Charu Vaid (SCMP with Alberta Health Services, Canada)

The Need for an Interview

I have been living away from India for almost two decades now. And my son has been schooled primarily in countries other than India. Also, by no means am I an armchair activist. For all the people who know me well, will easily vouch for that. So, with the true intent of composing this write-up, and putting forth a correct representation, I set out to interview people who live in India, and their children who are actually pursuing their education in schools in India. The individuals that I interviewed belonged to a wide variety of economic and professional background. I also ensured that the interviewees resided in various cities across India. The discussions were open and interactive, and on many occasions, somewhat saddening and concerning. This here then, is a fair attempt to capture quite similar, if not the same, sentiments expressed by everyone that I spoke with. It is an attempt to take a look at how parenting and schooling is impacting the nurture of the children in India, and how the exposure to technology and various media is influencing children.

Children’s Day

It’s that month of the year again. That month, where for a day, schools all across India celebrate Children’s Day. For a day, children are glorified, as is their childhood. Question is, what about children and their childhood is being celebrated? Children are provided treats of various kinds on this day. In certain schools, teachers perform for their students. Some schools even ensure that there are no study periods on this day specifically. Yet certain other schools celebrate the achievements of students, be it in the academic arena, or the extracurricular one. Is this really it though? Does the end all and be all of a child’s existence boil down to these simplistic activities on one specific day? Or do we, as a society, need to work alongside children, on a continuous basis; a constant work in, and towards progress? For a society’s future is only as good as the future of its current juvenile generation.

Impact of Parenting

Yes, it’s true that children are the future of any and every society, no matter which nook or cranny of the world that society belongs to. To the same token, parents, no matter what demographic, or strata of society they belong to, always have the best interest of their children at heart, and front and center in their lives. Parents provide, to the best of their ability, for a child’s basic needs such as nourishment, clothing, and protection form the elements. Sometimes however, societal norms, local environmental attributes, and cultural nuances provide tacit ground rules on nurture, which go far and beyond the basic needs that parents can, and do provide. In talking to all the people that I did, there were a few commonalities that stood out starkly. In the current Indian context, there are several aspects that have impacted how child nurture is evolving.

For the first time since India regained its Independence, the purchasing power of Indian families is at its highest. This is specifically of great significance as it pertains to the middle class, be it upper or lower. This sudden glut of wealth has bred a culture that has evolved from the have-nots of a generation ago, to the haves of the current generation; from a ‘need’ based lifestyle, to a ‘want’ based lifestyle. In many cases, at the very behest of a child wanting a material object or gain, parents keenly fulfill the desire. This is enveloping today’s child in a sense of entitlement; a sense that is disseminating into their near, and far future. This can have a very strong impact on a child’s future; on a child’s adulthood. It has been seen in other cultures, that when individuals have this sense of entitlement, the fine line between cause and effect is blurred. Such children, often times, grow up to be adults who are not cognizant of the consequences their actions may manifest.

The onus of responsibility then lies on the parents, to define boundaries regarding when and what kind of material gains should be allowed to children. It becomes an interactive decision making process between a parent and a child. This bilateral dialogue may also give the child a sense of being enabled in the decision making process, as also, shifting a portion of the responsibility towards the child.

The material aspect of child upbringing is a very recent concept in India. And thankfully, forms a small, albeit a very important and impactful, portion of the entire nurturing process. Parents in India play a very important, and centric role in the emotional, moral, and social build-up of a child. Which is to say, how a parent, mother or father, interacts with a child, greatly impacts these aspects that children will carry into their adulthood. There is no copy-book style of parenting, as each child, even siblings and twins, are very unique individuals. From my experience as a mother, and in talking to a lot of other parents, one aspect for good nurture has been very clear. It is very important to have meaningful, and non-judgmental conversations with children. This one attribute of parenting enables children to not only believe in themselves, but also believe in a very fundamental feeling of knowing that no matter what happens, their parents will be by their side to guide them towards the right path, before they themselves are able to differentiate between right and wrong; good and bad.

A caveat to note here is that there is a very fine line between providing children with an obnoxious sense of entitlement, and providing them with a sense of solace that their parents are actually their guides, mentors and role models.

The Role of Education

That is a good Segway into how schools and education are impacting the future of children in India. In interviewing people, it was disturbing to learn how education is progressively being viewed, and treated as a business in India.

It is a well-known fact that post-secondary education in a lot of the developed countries, is a highly expensive proposition, where annual tuition fees alone go into tens of thousands of dollars. On the contrary though, elementary and secondary education is highly discounted, yet with the provision of world class, and best of breed academic and vocational training.

In India though, elementary and secondary education seems to have adopted the capitalistic model, where by the public education infrastructure has deteriorated immensely in the last few decades; and the private education infrastructure has become big business. It is understandable that the teachers grapple with progressively increasing class sizes, and are unable to provide individualized attention to students. It is the organizations that run the educational institutions that are in it to make money.

It is specifically appalling to learn that children who want to achieve beyond what is norm, undergo ‘dummy enrollments’ at the high school level, and actually go to ‘coaching institutes’ to learn anything of merit.

Learning is still by rote, and cramming. There is a highly evident lack of extracurricular or vocational training. This is clearly indicative of the fact that children are not getting a well-rounded education.

One very disappointing result of this, for decades has been the brain drain from India. Parents of children who know that the ‘out of the box’ thinking of their child will not be appreciated in the Indian work environment, encourage their children to emigrate out of India, where they become high performing, and contributing individuals to those societies. In a lot of countries, people of Indian origin in fact, belong to the high income tax paying bracket. Such a great blessing to the future of the nation it could potentially be, if these very children are retained by India.

The crux of it all is that schools are churning out literate children, and not educated ones for the most part. This should be of some concern, as there is a huge difference between being just literate, and being actually educated.

Influence of the ‘Information Age’

When we look at the children of a society, it is imperative to look at how the exposure current trends is influencing how they are going to evolve into adulthood. And in today’s scenario, when we look at that, the two trends that stand out are the exposure to technology, and media, inclusive of, but not limited to social media. Technology is evolving at an exponential rate. Whatever is the latest and greatest today, is obsolete tomorrow. So, exposure to technology is really very important, as it enables the children of today to be productive adults of tomorrow. It is equally, if not more important, to make children aware of the pros and cons of the exposure to, and utilization of technology. Simply put, too much screen time takes children away from the limited, and few and far between green spaces, and playgrounds. It takes them away from creative team activities such as board games, and other socially interactive activities. This is turning some individuals in to sometimes non-creative, self-centric and socially inept people.

Similar is the case with exposure to media in general, and social media specifically. Be it social media platforms like Facebook, Snapchat, Reddit, and Twitter; or western media influences, or even websites; parents and educators really need to have an open dialogue with the young minds, on how to effectively and productively utilize all these tools of the ‘Information Age’. There is a need for a certain level of education or conversation towards the pitfalls of posting / sharing sensitive information on any internet based platform, as that information will exist for all eternity, once posted, and it may prove to be detrimental in the future. Social media, and the Internet are highly effective tools, if used properly. The children of today need to be guided and channelized in the right direction to use them.

The exposure to worldwide media platforms has resulted in young minds being highly aware, and at the same time concerned about the goings on of the world. They really want to be able to make a positive difference. It is upto the current adult mentors and guides on how best to positively exploit that huge advantage.

The Bottom-line

What it all boils down to is having an open, educated, and fair discussion with the very smart, very opinionated, and easily influenced children of today. It boils down to investing time and efforts into today’s generation, by parents, by educational institutions, and by the society as a whole. This will truly enable them to be a great asset to the future of the nation.

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