Masks do not interfere with the social development of children. They teach how to take care of others.

As a psychologist and mom to a toddler, I am delighted that I can finally start school in person after a year of home schooling and online classes. Part of me still worries if I’m making the right choice as COVID-19 cases continue to rise, but I can’t deny that a smile came to me when I accompanied my daughter in her classroom and seen her join classmates in playing Magna-Tiles. I was not only happy to see my child having fun. I also know how a simple in-person recreation can help develop essential social skills that cannot be learned anywhere else.

However, there was something else about this class that made me smile too – masks with little pictures of Queen Elsa, Mickey Mouse, and other decorations covering children’s mouths and noses.

I have heard parents express their concern that wearing masks by young children may interfere with the benefits of socializing in school. Yes, the subtle facial expressions that make up much of human communication are hidden. But in my experience, there is little reason to believe that masks will be a stumbling block for learning social skills, especially if classmates are playing together outdoors without a mask during recess. In fact, having children wear masks teaches them an important social skill: how to care for others.

Unless you’re wearing an N95 or some other high-quality model, the real benefit of masking isn’t that it protects you from the virus. On the contrary, the mask protects everyone from the virus by limiting your ability to spread it. When we ask children to wear masks, we send an important message about caring for others. While we may think of our sons and daughters as little angels, it is not inherent knowledge that other humans matter. Our children must learn to care for those around them. They must learn that the other Houstonians they see in everyday life, from their boyfriend at the lunch table to the lady who works at the cash desk at HEB, have different lives from theirs. And these lives are valuable.

This is why preschool and kindergarten classes devote so much time to the fundamentals of interpersonal interaction. Share your toys. Play fairly. Don’t hit people. Respect your neighbors. Clean up after yourself. These lessons aren’t just about keeping a classroom tidy – they’re the core exercises that build prosocial muscles needed to interact productively and peacefully in a larger society.

These are the lessons that many adults need to learn. Over the past 18 months, I have read far too many depressing stories about moms and dads who treat wearing masks as an unfair burden, if not a personal insult. This week I read a horrific report about a parent in an Austin-area school district tear off the mask from a teacher’s face. Consider this parent who needs a refresher in the kindergarten curriculum.

Maybe, like our children, the big problem isn’t what we learn, but where we learn it. Over the past year and a half, too much of life has been spent on Zoom meetings, Nextdoor message boards, and all the other digital tools that have kept us connected but separate during the pandemic. When you spend your time online, instead of interacting in person, it becomes tempting to see other people as just two-dimensional figures on a screen. When we need to sit down and work with others in person, whether it’s playing with Magna-Tiles or debating at a school council meeting, these strangers slowly become full-fledged individuals. Our capacity for empathy and cooperation grows. And wearing a mask is starting to feel less of a burden and more of a way to show that you respect others and their well-being.

The most important skills we learn as children are not necessarily the academic achievements shown on report cards, but the first foundations that form the foundation for life and growth in a larger world. And this year, wearing a mask is part of the curriculum.

Goldberg-Mintz is a Houston-area psychologist and owner of Secure Base Psychology PLLC.

Joel C. Hicks