Trigger warning – sexual abuse, bullying, gender discrimination discussed.
Disclaimer – the views expressed in this article are purely my own and it is not my intention to hurt anyone’s sentiments.
There are some things in life that we simply cannot condone. There are some things that leave us so shocked and broken that we want to shy away from the reality of such information. The more that we think of such things, more is the manifestation of the horror attached. And when it is information that involves a child, then as mothers, we women want to develop the “Ostrich Syndrome”. We want to bury our head in a faux sense of normality and want to hug our children closer and pretend that ‘All Is Well’.
But, is it really? Is all well?
I think not…
How can all be well when a child is bullied into committing suicide? I am referring to the suicide of sixteen-year-old Arvey Malhotra, a student of DPS Faridabad earlier this year. Isn’t it heart-breaking that a child undergoes ridiculing, bullying and mental trauma at the hands of children who attend a prestigious school to learn how to be better human beings? What’s more, this happens under the watchful eyes of people who are the ‘supposed’ guardians of young, impressionable lives. If as mothers, as parents, we cannot trust a reputed educational institution to uphold principles of good conduct; where do we lay our faith? Who do we entrust or children to?
Similarly, how can all be well when a teenage girl is offered a lift home and is then gang raped – IN BROAD DAYLIGHT?! That’s a life that is irreparably damaged, maybe forever! I am referring to the gang rape of a seventeen-year-old girl in the upscale Jubilee Hills, Hyderabad, in the ‘so called’ backyard of the affluent. What was she doing wrong? Is it wrong to attend parties, meet up with friends or befriend new people? Is it wrong to expect that when we do not harm others, others will extend to us the same courtesy? Is it wrong for a human to expect basic respect from another ‘respectable’ human? Isn’t that how we are supposed to function in society?
The above two are examples of things that are going horribly wrong with our children. And, for every one such child that gets written about, there must be countless who find no mention. The above two incidents have left me deeply saddened as a woman, as a parent and as a human. Let’s face it; we are predominantly a society that excuses bad behaviour because we do not want to take the bull by its horns. We excuse bad behaviour at home, be it from our spouses, in-laws, relatives or other members who should not have a say in family matters but still interfere. Opinions are free and everyone has one to share.
Where are we failing?
Are we failing as a society? Is this a failure of our educational system? Or, are we failing as humans?
I believe that one area where we are failing is by not voicing our thoughts. The rage that we as parents feel at such incidents should smack us in the face and propel us to speak. Our silence is our biggest weakness. Our inability to voice our thoughts at such heart-wrenching incidents makes us complicit … somewhere. Wouldn’t you agree? That is why I am choosing to write about this. I believe, if I do not voice my outrage, I cannot expect my daughters to understand that it is okay to speak up.
Ours is a society in which our educational institutions are more focused on teaching children how to ‘quantitatively’ excel in life. Most schools are unable to focus on enhancing the ‘qualitative’ aspect of a child’s personality. The pressure to excel, to ace their exams, to score good marks, to gain acceptance into a good college, to build a good career, to look good; is insane. Our children today are drowning under such pressures. The impact on their psychological health goes unaddressed.
Empathy, compassion, sensitivity aren’t traits that are encouraged in schools. In fact, in academia they carry a negative connotation. Children are told that they need to study hard, they need to be strong and that they need to be focussed. But, what of those kids who do not conform to a pre-decided standard? After all, not all humans are born equal or with an equal mindset, are they? Why should children be any different? Society slots us into labels all our lives. The weight of expectations, either stated or perceived, further labels us. Some of these labels are phrases that we unconsciously teach our children at home just because that is the conditioning that we have received.
How much pressure can our children take? There is no relationship in their lives that is not testing them or putting pressure on them. Sooner or later, they are bound to break. We cannot control the influences of the external environment on our children. But, we can control some things at home. We can teach some things at home.
Admittedly, issues such as bullying and gender sensitivity can be addressed better by Indian schools. Instead of showing ‘school cinema’ on the topic and then brushing aside follow-up discussions, it’s time that Indian schools accepted these hitherto taboo topics as normal and included them in school discussions/debates. Most schools today claim to have a ‘zero-tolerance’ policy towards bullying. But, as we have seen in the case of Arvey Malhotra, many times nothing is done when such an incident is reported. Many children are often too scared to report bullying. Some of them do not even tell their family about it. They suffer in silence because they remain silent. In such cases, how can a school know if the child is being bullied?
I believe the answer lies in expanding the role of the classroom prefects. Agreed that class prefects are also children but instead of choosing prefects who are ‘A+’ students or teachers’ pets; they should be chosen based on an analysis to gauge their abilities to – empathise with others, to exhibit an instinct for protectiveness, to have an ability to form interpersonal relations, etc. Every class has prefects and additionally schools also have elected student representatives who represent their houses. That’s a sizeable number of students who can flag concerns in student behaviour, issues related to bullying, etc. We have to keep in mind the fact that not all students are able to muster the courage to walk into a counsellor’s office to bare their hearts. For such students, student counsellors may be the bridge that they need. And, it goes without saying that every school needs to have a child psychologist on board.
