“Papa, how will I know what is right?”

The Episode

It started as a regular workshop with parents at a local school. We spoke, took questions, discussed strategies for handling situations, about shyness, morality, relationships, about sibling rivalry, about aggression; the usual range of concerns parents have. Towards the end of the morning an older gentleman in the audience raised his hand to speak. Between him and his wife, there was a young child, evidently their grandson. “I raised my hand not to ask a question, but to share something”, he said. Lifting himself off the chair, he walked up to face the audience, clutching the mike close. He didn’t seem terribly comfortable with the task of public speaking. This is the substance of his speech:

“I want to share something from long ago. We have two sons. When my boys were quite young, one night, we were walking the street after dinner when one of them looked up to me and asked: ‘Papa, sometimes you scold us, sometimes you say ‘no’. Sometimes you encourage us and often you give advice. When I grow up and you are not with me, how will I know when I am right and when not?’ For a moment I was taken aback by the question. What was I to say? How do I answer my son? I knew one thing, I HAD TO answer him, and that the answer would have long-term consequences. As parents, sometimes we just know such moments.

381607_10151259400352777_680723808_n

From somewhere, I don’t know where, I found my words. What I said to him is what I want to share with you all today”, he said. “I said to him, ‘Son, if what you are doing can be shared openly with others, then you are right. If it is something that you have to hide from other people, then it is likely to be wrong. This is a simple thing that you should remember. If you don’t have to hide it from anyone, if there is nothing to fear, and you will be on the right track. If you have reason to hide, and are afraid that others will get to know, there is probably something wrong in your choice’. This has worked for my children who are now grown men and have lovely families of their own, and my grandson is with me today. We are a happy family today and share open and loving relationships. I have no idea how I came up with the answer, but I knew that it was the right one, and time has proved that.”

His wife, the grandmother got up to add “One day, when the boys were small, they and their friends were playing cricket on the road outside our home and broke the windscreen of a car parked on the street. All the other kids ran away, and my boys came to me and confessed. Those days, a single pane would have cost us much more than we could afford. So when the angry owners came to ask for damages, I said to them, we don’t have the money, but here are the boys who did it. Take them and make them work every day to clean the car. When the money is recovered, you can free them from this task.” I said. “You see, my children never hid anything from us, this is how we brought them up. For a few days they were made to clean the car, after which the owners let them go.”

For a while there was dead silence in the packed hall. Then, as if taking a moment for the message to sink in, the burst of applause filled the room as the old man haltingly returned to take his seat beside his wife. The simplicity and clarity of their words was humbling, and it was a privilege to have been there.

The Commentary

Young children have minds of their own, and they also learn so much from us. At an early age, ownership, affiliations, prejudice, loyalty, superiority, power, truth, none of these intentions enter children’s minds. They confront the world at face value, and hurting others, hiding things, or taking what belongs to someone else are simple experiments with the world, and do not carry the meaning and intentions that they do for grown-ups. Yet, it is from these innocent explorations that intentional acts emerge. When people deliberately subjugate, humiliate, hurt, steal from, or lie about others, many of these actions have origins in how early experimentation was handled; and naïve maneuverings can become transformed into malicious acts. As research has shown, the ethics of conduct is a valuation that we gather from our surroundings. We have the choice to oppose, ignore or even encourage children to be mean and manipulative towards others. Fortunately or unfortunately, that is the power of being parent, and that is our collective responsibility. We need to be alert to moments of potential gravitas, something that the gentleman in our story handled with spontaneous, dignified wisdom. There is no denying that we are key players in the development of ethics in our children. In this, we have a choice!

The mother who slept with her back to the baby and other stories

The elephant-headed Hindu deity Ganesha, is a popular figure in Indian homes and public spaces. In prayer, Ganesha is invoked by any of his 108 names. He is believed to be endowed with wisdom, intellect, a great knowledge of the arts and sciences and, most significantly, the ability to remove obstacles or Vignaharta. The worship of Ganesha is considered an auspicious opening for any event of personal or social significance.

Annually, Ganesha’s birth is celebrated on the fourth day of the moon in the month of Bhadrapada, usually falling in August or September according to the Gregorian calendar. Although the event is observed by worshiping Hindus everywhere, the festivities in Mumbai and around are special. There are ten-days of celebrations every year during which an entry and installation is followed by daily prayer and the final immersion of the idol. Designated spaces in homes and public areas become temporarily sacred and people are invited to visit and seek blessings from the deity. It is a time for hectic social activity for believers as people visit each other’s homes, meet at temples and public spaces in large numbers. The immersion symbolises Ganesha’s return to his home in the Himalayas.

In a research study about child care practices that we conducted in 2010, one section related to sleeping arrangements. In justifying the need for physical proximity between a mother and baby, we encountered repeated references to Ganesha’s birth. This is the story.

One day, Shiva’s wife, Parvati needed a person to guard the door as she was by herself and wished to take a bath. As she was preparing to bathe, she shaped the discarded mound of turmeric paste, used to scrub her body, into human form and endowed it with life. Then, quite secure in the knowledge that her ‘son’ thus created would guard her privacy, she went about her bath. When Shiva returned, he found an unfamiliar child at the door, who refused to allow him entry into his own home. The child was none other than Shiva and Parvati’s son, Ganesha, but father and son did not recognise each other. Shiva flew into a rage at being prevented to enter his own home, raised his sword and struck a blow that severed the child’s head. Parvati rushed outside to see what was happened was so moved to anger and despair that she threatened to leave Shiva if he didn’t bring the child to life. Realising his mistake, Shiva ordered his guards to search the world to find a replacement for the child’s head. “Find a mother who was sleeping with her back towards the baby and bring me the head so I can bring the child back to life” he directed. The guards searched everywhere, unable to find any mother who had her back to her child, until at last, in a forest, they found an unknowing elephant mother with her back to the baby. Quickly severing the head of the baby elephant, they returned and placed it on Ganesha, and the elephant-headed god was born again.

