The expression ‘Breaking News’ dates back to the use of concrete plates or blocks for offset printing that needed to be ‘broken’ at the last minute to accommodate an important update. Given the effort and cost, it was an occasional event unlike our daily news bulletins today. Anyway, this blogpost is not about media technology or information processing. We have an altogether different agenda for which we are breaking blog, so to speak. Up until now we have featured stories with an upbeat, somewhat optimistic view of the world of children and families, while also making attempts to address more serious, underlying issues. The story that was planned for this week related to the place of grandparents in children’s lives, has been broken into and postponed to feature this discussion of the politics of child care using multiple positions, individual, local, national and global. In India, the visible minority can rise up theatrically against injustice towards individuals, especially when there are ethnic overtones; and can remain apathetic towards and even participate in others injustices towards individuals and collectives, especially when it concerns people living in poverty.
Childhood and society
Increasingly, childhood has become a contentious field, closely watched by newly appointed gatekeepers, impacting children’s lives in many ways, some that we may not even be aware of. We can no longer hide behind the curtain of innocence and privacy that family life has enjoyed for centuries. But don’t get us wrong, we are not implying that traditions are always favourable towards children; yet, in the past, circumstances were closer, more immediate, and therefore more visible. This is not, therefore, a nostalgic reminiscing of those golden, olden times, but rather a call for greater vigilance regarding current influences on children’s lives by all concerned partners.
Let us take the example of advertising. Promotions of products are becoming increasingly assertive in the linkages drawn between ‘loving your child’ and providing them (paying for) the ‘best’ of experiences, from the most soundless drive, or the most exciting holiday, or the best school experience, to that newly released learning device. Surely these advertisements must be having an impact, or else the industry would not be paying for them. The company does not care about your child’s future, they are selling a product. Yet, our concerns here are not about this sort of blatant solicitation either. In today’s world, there are far more subtle influences on children and family life, and therefore on us.
The ways in which children are cared for is a delicate issue and a struggle that every culture prepares for, and every family endures and survives; well mostly. Having a child seriously alters the course of our lives, and whether or not we have experienced babies before having our own is an important factor in determining our ease with a baby. Even among societies with close social linkages and well-defined, shared traditions, individual children will provide new challenges for which assistance is sought from others. “It takes a village”, as Hillary Clinton’s bestseller declared. Within this ‘village’ of resources, human and material, the information that we access, the conventions that we follow, the people we reach out to, and the advice we seek, is not a level playing field. Some sources are more valued than others. Some people are more valued than others and some children are more valuable than others, despite all our lip-service to rights and responsibilities.
Enter the UN!
In the year 1990, the United Nations declared the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), under the umbrella of human rights, within which children have been identified as requiring special care and attention. Accepting the importance of family and community values, the Convention identifies that all children must be “protected and cared for” as is necessary for their well-being, for which member countries need to ensure legislative and administrative commitment. India, along with 190 other member countries, is a signatory to this document. However, some countries have refrained from adopting the document as binding, these include Somalia, South Sudan, and (wait for it)……..the US of A! This is despite the fact that the US is home to UN headquarters. The CRC has not received a majority vote from the US Senate that is required for its ratification, although it was symbolically accepted during the Clinton regime. The main reason for this restraint by the US government relates to the assumed sovereignty of the nation and its people, and the unwillingness to concede authority to an external body. This would imply a threat to parental rights of American citizens, it is believed. The US prefers to be governed by its own laws rather than a global Convention, although there is obviously no problem in imposing these standard guidelines on the rest of the world. By deduction therefore, the signatories of the CRC have in fact allowed the entry of these ‘universal’ guidelines as superior to local practice. As a consequence, there is a notional separation of an individual child from its social setting, and the separation of development from the cultural context. See Burman for an excellent discussion on these issues.
Who decides what is good for your child?
In his Ted talk, Tom Weisner argues that the central, most important factor that determines a child’s development is neither love, security, nutrition, friends, stimulation, moral training, nor money per se. These are all important of course, but the primary circumstance that will impact a child’s life is WHERE he or she is growing up, under what conditions: in what family, which neighbourhood, what community, what nation. If a child is born into the Jarawa tribe of the Andaman Islands, she will be one among the 300-odd surviving members of this endangered group of hunters, isolated from the modern world, protected by a shared knowledge of survival in their forest habitat. If a child is the first-born offspring of a young couple living in a high-rise building in Tokyo, the circumstances of her life, as we can imagine, will be profoundly different from our Jarawa child. Different communities have different beliefs about what is best for children, and the ways in which children are brought up are closely adapted to the worlds in which they live. Please see the listed books by Heidi Keller and Alma Gottlieb and co-authors for more instances of cultural differences.
Cultural differences are complicated by another aspect of human society: the influence of affluence. There is no denying that wealthier societies, and within a particular society, wealthier people, have greater confidence in their ways of living, and also of bringing up children. But even among the wealthy, there are nuances about ‘more advanced’, better developed, having superior values, as the film Hindi Medium demonstrates so effectively. Although the young couple featured in the film are as wealthy as the others in their recently adopted neighbourhood in New Delhi, their lack of sophistication in Western ways, symbolized by an inadequate knowledge of the English language becomes an major hurdle in accessing admission for their daughter into a “good English medium” school, without which it is assumed that her life would be worthless. Although the film is somewhat hyperbolic in parts, it brings up an important truth and has been endorsed by one of our eminent educationists, Krishna Kumar. He argues that the film exposes how nursery school education has lost all sense of purpose in the country.
