I read this amazing blog last Friday about how children can learn a lot if you bring them into the kitchen. I had not thought they could learn so much through cooking and baking and I immediately resolved to try it out. Later on Friday though, something happened that made that fun plan fly right out the window.
If you are an Indian parent, you probably had this video pop up on your whatsapp too. It has been shot by a mother teaching her three-four year old the numbers. As the little one is pressed to repeat, she gets things wrong and starts to cry, which angers the mother even more. The child then complains of a headache and pleads to be taught with love. The whole thing ends in a slap.
It is not for the faint-hearted. It is a disturbing video, and you should not watch if you think it will affect you much.
Because it affected me very much. I didn’t sleep at all that night. That’s the funny thing about technology. You see a distressed, crying child and want to pick them up and comfort them but you can’t. You don’t know who they are or where they are. And yet the crying and the pain is so real it can give you a sleepless night. As I found out.
The third time the video came on a whatsapp group, I decided to reply and warn people to not click on the link because it was so disturbing. I was talking to my husband about all this when my older one overheard and interrupted me to say, ‘Why did you say that? You should have told people to click on the link and forward it around so that that mother learns a lesson’. By evening, he got his wish. Virat Kohli and a bunch of Indian cricketers had come across the video too and shared it on their Instagram with scathing comments on poor parenting. The thing went viral.
Now I need to back up a bit. When the video came up on school and office groups, most of us were horrified and disturbed. But we felt that a backlash against the mother might not be very productive. What she needed was counselling and help. I wondered what sort of feedback the mother was getting and whether it would be too negative to be of any use, so I clicked on “Comments”.
The first comment said, ‘This is a normal mother and a normal child. This is not news. Times of India, don’t waste our time.’
Another one went, ‘Come on people, you all thought this was funny till Virat called it child abuse. Use your brains.’
Another, ‘We were all raised like this. Don’t overreact.’
‘All the people reacting like this are either single or not parents or dads. What do they know about raising a child?’
And so on.
So by this time my brain had sort of ground to a stop. A night of no sleep, too much thinking, and then this. Nothing made sense anymore and I just wanted to back off and sleep!
Later, the girl was identified as the niece of a well known singer. The family defended the teaching methods and described the child as stubborn. A bunch of stories came up in the press and the story is now old news.
To my mind, now is a good time to talk about it. One of the more sensible comments said, ‘Don’t judge the mother based on a 2 minute video.’ That is very true. Although, I would still say that it is not a one sided video. It is not of a child crying (and possibly throwing a tantrum) or a mother scolding (and possibly being ignored. My boys do it all the time). There are reactions. There are responses. They don’t feel good.
Do parents need to be perfect and patient all the time? Of course not! It is not possible. But when you are correcting a child, do you realise when you need to stop, back off? When you have crossed a line? Yes! Sometimes you realise it too late. Then you say sorry. It happens! I remember when my older one was ten months and we were visiting family he decided he wanted to subsist on breastmilk. For a ten month old, that is not possible. He was constantly hungry and cranky. After a point, I was just fed up. So my husband held him fast in his lap while I fed him bananas. He cried throughout. My horrified sister made a video of the whole. She showed us the video years later telling me my son could report us for abuse. She was right! If it went viral, I would probably get the same sort of reaction as this one got. Of course as soon as the banana was finished, my son raced off to play – happy and full. But you can’t see it in the video.
Here’s the thing though. This was not a video of a normal child and a normal mother. It was an aberration. Something we remember ten years after it happened. If this seems like normal to most folks, what is normal?
This thought reminded me of something else. In the aftermath of the murder of S Swathi by a man who had been stalking her, there was a discussion on Baradwaj Rangan’s wonderful blog about the link between the depiction of stalking as an expression of love in Indian movies and the acceptance of stalking as ‘normal’ in real life. It was an amazing discussion but some things stayed behind especially, in my mind.
- One lady spoke about her experiences as a teacher in small town India. She sounded young, enthusiastic and like she might have been a popular teacher but when she spoke to her teenage pupils about how it was better to approach a girl and just talk instead of stalking, her class bristled and she ended up being counselled to not bring her city ways too much to the country because her own safety was at stake.
- A young reader and frequent commenter on the blog, a sensitive and thoughtful young man, objected to how stalking was an unfair word to use for ‘following’ which was a fair way to express love and interest. That it was normal.
- One reader spoke about his experiences as a student in small town India. A rather horrible story about being used by a girl to test the love of a boy stalker who was not coming up to scratch, leading to a violent episode and ending with this person leaving India for good to study abroad.
All of this was ‘normal’.
We are a huge country. We speak, according to Wikipedia 122 major languages and 1599 other languages. We have an insane variety of cuisines, clothing styles, facial features. Also apparently, a huge range of what is considered normal. Including holding a country to ransom to ensure a rapist does not go to jail. But I digress.
If there is a solution, I am not sure what it is. I’ll put my hope in talking to each other. And let us not assume that we are always right and ours is the only valid point of view. Parents on my kids’ school whatsapp groups speak from a position of privilege that they might not realise the extent of. India is a developing country. Not every parent has the luxury of letting a child follow their dream. There are just too many of us for all of us to be successful that way. We do have to teach our kids. They do have to clear their exams. But is this how they will do it? Can a child really learn this way? Are there examples where this has worked?
And what are the other ways?
I liked what Robbie Cheadle suggested in her blog, that we take them into the kitchen. My boys made modak with me this weekend for Ganesh Chaturthi. We started with too much jaggery, and then they did the math and measured out the right portions of every other ingredient.
Then today evening, my older one was standing on my head waiting for his milk to heat up so he could down it and rush off to play. His observation about bubbles on the edges of the pan led to an interesting conversation about heat conductivity in metals.
In our house though, me and my boys mostly bond over and learn through stories. We all love books and story telling and our bed time and waking up stories are filled with more than moral science. We put in interesting facts, trivia and math and science problems. I guess if you enjoy the teaching, they will enjoy the the learning.
And I’m sure we could extend this to so much more. We can learn from music. We can learn from sports. We can learn by observing nature. We can learn by hanging out together.
Is it always possible? No. Is it always easy? No. Is it always fun? YES! Does it work? I think so.
Maybe we can take the distress of this child and the discussions over this video somewhere else than accusing each other of poor parenting or non parenting. Maybe we can use this opportunity to work on how we deal with and raise our children. Maybe we can learn too how to do things better.