The Future of Childhood (Part 1)

This Friday, we bring you an essay by Lawyer, Child Rights Activist and Author of children’s books, Suranya Aiyar where she presents her views about the future of childhood. The piece is taken from a presentation at the Futures Seminar held at IIC in October 2017. We invite you to read and comment on the essay to share your views. The passage provides strong, thought-provoking perspectives about where we are headed in our care of children, as individuals and as a country.
Diversity is key to human survival, and preserving practices as cultural heritage has important significance. We believe, therefore, that this is an opportune time to get off this high-speed train and gather diverse opinions about the directions we are taking in imagining better futures for our children.
Policy and practices are changing rapidly and we may not really know about or fully understand the dynamics behind these trends. The care of children is a culturally sensitive issue and at Masala Chai, we believe that we (every culture, every family and every individual) have an inalienable right to follow our own ways of bringing up children, within the wide range of locally acceptable cultural practices. We also have a right not to follow any of these, but the choice must remain ours. We can no longer isolate ourselves from global trends in the care of children, and a dialogue needs to be initiated between the global and the local. And whether or not you agree with her views, Suranya’s essay raises critical issues that need attention, dialogue and debate. We are happy to feature the essay on Masala Chai this week. 

The Future of Childhood

Suranya Aiyar

What is the future of childhood? Sitting in India we can actually look at the future because when we look Westwards, the future is already there.  And while we in India sometimes resist this flow of things, when it comes to childhood, we are consciously importing almost everything from the West – from laws and government policy on children, to schooling, to parenting practices. The future of Indian children is to a large degree the present of Western children.

To focus the discussion here, I’ll point out some differences between modern Westernised childhoods, and old-fashioned Indian childhoods. Before I do that, I should explain that I’m going to generalise pretty freely and I’ll be using the terms modern, middle-class and Western interchangeably. The subject is vast, and if I don’t handle it this way, the talk will never take shape. My logic for treating it this way is that if you take a step back from looking at the direction proposed for children and families, and look at the direction proposed for society at large, then the idea is that everyone should move in the direction of middle class lifestyle and values. So in this talk I am treating middle class family life as the assumed destination – as the future we are all aspiring toward.

So, what will future childhoods look like? Let’s take a cue from differences between modern and traditional childhoods. One stark difference is that fewer relatives are around. Where once you had bhua, dadi, chachi, tao, tai; now you have just the parents. So, the child’s everyday life will lack the richness and abundant affection that he had when he grew up in large families with hoards of uncles, aunts and elder cousins around. All the cuddling, loving and indulging is now almost entirely up to the parents. And, here is the second difference, the parents will for most of the time, not be around, but at work.

The paradox of progress

The “better” your parents are doing, the less time they will have for you as a child. In this respect, the child of a stenographer will be better off than the child of the stenographer’s boss. A steno will work 9 to 5, for his boss that’s just a half day, not counting the networking, grooming, resting for the next day, and out of town travel that is also a part and parcel of modern working life. In terms of parents’ spare time, the children of parents in the informal sector – casual labour, domestic helpers and part timers – will be better off than the children of parents working in the formal sector.

I am giving these examples because I want to expose the myth of the impoverished family as the bad family for children. I also want to question the assumption that families get “better” for children as they move up the social scale. This way of looking at things stigmatises the poor, and also poorer nations and poorer peoples. But ever since the mid-1980s when UNICEF and the child rights advocates made intervention in the family a part of the agenda for child welfare, the assumption has been that poor families are bad for children, and by implication that poor countries are bad for children.

The reason has very little to do with families living in poverty, and almost everything to do with UNICEF trying to make itself relevant after the settlement of orphans and displaced European children from the Second World War, which was why UNICEF had first been set up in the first place. But I will come to that later.  I just want to say here that while no one has any objection to improving the material conditions of impoverished children, it does not follow that poor families are bad for children, or that there is some easy connection between socio-economic status, and the happiness and well-being of children. If anything, my case is that impoverished Indian families are much more nurturing of and focussed on children than modern, well off families because they have not yet adopted the selfishness of grown-ups and the censorious attitudes towards children that modern societies have.

On the insistence of UNICEF, Save the Children and child rights NGOs we in India have over the last few years adopted a specific version of the Western model of child protection under which state authorities are given the power to remove children from so-called “unfit parents”. Child protection authorities in the West are already targeting impoverished and working-class families. We must not repeat this injustice here. This is the moment, and it’s now or never, to acknowledge the merits and social capital of the family culture among impoverished, rural and otherwise materially disadvantaged Indian communities. We do not want a situation as in the West where poor children are more likely to be wrongly deprived of their parents than are rich children by the Child Protection System.  We also have to guard against undermining the good aspects of the family when making interventions for children.

