By resolution 836(IX) of December 14, 1954 the United Nations (UN) General Assembly recommended that all countries institute a Universal Children's Day on November 20, to be observed as a day of worldwide fraternity and understanding between children. The day of November20, marks the day on which the UN General Assembly adopted the Declaration of the Rights of the Child, in 1959, and the Convention on the Rights of the Child, in 1989.
No child asks to be born. It is a conscious decision of both the parents to become instruments of bringing God’s greatest gift to this world. But, very often, the motive behind this serious decision is either just to keep their family tree blooming, and/or else to create crutches for themselves in their time of need/old age. Is this the right attitude with which to embark upon the crucial phase of parenthood?
So, parents start harbouring unrealistic expectations from day one of the arrival of ‘that bundle of joy’. They want their 'investment' to grow by leaps and bounds, in order to be cashed later on. The child starts getting seen and judged from an adult’s point of view.
Dramatic changes happening in India, within the last generation, have added to the concerns of parents and to the challenges faced by children and teenagers. But most of these changes are being thrust upon the children unwittingly by their parents. In almost every urban home, a toddler gets hooked to the Cartoon Network, courtesy parents / elders, who are either over busy or stereotypical. Their faces beam with unabashed pride as their child recites, parrot like, advertisement jingles of consumer products. The problem starts when, later on, the same kid throws tantrums to possess one or more of those very products. Very soon, efficiency of the child on the computer keyboard becomes an added family asset to boast about.
Recently, at a social gathering, I found myself amidst young mothers, who were discussing the admissions of their ‘4 year olds’ to nursery class. Each one of them was keen to select a school which offered computer education at the pre primary level. Not one of them considered playground facilities as a criterion for a good school. Later on, these very parents would lament that their kids have become television and computer addicts.
In most Indian homes (and may be elsewhere too), even an infant is lovingly handed the ubiquitous mobile phone to play with and to enjoy its various ring tones. Yes, it is hard to imagine life without this contraption, which has become as indispensable as sliced bread. But its unrestricted use is also prompting authorities to ban mobile phones in school / college premises. Mobile phones have already become one of the main causes of childhood / teenage distractions and even a health hazard. I once watched with amused concern a 10-12 year boy choosing a mobile phone for himself. The old fashioned (?) shopkeeper did not let him handle the very expensive models, saying that they were not for kids of his age. This irritated the father of the child. He ordered the shopkeeper to satisfy the whims of his son, and not bother about the price tag. This is not a stray incident. We, as parents, are trying to outdo each other in giving our young ones too much too soon. But when silly chats / messaging /amateur pornography on their mobile phones (which we ourselves so lovingly but unnecessarily provided them) eats upon their study time / moral values, we brand them as irresponsible.
Chetan Bhagat, the famous author, recently remarked, (while favouring childless couples), that ‘having a child is like owning a luxury car. They cost you Rs.20,000 to 30,000 per month.’ Now, begetting a child or not could be one’s personal choice, but to equate a child with a car! Well, what else will happen if we lavish them with rich upholstery / gizmos instead of disciplined love?
India faces new problems with obesity, as a new middle class emerges, which allows its children to trade their health with new food choices, promoted by television ads and swanky malls. On the one side we have hungry / malnourished children (UNICEF reports about 47% of children below 5years of age to be under weight), and on the other side junk food is finding its way even to hutment shops of rural India.
Experts are of the opinion that it is best to inculcate right eating habits in children from 4 months old onwards. We need to develop in them, from an early age, a taste for food items from our traditional/ regional cuisine, which are healthy and delicious at the same time. We also need to promote them aggressively so that they reach every corner of the country and replace the likes of coca cola and ‘Lays chips’. Unless immediate and drastic steps are taken to curb the consumption of junk/fast food, we will have a large number of sick youngsters. Already Type-2 Diabetes is spreading in children and is becoming a serious global health problem. The main cause cited for this is childhood obesity (fuelled by high cholesterol and fat rich processed food) and a sedentary lifestyle. We need more families and schools which promote physical activities like walking, playing, riding bicycles, dancing instead of encouraging the indiscriminate use of computer/television from an early age.
There is an urgent need to break the barrier to understand the child as a person and not as a thing. Right now there seems to be chaos everywhere. In the name of free society we are picking up wrong values. Teenagers are a confused lot and do not know the difference between modernity and westernization. In trying to be cool they are becoming fools. We have failed in our task to tell them that to be called developed, one does not have to eat junk food, experiment with sex in school, and consume drugs / alcohol.
According to psychologists, teenagers always have had the same problems---how to rebel and conform at the same time. So they defy parents and copy each other and the latest fashion/food fads, fueled by a market driven society. They have conflicting expectations from parents, teachers, peers and a westernized media. They have to negotiate traditional roles with modern choices / societal pressures. But in many cases their ability to make choices is drastically curtailed. Many families require children to work rather than go to school due to economic compulsions. For others it may mean getting married off, far too soon, so that they are not a financial/social burden on the family (in females) or getting an extra pair of hands to work (in males). And yet for many it may mean to tread the chosen path and become engineers/doctors despite their genuine interest in literature or other 'not so paying' fields.
We need to curb our dangerous desires to realize our unfulfilled dreams through the achievements of our children. They should not be treated as robots, performing all assigned tasks to perfection. Rather, they are to be recognized as human beings, with their own share of imperfections. We need to tell them that faltering and missteps are okay and will inspire them to set new and higher goals. They will make terrible blunders and face disappointments/ hurts in search of their dreams, just as we did. But all this is an inevitable process of growing up.
On this year's Universal Children’s Day, let us as parents, elders and teachers, resolve to not lose our common sense and sanity. Let us neither produce rats to join the race, nor grow couch and mouse potatoes, by satisfying merely the material needs of our children. Let us devote our time, energy and love to nurture emotionally balanced human beings to make this world a better place to live in.
The author teaches Physics at India's Loreto Convent and has been writing extensively in English and Hindi media. She serves as Editor of Citizen News Service (CNS).