Commentary

Shared myths and personal stories

The question about ‘sleeping arrangements’ for children is an important matter for families everywhere. In the story of Ganesha’s birth, we find a deep and resounding message about the cultural importance of physical proximity of mother and child for reasons of safety and security. This is an instance of the use of a phantasm the personal reconstruction of a myth to make it available and applicable in particular instances. Whereas myths are collective stories that guide cultural reality, a phantasm makes these myths accessible for individual consumption. In most instances, we find it hard to grasp the influence of shared beliefs on our ways of thinking, but when mothers in our study referred to the legend in response to a question, evidence of the personalisation of a myth became evident.

The research study

A group of 46 female students at University in New Delhi were asked about their memories of sleeping arrangements during childhood. From the responses, it was found that all 46 remembered sleeping in the same bed with another person during their early years, among them were parents, grandparents, siblings, or another family member. Currently, as young adults, 23 of them were still sleeping in the same bed or room as their parents. A larger group of participants (154 including the students and their family members with almost equal numbers of men and women) were then asked to give their opinions about a hypothetical situation of a young mother who chose to shift her 5-month-old baby out of her bed to a cot in another room. The findings showed that, except for one student’s mother who argued that the woman must have had her reasons for separating the child, there was an unequivocal objection to the act. “How could she do something so ‘cruel’?” “When the child grows up she will also not care about her parents since she was rejected by them at this tender age?” “It is very inconvenient for the parent to run up and down to another room at night?” “How will there be love and attachment?” “A ‘real’ mother would never do such a cruel thing!” (Emphasis original). Ganesha’s story appeared repeatedly as a justification not only for sleeping close to the baby, but “facing the baby”, preferably with a hand placed on the child in order to protect the child and facilitate a sleep “free of fear”, some added. Some others mentioned that if the mother did get tired of sleeping on one side, she could flip vertically to get relief instead of turning away from the baby!

Physical proximity was considered essential for the mother and child and it was always possible for the child to sleep with another person, an aunt, an older sibling, a grandmother (female kin) if the mother was busy or had some reason to separate from the child, it was argued. Closeness was believed to be beneficial for several reasons: releasing the mother, companionship for an older member of the family and promoting relationships between the child and other family member, to name a few. Young adults who were currently sleeping with their parents, siblings or grandparents said that they chose to co-sleep because they “loved it”, “felt close” with the other person, or the older person “needed them nearby”. One participant said that every time her father went on tour, she would eagerly look forward to sharing her mother’s bed, another who slept in a separate room at night said that as soon as she came back home from college, she would snuggle up to her mother for an afternoon nap. Some participants mentioned space constraints in their home and weather conditions in Delhi as a reason for co-sleeping. When a family lived in a single room or a few rooms with many members, co-sleeping was the only option. Also, during summer months, costs of air-cooling and air-conditioning was an important reason why bedrooms were shared, the participants reported.

Cultural patterns in domestic arrangements for sleep: Reason or randomness

The reason/randomness debate about cultural practices is common, and different theorists argue about whether collective beliefs are arbitrary or adaptive. Either way, their significance is undeniable, as we can see from the above example of sleeping arrangements for young children. People actively justify actions and invest emotionally in their choices. Although economic geographical and other factors also play an important role in defining the possible arrangements for children’s care, attributions to social and psychological reasons is far more common. We tend to justify practices as social or psychological when in fact they may be financial.

Sleeping “with” someone

Economic, commercial, social and psychological aspects of family life coincided to promote the idea of where a child should sleep and there are dramatic differences among communities about what is best for children. We need to understand and appreciate these differences as we tend to believe that our own practices are best suited to a child’s welfare. This is an instance of ethnocentrism. Richard Shweder has done extensive research on the topic of “Who sleeps by whom”[1] through the examination of contrasts between Indian and American families in where and how a young child is supposed to sleep. In the study, Shweder and colleagues find that the care of children is a highly sensitive domain and sleeping patterns are symbolic actions of deep moral importance for the family.

Regarding the consequences of where a child sleeps, the findings of research appear to be guided as much by cultural ideology as concrete findings. Whereas some studies report sleep disturbance related to co-sleeping[2], supporters of co-sleeping find that such arrangements are beneficial for better sleep patterns, breast-feeding and feelings of security. On both sides of the argument, people who practice co-sleeping or separate sleeping, there are many issues that are important to consider. Within a community also, people may disagree on the best possible arrangements for the child to sleep. We are cautioned by one of our advisors that discomfort with co-sleeping can be experienced among Indian families where sleeping with an adult can be disagreeable for the parent or the child concerned.

Yet, as Shweder also concludes, people are quick to judge others’ practices as inappropriate and even harmful. We find an example of this inclination in the words of an expert[3] who concludes: “As a result of co-sleeping into later years, children today are less self-reliant. Many pre-teen children don’t yet know how to be alone at bedtime and thus they lack self-reliance. When kids don’t benefit from the experience of looking inside themselves as a resource, they focus on external mechanisms to manage stress and anxiety. They do not develop a healthy internal locus of control putting them at risk for low self-esteem. When parents band aid night-time anxiety symptoms by allowing co-sleeping, they often assume that kids will naturally grow out of it and many do not.”

In this blogpost, our aim is to examine differences and the reasons that people use for what they do rather than judging specific ways of raising babies. We believe that as long as there is no abuse or neglect, family members should have the right to decide when and how their children should sleep. Human infants are profoundly adaptive and can thrive under a variety of conditions as the history of human society reveals.

