The Future of Childhood – Part 2

On Friday the 7th of September, we brought you the first part of an essay by lawyer and activist Suranya Aiyar. Please do take a look at the the post and comments posted by some of our readers Robert Serpell here:

We continue the second and last section of the essay with an apology for the slight delay in posting the same. It should have been published on Friday the 21st of September.

The Future of Childhood Part 2

By Suranya Aiyar

Care practices in the ‘modern’ world’

So in modern society, it becomes really important to train a baby to do without its mother as early as possible. And this has lead to some really harsh practices for babies. Such as 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. Its really brutal. And versions of this method are also applied to make a baby “self soothe” and learn to play by itself. Just leave it to cry and cry until it gives up.

What is really astonishing is that these cruel parenting practices are being tolerated and even advocated in societies which are running campaigns to stop things like slapping and yelling by parents of their kids. In England there is a move to make parents criminally liable for such things as ignoring a child, making it feel unloved, and comparison with siblings. It is popularly called “Cinderella’s Law”. UNICEF and Save the Children call slapping and comparison with siblings, child abuse in a report they gave in 2007 to the Indian Ministry of Women and Child Development called Child Abuse in India. In this report, all kinds of startling claims were made about high levels of abuse by Indian parents of their children. But when you read the detail, and I have written a paper on this, you find that they inflated the numbers by counting slapping and comparison with siblings and a host of other frivolous things as abuse. All this concern for slapping in third world countries, but not a whisper anywhere about the “cry it out” method of the West. Even though there is a phenomenon recorded in the West, but not so much in the East, of Cot Deaths: Infants left to sleep alone and found dead in their cots the next day.

I don’t think that it is by chance that UNICEF fails to point out faults in Western parenting systems. As I said earlier, UNICEF was set up as an emergency relief fund in 1946 for European children affected by the Second World War.  Its full name was the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund set up, “to provide food, clothing and health care” for these children of the war. Four year later, 1950, UNICEF is receiving USD 15 million in funds a year and finds it has nothing to do. In 1950 it was said (and I got this from the online records of the UNICEF) “with European recovery some countries feel UNICEF’s job is over”. So what is UNICEF going to do now? Here we have an interesting quirk of history: before UNICEF started saving the poor children, the poor children saved UNICEF. UNICEF tells us on its website, in the historic “Milestones” section, that at this point “the poorer nations argue that the UN cannot ignore children threatened by hunger and disease in their countries.” And so, UNICEF is saved. It applies and receives an expanded mandate from the United Nations to extend its work from emergency to “long-range needs of children and their continuing needs particularly in under-developed countries”. At the same time, to make sure that no one ever says again that its work is only for emergencies, it drops the word ‘Emergency” from its name; and it pretty much makes sure that it keeps away from the Western countries that wanted it wound up. So this is why UNICEF does not feel free to point fingers at Western parenting.

Another example of phony rules for child raising in future societies is getting your children to eat independently. Now children can be taught to eat by themselves at different ages and there’s no harm in doing so. Obviously, if you live in a situation where you have less time, or there’s no domestic help, there will be a greater emphasis on teaching your kids to feed themselves. But in the highly charged atmosphere around childhood behaviour that is typical of modern societies, this simple non-issue has been given the elevated name of “ability of child to self-nourish” and parents are being chastised for “failing” to equip their children to feed themselves. This thinking is taken to extreme lengths in countries like Norway where an oft repeated story  is of immigrant parents being summoned to school because their young children (typically pre to beginning primary schoolers) aren’t feeding themselves at lunch break. Very soon this escalates to a full-fledged investigation and removal of the child.

It’s a curious thing about Western society and children. Many of the big debates ostensibly in the aid of children, serve to distract from the real problem for the child. For example, there is intense debate on whether to have six months or two years maternity leave. But the truth is that not only do children need their mothers for much longer than that, it also obscures the fact that women who are serious about their careers don’t want to take maternity leave even if it is on offer – as in the case of Marissa Mayer.

Food, nourishment and independent eating

On the issue of self-nourishment, all the talk of independent eating distracts from a much more important question, which is what is the child eating? Wouldn’t you agree as a rule of thumb that dietary norms in any third world country are better than in any developed country – except perhaps Japan? Even talk of starvation and hunger hides this important fact of the inferiority of dietary norms in modern society. In India traditionally food is not just calories or nutrition, it is also medicine, and an aspect of fit living. Even the very poor and illiterate in India, even those who go through periods of hunger, carry a treasure trove of knowledge about home remedies, good diet, seasonal food, herbs and spices, what suits the body for what climate, what herb should be added to which vegetable to make it digestible and so on. Contrast this with things in the West. I was born in Brussels and my mother told me that in 1974 doctors there told her to feed me only commercially prepared baby food because then you could be sure that the right proportion of vitamins and nutrients was being given to me in every meal. Can you imagine how scandalised any Indian mother would be to hear of such a thing. Factory made food as opposed to home cooked food. What an anathema! These are the kinds of colossal mistakes that occur with the medicalisation of everyone’s lives, another aspect of the future. There’s a back lash and you have people going into organic farming with a vengeance. There is also a build-up of hostility against processed food and multinational companies that sell it. But here too children get unnecessarily caught up in adult battles. The organic food lobbies have declared war on salt and sugar. And the current best practices for children are that they should not be given any salt or sugar till they are two years old. It’s a metaphor for how bland, colourless and joyless childhood becomes as you move into the future.

