By Reshu Tomar
Seriously? Are you serious? Is that even a question? Well, we have faced many questions about how we bring up our baby, but this one we did not expect. The pressure of sending our child to school? At two? Ohhhh…. Yet another battle to face because we (my husband and I) have decided to take the path of non-cooperation. We refuse to put our child in (pre)school this early.
I do not mind social pressures. After all, these are the substance of culture, of our shared ways of thinking and behaving. That is what I learned during my masters’ course in the child development, and subsequently in the field as a researcher. So I look around me and enjoy most of what goes on among people. If you listen from a distance, the underlying messages in what people say to each other can be enjoyed and appreciated. Arguments between people are a great source of entertainment for me as a social scientist, presently in the full-time occupation of being a mother. I have been at the centre of and won many battles, starting with my decision to resist marriage till I had completed my studies and worked for a while, to marry a person of my choice, I also withstood the pressure to become a mother until we were ready. I was determined to keep social influences at a distance and live life on my own terms.
Just as they did when I was younger about getting married, people around me began dropping hints about babies fairly soon after the event. They justify their intrusion with comments like: “If you will delay it too long, it may not happen” adding “You know that person: chacha ke mame ke tau ki beti ke bahu delayed it for a year and look what happened. They’ve been waiting for ten years and still waiting.” Or “Pados ke Guptaji ke bête ki tere se baad main shaadi hui thi un ko to baccha bhi ho gaya”, providing instances of success. Other advice like: “Ghar me ek baccha khelta hua kitna accha lagta hai”, followed by “Kahtey hai jis ghar main baccha hota hai us ghar main kisi ko heart problem nahi hoti”, suggesting that having young children around is good for the well-being of all family members.
I was prepared to fight, and two years ago, we had a baby when we felt we were ready. As soon as this was done, I realized that another demand was lurking in the sidelines. “You must have another child quickly so that this one can have a sibling, and they will grow up together”. It seemed almost as if pressure would never ease, if I had done that too, there would soon be something else in its place. Something new. “When are you having another child?” All over again, the discussions and debates resumed. “Jaldi jaldi do bacche kar lo fir free ho jayogi”. Free? Really? Since when did having children make you free? This is really a weird sense of the word freedom! People would randomly come up to give advice, as if my welfare was the most important concern in their lives, warning me about how my daughter would grow up to be a spoilt child if she remained a single child. It was as if the second child would be valued only as a companion and not as an individual.
In between all this, my daughter turned two. One day a neighbor came visiting us. The conversation went something like this:
Aunty: “How old is she now?”
I: “Two, Aunty”.
Aunty: “Oh, so she must be attending school, right?”
I: “No, Aunty. Not yet. I don’t feel like sending her to school so early.”
Aunty: “You know, my grandson? At two, he has started to go. He cried for four-five days and now he goes easily. You should send her to school.”
Aunty was not the only one. It seemed as if the whole neighbourhood in the small town in which we live was conspiring against me to send my child to a preschool at the earliest. Most two year-olds around us were already enrolled and one could see the little ones bid goodbye to their families every morning, with a customary water bottle and bag in hand. It has become a norm. I worry about this mostly because the schools just do not seem like fun for children. They are small teaching shops that have mushroomed all over, and they are so popular. The children don’t look too happy. Staying home to play has become regarded as abnormal! If they are judging me right now then I am a criminal who chose to do things differently.
Within our family (we live as a joint family, with my husband’s parents), grandparents too are under pressure from the neighbours. When my mother-in-law visits her friends, she comes home nervous, believing that we’re doing something wrong. She reports how grandchildren in other families are at school, and she feels left out. I am told about their accomplishments, how they are able to reel off names of colors, shapes and numbers and have learnt rhymes as well. She finds that finds very impressive. I reassure her and argue that this child has to be in an educational institution for at least 20 years of her life, why send her so early? Why can’t she stay at home? Why can’t we just dedicate these 2-3 years to caring for her, loving her, and teaching her things at home? But she feels that her grandchild is missing out on something precious. She feels we are running out of time, and that other children will surely become “smarter” than her grandchild. Although I am adamant about not sending my child to the available preschools, my resolve has not eased her anxiety, and I understand. “If nothing else, she will learn to sit in one place (baithna seekh jayegi)” using the common expression for disciplining. Or, trying another argument, “For the time she will be in school you will be free”. Further “Till now what all she would have learnt, think of that”, “She will learn to make friends at school”, “No worries, she can even play for a little while”, and “If she was in school you wouldn’t have to be after her all the time, you could get back to your books”. Some people ask me “When will she start writing? Till now she should be able to write ‘two’ in a copy”!
