There is another vitally important ‘Climate Change’ which needs our urgent attention and the disastrous effects of which are alarmingly visible: the change in the climate or environment of a child over the last few decades.
The joint family environment, of a few decades ago, provided a child with a healthy mix of attention from family members of different ages and unstructured time to create his own learning. Starting school later than a child does today, there was no pressure to write, study, perform, speak in a language other than the mother tongue or stress about marks, exams or failing. A code of conduct, family values were observed and followed without any explicit teaching as learning proceeded organically on a scaffolding of a child’s own experiences. Language was not just a subject in school but an enjoyable medium of expression replete with songs and riddles and rhymes carrying forward a cultural tradition, with no absurd insistence on speaking in English.
Non-judgmental grandparents, providing unconditional love and encouragement, enriched a child’s environment by interacting patiently and joyously, building a bond of deep love and trust. So, growing up was a mostly relaxed and enjoyable experience which one skipped through blithely. Those of my generation happily recall growing up on nutritious food, pure air, loving care, laughter and lots of unstructured playtime; all the things that seem to have vanished from a child’s environment now.
As the era of nuclear families began, a child still had the opportunity to spend his vacation in the home of grandparents and the interaction continued to strengthen his impressionable core, while the stay at home parent, mostly the mother, still provided hands-on loving care, unfettered by the stress of balancing a work and home life.
More change happened as women held competitive jobs and became financially independent. This morphing into both parents working changed the child’s immediate environment drastically. The primary caregiver of the children of educated, qualified, well to do parents, became the semi or uneducated maid who was often from another state, spoke a different tongue and was not personally invested in factors which affected the long-term wellbeing of the child. She was paid primarily to take care of the physical needs of the child and emotional and mental development took a backseat. As the parents painstakingly charted their career paths and worked hard to achieve their professional goals in a super competitive corporate world buoyed by a booming economy, a child’s world, heartbreakingly, shrank.
It is pertinent to keep in mind Erik Erikson's Theory of Psychosocial Development in this context. Erikson believed that personality develops in a predetermined order through eight stages of psychosocial development, from infancy to adulthood. During each stage, the person experiences a psychosocial crisis or conflict which could have a positive or negative outcome for personality development. The first and most fundamental stage occurs between birth and one year of age. In this stage the conflict is between trust and mistrust and developing trust is based on the dependability and quality of an infant's caregivers. If a child successfully develops trust, he develops the quality of hope which helps him feel safe and secure in the world. Inconsistency, emotional unavailability or rejection in caregiving, contribute to feelings of mistrust in children. Failure to develop trust at this stage results in fear and a belief that the world is inconsistent and unpredictable.
Autonomy versus shame and doubt is the second stage of Erikson's stages of psychosocial development. This stage occurs between the ages of 18 months to approximately three years. According to Erikson, children at this stage are focused on developing a sense of personal control over physical skills and a sense of independence. Success in this stage will lead to the virtue of will. If children in this stage are encouraged and supported in their increased independence, they become more confident and secure in their own ability to survive in the world.
If children are criticised, overly controlled, or not given the opportunity to assert themselves, they begin to feel inadequate in their ability to survive, and may then become overly dependent upon others, lack self-esteem and feel a sense of shame or doubt in their abilities.
So, in the child’s changed environment, some of the most vitally essential features of this very important phase of life were no longer there to ensure a firm and value-based foundation and a strong, confident core.
Gone was the stimulating multi-layered, multi-dimensional, multi-hued environment of a joint family. Gone was the vital bond of love and trust intrinsically nurtured by patient grandparents who joyfully shared the valuable resource of unhurried time and unconditional love, so vital for the development of self-esteem. Gone also was the care and concerned-looking after by a stay at home mother who, though seemingly strict, still provided an emotional and nurturing stability to the home environment.
It was as if in a hitherto brightly lit hall, someone had come along and switched off all the lights one by one, leaving behind darkness and gloom. So that instead of a kaleidoscopically vibrant environment which used to nurture a child’s mental, physical, social and emotional growth, and enabled osmotic learning of family values, the child was left sitting in a darkened hall with a semi-literate maid, staring at a flickering screen.