The language of love

The language of love is complex and elaborate and every language has expressions to suggest expressions of different forms of intimacy. For instance, in Japanese, falling out of love with someone is expressed by a phrase that can be translated into: the passing of an autumn breeze. The English expression of “sleeping with” or “spending the night with” someone is an unambiguous euphemism for an intimate, sexual relationship, even if it is fleeting. It is important to recognise that this reference is not shared with other languages, which may have their own expressions for oblique references to intimacy. In some parts of northern India, for instance, a common way of referring to sexual exchanges is “batlana” or “baat-cheet karna” literally meaning “chatting with”. It is the context in which the expression is used that implies a sexual liaison. The point we are making is that human language highly nuanced in the ways in which expressions are used to communicate or silence topics. Whenever a topic is considered rather sensitive, we tend to make use of oblique references with colourful metaphors and indirect references. Perhaps some of the discomfort with co-sleeping is related to the expression as well as the awakening of childhood sexuality explored under psychoanalysis.

Enter psychoanalysis

A significant event in the academic understanding family relationships was the advent of psychoanalytic theory. The meaning of adult-child relationships was forever transformed by Freud’s proposals about early childhood based on his study of adults. Infantile sexuality and the strivings for attention and affection from the opposite sex parent were argued as the substance of normal development as the child progressed through the evolving stages of sexuality on the path to maturity. Even young children were believed to have sexual drives, and as the popularity of psychoanalysis expanded, the psychologist entered the bedroom. Also, other consequences of social change resulting from transformations in family structure, income and urban development, resulted in the separation of sleeping arrangements between parents and children and among children. Gradually, having your own room as a personal space became an idea that was a commercial success, something that became a requirement in contemporary Western society. Who decides where your child sleeps is a matter of concern. We found an interesting article related to this issue https://www.thespruce.com/dont-let-landlord-tell-kids-sleep-156036 .

Themes from our team

We along with our two children co-sleep in our room and sleeping arrangements have not been an issue. Why do we co-sleep? I guess it works for everyone in the family. The children’s grandmother lives with us and she enjoys the children’s company and her room is also their play room. As far as sleeping goes, bed-time is a time for intimacy between us parents and children. After a busy day, being together, chatting and connecting with each other as a family is important for us. The kids like to read in bed and gradually fall asleep. The available space on the bed did become an issue a while back but that was addressed promptly. Our older daughter (now 5) has shifted into her own bed in our room. The little one bonds well with the grandmother and prefers to slip into her bed after we are done with reading. This is a arrangement that has worked for everyone in the family – Pooja

SleepingIt is hilarious, I am now sleeping in all 26 alphabetic formations on the bed. My three year-old ousts me from his ‘space’ insisting “xxxx (his own name) pillow”, “xxxx lie down”, and any attempts I make to come closer to my own pillow (and him of course) are met with an emphatic “NO”! He sometimes chooses to sleep horizontally on our two pillows leaving us little headspace on either side of the bed. We (rather I) have been thinking of getting a separate bed, a single bed, in the same room, maybe adjacent to ours, on which one of us could sleep when turned out. He could also experiment with “owning” a bed of his own…and hopefully come to love the idea enough to sleep independently soon, more with the objective of creating a space to call his own and less for our independence/freedom. I would miss the cuddly times with the baby, I guess. – Punya

Both our sons are adults now and when they were young, questions about sleeping with us never really occurred to us, as a couple or as a family. When they were born, we had space constraints as we were living in a one room apartment. When our economic status improved slightly, we got a bigger house, but we had only one air-cooler (and then an air-conditioner) for the summer months in Delhi.  The movement was not linked with any feelings of sacrifice or guilt.

I feel there are no rights/wrongs with cultural beliefs and practices. What is believed to be right is the right thing! I believe that the effect of a practice is primarily on account of the meaning we attach to it and not the practice. Even when we have bigger spaces (as in many rural homes), children happily sleep with parents, grandparents, uncles or aunts. Almost every kid has a favourite person to sleep with. I do believe the separation of children from parents is an urban concern in recent times. In my experience as a parent and a professional, it is conviction versus doubt which problematises or normalises a practice. – Indu

In addition to love and safety I also feel that having someone to sleep with is believed to be a fortunate circumstance, and sleeping alone a misfortune. I feel that in Indian homes, even when children have a separate room, they mostly sleep with their parents. My niece is 8 years old and has her own room, but her favourite sleeping position is with her leg thrown over her mother.

For me, the best time of day is when I lay down with my daughter in bed. I become her teddy bear and she becomes mine, and we play imaginary games and chat with each other as she falls off to sleep for a little while. When she was born we thought about buying a cot (because they look so good in stores), but then decided not to. When we moved to Indonesia we were provided with one but we never used it. In our bed, our daughter takes up most of the space as we (my husband and I) become sleep on either side of her so that she doesn’t fall off the bed.

When I became a mother, I too was told by my mother to face the child while sleeping, like in the Ganesha story. My mother and others also told me to always sleep facing your child, and I too changed directions when I was tired of sleeping on one side so as not to face away from her.

As a child, I too slept with my mother, in fact, even now, when I visit her, I like to sleep with her along with my own daughter. When my husband is out of town, my mother-in-law comes to sleep with me and my daughter so that we “are not alone”. Personally, I believe that people who chose not to sleep with their child are missing out on 8 hours of togetherness with their child every day! I also feel that the access and popularity of Western practices is confusing a lot of young parents in today’s times. – Reshu.

Co-sleeping emerges as an affectionate practice among Indian families. Yet it is essential for adults to be watchful of sleeping arrangements because the possibilities of abuse or discomfort of the children or adults involved. Traditional families used to have several safeguards about sleeping arrangements to ensure the safety of children.

