the rise of this new era of change of how the pandemic has made a negative impact on child development and working families. 

Before she began her lecture, Dr. Nelson explained the set-up of this situation by defining both parenting and parental investment—practices required for human development. The working definition of parenting is “the act of investing in a child during critical years of growing development and/or periods of socio-emotional or psychosocial need.” A primary component of parenting is parental investment, which is “the investing that increases parents inclusive fitness at cost to other or future reproductive investment.” Parental investment is divided into two categories: direct investment and indirect investment. Direct investing includes material resources, psychosocial support, time and physical effort such as gestation and location. Indirect investment refers to parental investment that does not physically involve parental guidance to aid the child such as genetic inheritance. Both direct and indirect investment act to create the universal feature of cultural systems simply defined as the relationship between the parents or guardians and the child. 

Anthropological evaluations focus on the differences between such relationships—for example, between those in foraging and “western” populations—to observe the impact of the change that is being faced. In addition, the differences in family structure, engagement in regional and international labor markets, political histories and local policies such as parental leave, as well as resettlement and/or forced migration are all factors that can be used to understand the change between parental investment amongst families.

How does this play out with the pandemic? As observed, the pandemic has caused racial and socio-economic disparities that impact many families. Specifically looking at child development, the pandemic has caused changes in physical, social, emotional and intellectual functioning over time, from conception through adolescence. All factors of child development—maturation, environmental factors, learning and socialization—have caused a shift to occur, thus imbalancing the child’s physical, cognitive and socio-emotional development. Compared to other animals, humans have a slow, constant rate of growth. Through human development, there are prime stages where a lot of development occurs. For example, during the ages of 3-7 years, children have a slow rate of growth, post-weaning dependency on preparation of solid foods, and are biologically distinct from their juvenile state. The change brought by the pandemic has influenced the nurturing of the child through both the critical and sensitive periods of child development. The development of a child is impacted by many diverse qualities that are brought to environments for individuals to experience.

The unsteadiness of the pandemic has caused emerging experiences that bring on stress. For example, there is a new strain of coronavirus, treatment is unclear, medical supplies are in demand, transmission is unclear, testing materials and protocols are variable, and there are new terms that are being thrown around such as “mask up” and “social distancing” that have not been used before. This level of uncertainty has also caused a shift in focus to the work-from-home class, gendered inequalities in parental and caretaking labor, the socio-economic inequalities in parental and caretaking labor and the question of the longevity of this pandemic. 

Children must face these changes in ways that they are not accustomed to. With schools closing and students being forced to exchange learning in-person for virtual meetings, they are missing significant experiences that not every household is able to provide, such as close attention, learning opportunities, peer to peer interactions, physical activity and appropriate dietary supplementation. From what we have learned, this pandemic is demanding. Parents and guardians are faced with the risk of exposing their family by continuing to work, while some are given the chance to work remotely. 

But how does this help children? The inequity brought from this situation has led to a digital divide. Like many other systems, the digital divide has brought inequity in child education as there is an emergence of learning pods, tutors and technology that have stemmed from this crisis. Families who cannot afford or provide these resources for their children are facing a disruption in their normal path of child development. In the long term, children who were not able to have access to the resources that were provided by schools will have to catch up. Though they are not experiencing decelerating child development, this change will nevertheless contribute to their human development.

These times of uncertainty have resulted in many changes and impacted many families. But despite the circumstances, every person should be given the means to properly continue their development and that of their children.

Edited by: Daniel Berkovich

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