Do children grow up too fast today, egged on by parents who try to live their dreams and aspirations through their young ones? It's time we gave childhood back to our children, says MINI KRISHNAN.

Great changes in the destiny of mankind begin in the minds of little children.

Herbert Read

If only her parents had left her alone she would have been unforgettable . As it is, she looks out of the camera or TV frame at us, her face made up as if she were 30 years old and not what she is — seven . Worse. Her jewellery and clothes are echoes of her mother's or older sister's. She dances or sings or models for us, dressed like a miniature 25-year-old, reminding us of words written more than 200 years ago,“…shades of the prison house begin to grow about the growing boy”.

Success by proxy

Switch to jubilant mother of State topper, talking to news crew. “Now that we know what he is capable of, we will put him to work even harder and support him all the way. There is nothing he cannot achieve.” The apple of her eye emerges from a basement tutorial, looking too exhausted to smile. Had he heard that he had stood first? He had not. “Do my parents know?” is his first anxious question. Another smug mother is seated by her son at midnight, a flask of Horlicks gleaming in the background and the table-lamp glowing. “I like to keep him company,” she says looking fondly at the Class X youngster, puffy-eyed from sleeplessness and overweight from lack of exercise. A good run in the neighbourhood or an hour of rough-and-tumble-play is what he needs more than a warm drink and his books.

“This is nothing but child abuse on a mass scale, and adults are collaborating with it,” says a child psychiatrist in Kochi angrily, warning anyone who might be listening, “I tell you, one day we will pay for it!”

Is anyone listening?

Or are they too busy planning the next round of dance classes or swimming tournaments that only look friendly but in truth are deadly competitions that end in depression for those who do not either look good, have the latest swimsuits or win. Anyone who has prepared a toddler for her bath will know the joyful abandon in her self-image as she streaks the moment her clothes are peeled away. That sense of self is gradually replaced by self-consciousness and even self-loathing as the child is swamped by society's obsession with how she should look. Was it two years ago that a young girl's world became so unreal that she took her own life after a “reality” show? Failing to make the impression expected of her so devastated the youngster that her very existence seemed pointless. The deeper failure was that of a society which had refused to recognise the design and miraculous nature of every single child in it. The weeks or months leading up to the fateful “show” must have been crowded with encouragement and expectations hard to face with a no-go performance.

A few months ago, I shared the elevator with a young mother and her little son in the evening. The tiny boy had obviously been out all day. Riding with us was an older woman who greeted the mother and child pair casually, ran her eye over the boy and asked, “How is he doing?” The mother said that her child was doing just fine and was returning home for a short break before being driven somewhere for a ‘ Pronouciation Class'. (The child of course had no choice at all in this organisation of his day or evening.)

“Oh? How old is he?”

“Four point eight,” came the answer.

“Then he is ready for my class,” and as she stepped out of the elevator said she would drop off pamphlets of her Art Class at the young mother's flat.

One more hour in the little boy's life would be given over to improving some part of his mind when he'd rather be lying on the ground driving an imaginary car and roaring out the sounds he believes his car should be making.

Hundreds of parents are living their children's lives for them, pushing their adult ambitions on to young minds too vulnerable to know any different, shaping and controlling every moment of their children's lives. Either they themselves were pushed by their parents or they believe that they were not fast-tracked hard enough to more success and money than they now possess. Often the children they are focusing on so fiercely are single children. They have comfortable rooms and all the toys they would ever need but no time to be themselves. Or, if there are siblings, there is a continuous and intense observation of how much more skilled one child is compared to the other in this or that department of the business of living.

It is no longer enough for a child to be — he or she has to perform.

Novel methods

Equally alarming is a strange and secret revelation some school managements have had of what a child needs to build his or her confidence. These institutions are clearly not headed or organised by people who have been trained in the care of young minds and bodies. The end of March 2010 brought a report from Andhra Pradesh: shocking visuals of teenaged school children seated in a row, legs outstretched while cycles, two-wheelers and finally even the wheels of a small car were driven over their legs, ankles etc to make them more unflinching than they were before, and to ensure that they became “tough” and shook off any nervous timidity or vague fears about getting hurt.

Apparently he who can be run over and live can do anything.

Even pass an exam.

Next, just in case an even younger age-group of children between 10-12 years needed some confidence-building, a school in Surat coaxed them to walk barefoot over a bed of live coals and shards of glass. What it did to their soles and souls is too terrible to contemplate. Equally frightful is the tragic fact that both “exercises” were conducted with the consent of parents who were spectators.

What happened to old-fashioned naps and long reading sessions in the lives of our children? It seems adults cannot look at a child without wanting to improve her in some way or send her off to the nearest art or public- speaking class to fit a mental picture of the kind of child her parents would like to support. This is a sharp hairpin-bend in what we have been told for generations — that the greatest insurance against setbacks in life is a belief in one's intrinsic worth.

Is the joy of life being deleted while our children are coached and designed for life?

Mini Krishnan edits literary translations for Oxford University Press. Email: minik@airtelmail.in

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