Picture of Ganesha, credit: Archeet Nayar

[1] http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/cd.23219956705/abstract

[2] http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/dev.10009/full

[3] http://www.huffingtonpost.com/dr-kate-roberts/the-dangers-of-cosleeping_b_7773538.html

The Socratic Oath

By S. Anandalakshmy

I have often wondered why the profession of teaching had no specific code of conduct, while doctors had the Hippocratic Oath. With the help of a young doctor in my family, I managed to get hold of an English translation of the Hippocratic Oath and decided to develop one for teachers, on similar lines. For such a code, the name of Socrates seemed eminently suitable. He was renowned for his ability to draw out ideas from his students, not just to provide the right answer or solution. The verb “educare” means to draw out and is the root of the word “education”.

There would be some general principles concerning a teacher’s conduct applying across the board, but the specifics of the Oath would depend on the stage of education and the chronological age of the children in the care of a teacher. There would therefore have to be at least three or four variations of the oath. I have decided to use here, the one for the caregivers of the preschool age child.

  • I will try to know each child as a person and not make comparisons among children.
  • I will always listen carefully to the children and not dominate the classroom.
  • I will ensure that there is no bias based on level of ability, gender, caste, class or religion.
  • I will provide a variety of situations for children’s self-expression, giving scope for originality.
  • I will not punish any child physically or by humiliation.
  • I will be aware that a sense of fairness and compassion are the best disciplinary methods.
  • I will treat the parents as friends, who share the concern for the child’s development.
  • I will be inclusive in my approach and not allow any child to feel isolated.
  • I will maintain a learning space where children make friends and are happy.

Commentary

Teachers’ Day in India is celebrated on the 5th of September every year to mark the birth anniversary of one of our greatest leaders, Dr. Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, the second President of Independent India (and first Vice President), who was a celebrated academic and an eminent teacher. All over the country, teachers are showered with renewed respect. This post is a tribute to teacher-student relationships, and we are honoured to feature the words of our own guru, Dr. S. Anandalakshmy.

The Socratic Oath is special, and we believe it makes us think seriously about teaching and learning. When we were researching the topic, it came as a pleasant surprise to see that someone else had also toyed with the idea. Find the link here to another attempt at writing an Oath for teachers: https://mrmck.wordpress.com/2014/10/12/for-your-consideration-the-socratic-oath-for-educators/

Some more thoughts:

I now stay in Dubai, and all the people I know here are expatriates, coming from different parts of the world to make Dubai their home. The main concern of a family with kids before moving is to find a school for their child which matches learning goals, and not departing too much from those respected in our native countries. It is quite reassuring to note how similar our expectations are as parents, even though we may be coming from different parts of the world. Today, as my five year old went back to school, I could see the anxiety on parents’ faces as well as anticipation and even excitement. As a mother, I was secretly praying for my daughter to have a memorable day as these questions crossed my mind: When they go back to school after a break, do you still wake up anxious making sure everything is organised for their getting back? Are you extra careful that they are calm, healthy, happy and comfortable about getting back to school? While dropping them to school, what are your thoughts and what are your expectations from their teachers? At what age does a parent stop worrying about these matters? This morning after dropping my little girl, I got back and sat down to update our blog, ‘The Socratic Oath’ helped to settle my thoughts and I sincerely wished my child’s teacher believes in and practices these principles. Pooja

Oaths we can add- Punya Pillai

I do believe that these could also be listed:

-I will be guided by children’s voices

-I will seek answers to how children ‘feel’ about what they are learning

-I will assist children to think with the heart and feel with the mind, and back again

-I will explore and respect learning that children receive from their homes, neighbourhoods and give ample time to those topics in class every day

-I will explore multiple ways of teaching a concept

-I will teach children skills from other environments as well

Reshu adds: We don’t really teach, we can simply assist in learning. In this life, everyone is a learner, so:

-I will be a learner always, a student among students myself

Shashi Shukla, who is a teacher of teacher trainees believes:

Taking an oath before entering into a profession can ensure that one understands the value of the profession and its commitments. I am in total agreement with the use of ‘The Socratic Oath’. As a teacher I should be aware of the responsibility I carry with me to the classroom. Being with young minds help us grow and learn each day but is that happening in reality? Do we soon forget this responsibility?

Today we view a teacher as an authority, but if learning is essentially a collaboration between minds, then why should it be hierarchical? As I prepare young adults to become teachers, many more questions pen up before me. My doubts often overtake the solutions I have before me. One critical doubt I always confront is that each student, each trainee, each class is unique, how do we ensure that standard lessons are made available before everyone. Every day of my teaching, I reflect on my preparedness, the interaction with the group of learners in my class; but with each passing day the conflicts of the classroom and other spaces remain same and even intensify. I am plagued by doubts. I also feel that posing questions is easy but answers are hard to find. Are there solutions to these doubts about theory and reality and the mismatch between?

Even though I teach adults, the Socratic Oath brought several incidents to my mind and it helped me refocus my thoughts on my place in the classroom.

Some Oaths I took! – Indu Kaura

http://www.gocomics.com/peanutshttp://www.gocomics.com/peanuts

20861902_10155707719823054_6449684243889227960_o
Source: http://www.gocomics.com/peanuts

Oath 1: Dressed up in my most beautiful frock, new school bag on my shoulder, I proudly stand in front of my first school on the first day. I bend down and step inside through a tiny opening in a huge wooden gate. As I enter and raise my head, I see a child standing on a stool in the middle of a courtyard with her hands raised in the air. A bulky figure wrapped in a sari was yelling at her.  All the excitement of the first day at school melted away and I took a quick U turn and ran, out of the gate and into the street, stopping only when I reached home. I make a vow to myself never to go to school. (It’s another matter that I joined back within the year and stayed there happily till class V).

