Saturday, 13 December 2008

Our Children

Recently I read the results of a study on children carried out in the UK which said that more than half the British population believed that children behave like animals. More than half the respondents of the study said that children were increasingly a danger to others. More than one-third of those surveyed also agreed that "it feels like the streets are infested" with children, while 43% said something had to be done to protect adults. Half the respondents did not have much sympathy for children who got into trouble and didn’t think they might need professional help.

I was not surprised by the result of this study. In the last 6 years which I have spent in the UK, I have heard many adults express absolute hatred for children. Married couples have proudly told me that not only do they not plan to have kids, but they don’t like kids in the first place. In the UK, it is still illegal to breastfeed a child in public, though it is not illegal to drink in public (I am not against either activity). Passengers in trains and buses raise eyebrows if a baby starts bawling – why should I be inconvenienced by your child is the usual attitude, though a loud mouthed drunk will be cheerfully tolerated.

On the flip side, I have also seen gangs of children terrorise adults. Entire streets become no-go zones after dark, taken over by mobs of children whose ages range from six to sixteen. In some towns where there is high unemployment, it is common to see children playing truant and wandering around in groups even in the daytime. I’ve seen adults travelling in public transport cower into corners when a bunch of children wander in. Child gangs frequently assault people and commit robberies.

This is not to say that they are no well-mannered or hard-working children in the UK. Most children of middle-class parents in the UK are very well-behaved, in fact better behaved than children in India. I have many colleagues and friends who spend a substantial amount of their free time with their children. I had a (male) colleague who took a few weeks off to help his thirteen year old son prepare for entrance exams to a well-known public school. In all probability, the number of ‘good’ children in the UK exceeds the number of ‘bad’ children, but since the ‘good children are not as visible as the ‘bad’ ones, UK’s ‘children’ problem is bound to catch your eye if you live in the UK for more than a week.

There are various theories advanced for this state of affairs in the UK, which is not seen anywhere else even in the western world. The breakup of the family is usually cited as the main reason, though other European countries where family units have broken down do not seem to have similar problems with their children. In the UK, corporal punishment is banned in school. Parents are allowed to mildly smack their children, though any punishment that leaves a mark on a child can land a parent in jail. Interestingly, various European countries such as Norway, Austria, Germany etc. have totally banned any form of parental punishment that involves violence. The rationale is that no human being should have the right to use physical force against another and children very much fall within the definition of ‘human being’.

The situation in India and other Asian countries is in stark contrast to that in the UK. Asian children are pampered to an extent that may be described as ‘unhealthy.’ In some cases, both sets of dotting grandparents are at hand to do the pampering. Children are brought up to believe that they are the most important thing in their parents’ lives. A working woman who has her child taken care of by a nanny or in a day care centre is looked up on with suspicion, as if she is neglecting a sacred duty. Many Indian schools expect their pupils to receive full-time attention from at least one parent, which will invariably be the mother. There are some schools which refuse to admit students if both parents hold full-time jobs. I have always believed that Indian schools teach their children too much unnecessary stuff and give them too much homework (instead of wrapping up studies during school hours), but that’s for another post.

Every time I’ve travelled by air, the most unruly children are the Asian kids, who seem to be incapable of sitting still. Indian parents tend to believe that their children are entitled to make a nuisance of themselves wherever they are and others have a duty to put up with it. Recently there have been a few stories of how Indians have started to refuse to make allowances for children in public places, but by and large, strangers in India are willing to tolerate the shenanigans of children in public places.

In a way I am glad more and more Indians are starting to demand that parents not inflict their children on others, though I don’t think I would like to see India reach the same position as the UK is currently in. I have always taken the view that what’s usually branded as ‘western culture’ is actually the culture of urbanisation and industrialisation, though Japan stands out as an exception to this. As India progresses economically (at least it did till the recent recession and terror attacks in Mumbai), its culture is bound to follow a trajectory similar to that taken by western countries many decades ago. There will be more and more nuclear families, single parents and broken homes as is currently the case in the western world. However, it remains to be seen if Indian society will reach a stage where it has the sort of ‘children problems’ which UK currently has.

In my opinion, continental European countries like France, Italy and Germany are in a much better position than the UK vis-à-vis their children. In these countries, one doesn’t hear of children having such a strained relationship with their parents or having serious drinking or drug-related problems. It is difficult to pinpoint the reasons for this disparity among European nations, but if India continues to industrialise and urbanise, I hope it ends up in the continental European position rather than the British one.

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