Special issue with the Sunday Magazine
CHILD: February 07, 1999
Perched on the edge of the millennium, we are at a vantage point: we have a perspective of the century just winding up and a tentative agenda for the century ahead. What have we learnt about children that might help them in planning their lives in the immediate future? Or in the distant?
I would hazard a guess that parents, metaphorically speaking, are losing 20/20 vision; they are worrying about the year 2020 rather than the year 1999.
Squinting into the future has made many of us myopic. We may have long distance vision, but we cannot read the fine print - the fine print on anything including those on international agreements, medicine labels or cigarette cartons. So we miss the conditional clauses and the warnings! What is the short-sightedness one is worrying about?
The short-sightedness regarding children has, in my view, reached epidemic proportions. The future looms so large in the mental horizons of educated parents, that the present is totally engulfed. The present becomes a means to an end, the end being the future. The future has no trace of happiness or compassion as objectives to be attained or traits to be cultivated. And what is the child's future as envisaged by the parents?
A comfortable life, success, money. Reasonable aims in themselves, but their importance is blown up, out of proportion. The current definition of comfort could not even have been imagined three decades ago: it is a conglomeration of consumer-durables, ready-to-eat foods, state-of-the-art information technology and citizenship of a developed country. Success, to start with, is academic: ranks, stars, medals and the works, soon followed by career options. Any money! No limits at all to how much one wants; the more there is of it, the better, or so parents seem to think. Pushing children towards these objectives also means putting them into straitjackets at various times in the childhood span. In this process, the educational system is a willing partner. Schools like to have "good results" and they know that ambitious parents will goad their children into achieving good examination results. So adult conspiracies against childhood thrive. Children are constantly told that "it is all for their good"; generally any attempt on the part of the children to ask for a re-definition of parental objectives is treated like a freedom slogan in an occupied country.
The situation is different, of course, for the deprived child. There are several levels below and above the poverty line, in which there are varying kinds of deprivation. Children at the nadir of this listing have no access to schooling and are found to help the family to eke out a living or are virtually bonded to labouring for someone else. As one goes gradually up the socio- economic levels, and ascending stages of the opportunity structure, some schooling is available, but most of it, not very satisfactory. With some pockets of exceptions, childhood experience of education and other opportunities for improving life chances are grim. It is hard not to conclude that childhood is denied its true nature from top to bottom of the economic status. So looking back on the century that is just slipping away beneath our feet, one can conclude that the quality of childhood, like the gender ratio, has clearly deteriorated. The concept of progress being progressive will have to be given up. The passage of time seems to make some things better and some things worse. One can say that the century just being completed has distinctly lowered the quality of life for children and raised some doubts about the very survival of the female of the human species, especially where problems of poverty and marginality compound the situation.
Among the domains of life that have seen some positive signs, one is childhood disability. I definitely agree with parents who warn against a romantic view of the disabled or an inflated idea of what has been done for them; nevertheless, a slow, but sure beginning of inclusion of children with different levels of ability is perceptible. There are dance schools, music classes, theatre groups, as well as regular schools which provide the opportunity for the participation of the disabled child. Miles to go, of course, but one must count every metre in such an enterprise.
Another aspect of childhood that has very definitely improved is that of adoption. I remember the statistics of three decades ago, with a long list of baby girls languishing for adoption and an equally long line of adoptive parents waiting for a suitable boy! In the last decade or so, there are many educated young Indian couples who take children in adoption. There are still long procedural delays and our attention must now go to hastening and rationalisation of the time factor so that the infant is young enough at the time of adoption to form a firm bonding with the parents.
While education is a right for every child and providing schools a duty for the State, education is not the only thing that happens in childhood. We think of childhood as the school years, which they are and we also fight for the rights of all children to attend school. At the same time, we know that the school experience is not the only thing in the child's life; it is only a sub-set of childhood. Art, music, dance, theatre, - all these areas engage the child in wholesome and enjoyable activities. They move the children away from the repetitive and mindless TV screen, which also throws in obscenity and violence for good measure. The few good programmes on the small screen are also so hemmed in by loud attention-grabbing ads, that even watching cricket becomes a strain. Hiking, trekking and camping and other kinds of adventure are available only through a few private day schools and a few exclusive residential schools. These are genuine areas of deprivation for almost all our children. Planners for the next millennium! Are you listening?