Both the parents climbed still higher on the corporate ladder and proudly got individual screens, often not just for themselves but also for their child. The child’s world shrank even further. When the parents thought they were opening up the windows of the exciting modern world for their child, they were actually facilitating the shutting down of vital windows of cognitive development in a child’s mind. The lack of a stimulating, emotionally nurturing environment leaves the child unprepared for the world outside as the elements which should have been firmly in place are, sadly, missing.
Imagine an incomplete and weak foundation, on which parents dream of building an ambitious shiny glass and chrome megastructure. A very important part of this mega structure is ‘providing the best’ to their child. From SINKs to DINKs, people have graduated to DIOKs- Double Income One Kid! The inevitable happens! With hefty packages, stock options, investments and disposable income both parents are committed and enthused to provide the best for their child, except that unknown to them, they cease to be the torchbearers of cultural family heritage, passing on the wisdom accumulated over generations and become, instead, mere providers of an expensive education, branded clothes, latest gadgets and foreign holidays, moulding the children into younger keeping-up-with-the-Joneses models of themselves! Instead of parents, they become managers, chauffeurs, waiters, valets, ayahs and, tragically, often even doormats of their children.
The child, therefore, for no fault of his, to begin with, grows up into a very different being. With an underdeveloped emotional quotient and with access to all the goodies his doting parents have provided him, he is treading a very rocky path, which becomes more and more apparent as he grows older. And yet the parents are quite oblivious of the flawed foundation, the damage that’s already done and the problems that lie ahead.
They continue to miss the vitally important and focus on exams and marks instead. They see good grades as the boat which will help their child cross the turbulent seas of life and land him safely on the golden shores of high paying jobs in MNCs so that the whole cycle of hefty packages, stock options, investments, large disposable incomes leading to expensive education, branded clothes, latest gadgets, foreign holidays, etc. can begin all over again and consume one more generation, taking it further and further away from the fundamental values, age-old wisdom and eternal truths about life developed experientially through centuries till a time will come when we would have forgotten who we were and wouldn’t know how to handle the numerous frightening aspects of who we have become.
Children, used to personal providers, grow up cocooned in a bubble of interacting with ‘people like us’ with whom they share sensibilities, priorities and choices. They are disconnected from the realities of the larger mosaic of life. They are sent out to fend for themselves, their only skill being the ability to earn a big salary. Since they haven’t grown up learning the give and take of relationships, as bewildered adults, they often struggle through their own relationships.
Since the only thing expected from the child is high marks, while parents play the role of being Personal Providers & Managers [PPM] to the hilt, preempting situations and protecting him from the consequences of his own actions, the child does not learn to take responsibility for anything in his environment and grows up only replacing the high marks with a high salary. During this journey, parents too are often baffled when their child is rude, insensitive and thinks nothing of hurling hurtful words towards them. They cannot understand why the apple of their eye is taking things for granted, not being able to appreciate or empathise and is generally behaving like a monster. Far from the joyous and fulfilling bond it can be, parenting becomes a journey laden with hurt, stress and apprehension, where the parents go through the motions, doing what they think is required of them, bending over backwards to adapt, align, change their lives in accordance with the child’s supposed needs, while the child merrily skips along, with a huge sense of entitlement, blissfully unaware of the difference between ‘needs’ and ‘wants’ and good and bad behavior.
It has been rightly said that we need to prepare our child for the road, not the road for our child. While ‘doing the best’ and ‘giving the best’ as a parent, the focus should be on those fundamental, vital aspects which need to be nurtured and cannot be bought. Parenting can be a joyful journey of discovering and learning together, of love, laughter and companionship, of mutual respect and empathy, instead of being a stressful, emotionally draining journey of unpredictability and fire-fighting. Let’s really give our children the best in the truest sense of the word, because no child deserves anything less.
About the author:
Valentina Trivedi is an education consultant and performance artist. She holds workshops for teachers and parents, and enjoys interacting with children and learning from them
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