All is not lost in India on the traditional food front. There are efforts to preserve traditional dietary knowledge and medicine and reintroduce it. But in doing so we must acknowledge that our so-called backward, depressed communities are among the few remaining repositories of this valuable information. And any food-related intervention should respect this. Take the Midday Meals Scheme. Did anyone stop to think what an affront this was to mothers? Why are you giving our children food through some school cook when we are here to give it to them? Why were those resources not given to us so that we could deliver our rich nutrition skills to our families?

Is the mother being pushed out?

This pushing out of the mother is also reflected in international laws for child rights. The last time that motherhood was mentioned in the context of child welfare was 1959. Its in the United Nations Declaration of the Rights of the Child which says: “The child, for the full and harmonious development of his personality, needs love and understanding. He shall, wherever possible, grow up in the care and under the responsibility of his parents, and, in any case, in an atmosphere of affection and of moral and material security; a child of tender years shall not, save in exceptional circumstances, be separated from his mother.” I have repeated this verbatim here, because you never see this kind of gentle, warm language and sentiments being used about children after this. “Affection” – never figures -there is not a single UNICEF study ranking countries on affection for children. Another long forgotten attitude of adults towards children – chivalry – finds its first and last mention in the international child rights project in Principle 8 of the 1959 Declaration “The child shall in all circumstances be among the first to receive protection and relief.” These two principles, the child’s right to its mother and the duty of chivalry to children were dropped in later child rights declarations.

The current declaration on child rights – The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child of 1990 mentions mothers only as breeders and milk suppliers. Article 4 says under the children’s health section that mothers should be given pre and post-natal care and that breastfeeding should be advocated. Motherhood is not mentioned in this famously child-centric document. But there is a bunch of stuff that’s really useful to children like the right to peaceful assembly. One has visions of infants in prams solemnly wheeling themselves to peacefully protest faulty pacifiers outside UN headquarters.

Revisiting the child’s best interests

Among other dubious gifts waiting for children in the future are divorce; single parent families; parents practicing serial monogamy where children will find themselves having to accommodate in their homes and hearts a series of changing partners of their parents every few years. Single mother families where each sibling is from a different and usually absent father. This places children in a situation that is far from ideal, but its studiously ignored in modern society. Why? Because addressing these situations will require modern society to climb down from a lot of positions that it has taken – especially the emphasis on individualism and personal choice. As a result of this wilful blindness even very obvious things will not be said. For example, is there any doubt that an insistence on getting married and staying married as the foundation for raising children would greatly benefit children? But while people in modern society will march on the streets to advocate for the rights of gays to marry, no one will go on a campaign to tell people to grow up, stop thinking of themselves and stay married for the sake of their children. The only politically correct way to acknowledge that there is a problem with single parent or broken families, is to ask for benefits for single mothers. But while we should help single parents, as we help other distressed families, this is not an ideal we should be advocating. Let me explain: As I got more and more involved with CPS cases, I saw many types of families in the West. Some were middle class and familiar, like mine. Some were pious, hardworking working class families – similar to the families of my maids at home.

But some were also very lonely single parent or nuclear families. Some were two-generation single parent families: single mothers, who were themselves children of single mothers. Very small families, with no relatives to turn to in times of need.

In such families, even a minor thing, like the mother and child getting the flu at the same time, can throw the entire household into chaos. You have cases of a black mother whose husband is at work. She and her baby are ill. She sends the elder kid who is not ill round the corner for groceries. Someone spots the kid wandering alone, and reports it to Child Protection Services (CPS). CPS comes in. The house is a mess. Ofcourse, the mother has been too ill and busy with the baby to clean up. Neglect is alleged. If the mother says she just needed some help – she’s accused of being unable to cope. The father is said to be not good enough because he wasn’t around. It doesn’t matter that he was at work. CPS is supposed to look only at the “best interests of the child”. Whatever the reasons, the parents haven’t managed, that’s not in the best interests of the child, so lets remove them. This is how the “best interests of the child” principle works in practice. And we in India have adopted this pernicious principle in our laws. It’s a wolf in sheep’s clothing. It’s not helpful to children.

Going back to these stressed families: I can see a problem. Not of abuse or neglect, but in the aloneness of these families, the smallness, the lack of a social network. This does make the child vulnerable. If you add substance abuse, or a shady boyfriend in the picture, things look even more precarious.

Are Child Protection Services the answer?

CPS is obviously not the answer. It’s not right to compound the difficulties of these parents and children by tearing them apart. But it made me understand the context in which the CPS system came into being. We in India are being told that child rights and child protection are for the betterment of children, but really they came up to make up for the loss of the family, for the breakdown of the family in the West. And the CPS experience of the West shows that you cannot really substitute for the family. No government intervention is going to make up for what is lost when the family is lost.