 The ideology of selfishness

Let’s look a little closer at what happens to families in the modern world as they move up the social scale. As families start moving up into the middle class, you have this phenomenon of parents working not so much for a living, as an expression of their personhood. Earning a living becomes ancillary, and people seek meaning and self-identity in work. This requires a certain in-built selfishness, and one of the key values we will be passing on to our children will be the importance of being selfish.

This selfishness is an ideological selfishness, it’s not a moral selfishness. It is done in a very different spirit to someone who thinks only of himself, or can’t be bothered to do anything for anyone else. It emerges from the ideology of individualism. It is a sort of conscientious focussing on yourself as a working adult as the chief moral objective of your life, around which other things must be accommodated and managed. Other things such as the raising of children, and also, at the other end of the life cycle – the care of the elderly.

This has a direct impact on the value of the nurturing role in child care and also of the nursing role in elder care (I don’t mean professional nursing, I mean being nursed by your children and younger members of your family in old age and on your death bed). There is no time here to deal with elder care, and but I propose that Ageing in the Future also be a discussed by this group at some point. However, it is important to focus on the similarities here. Dependence on another or being dependent, or having someone rely on you, these are things that challenge the idea and practice of individualism.

Coming back to the issue of nurturing. What is nurturing? Nurturing is what we do for our careers when we hang around our boss, socialise with our clients, take a phone call out of office hours, write an op ed on our field and so on. It’s not work, and it’s not necessary to the work we do, it’s the quality of our association with work and our work’s association with us. In child raising, nurturing is mothering. It’s not so much what you do with a child, it’s not the care of the child, it’s not even the love of a child; it is a way of being around a child, being available, caring for and of showing affection to a child.

The mother as central

For a child, a large part of nurturing is physical presence – especially of the mother. The mother’s lap – maa ka godh – a phrase that feminists detest. Mother’s embrace: Maa ka aanchal. Modern society says there no such thing, and whatever women do in raising children, men can do too. Babies don’t agree. Take a baby from his mother’s arms, and see how he starts hollering and twisting in seconds. The preference of babies and small children for their mothers is very clear and loudly expressed (without denying the place that others may also have in a child’s life). But a culture that espouses career or profession as a moral project for every able adult, has no answer for this except to deny it. In the service of the ideology of work and gender equality, the culture does not even ask fathers to take on the mothering role, because men are equally subject as women to the time-consuming demands of working life. So all the talk about equal parenting is really about equal sharing of domestic chores, and not about equal mothering or nurturing. That has to go or be strictly rationed.

So, a key characteristic of future childhoods is a sharp diminishing of the affection, warmth and nurturing a child receives in its daily life.  Not only do children have to make do without their mothers, they also face a much more thorough-going denial of their feelings – a denial of the existence of any special desire in them for their mothers and vice versa.

This requires quite firm repression in the culture, both of the child and the mother. But before I go into that, I want to make a small digression to cheer things up. Maybe technology will make a different future in this respect for children. Maybe in the future there will be a way of being present with your children through holograms and virtual reality media; hugging cushions that a mother can activate from work as soon as her baby cuddles up on it. This may in turn have a psychological effect on future society, taking away some of the fear of acknowledging that children need the physical presence of their mothers. Instead of making contrived arguments that deny motherhood, we can acknowledge that it was something we were forced to deny because of the practicalities of women joining the work-sphere.

But until (and if at all) that happens a key characteristic of future childhoods will be the denial of the child’s special need and desire for its mother, and vice versa. As I said, this will require quite firm repression and control both of the child and the mother. This is where modern parenting practices come in. Sleep training – training the baby to sleep by itself, training the baby to soothe itself, training the baby to play quietly by itself. All this is basically training the baby to do without its mother from Day One. Because the natural process of gaining independence from the mother is much slower, and certainly takes more than two years, which is the maximum maternity leave permitted anywhere. I am not making a case for more and more maternity leave. Jobs cant just become placeholders for mothers. That’s not even fair to other women in the work force. And, let’s face it, real high flyers don’t take maternity leave. Yahoo’s CEO, Marrisa Mayer declared to international acclaim that she’d be back to work in three weeks, and she was. And, to show you how much the people of the future care about children, no one stopped to think when they cheered her, that they were also celebrating a little infant’s being deprived of its mum practically from birth.

In modern society, it becomes really important to train a baby to do without its mother as early as possible, and parents are relieved when this is accomplished. This has led to some harsh practices for babies. The “cry-it-out” method; which is basically leaving a baby to cry and cry in its cot until it falls asleep by itself. In the natural course babies need to be held, patted and rocked to sleep and when they don’t get this, they express themselves in the only way they know how – by crying. The theory of the “cry it out” method is that if you leave the infant to cry it out, it will eventually realise that no one will come to comfort it and so it will just fall asleep by itself. This can take weeks, if at all, and the baby can cry for hours together, until it gives up. It’s really brutal. And versions of this method are also applied to make a baby “self soothe” and learn to play by itself.