Oath 2: It’s the final exams of class VI and I am sitting on the desk feeling blank about the map in front of me trying to remember where the Ganga river should be marked. Oh dear! Why do I have learn Geography? Why can’t I just have Science and Math? Surreptitiously, I peer into a map that was lying inside my desk for answers. A curious child in the adjacent row catches my movement and complains to the teacher. The teacher gives me a ‘knowing’ look and says to the girl “She is good child. She can never do that.” I gently close the desk and vow to myself never to cheat again.

Oath 3: It is my first day in college and my first experience in a class with boys because of my interest in Science and Math, much to the distress of my grandfather. It would have been easier if I had opted for Biology that was available in a class with some girls. To study math, among boys, and have ambitions of becoming an Engineer in the 60s? That was unheard of in my hometown. Getting my grandfather to agree was a cakewalk compared to securing an entry in the Math class. The teacher declared simply: “I don’t teach girls”. Grudgingly, the Principal persuaded the teacher, who, also grudgingly, granted me an entry into the group. I went to the class for three days and every time he saw me, he put the chalk down, crossed his arms and sat in silence. The boys glared at me, and I felt alone and excluded. On the fourth day I walked out of the class and vowed to myself never to think about Math again.

Peanuts - pe_c160901.tif
Source: http://www.gocomics.com/peanuts

Oath 4: Finally I am out of school and in college. Once again I am standing at the gate, but this one is wide open, old and welcoming. Excited and a little nervous, I enter and I am immediately accosted by a gang of girls ready with ideas for ragging new entrants, commanding aggressively “Kneel down.” I look at them blankly “क्या”? They burst out laughing “अरे एक और बहनजी”। I run away crying, nervous and fearful, feeling very ‘small’. Suddenly I hear a voice, “Why are you crying?” And I speak hesitantly, “मुझे इंग्लिश नहीं आती। I am no good.” She smiles and says “मुझे हिंदी नहीं आता। Does THAT mean I am no good?” I wipe my tears and make a vow never to look down on myself. (The owner of the voice is the author of today’s post.

Oath 5: My 11-year old son gets down from the school bus smiling like a cat that licked the cream.

I- So, how was your day? Son- Very nice!

I- Tell me about it? Son- “I was talking to my friend and my teacher punished both of us……”

I- (interrupting impatiently) What’s so good about being punished?” Son- “Wait mom. Let me finish. Ma’am realised that it was my friend who was troubling me, and she said sorry to me. Isn’t she nice?”

I- “Yes, she is! And I am sorry I interrupted. Let’s go home.”  I squeeze his hand gently and vow to myself never to hesitate in apologising to my children if I erred.

Childhood (2)
Everyone wants to learn

Before we close, it is important to also discuss different faces of teachers. In a culture where teachers are celebrated even worshiped, we should maintain a realistic and balanced idea of adult-child relationships and the possibilities therein, both positive as well as negative. Teachers come in different forms, and a recent Facebook post by a friend made us think. Purna Rao, herself a former Principal of a well-known school in Mumbai wrote thus. Here is an edited extract:

“Every 5th September we become emotional about Teachers’ Day, and I see eulogies written by students to their teachers. The profession of teaching is amazing since we are also always learning. Yet, we also need to remind ourselves that unfortunately, this profession has also got itself mired in nasty things like negligence, greed, abuse and corruption. In my personal experience, many years ago as a teacher in an eminent school which was considered a beacon of learning, I found that it was a hotbed for such incidents. Some of the teachers were corrupt and the kids were hostage to their demands in exchange for extra marks or leaked question papers. I found it disgusting that people who were supposed to set an example for children could stoop to such means to make an extra buck! Private tuition and the mushrooming of coaching centres is evidence for the corruption in teaching. And, although I respect teachers, I think it is time we attended to these issues more seriously.  We owe it to our selves and we owe it to our children.”

Meanwhile, here is a link to a report about a school in Gurdaspur where children are permitted to question. Thanks for the link Reshu: https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=23&v=pDCF0mGi6iM

 

“The child is the father of man………….”

By: An anonymous father

It was the 70s, and we were growing up fast, perhaps too fast it seemed at that time. Years have passed since and some incidents are still fresh in my mind like it was yesterday, while others have faded along the way. As I grow older, I often think about my father and how he handled us, and how much I learned from him about what it means to be one, without ever having been ‘instructed’ or even being aware of the influence. I don’t think I could ever live up to being the kind of father he was, but having him as my hero, as a role-model, has definitely made me a better person. I miss him deeply and will always regret the fact that my children never met him.

I remember this one time when we were sitting at the lunch-table, as my mother served herself some rice, I made this rather inappropriate remark to her about white rice not being good for her health. My father, who was always judicious in his comments responded curtly, “…… ……. and smoking is good for you, right?” I was stunned. Up until then, this was a secret experiment, not yet the habit that it became later. I had no idea that he knew since I had been very discreet, or so I had imagined. It is another matter that it took me a long time to kick the habit, but I certainly understood that I had crossed the line with my mother. With great difficulty, I managed to finish my lunch. This was how he was, one sharp comment, and then silence. Long drawn explanations were not considered necessary.

Flash forward to a few years ago. My son was just about the same age as I in the lunch-table episode and some tell-tale signs of an emerging habit had begun to show. I deliberated on my own past as I planned what I should say to him and when. The common advice “You will realise what it feels like when you have your own” (children, that is) became abundantly clear to me. Somehow, I indicated to him that I knew, and that it would be a good idea for him to wait until he was earning before taking to the habit, if at all.