Scarcity and social capital
Matters related to the lives of the poor are much more serious and far-reaching, since they are disenfranchised not only on account of being poor, but also as a consequence, short on social capital. We often assume that the poor in any part of the world are also automatically poor parents, a fact that multiplies the disadvantage for children. This terrain is ripe for the entry of interventions that promise dramatic change and dreams of better lives. How many of these experiments have in fact worked? What is in fact a successful intervention? There are several important criticisms of philathrocapitalism that we need to be aware of, including the argument that is advanced against academia for perpetuating the use of poverty, oppression and pain for their own intellectual gratification. Our fear is that a majority of welfare work is carried out on auto-pilot, with little regard to ethical concerns. By the fact of being poor, families seem to lose their entitlement to respect and dignity when they are enrolled in a welfare programme. They are assumed to be unwise, otherwise they would not be poor, it is believed.
In fact recent research on poverty has argued that the poor are not so because they think differently, but that they think differently because they are poor, as economist Sendhil Mullianathan argues, concluding that we need to change the ways in which we think about scarcity in people’s lives. Yet, we persist in believing that poverty is a condition, a characteristic of people who are poor. Another important reference for the ethics of engagement with poverty comes from Bhrigupati Singh in Poverty and the Quest for Life.
In India, children from rural families face similar consequences of being powerless, despite not being technically poor in many instances. Regarding schools in villages, Krishna Kumar writes that “The message that rural children received and absorbed was that they must change their behaviour in order to become good citizens. Education of the rural child has failed to depart from the stereotype which associates modernity with city life”. The stereotype of the simple-minded village peasant is very much alive, even today.
Changing local practices through intervention
Welfare programmes for children across the world vary in their objectives. Some make attempts prepare children for formal schooling through providing early childhood education, others target health and sanitation issues and some others deal with providing nutritional and other services, or support for older children.
Recently, a leading journal in the field of Child Development reported the results of an intervention programme in Senegal where mothers were educated to speak more to their babies, apparently as a strategy to improve the circumstances in which the children live. In fact the study reports tremendous success since the child-directed speech by mothers doubled in the one year between the assessments. In our experiences with families from villages, we have found a similar phenomenon, the practice of sitting and ‘talking to’ children is not common, and silence is greatly valued in many settings, especially in the company of visitors (researchers in our case). Children are mostly free to play on their own, in the company of other children and communication relates to instructions or information that needs to be shared. The structure of family-life is largely transacted between many adults with many children around, rather than one-on-one, which is the primary setting for verbal exchanges of the type recommended by researchers in the Senegal study. Other research studies have corroborated these patterns in speech between adults and children. Does such an intervention also have long-standing consequences on the structure of family relationships and social life? Is such an intrusion justifiable? Language and communication is not just about quantity of speech as linguists have informed us, how and when we speak to each other, and when we should remain silent are all important components of conversation and cultural identity. Do we ever consider the inadvertent consequences of interventions that are likely to change the form and function of social relationships forever? Could we plan such an intervention with families living in the West Coast of the US, for instance, to suggest “improvements” in interpersonal communications? Intervention and welfare is a one-way street punctuated by unjustifiable claims and unethical practices in several instances.
In recent news, the Uttarakhand government in northern India has decided to convert the 18,000 Government schools to the English medium of instruction. One can only imagine how much investment in time and energy will be required for such a transformation, if at all it is possible. It is true that learning English is an important aspiration among many parents, and the language can surely be taught without the change in the teaching of all subjects. But such a choice in favour of English is also a rejection of the mother-tongue and local language, and will have far-reaching consequences for language use and cultural identity. Why has the State not looked at other options from within the country regarding language teaching? Why not follow the guidelines adopted by the Orrisa State Government where mother-tongue education and multi-lingual education have been experimented with for the last so many years, and with great success? Our worry is that such a transformation will further alienate children from the local community as well as the education system for years to come. As a country, we are primarily multi-lingual, with 122 major languages and 1599 other languages according to the 2001 census. Why have we been unable as yet to find local solutions for language learning in formal schooling?
Paths to success
The pathway to a successful life according to policy makers, educationists and welfare agencies appears to be narrow and well-defined, one that culminates in the singular model of an urban, educated, English-speaking, office-going individual as a success story. For a country as large and as diverse as ours, this is too tight a garment in which to fit us all and is neither inclusive nor sustainable. We need multiple images of success and multiple meanings of well-being to accommodate our diversity.
What is the point we are making here? Certainly not that all interventions are misguided, but that we must keep a “critical vigilance” (as Burman suggests) on the objectives and possible (intended and otherwise) consequences of welfare programmes. It appears that we are headed towards a global epidemic of sameness and differences and diversity are likely to come under serious threat from these forces. This is evident also in the surveillance of child care practices of immigrants by Child Protection Services in many countries. With increasing movement between countries, and a lower tolerance of cultural differences, especially of immigrants from poorer countries, families need to be informed and aware of different conventions in the care of children and possible consequences of a mismatch. Child Protection Services need to be educated about cultural diversity when they search for cases of abuse and neglect.
While we sustain a world-wide campaign for the preservation of natural and cultural resources, let us also look closely at favourable aspects of child-care practices, language use, family relationships and other cultural exchanges as valuable practices within which children have been affectionately nurtured for generations. Let us concentrate our efforts to provide education and other interventions that are inclusive, respectful and sustainable. Serpell and Nsamenang argue that early childhood education in Sub-Saharan Africa is largely aimed at correcting the course of development and learning of young children to fit into formal schooling, a familiar story for us as well. Maybe it is time for us to see how we can fit schools into children’s lives out of respect for them as individuals and members of communities in the true spirit of the Convention on the Rights of Children, and not as a synthetic application of an alien version of childhood that many of us are perpetuating as a pipe dream.
Endnote: It was an effort to write this piece without a single reference to our colonial past, and we are delighted to have been successful. These problems are now very much our own, perpetuated and supported by our own people!