To be continued………..

(Presented at the India International Centre, New Delhi, October 2017, Futures Seminar, Chaired by Prof Shiv Visvanathan, Sociologist, Jindal University)

6 thoughts on “The Future of Childhood (Part 1)

Add yours

  1. Thanks for sharing this article ma’am …It makes for an interesting and noteworthy argument. I want to add my personal views that my parent’s contribution and willingness to prioritize me and my sister over anything else has made us return (not with the intention of returning) or I say value them as important part of our life and decisions as well… I guess not always but most often life is indeed cyclic, just like how we Indians have tried to understand it. I also really like the views on ideology of selfishness and mother as central figure in child’s life. I wish we could also see things from this perspective. Sometimes things just can’t be viewed from discrimination lens on which rights based activism stands, often too aggressively making some people feel guilty of themselves. We need to accept that there are people who make conscience decisions and choices based on what they value and love the most in life. People also live by and to love and your love or passion may not be mine.

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  2. Ma’am your article is very sweet and well argued… I have a question, what is the role of a father in a child’s life/childhood? Is raising a child, only a mother’s responsibility?

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  3. Comments sent by Robert Serpell via email:
    I found Suranya Aiyar’s eloquent musing irresistibly charming, and yet also frustrating with the many corners she seemed to cut.

    Yes, a great deal of what we read in the popular media, and indeed in many publications by international “development” agencies seems to rest on the premise that “middle class family life the assumed destination – ,,, the future we are all aspiring toward.” But, No, we cannot therefore conclude that the kind of childhood idealised in WEIRD populations (to borrow the catchy acronym from Henrich, Heine and Noreyanan’s influential 2010 article in Brain and Behavioral Sciences) represents the actual future in store for children all over the world. Even in the Northern/Western More Industrialised Countries (NoWeMics), the socially hazardous fall-out of rugged individualism is increasingly recognised by welfare agencies in fields such as planning for the elderly. And Majority World theorists such as the late Cigdem Kagiticbasi and Durganand Sinha have long argued for deconstructing the Western hegemonistic notion that the Western way is the only good way to raise children in the modern world.

    Yes, many mothers have a privileged call on the affection of infants, and the qualities they deploy to earn that privilege deserve respect and support, not dismissal as old-fashioned and dispensible in the interest of freeing women from domestic oppression. But the fathers who are shunned by babies in favour of the baby’s mother have a lot to learn from those mothers, and can legitimately aspire to behave in a more endearing way towards their infants if they are seriously committed to playing a more intimate role in child-rearing than their own fathers did. Holding manly/fatherly behaviour constant when analysing possible directions of productive social change is no more reasonable than holding constant feminine/motherly characteristics.

    When Sara Harkness and Charles Super in the 1970s described the parental practice widespread in the USA (even supported by experts such as Dr Spock in the early editions of his popular manual for parents) of letting babies cry themselves to sleep, their rural Kenyan hosts asked in dismay why the parents who did so were not reported by their neighbours for child abuse. When I tell my Zambian students that story, I go on, as class discussion progresses, to confess that I adopted that practice with my first child, but discarded it as ignorant and insensitive when participating in the nurturant care of the next three children I was privileged to help raise.

    What seems to me conspicuously absent from the current UNICEF advocacy of nurturant care in early childhood is acknowledgement that the ideals of middle class family life change across cultural contexts over space and time, and that what seems to work in one context often does not work in another context.

    So, yes, Suranya Aiyar, I agree with you that “in child raising, nurturing is … not so much what you do with a child, it’s not the care of the child, it’s not even the love of a child; it is a way of being around a child, being available, caring for and of showing affection to a child.” But if that kind of nurturant care is to be protected and promoted by society for children in the future, it is less likely that remote control surrogate mothers in the form of electronically mobilised cushions
    (Harry Harlow’s famous studies of baby rhesus monkeys showed in the 1960s that even they did not come to “love” their warm and cuddly, rocking surrogate mothers) will make it possible for good mothers to have personally fulfilling and socially productive careers than that
    (a) the design of workplaces will change to be more accommodating to mothers who bring their infants along to work, and that
    (b) families learn to share responsibility for hands-on nurturant care of infants among multiple caregivers (including the infant’s father, grandparents and elder siblings),
    both of which adaptations have long been practiced by traditional cultures in the Majority World.

    The middle class of the NoWeMics have much to learn from the time-honoured socialisation practices of other societies, part of which is that, contrary to Sigmund Freud’s belief, many aspects of “mothering” can be shared.

    Liked by 1 person

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