More years went by and not once did I see any obvious signs of a cigarette, but as an erstwhile smoker with a keen sense of smell (for traces of tobacco), I knew. In order to ease his comfort at home when he visited, I once suggested to him that he should feel free to smoke in my presence. But I guess life is not quite so simple, and I have never seen him smoke. With my wife or I, my children do not have the freedom to be rude.

This example brought two points to my mind. Firstly, that it is essential to remember one’s own childhood indiscretions while dealing with your children. I am reminded of R. K. Laxman’s cartoon showing a scruffy young lad with report card in hand, looking quite smug. Evidently the Dad had seen some red marks from a distance and was sketched in Laxman’s inimitable style, with a raised finger and stern countenance. The blurb showed the son saying something like “Oh, this is yours, Dad. I found it among some old papers in a suitcase”!

The other point I wanted to make here is that if one doesn’t make mistakes in the process of growing up; if you don’t trip, you don’t learn how to get up, brush off the past and get back to the business of living. My father would use Mirza Azeem Beg’s Urdu couplet to exemplify this: गिरते हैं शहसवार  ही  मैदान-ए-जंग  में I वोह तिफ़्ल क्या गिरे जो घुटनो के बल चले.

Somehow, we expect our children to be on their best behaviours, to always succeed, to be the best at everything; perhaps that is what makes life more difficult for them, and lead them to hide their indiscretions from us. This much (and much more) I have learnt from my father, he was perceptive, strict and strong, and he never raised his hand on us. One glance from him would be enough to send the message home. It worked for us, as I hope it has for my children. I have tried hard to be the best that I can be.

 21278007_10154985794403367_669251360_o

Commentary

The verse: The child is the father of man

Some of our readers may be able to estimate the author of this piece since the title is a pet phrase of his; one that he tends to apply rather indiscriminately, mostly in jest. But that is beside the point. When we first confront the expression “Child is the father of…..” it is quite easy to misjudge the meaning. Applied erroneously, it can imply that children tend to be precocious and adult-like, often going beyond their parents. But as most of you would know, originally, it was meant by Wordsworth to epitomise his understanding of the life-span, that our childhood experiences shape (child is the father) who we become in later life (man). Here are the original lines from ‘The Heart Leaps Up’.

“My heart leaps up when I behold; A rainbow in the sky

So was it when my life began; So is it now I am a man;

So be it when I shall grow old; Or let me die!

The Child is father of the Man…”

The poet examines his union with nature and raises the question of continuity, of immortality, that became the subject of his subsequent verse ‘Intimations of Immortality’ in which he writes that “Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting…….”.

On influence: Carbon copies, default templates and mirrors

Family life has a long-lasting impact on us, both through biological and behavioural transference, but a reasonable understanding of that impact is essential. It can be frightening to consider how influential families can be, more so in their absence. It is important to understand that the impact is powerful but not immutable, and this ensures that we are not reduced to becoming carbon copies of our parents. Theories of development fluctuate in the importance given to genetic inheritance and experience; but more recently, it has become understood that separating these forces is artificial and unnecessary. As the popular science writer Matt Ridley[1] argues, Nature is expressed via Nurture; as inextricably linked, rather than separate or in opposition. Undeniably, the ways in which we were brought up becomes a default template for us to rely on, Indu remarks.

In this blogpost, we become aware of the instant recursion that takes place in new positions with old relationships. Although we are largely unmindful of this impact when it unfolds or for years after that, switching perspectives instantly rakes up the past. As parents, we return to our memories of childhood experiences often accompanied by a renewed admiration and a kinder assessment of our parents. This can also be quite overwhelming since it may imply a lack of self-determination, but when the role-model is a positive one, such a realisation can provide comfort and reassurance.

Shraddha recounts that she often scolds her daughter for losing a water-bottle at school. Whenever this happens in the presence of her own mother, she (Shraddha) is quickly reminded about how she used to do the same. Parents of children who become parents provide them with mirrors, and that is a valuable perspective. Nonetheless, the child is still encouraged to be more careful because a mother’s weakness need not become an obstacle to being better at caring for your things! And the show goes on…………

Another significant observation Shraddha made was about the occasional absence of dialogue. There is a sense of “I know”, “I know that you know”, and “I know that you know that I know”. Such conversations and silences are a hallmark of traditional Indian discourse in domestic life. Everything does not need to be articulated if it has been understood. Perhaps at a time when hyperbole has become a hallmark of confidence, thinking about these silences can be heartening. Yet, there are some silences that have not been favourable, and we need to address those alongside. Silence should not imply suppression.

The recently released Bollywood film Bareilly ki Barfi apparently features a dramatic scene between a daughter and father that raises the issue of smoking in the presence of a parent. We have not seen it, but Reshu remarks that it is a hilarious scene. In many Indian homes, smoking, drinking or swearing are taboo, and there is no question of a sanction for these. In others, doing so in the in the company of your parents is considered unacceptable, Reshu reminds us. Of course, there has also been much change over the recent decades, and parents have wanted to dissolve some of these boundaries. Some children now feel free to indulge in the presence of parents, but, in many instances like the one described in the post, even though a parent may give permission, children choose to refrain from crossing that delicate line. Sometimes it can be limited to one parent and not the other, grandparents and not parents. Perhaps there is awkwardness in addition to implying disrespect. Perhaps these are sides of themselves that adult children do not want to share with their elders. These are the borders of their identity and autonomy. Such is the landscape of culture.

