I have a thousand things to say to you and a thousand reasons not to…
Are many adults caught in the predicament most effectively summarized by the above quote? Should we talk, shouldn’t we, on unpleasant yet important subjects to our children? What is the right age to speak about the dangers of child trafficking, sexual abuse or sexual exploration and on other sensitive subjects? Would it lead to fear of the unknown or worse a fear psychosis? What if I too as an adult, am not comfortable dealing with the subject? All the above and more often work in our subconscious when it comes to communicating with our children on topics that are delicate or unhappy.
One memory that stands out from my childhood days is our family visit to the annual trade exhibition in Hyderabad during late 1960s and early 70s. Along with the amount that was ours to spend for the evening, my father used to draw our attention to the public address system and tell us that if we were “lost”, we should make our way to the help desk and not wander around. He assured us that he would find us. We never got lost but were happy that we had an option if we did.
Years later, I felt my young daughter lacked observation skills and pointed out things to her as a routine. When we found our 6-year-old lost in Lucknow station, the agony was excruciating thinking that she wouldn’t be able to find her way back…and there she was coming back the same way she wandered off. The agony of those seconds is still fresh in my mind some two decades later. Thus began a life time of informing and educating.
When a 13-year-old child studying in one of the elite schools in Bengaluru walked out of her home ostensibly fearing her examination results and returned some four days later, I could not help wondering if the concept of “child trafficking” was alien to her?
According to the statistics available on the Railway Children website, every five minutes a child arrives alone on a platform in India. There are 11 million children living in stations or on streets.
According to National Crime Records Bureau data, over 130 children go missing every day, out of which, a minuscule number gets reunited with the parents. Most missing children are trafficked for labour, for sexual exploitation, abducted, or kidnapped to be pushed into crimes. With such staggering statistics, the girl, returning safely without any harm is a miracle in itself.
That begs a question, is she even aware of how foolhardy was her action? Do the adults in her life—both at home and school—work in tandem to educate her and sensitize other children on the possible consequences of her actions?
A teacher who has put in around 18 years of service asks about her fellow fraternity, “Do we have the liberty to ask the child who ran away the reason for doing so?”
She feels it could happen in many schools, unless both parents and educators make a concerted effort to educate the child rather than engage in a blame game. She knows of many parents who stop communicating with their children as they should, particularly once they enter their teens.
Swapna Nair, a teacher-turned-counsellor, says, “First parents have to be sensitized, in order to use the right terms while explaining to children. Home is where learning begins. Hence parents first and then children.”
This being the case, are all parents well-tuned to the happenings around the world? Do they live with the mindset that such things don’t happen to me or us and believe that this “ostrich-like” attitude is sufficient to protect their child from any misadventure?
Maya Sadasivan, a leadership coach and a mother of a young adult, says, “Our willingness to talk, listen and create a space for them, to make decisions based within the moral compass that they have imbibed from us should be the parents’ way of creating secure individuals in this manic world.”
With internet being a way to woo children or young adults into romantic rendezvous or inveigle them into flesh trade or indoctrinate them into their “cause”, it becomes all the more a reason to monitor your child and young adult and ensure that the child is not locked up in his or her room 24/7.
Nupur R., a freelance writer, says, “I found Dr. Jonice Webb’s book Running on Empty a great resource for parents. Many times it is childhood emotional neglect that causes problems. Emotional neglect happens because parents too are unaware; they themselves have faced it and carry on to the next generation.”
Children can be taught to be a little wary yet not too paranoid about sharing information with strangers. Parents of young children can stop themselves from advertising their children’s school, home and other details on social media.
A little more diligent homework on the vehicle, friends, neighbours with whom your child is travelling or hanging out with are all options. Besides, teaching your child to be observant and not take unnecessary risk is something we need to keep talking about.
Sexual abuse and permissiveness
Despite being the land of Kama Sutra, there is a lot of cloak-and-dagger repressiveness that prevents proper education and awareness. On the other extreme, we have youngsters caught between their raging hormones and cloying control that does not give much opportunity to find a middle ground and leads to sexual promiscuity.
Moreover, the familial honour and belief system also puts a lot of harm the children’s way. How many parents accept it when their children come and say that they are not comfortable with the touch of a particular family member because he is considered to be a “good and a kind man?” Does good and bad touch apply here? When children come up and say that they are uncomfortable with the touch of a person, we need to respect that.