Just yesterday, my daughter was sitting on my lap and watching a crow trying to attack a Mynah’s nest in the Neem tree outside the house. When I explained to her what was happening, she got up to shoo away the crow, and we continued chatting when suddenly, a curious head popped up from behind a boundary wall. Evidently our meddlesome Aunty next door was disturbed by the conversation: “How long are you going to keep her stuck to yourself like that? Why are you not sending her to school? I think you are too possessive”. Unwilling to argue with her I simply responded by saying “Yeah, I don’t feel like sending her away from me”.
My husband too spends a lot of time with her. Just a few days ago, he was just playing with her. A fly came and sat on the table, and playfully, he started demonstrating how to trap it under a tumbler. At this moment his Dad walked in and asked what was going on. “If she doesn’t go to school, this is what she will land up doing, killing flies!” came the quick rejoinder. For those who may not know “killing flies” is also an expression for a wasteful, useless life!
The preschools themselves are thriving, what with the baby-shows they organize periodically, the psychedelic displays and all the hype. Somehow, they have accessed the phone number of my father-in-law, perhaps targeting him as a more willing victim to their persuasions. I am sometimes made to feel as if I’m falling back on an immunization schedule. You can imagine what happens in my home whenever he gets a call from a preschool.
This has been going on for about 6 months, and although as parents we have not yet decided when to start sending her, this constant nagging sometimes creates doubts. I worry that two years has become accepted as a norm and people have automatically fallen in line with this trend, without asking any questions. Although it is argued as best for the child, I fear that children are not happy doing this. Children’s perspectives seem the least important here. I admit that if I did have access to a play-school where children were permitted to play freely, come and go as they please, perhaps I would have considered sending her, but this is not the case.
Are parents even aware that they have a choice? If a child were attending a small play-school for a couple of hours, things would be different; but in small towns in India, there is an extra anxiety about being left-behind, and the pressures of getting a good education are great. Reading, writing and numbers are introduced from day one, and that too as a demand from families. As far as the schools are concerned, perhaps they also find it easier to just make children sit in one place for two-three hours and send them home. Many parents believe that children can play anywhere, “If we are paying a fee, we should get something substantial out of it”. A cycle of events is triggered off and there seems to be no getting off. It has almost become immoral to keep a child at home after two years of age. I have seen 3-year-olds taking an ‘exam’ in one of the schools nearby. Even though it may be unintended, being with other children inevitably brings in competition, comparisons, and the burden of ‘performance’ into children’s lives too early. I have witnessed schools where children are categorized on the basis of ‘ability’, placing the “brightest” children with others like her and so on. It seems as if children are worth the effort only if they measure up. There was a school in which Sections A – D were grouped thus: A- Brightest, D – Dullest! What would this even mean as a label for a group of children? How would it impact a child’s self-esteem? And the parents? I have seen parents losing their sleep over their child’s performance in school.
I believe that parents should be allowed to choose. Surely there may be some who would require day-care services, but others should have the option of flexible programmes for play, or entering straight into formal school. What I seriously object to is this trend of early preparation for formal learning becoming inevitable, and it is believed to be what is best for the child and the mother and also the family! Although there have been so many studies done about delaying formal learning, these are conveniently kept away from public knowledge, while the hype about early learning is bombarded at us from every direction. The preschool (read little school) businesses are thriving in India today, even in rural areas, and I see that as a major cause for concern. How have we reached a point where caring for a young child AT HOME is being seen as a disadvantage?