Models and role-models

We also wish to discuss role-models in the lives of our children. As their virtual world expands and dusty streets are visualised as speeding hyperloops, children have gained unprecedented access to other people’s lives. Among them there are those they can admire, follow or even worship. Air-brushed faces and photo-shopped bodies inhabit their screens and minds, sometimes making them and the ones around them seem inadequate or over-clad. As social pressure and peer persuasion intensify, this could result in evaluating people and events around as mundane, even worthless. This happens perhaps on account of familiarity and the apparent ordinariness in comparison with the glamour of models. The distant posturing and artificial identities can appear fascinating to the young mind. There is, thus, another important message in this post that we wish to highlight. Our children need proximal role-models in their lives in order to have access to authentic, realistic and affectionate relationships with self and others. Our mothers, fathers, uncles, aunts, grandparents, or siblings are real and available, and they are much more likely to care for us, love us back. We need to understand that family life can be precious, and the people we live with can be our heroes.

Ganesha’s heroes

How-Lord-Ganeshas-Win-Over-Lord-Kartikeya-Can-Give-You-Major-Lessons-In-Life-3Perhaps this story will add to this emphasis without implying absolute or uncritical acceptance of the message. Ganesha and his brother Kartikeya were sons of Shiva and Parvati. One day the two brothers were competing for a divine fruit that would grant supreme knowledge and immortality. Shiva decided to solve the argument by placing a challenge before the brothers, and the winner would receive the fruit. The challenge was this. “Circle the world three times and you will be the winner”. Karikeya who was brave, adventurous and swift as the wind, quickly mounted his vehicle, the peacock and left for his mission around the stars. The portly Ganesha, on the other hand, was endowed with wisdom, learning and the power to remove obstacles. His vehicle was a tiny mouse. Both (Ganesha and his mouse) would not stand a chance in a challenge of speed. Ganesha, for whom his parents were the centre of his existence, circled Shiva and Parvati three times and folded his hands in devotion. “What are you doing?” they questioned him. “For me, you, my parents, are my whole world, and I have circled you three times”. When Kartikeya returned, he felt cheated by his brother, and disappointed with his parents for handing him the fruit. To this Ganesha argued that “You went around the world, and I went around my world!”[2]

 

Some links for your viewing pleasure in case you have an appetite for comedy. Sometimes they can get straight to the point. There are so many on Dads!

Thanks Reshu Tomar

[1] https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/80035.Nature_Via_Nurture

[2] http://devdutt.com/articles/world-mythology/greek/canvas-of-my-world.html

Source for Calvin and Hobbes: http://www.gocomics.com/calvinandhobbes/

Source Ganesha image: https://www.google.co.in/search?q=Ganesha+kartikeya+images&tbm=isch&tbo=u&source=univ&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwiC89bRs4HWAhXKso8KHSWCB0YQ7AkISw&biw=1366&bih=589#imgrc=1GP-B98N9xADe: 

The Grass Basket: A Story Remembered

Many, many moons ago, there lived a farmer who was poor and very alone. He worked tirelessly to tend to his farm, but each season, the crops failed to survive and he was penniless. It seemed as if misfortune was his only companion, and his young shoulders bent wearily in the harsh summer sun. Yet, he was a good man with simple needs and a clean heart. Unbeknownst to him, he was being watched over from above.

DSC_0773One day, in the midst of a raging storm, the wet winds blew a young woman to his doorstep. She stood at the threshold of his broken hut with a gentle smile and a basket made of grass in her hands. She bore the freshness of springtime and the fragrance of some flowers that he had long forgotten the names of. As she crossed the threshold, she walked straight into his heart. She set the basket down and sat beside him, gently stroking the lines on his forehead. The farmer grew nervous. Was it a dream? Was he so much in despair that he was hallucinating? But there she was, sitting with him, as real as the storm.

“You poor man” she said quietly, “I am here with you now. I will be your wife, I will tend to your home and farm by your side, I will bear our children, and we will be happy. But……” she added mysteriously, “…but there is one condition. You… (she paused a bit, as if wanting to reconsider)…….. you must never open this basket. The day you do, I will be gone from your life forever.”

The farmer sat in stunned silence. He nodded mutely and turned to look at the storm, feeling the presence of another person in his life for the first time. He was overcome with joy and affection, and the years passed quickly by. The farmer and his wife made the hut their home, their crops prospered, they had two lovely children and it seemed that their lives were perfect. Until one day!

March2013 (134)One day when he returned home by himself, the farmer’s gaze fell upon the grass basket, dusty and abandoned in a dark corner of their home. He was drawn by his curiosity to know what it was that she wanted to hide from him. “She is now the mother of my children, and we have weathered many a storm together and emerged happy and secure in each other’s affections, there is nothing that can come between us now” he thought to himself and reached out to lift the lid of the basket to look inside.

In the distance, he could hear the sounds of their children returning home; the sound of laughter filled his heart as he looked inside again, and yet again. “What was it that she wanted to hide from me?” he wondered, “She is such a wonderful person, surely she need not have any secret from me now”. As he checked again, he drew back bewildered; there was nothing inside! What sort of condition was this? Nothing?

As he stepped back from the dark corner, the children rushed into his arms and stumbled over each other to tell him what they had seen on their way home. She stood affectionately behind them. Soon the children were distracted by other things and the farmer sat her down and asked: “Why did you make such a scene about that basket? It’s just a grass basket with nothing inside. What was all the fuss about?”

As soon as the words were out of his mouth he saw her face turn pale and distant. She stepped away from him and said calmly, “I warned you not to open that basket. Now I must leave you”. The farmer grew more anxious and spoke urgently, loudly, pleadingly, “But there is nothing….NOTHING…..nothinggg” his voice trailed off as he choked, now desperate to know what had transpired. “Please…tell me…please………….”.