Does sensitization benefit here?
“Definitely,” says a leading gynaecologist and obstetrician from Bengaluru, in the promise of anonymity to protect the doctor-patient confidentiality. “Sex education in most leading school is helping youngsters make better choices or be more prepared. I find girls smarter, more knowledgeable and better equipped than their parents. I find some parents unable to observe the changes that are happening with their own children.
“I also feel boys need to be ‘educated’ as they lag behind the girls in this aspect and all the more, the need to overcome their patriarchal biases.”
A parent who did not want to be named differed to some extent. She says, “Knowing the consequence and understanding the consequence are two different things. I do know hormones play a major role. I also realize that susceptibility to disease and pregnancy is possible despite the contraceptives.”
She also feels that sex and experimentation is not solely dependent on physical manifestation. It also has an abstract quality of commitment and love and that is her role to play in the upbringing of her children, a boy and a girl.
She also encourages her first-born daughter to bring her friends of both genders home as she believes that boys would be more respectful to the girl when they realize that her parents are in the loop about her friends.
She also believes that children should have their self-confidence and self-esteem intact. It would make them comfortable in their own skin and will not allow them to succumb to either peer pressure or self-destructive relationships. “I would rather handle them during their difficult times rather than being unaware of the slips. I believe in both sensitization and prayers,” she says.
Educating first gen learners
Enfold India, which has worked extensively with UNICEF, lives by its tagline of “creating safe places”. According to one of the co-founders, Shaibya Saldanha, “We follow a life skills approach to sexuality and personal safety. When imparting the education, we keep in mind the cultural sensitivity of the subject, combine it with scientifically accurate knowledge and tailor it to ‘age appropriateness’ depending on the class we are imparting to. We educate children from Class 1 upwards.
“We also understand the dichotomy some of the children face keeping in mind the environment that they are growing up in. We explain the facts, and then trust that every human being can find their own path and are resourceful enough to help themselves or seek outside help.”
Besides impacting a cross section of students, parents, adults and social workers, among others, they look to present the world not as a dangerous place to be scared of, but as a place where they can claim a space of their own.
The president of the Karnataka Chapter of Mahila Dakshata Samiti, Saranya Hegde, along with her team, has been addressing a minimum of two government schools every month on the child safety and sexual safety for the past few years.
The media needs to play a more conscientious role. “Stalking,” an art form that has been fine-tuned by constant re-hashing in most of our movies, needs to be shelved if we have to pre-empt further incidents like the one that happened recently in Chennai, where an IT professional was burnt alive by her “dropout” stalker.
Understanding the rationale
Will too much knowledge too soon lead to anxiety attack and fear psychosis?
Sangeeta Appaiah, mother of two girs says, “The way things are explained to children is important. If explained well, I don’t think it would lead to fear.
Sadasivan says, “If we communicate our paranoia and constantly berate the environment over how unsafe life, society and times have become, they will end up with fear psychosis. We stop our girls from taking on the world if we teach them to fear stepping out every time.”
Sapna Anup, a mother of two young children aged 15 and 11, says, “It is our (as parents) discomfort of approaching certain topics which are outside of our comfort zone and our own baggage which we are yet to resolve.”
Appaiah feels, “Most of the time it is the thought of the ‘right age’ that prevents parents in communicating to children.”
There is a time in every household that resembles a perpetual war zone of fraying temper, slamming doors, sulky silence and threats galore. There has never been a well-meaning parent, who has not heard the words, “mean” and “strict” thrown at them.
There is a popular saying that you are doing the job of parenting well if you have heard the phrase, “I hate you”, from your children. With all the above, the concept of keeping the communicating constantly open is challenging.
Keerthana Mohan, 23, believes that parents need to communicate more even if ideas don’t always synchronize. They need to listen without being intrusive. It is not always possible for two generation of people to agree, but thrashing out the differences is important.
“My parents heard me out but what they wished for was not something I wanted. Now, both my parents and I do have some regrets but we believe it was a learning curve and now our equation is better,” Mohan says.
Anup adds here, “Despite my best efforts to keep the communication channels open, I know there will be times when my children don’t want to share and I have to respect that decision. Communication between parents and children is a life-long learning process for both. Parents need to move on from the denial that children can make a right choice sans us and also accept that as parents we don’t know it all.”