Several years ago, when my boys were young, a relative visited us for a couple of days. Her son was the same age my older one and daughter was a few years older than the younger one. One day, we were watching a TV programme that featured emaciated children playing in the dust. The children were playing some board game on the other side of the room. Suddenly seeing her daughter, aged about 11 looking at the TV, the lady got up agitatedly and took the girl out of the room. She didn’t come back for some time and thinking that something was wrong I went to investigate.
‘What is the matter?’ I asked her. ‘I didn’t want her to see those children, on TV’ she whispered, giving surreptitious looks at the girl who was reading a book. ‘She is so sensitive and if she sawthe programme, she will be very upset and depressed,’ she added.
It was about that time that the younger one had watched a feature about children working in Sivakasi fireworks factories and that sight if not the words exactly had impacted his mind to such an extent that he had given up firecrackers. He was seven at that time. And I didn’t see that he was depressed – though he felt upset that his friends and even grown-ups didn’t listen to him and stop lighting firecrackers because it involved child labour! We told him that he should not get upset if they didn’t listen to him but try telling them all the same and that he need never touch a firecracker again if he didn’t want to.
I didn’t want to argue with her at that time, especially since she was a guest. But I wondered then and I wonder now, if we are trying to shield our children too much from the realities of life. So much so that, I often wonder if children of well-to-do families even pause to look at the poorer children around them – the children of the maids, the beggar children on the streets, the ‘mundus’ employed with such callousness by their parents or neighbours. Not just see them, but look at them as children like them, who are not so fortunate as they are.
I can understand the need to protect children from visuals of violence and perversion that are aired and published with such impunity by the irresponsible media. But the plight of the poor and powerless is not something that needs to be kept hidden from our children. How else would they come to know of the other side of the society? Wouldn’t they grow up into believing that only Chhota Bhim and Dora’s world are real and cute and the maid’s child is ‘dirty’ ? And wouldn’t they thus grow into insensitive adults who shun such realities to avoid being ‘depressed’?
I know of even adults who avoid looking at or reading about anything ‘depressing’ (meaning reality) and prefer living in a utopian world where there is no sorrow or want. Is it any wonder that they don’t teach their children the value of empathy?
When I was a little girl, I remember being told that if I wasted any food, the goddess Annapurani would sit on the banks of the Ganga and weep (she is the goddess who supposedly feeds the world). The mere thought of the goddess weeping would make me finish all the food on my plate without any fuss. I could not imagine inflicting the pain on someone. I know such things are passe in today’s parenting, so I don’t think I am advocating it.
I remember a friend telling me: ‘I told my son he should not waste any food as there are so many starving children in the world, he replied that I should give it to those children, instead of forcing him to eat.’ She had used his own suggestion to make him learn the value of sharing with the less fortunate ones and feeding the hungry. Apparently he had begun looking at the poor with compassion after that episode.I am told that brats today often turn around and ask their parents, ‘Why did you have me if you can’t give me the things I want?’ And many parents feel guilty about that! I am truly appalled. Whatever happened to telling stories to our children about being thankful for not having shoes while there are some who have no feet? Or would that put ‘negative’ feelings in them? I used to tell my children that story ad nauseam. And when they grew a little older they also got to hear the phrase, ‘there go I, but for the grace of God,’ when we saw some unfortunate child in tatters or hungry and cold. The term God can be substituted by anything you like – luck, good fortune, karma…, but the gist remains the same. It helps children appreciate what they have that much more and also look at those who don’t have what they do. And let me tell you, it certainly will not make them depressed as many imagine.
Though poverty, the fortunate and the less fortunate — have all always been there, the gulf between the two is wider now. Our outlook has changed. Our priorities have changed. In our quest for advancement, we have donned blinkers and so have lost the peripheral vision that encompasses the larger picture of society. We would rather look towards those who are better off than us and crib and feel compelled to equal or outdo them – in our jobs, our children’s education, assets, achievements and what not — but wouldn’t bring ourselves to look at those who have less than us in every respect.
Children learn by observing their elders. One of my neighbours proudly talks of her five-year-old son asking their maid not to bring her toddler to their home because she is dirty and cries a lot and that he ‘can’t’ share his toys with her. This same woman haggles with the woman selling vessels and other stuff in exchange for old clothes. They are very well to do people with the husband running a successful business. When the child sees his mother doing this instead of giving them away to their maid or other needy people, how can he be expected to share his toys with the maid’s child? More importantly, what kind of person will he grow up into?
It is not just enough to teach children to share with the needy, but to do it with love and empathy. The giving should be born out of caring, to enjoy seeing the happiness of the receiver and not just as a dole, which might just make the giver feel good but not make another human being happy to receive it. The giving can be the time, the energy, material things – or just love but the children should learn the joys of sharing them.
Charity with a heart is noble, but without that, it is reduced to merely alms and hence demeaning to the receiver. Read about my grandparents’ wonderful gift of sharing with the less fortunate here.
We often assume the superior stature of the benefactor and look down on the beneficiaries as lesser human beings in some way, or as objects of pity if not contempt. We feel self-congratulatory when we give them our discards and left-overs. We talk proudly of how we ‘allow’ them some privileges in our homes. We do it with lots of arrogance and superiority. And then we talk of how ‘ungrateful’ they are and do not ‘appreciate’ our gestures. In our superior status of ‘givers’ we forget that they are not beggars, but people who have simply not had our good luck or opportunities since they were born on the other side of the fence. This is what we need our children to see and learn about the society and the world at large.