Entry to school
There are many ongoing debates about optimal age for entry to school. As per Government guidelines, a child can join primary school at Class 1 any time after she turns 5 years of age, not before. The document further notes that there are no specific guidelines for the pre-primary. While earlier schools used to start at the Primary level, and a child would enter formal school between the ages of 5 and 6 years, the introduction of attached pre-primary classes (Nursery, Kindergarten) put small-scale neighbourhood schools out of business. Perhaps these schools wanted to expand their businesses by going downwards (for private schools) and families were interested in securing admissions early so that they could rest easy about admissions. Both the partners benefited from this early admission, although children would be in a formal set-up much earlier than before. The small neighbourhood schools for their part decided a similar strategy. They started admitting children a year or two before the schools, at two, even before. Many also attached day care centres to their institutions. This remains an unregulated sector, outside of the Government run Early Childhood Centres like the Anganwadis under the ICDS programme, one of the largest in the world. The non-governmental sector also works in ECCE for children of families living with poverty, and there are some excellent services being provided in different parts of the country.
Training for entry to school
The private sector thus remains unsupervised, and the infrastructure, quality of services, the curriculum, teacher training etc. are left to the convictions and commitment of the administrators. There are some really good programmes in operation, but they flourish in big cities and only a few experiments can be seen in remote areas. Among these, the urban, high profile playschools, principles of early learning are declared to be following the latest research and international guidelines, as we can read in the colourful displays that adorn their walls. What about the smaller cities, towns and villages where a majority of Indians live? As Reshu mentions, there seems to be an ambient anxiety, even panic related to formal schooling leading up to University. Children are many, and seats only a few at every level. Small private schools feed into this anxiety. Many families make demands for early initiation for formal teaching since they believe that children can ‘play’ anywhere, and they should not need to pay for that. Somewhere, the magical impact of ECCE that promised success in later school years became understood as starting ‘schooling’ early. This became an important motivation to get children into teaching shops, who with a shrewd business sense, quickly filled up the space created by this demand. With additional assurances of securing admissions in “good schools”, turning children into confident creatures, comfortable in speaking (in English) with others to clear interviews at entry to school, memorizing bits of information we believe children should have (alphabets, numbers, colours, shapes), these teaching shops have become coaching centres.
Gaining admission to a school of one’s choice has become a matter of privilege than a right. The recent film ‘Hindi Medium’ depicts this very well, and has received endorsement from the eminent educationist Krishna Kumar as a lesson in the sociology of education rather than an entertainment. In his review, he argues that the film exposes how “…..as a country, we have lost all sense of purpose in providing nursery education. The basic principles of early childhood care and education (ECCE) have been sacrificed at the altar of commercialisation. The RTE (Right to Education Act) applies only from age six onwards — childhood before six remains free to be exploited. Education during the ages three to six years has proved a goldmine because it is unregulated.”
From Reshu’s essay, it appears that not only has this race become ineluctable, anyone choosing to ignore its importance makes people more nervous. In October 2015, an NGO in Kerala filed a complaint with the CWC (Child Welfare Committee) that a family was not sending their child to school. The mother submitted a sharp rejoinder to the legal complaint arguing that this was the best course of action for her child. For those interested in her arguments, the text of the letter is available here: http://googleweblight.com/i?u=http://homeschoolers.in/i-am-homeschooling-my-child-in-her-best-interests/&hl=en-IN . Thanks to Punya for this news update.
We are neither promoting homeschooling here, nor are we arguing against the benefits of early childhood education. When she read this essay, Shraddha reminded us that many children take to play groups very well and benefit a lot from these experiences. But only if the preschool provides age-appropriate experiences and it is essential to regulate this industry to ensure that the best interest of the child is served. Also, school and home must not be pitched against each other, as is presently the case. These are the two most important institutions in a child’s life and they must be seen as complementary, rather than a substitute for, opposed to, or as a compensation for what is considered poor parenting. It is high time that we adapt our institutions to adjust to children rather than the reverse. Additionally, the family has a right to be respected for their language and other cultural practices, and this is often overlooked in the attempts to “educate” children, and school is seen to the best place to “repair” the damages done by families. We need to break out of this mode after 70 years of living as independent citizens. Imagined inequalities between our own people are deep cracks in our foundation that we need to restore since it is precisely such flaws that weaken a nation, as Tabish Khair notes in another context.