Imagine: Let’s stand up for our children, build emotionally safe spaces
When we moved back to India from England, our children were very little. One day, my son, all of five, asked me, “Why do grown-ups in India talk down to children?” After his astute question, I started noticing it everywhere — children being dismissed, chastised, humiliated, laughed at, shouted at, told to sit still and keep quiet, whether in the park, in shops, classrooms, restaurants or people’s homes. Like insignificant objects with no feelings or original thought. This was at the mild end of the spectrum as at the other end were children being beaten up, sexually abused, left starving, not sent to school, put on the streets to beg or hired as labour.
As a nation, we do not know how to take care of our children. Whether it is child sexual abuse, number of children on the streets, child labour, child illiteracy, youth suicides, female infanticide, our numbers are scary and utterly shameful. To give you a perspective, a student commits suicide every hour, a child is sexually abused every 15 minutes and there are 18 million street children in our country (equivalent to Delhi’s population). These numbers speak for themselves.
The first step towards addressing this problem is by building emotionally safe spaces for children. This has been the core thread in all my books, my talks and the top manifesto of our organisation, Children First. But maybe it does need a little unpacking and demystification as only when we understand the significance of it can we learn to practice it.
It might be a good idea to first highlight the damaging practices that make children feel emotionally unsafe. It could range from emotional abuse like criticism, comparison, blaming, humiliating, shaming, to physical and sexual abuse. Or it could be just plain negligence where children are ignored or looked through, like children with disability, street children or girls who are seen as a burden in some families. These are the invisible children, the ghost children that we want to banish away.
I use an acronym for the present day caste-system that decides the worthiness or unworthiness of the child – DISGRACEFULL! Disability, Intelligence, Sexuality, Gender, Race, Age, Culture, Economics, Family Background, whether they have Useful Contacts (I was told once that you are nothing without your contacts), Looks (the desired ‘fair and lovely’ look) and what Language they speak. We assess the value of each child through the DISGRACEFULL lens.
Once I saw a mother slap the little boy she had hired to ‘play’ with her son in the park. When I walked up to her and tried to intervene, she shouted at me and told me to, “Mind your business! Yeh log aisse hi samajhte hein (these people only understand this language).” We see children every day whose dignity is shattered by the teachers in school when they are called “duffer”, “failure”, “stupid”, just because they do not measure up to the socially prescribed yardstick of being a “good child”.