DSC_0142She reached out for the basket, picked it up and went to the children. She stroked them caringly as she moved to the door, saying to the farmer, “You say there was nothing in the basket? Inside this basket was everything that I wanted to keep to myself. You were not willing to live with that, so I must leave”. Her voice fading as she turned back to explain further. “There is another reason why I must leave your world”. With tears rolling down his face he held the children tightly as he heard her parting words: “You say there was nothing? I will not live among a people who believe that there is something only if they can see it. Inside this basket was that part of me that I wanted to keep to myself, and you couldn’t accept that. So I must leave now.” He realised she was not from this world.

 

Commentary

The Right to Privacy and Collectivism

“Privacy is a fundamental right, declares the Supreme Court”, the headlines of the Hindu read this morning. It has been declared as intrinsic to life and liberty and an inherent part of the fundamental rights enshrined in the Constitution of India. Yet, privacy is a complex matter. When we consider our own, it seems quite basic to being human, but when it comes to another person, we often find ourselves slipping, easily making demands on, probing into, violating or even denying the other person the space to be unique or secretive. This is most evident in our relationships within the family.

As a society that places much importance on sociability and family relationships, privacy is sometimes seen as a luxury we cannot afford, and even as a threat. Within the family, we tend to live with open doors and amorphous boundaries, and cherish closeness and communication with others. Living within this constant flow of relationships, private space can easily become forgotten. For cross-cultural psychologists it has been an easy conclusion, rather simplemindedly, that Indians are a “collectivistic” people. Fortunately, there are criticisms of this imposed identity, and Indian psychologists have demonstrated that individualism is very much alive and well, look at our traffic. In an instant, Indian individualism is visible!

Storytelling

The grass basket is essentially a remembered story since we have been unable to find a reference to the original. As a folk-tale from Nigeria, it is likely to have had many authors, and several versions. Although folk stories are steeped in culture, they also have elements that can resonate with human lives everywhere, anywhere. The landscape of folklore is widespread and they can be found “from rural communities and families, wayside inns and resthouses, factory and kitchen, streets and suburbs, even public transport – in fact, any of those places where people meet…..exchange greetings and …form themselves into small verbal communities. A folktale turns up almost anywhere, anytime. It surfaces mostly by allusion, occasionally as a gentle prod to move a cumbersome narrative through, or simply to break the ice. It confirms the solidarity of a group that shares certain knowledge and values on predictably equal terms”[1]. With this story, we can also find resonance with some tales from Hindu mythology. For instance, Indu mentions that stories of Ganga and Shantanu discuss similar themes about space for the self.

Although these are ubiquitous, stories also live on in their re-telling. They stay dormant, held down, locked within words “till you or someone else reads it, brings it to life, and changes it by retelling it”, A. K. Ramanujan writes in his Folk Tales from India[2]. They can also light up spaces that usually remain in darkness or doubt, tell us about things that we find difficult to address in regular conversations, they can bind us together, and they can also divide.

To quote a well-known storyteller Devdutt Pattanaik[3], stories are told for several reasons, to entertain, explain, inform, educate, persuade, guide, inspire, injure or heal ourselves and/or others. Everyone tells stories. Stories are mostly allegoric, not meant to be taken literally. They are devices with hidden meanings and subtle messages, and obliquity is essential to their narration. In between the words, people can find their own meanings, their own reason. This inherent polysemy makes them powerful cultural tools.

Emerging themes

The grass basket can be seen from different perspectives. An intimate group like a family is a collection of individuals with conjugal or filial connections, and there will always be a play between the self and the other, between individual needs and interests of the group, and also the larger social network. Without this elasticity, perhaps families wouldn’t be able to survive. Punya remarks that self-other boundaries is an important element of this story. We believe that this parable allows us to examine these dynamics, despite its reference to an ‘other-world’ from which the woman has come.

Many themes can be pulled out, and our team urged us to open these up for discussion. We can see the woman as selfish and stubborn, the farmer as curious and confident. The story can have hidden meanings about close relationships and privacy, about living together as a family without compromising individuality. We can sit on judgement about or debate the condition placed on an innocent man, the breach of trust by the husband, the irrepressible curiosity of the farmer or his over-confidence in the relationship, the fact that there should be no secrets in close relationships, and that members within a family are not entitled to privacy, or, the right to walk out of a home versus the need to do what is right. These are only some of the issues that came to our minds. We invite you to tell us what the story meant for you, what do you think it brings out, what meanings are contained in the events from your perspective and how would you judge the actors? Would this story apply to relationships with children? Do we think children are entitled to their privacy? Do infants have a private life? If no, then when does self-space emerge? Should children tell their parents everything? Should we be allowed to keep some things to ourselves?

Without taking sides on any of these issues, we invite you to share your thoughts.

[1]http://go.galegroup.com/ps/anonymous?p=AONE&sw=w&issn=00393789&v=2.1&it=r&id=GALE%7CA15801107&sid=googleScholar&linkaccess=fulltext&authCount=1&isAnonymousEntry=true

[2]http://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/books/137468/folktales-from-india-by-a-k-ramanujan/9780679748328/

[3]http://devdutt.com/articles/modern-mythmaking/everybody-tells-a-story.html

“Send your child to preschool early so you can be ‘free’”

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.

Families (17)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?

Commentary

Entry to school

Childhood (2)There are many ongoing debates about optimal age for entry to school. As per Government guidelines[1], 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[2]. 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[3] 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[4] 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[5] in another context.

[1] http://mhrd.gov.in/sites/upload_files/mhrd/files/statistics/SISH201112.pdf

[2] http://www.thehindu.com/news/cities/bangalore/when-should-a-child-start-school/article8046299.ece

[3] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Integrated_Child_Development_Services

[4] http://indianexpress.com/article/opinion/columns/being-hindi-medium-language-class-divide-education-bollywood-film-rte-ews-irrfan-khan-4707783/

[5] http://www.thehindu.com/news/international/the-islamic-state-as-an-excuse/article18956519.ece