In India the poor have avoided so much of the isolation and moral unmooring of children from broken families because of the sobriety, self sacrifice and sexual taboos observed by their mothers. These women just immerse themselves in working hard to putting their children through school. There is no question of getting entangled with some unsuitable boyfriend. And even when the husbands leave them, the in-law family will take care of their children while they go out to earn. One of my maids told me how her in-laws always treated her with great respect and took care of her children when she had to go out and earn because the husband left her. She said they were grateful to her for not turning to the flesh trade. It gives you a picture of how desperate her situation was, but it also tells you how she was saved from the abyss by the family support she had, of the respectability and sense of propriety that kept things together. Respectability is something modern societies scoff at.

What is the role of child rights and child protection in all this. Ideally there is no role. These are delicate social and moral issues which should ideally be dealt with in that domain. Laws and government systems are too heavy handed when they intervene. Remember I pointed out that technological changes could bring mothers back while still enabling them to keep working. For all my dire predictions here, there are happier possibilities on each count for children. We can talk about some of those in the discussion to follow. No one can predict, and a state system designed to predict rather than respond to situations, quickly becomes a nightmare for everyone, treating everyone as presumptively guilty. But prediction is what child protection authorities are increasingly doing.

In England and Norway it is routine to take children away when there is no sexual or physical assault, and no drug addiction or alcoholism – just nebulous things, such as, what is in England called “risk of future emotional harm” based on the parent’s personality traits or IQ scores; or what in Norway is called “attachment disorder” which is diagnosed in months old infants based on whether they try to seek eye contact with strangers.

Part of the reason for this is money – there are enormous resources being channeled into protecting children, but you cannot access any of it unless you can find children to protect.

Part of the problem is the stress on outcomes. One of the measures of success in the care system (and Maneka Gandhi has adopted this approach) is being able to adopt children out of it. Its done even when the birth family objects, and parents suggest relatives other than themselves to take the children. In a predictive system, relatives have little chance of being considered as an alternative to parents. Because the logic goes that if the parents are unfit, then it’s fair to predict that the entire family is dysfunctional and similarly unfit to care for the children. So the stress on forced adoption means that you start looking for adoptable kids to take into care and this means targeting younger and younger children, preferably babies and preferably from relatively better backgrounds, because severely abused and damaged children don’t easily find adopters. For this reason you have assessments of parental unfitness are being undertaken at earlier and earlier stages, with babies being taken within hours of birth. There has been at least one very dubious case of a court ordered C-section in Britain on a woman, an Italian national, alleged to have been bi-polar, whose baby was confiscated after an involuntary C-Section, and put up for adoption by British Social Services.

In England, Social Services will keep calling up women identified as being unfit mothers and asking them “are you pregnant, and if you are, then tell us as we will come to take your baby”. But this is only part of the reason for the sliding threshold for confiscation of children. The main reason is the way child protection system is designed.

The way child protection works is that along with social workers, anyone coming into contact with children has been enlisted in the child protection project – doctors, school teachers, nurses, midwives, are all tasked with identifying abuse, and reporting it to CPS, on pain of losing their jobs. When you do this you start from a position of suspicion, and you end in a position of downright hostility.

Its no wonder that the system becomes paranoid and obsessed about the family. If you tell people that children who appear to have loving relations with their parents may well be abused by them; and that if you don’t spot the abuse, its your head on the block, it will make you paranoid. A lot of energy go into thinking about: so…. how do we spot abuse. And this is how you get one of the most misleading aspects of the child protection system: indicators.

Indicators of abuse

What are indicators of abuse? Just about anything. Every injury or illness becomes a cause for suspicion – was it the parents who did it? In the USA, children are taken away for no reason, other than showing up with their parents at hospital with injuries. In the US child protection system, fractures and internal bleeding are an “indicator” of parental abuse.

Anything the child says can trigger off alarm bells. In Norway, CPS inquiries have been started because a child said in school that their parents “believed in God”. Parents being overly moralistic is actually an accepted indicator of child abuse according to child protection texts. UNICEF, in its 2007 Child Abuse Report to the Government of India said “indicators” of abusive parents are: “highly moralistic”; or under “economic stress”; or “easily upset” with “a low tolerance for frustration”. So religious people, poor people and short-tempered people. All are presumptively abusive.

The 2007 UNICEF Report gives even less credible indicators on the part of the child for physical abuse: the child “has difficulty getting along with others”, “plays aggressively”, has “little respect for others”, all these are called indicators that the child is physically abused at home.  And the same bizarre Report also lists the opposite characteristics as indicators of physical abuse: the child is “overly compliant, withdrawn, gives in readily and allows others to do for him or her without protest”. This is the sort of mumbo-jumbo that is being taught to University students in child rights courses today. Universities in India have already instituted child protection courses along the lines of these “indicators” of abuse. These courses advocate the Western model of child protection for students in the fields of public policy, psychology and child development. Training courses are being designed for judges, lawyers, police officials, teachers, doctors and nurses to adopt the Western interpretation of child welfare in their work.

So this is the sort of future we are looking at for children. And I hope that I have been able to get you all thinking about how we can change course. Thank you for your time.

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