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Special issue with the Sunday Magazine
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REACHING OUT: April 08, 2001


The message of thunder

S. Anandalakshmy

The writer is an expert on child development based in Chennai.

There is a story from the Upanishad that has been told and retold, ten thousand times and yields new meanings each time for both story teller and listener. The thunder goes "Da", "Da", "Da". Gods, Demons, and human beings listen and each understands the message of Thunder, according to his own need. The sound "Da" is heard as "dutta" by human beings and they understand that they have to give generously of their wealth, their time and themselves. The devas, (the gods) who are divine, have immense power and they hear the "Da" sound as "Damyata" (have control) and they understand that power must be used with sagacity and moderation and for the well-being of all creatures. The asuras, (the demons) hear the sound "Da" and they hear it as "Dayadhvam", have compassion and mercy and they realise that even in the trouncing of the enemy, there has to be some compassion.

R.Prasanna Venkatesh/Wilderfile

We, as human beings have human traits, the courage, the strength, the follies, the foibles, the vulnerabilities of the human condition. We also have near-divine potentials as well as aasuric, or demonic potential. Listening to the thunder, we need to take all three messages as relevant in our reaching out to children. We need to have control (over our tendency to control and run the lives of children), compassion, which includes empathy, gentleness and warmth, and we must give. What we give should be what we value the most and what we clearly see to be excellence. Whether one is a parent, a grandparent, a teacher or caregiver, one is in a parenting role and the three "da"s contain important parenting messages. This is the sky reaching out to us, so that we can reach our children and they, in turn, can reach out to the skies.

In parenting, under normal circumstances, we act in the best interests of the child. How can "best interests" be defined? In my observation, much of child rearing and socialisation is oriented to the child's future as adult. The tenderness that one would like to associate with parenting is all too often replaced by the sharp-edged voice of future ambitions. Parents tend to get so overwhelmed by the shape of the future, that the present tense drops off the map. The parental hand that reaches out to the child is not for stroking tenderly or for hugging, but one intended to straighten the child, pull him up, and ensure the child's conformity to parental rules and acceptance of parental goals. The goals as they are generally articulated are academic performance now, so that career success follows, and plenty of money. What is sacrificed in the process is the child's own inclinations and talents, fantasy life, creative expression, even self concept. What seems difficult for parents to comprehend is that there is no linear, monocultural road to academic success, that success is best reached tangentially.

Affection, tenderness and love are the recommended investments in the future of children. Only then can there be self esteem and self confidence on the part of children. In order to be good at reading, writing and number work at a later stage, it is most unnecessary to learn those skills in the very early years of childhood. A child who spends a lot of time in play is much better equipped to handle the formal skills of school at a later time, than a child who is forced to learn his abc and 1-2-3 at the age of three, prematurely. But this simple fact seems to be one of the most difficult to communicate to parents and teachers and to convince them of its validity.

R. Prasanna Venkatesh/Wilderfile

Just as at every age, we give the food that is suitable for that age (mother's milk to start with, soft cereal supplements, cooked banana and so on in infancy and the early months) and the child is able to convert the food into the growth of physical and mental aspects, the activities that we choose for the child should be suitable for the child's age and internal equipment. Then and only then, will they get converted into muscle power and brain power. Children need plenty of opportunities and settings for play, also concerned and caring adults to listen, provide support and share the fun. Children must talk, sing, jump around, play-act, fantasise, handle water, sand and clay, make toys and break them, feel textures, create their own art works and so on. Playing also includes observing a leaf fall off a tree, ants crawling in a line or a chameleon surveying the world. Allowing children to do things with the zest characteristic of them and laughing with them at the ordinary absurdities of life can actually equip them to handle life in all its variety. Building blocks painted red and yellow and green are in fact, the building blocks for mathematical concepts in school. But we must stop being literal and so concrete (block-headed?) in our approach to children's activities.

Recently, I was witness to children's response to excellence. We can safely give them the best, not the second beset, was the message that came out loud and clear from these experiences. The first one was at Pondicherry, in a voluntary organisation called Volontariat, which has been functioning for over three decades, with a focus on the education and health of dalit girls and boys. It happened that a French woman who had been a concert artiste in her own country and had retired, brought a few flutes and recorders with her. She offered to teach the youngsters in the Volontariat to play classical Western music. Out of a handful of children who joined up, she selected two teenagers with the most promise and taught them to read the music and to play it. The boys picked up the skill over a year and could play some Christmas pieces written for the soprano flute, the tenor flute and so on. The clarity of the notes was enchanting, but even more satisfying was the earnestness with which the two youngsters practised and performed. The experience had transformed them into disciplined artistes.

The second event, which I attended, which reinforced the observation of children's response to excellence, was at Bala Mandir in Chennai, an institution that has completed service for five decades in the cause of the foundling child. As part of a cultural programme that they had organised for some visitors from Europe, the children presented in the form of dance, music and shadow play, one of the chapters from the Bhagavad Gita, depicting the ten Avataras of Vishnu and symbolising abstract philosophical concepts with zest. The entire body of children assembled recited the verses that were relevant and seemed to enjoy the experience. When given the opportunity to meet with what was the best of the tradition, the children absorbed it in the most natural way. In the case of the two boys playing the flute, there was a question raised by a friend and well-wisher, if it wouldn't have been better for the children to have learnt Indian classical music. I would answer, yes, maybe, if we could get a concert-level player interested in the job of teaching them. It was the lack of condescension, the chance to explore a new form, the recognition of their long hours of practice that enthused the children. In summary, it was excellence that won. Similarly, it is possible to argue that children need many kinds of education and that teaching them to recite the Gita is not going to help them to earn a living. What worked, what produced the tremendous energy of the performance, was the fact that the children were provided with the knowledge that the teacher considered the best. The Upanishadic message from the Thunder, "dutta", give, give abundantly and give of your best was faithfully followed.

Parents who are ambitious for their children, try and control every minute of the child's time. Every activity is monitored and the parents get tense if the child is not getting the rank in his class. The success stories of the Silicon Valley millionaires of Indian origin seem to have created a kind of desperation among educated families bringing up children. They want their child, whether 4, 12 or 15 years of age to get on to that non-stop Express, literally and metaphorically to El Dorado. It is the control that the parents impose that will go counter to their ambitions. They need to listen to the message of Thunder, "Damyata", apply control over yourself, not over others. Autocratic parents with monolithic plans can ensure only that their children grow up into conforming, rule-following and obedient office assistants. The attributes that the employers would like in the young people they recruit in the frontier areas of science, technology and management are many. Some of the important ones are a sense of humour, original ways of solving problems and handling situations, an ability to lead as well as to follow, an ability to hypothesise the impossible, cheerfulness and a good team spirit. But for these to develop one needs to have enjoyed freedom inside the head and trusting and loving relationships from the earliest years.


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