Everyone is talking about the Internet and the fantastic opportunities for accessing information that it gives to all of us, especially our children. We feel that they will no longer starve for information or have to huddle over musty books brought out from the library; that it is going to be very easy to be well informed in all the relevant areas of knowledge. However, very few seem to be aware of the IFS and BUTS, of which there are many. When surfing the net, we are likely to encounter a lot of flotsam and jetsam. Who will tell the children that some facts are trifling or worthless? Others, of value? How and when will discrimination between useful and useless information be taught? The Internet does not have a kindly Librarian, or a concerned parent.
While surfing, there is equal likelihood of coming upon a perfect pearl in an oyster or upon used plastic bags discarded by careless travellers. One can get astronomical data; one can also get junk data of astronomical proportions, not to speak of pornography. So a great deal of good counselling would be necessary, not a one-shot dose of advice, but discussions of all manner of issues in the warm, accepting company of the immediate family. Sounds good? Yes! Except that what we hear about families today does not reflect either the leisured attitudes implicit in chatting or the common time shared by adults and children in the family circle. In fact, in most of our studies, we found that close proximity of family members was common, but it did not imply intimacy or the exchange of confidential communications. One of the current problems in many urban families is that no one has the time for anyone else in the family, or for that matter, much of an inclination! There is much room for friendly interventions and professional counselling.
When looking for explanations of the appalling treatment of the female in our country, whether in the stage of foetus, neonate, pre-schooler, adolescent, young bride, frequent mother or ageing person, patriarchy becomes the obvious villain. We quote Manu on the necessity for the female to be under the control and in the charge of father, husband and son, serially, through the life span and wonder how such a value could have been sustained through the centuries. Or a verse from the Atharva Veda is quoted, where the prayer is for a son to be born here and for a daughter to be born elsewhere. The historicity of these sources might lend a feeling that things won't change, if they have stayed this way for so long. To counter this, I have a source from the Upanishads (Svetashvatara, to be exact) where a sage in a discussion of the soul, (the Atma) says of it, "It is neither male, nor female." The soul has no gender, only the body does. Most Indians I have encountered tend to believe that this birth is only a small time-fragment of an unknown past and an unknowable future. Those of our experiences that do not fit into a rational framework or cannot be explained by any scientific principle, we attribute to the deep past, to actions we cannot recall. That which is constant through different lives is the self. For those who need an anchor point in tradition, this is a thought to keep and ponder.
I remember some years ago, when sati in Rajasthan (Roop Kanwar's death on her husband's pyre) had produced rage and disbelief among my students. It coincided with a DUTA (Delhi University Teachers' Association) strike and we used the time for some theatre work. The students wrote their own script, with some assistance from us. The tragic sequence was averted in our play, when a wise woman from the village prevented the sati, explaining that the soul was neither male nor female, according to the old books and why were we in the village treating the two genders so differently? It is one small candle for those working for gender equality and probably a lesson that one will have to retrieve key ideas which have a message of contemporary relevance from sources that people respect.
So what is the future of the young persons growing up in the next ten, 20, 30 years? No crystal ball here, but there is some unsolicited advice. Children are not owned by the parents. Adults should merely hold them in trust until they grow up to live their own lives. We have to make a conscious shift from the idea of ownership to that of trusteeship. This will lead to a paradigm shift. The child is not an extension of parental ego, but a person left in the trust of the parents. Tenderness care, nurturing, guidance, companionship all these, yes, but not exasperation and anger if the child is not in the same mould as the parents; not rejection because the child has the nose or eyes of an uncle who is a bete noire, but acceptance, sensing the child's own inclinations, strengths, vulnerabilities; helping the child make choices, take decisions, have accomplishments and develop warmth, compassion, altruism. A challenge, of course, but one more personally rewarding than only striving towards measurable and material goals.
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