Wouldn’t you agree that we cannot expect to normalize such topics in society if we cannot even discuss them openly in our educational institutions? These topics need to become part of accepted discussions. In schools, apart from the academic curriculum and languages, modes of universal communication like the basics of sign language need to be taught. Children need to have basic knowledge of signs, both for communication and also signs which are used to signal a call for alarm. I believe, that when we put our children in the shoes of those for whom such language is the only mode of nonverbal communication, it will teach our kids to empathize. It will build a sensitive outlook.
Additionally, most Indian schools still shy away from discussions on sex or homosexuality. Menstruation is another topic which needs open discussions at school. A girl starting her menses is often a psychologically difficult period for her. It is like a sudden and abrupt transition into adulthood. Staining of school uniforms is bound to happen. I agree that teachers in schools help girls out but a lot of girls still go through the shame of having that stain witnessed by boys and being made fun of. C’mon, really? I am sorry to say this but if a boy makes fun of a girl’s stained uniform then it’s not a failure of the school. It’s the parents who have failed because they failed to make their son understand a normal bodily function. They failed to teach him a basic thing – it is not right to make fun of another person!
Schools aren’t solely responsible for teaching the kids. Teaching is a parental responsibility too. So, what can us as parents do better at home? What are the things that we can tackle headlong at home, things that will teach our children to be better human beings?
Respect for another human – respect is the first thing that we teach at home. We teach our children to respect their elders (parents, relatives, grandparents, etc) and we teach them social manners (etiquette, salutations, etc). What we forget is to teach the child to respect another human – period! We cannot compartmentalize relationships and teach our children to respect those labelled relationships only. A child needs to learn to respect not just labelled relationships in his life but all associates, all humans that he/she crosses paths with. There can be no discrimination or favouritism. How else will the child learn how to give and command respect? How else will they learn how to defend their self-respect?
Additionally, we need to teach our children the difference between ‘laughing with’ and ‘laughing at’ someone. The former is acceptable but the latter is a strict ‘NO’. If taken too far, its bullying or harassment. There are some lines that cannot be crossed and as parents it is our responsibility to teach our children what those lines are. Making fun of someone is fine only so long as the person is laughing with you. But, a personal attack on someone’s family, mannerisms, sexuality or anything that makes that person uncomfortable – cannot be accepted at all!!
Open discussions about sex, safe sex and consent – the only way to normalize the topic is to have healthy discussions about it at home. Sex education and more than that, safe sex education is a discussion that often finds no mention in Indian homes. I am sorry to burst the bubble here but if you think that your teenager does not know about sexual intercourse then you are living in a fool’s paradise. You are denying the obvious. It’s time to wake up because our children are inundated with such information via books, Netflix, YouTube and other OTT platforms.
So, it is a given that they know about sexual intercourse. What we as parents need to do is to ensure that the topic does not remain taboo in the house. We need to address things like having safe sex, understanding what consent means (NO – means ‘no’ in any language. There cannot be any two ways about it and our children need to understand that), what contraceptive and other preventative measures are available in the market and where they can be purchased. The sooner we normalize these talks, the faster we will be able to educate the next generation about the ‘dos and don’ts’.
Sensitizing children towards the differently-abled – unless we have a differently-abled, disabled or special needs person in the immediate family, most famines (leave alone children) do not know how to behave around such a person. And, this is not something that we can teach in the schools for the sole reason that our educational system is the most discriminatory ground when it comes to such children. The school discriminates but must we too? Even if we do not have a special needs person at home, can we not as parents, ensure that our children are sensitized towards the needs of such people?
Let’s be honest, how many of us have children who have a friend who has special needs? We bring pets home because we want our children to understand compassion, taking care of another life and also to understand the true meaning friendship. Why can we not extend the same courtesy to another human being? Isn’t this something that we as parents can do better?
Gender sensitivity – a human is a human – period! It should not matter if that person is homosexual, heterosexual, bisexual, transgender or anything else. What should matter is that the person is a human. That should be the only classification, the only label. All others should not affect our interactions. Wouldn’t you agree?
Apart from the schools, I believe that it is us parents who need to normalize such discussions at home. There is bound to be resistance. I have faced it at my home and others are bound to face it too. But, all it takes in one person in the family with an inclusive outlook. It takes one contrary view to sow the seed. Isn’t it time that we became that person? If we did then our children would not make fun of other kids struggling with their gender identity. Perhaps, they may even recognize and help a friend.
Gosh, there are just too many things that I feel we can do better at in order to become better people. But, one thing remains that unless we raise our children with an inclusive outlook, unless we, their parents and their first teachers make them understand that it’s important to be a better human being first and foremost; things may never change. This learning needs to come from the home front. But for that to happen, we parents possibly need to let go of certain notions that are outdated and frankly speaking, irrelevant.
Today, if our next generation is failing then the onus of that failure is not on them. It is on us because we have failed both as parents and as humans. The question is, are we willing to open are eyes and do something about it?