Home  -  Back Issues  -  The Team  -  Contact Us
     Volume 4 Issue 27 | December 31, 2004 |

   Cover Story
   News Notes
   A Roman Column
   Food for Thought
   Slice of Life
   Time Out
   Straight Talk
   Book Review
   Dhaka Diary
   New Flicks
   Write to Mita

   SWM Home

Food for Thought

Lost Childhoods

Farah Ghuznavi

Despite the idealisation of childhood as the best time of a person's life, it is striking how millions of children continue to be deprived of the simplest pleasures of childhood, and the basic freedom of being a child. Many are deprived of fundamental necessities e.g. a sense of security, access to health, education and food. A recent UNICEF report has made the scale of the problem painfully evident: half the children in the world are suffering because of poverty, conflict, HIV/AIDS and abuse. The enormity of this statistic seems almost too much to take in as does the fact that, since 1990, half of all those killed in conflicts have been children.

While the difficulties that children face take many forms some dramatic, such as those mentioned earlier, and some less so children in most societies (a majority or a minority) do experience deprivation in some form. One contributory factor is undoubtedly societal and parental attitudes to childrearing. Sadly, while most parents do want the best for their offspring, sometimes children face difficulties arising out of what their parents sincerely believe is best for them.

Some cases are more black and white than others. For example, it is hard not to feel sympathy for parents who have to send their children to work because of genuine hardship, as is the case for so many in Bangladesh. Far more disturbing is how, in most parts of the world where child workers are the norm, the very parents who indulge their own children and aspire to the best lives for them, can be utterly uncaring towards the children of others who work in their homes. It is hard not to wonder how working children feel about their own lives, in comparison to the pampered children that so many of them look after! There are undoubtedly those who do look after the interests of children working in their homes e.g. by sending them to school, or treating them kindly. But reading the newspapers, it is difficult to believe that such employers are in the majority.

In many parts of Asia (including wealthier countries), the heavy burden of schoolwork and expectations of high performance are common for children of middle-class or well-off parents. And yet, those very aspirations can be oppressive for many children. South Asian parents obsessed with stuffing their children full of so-called "brain foods" (eggs, milk, hot drinks) are one manifestation of such attitudes, as is the situation in countries like Japan, where many children appear to spend most of their waking hours studying (the pressure of expectation clearly evident, for example, in the instances of children committing suicide over inadequate exam results). The importance of extracurricular activities, sport or even personal interests and hobbies (i.e. the pursuit of enjoyment) is perhaps inevitably lost in such an environment.

The enlightened West is not without its problems either. Increasingly, in some western countries, raising children seems to centre on the twin poles of fear and consumerism (not necessarily in that order). Like parents in Bangladesh (and statistically, with far less reason), parents in the UK have apparently become obsessed with the dangers that the world holds for their children, wrapping them up in cotton wool for their own protection, and unleashing a range of implications: children whose immune systems don't develop properly because their surroundings are so sanitised; children who are afraid of any stranger, because they are never let out of the house alone; children who grow up reflecting their parents' fears. A recent debate between those who want more protection, and those who feel that protectiveness has already gone too far, involves the wearing of protective goggles in school when playing the traditional game of conkers (which involves knocking two nut-like objects, conkers - against each other, on strings - where the first person whose conker breaks loses the game). Such excessive parental preoccupation with controlling children's lives, has led to increasing concern among social scientists and child welfare professionals.

Consumerism and shopping have become antidotes for some, as an apparent substitute for a "normal" childhood that would otherwise be focussed on (mainly) outdoor play (a trend we also see closer to home). It allows for the purchase of toys which children can play with inside the home e.g. computer games, or other "in" items that they can show off to their peers. Another advantage of shopping is that it also provides an opportunity for busy parents to soothe their consciences by a) spending time with their children, at the same time as b) buying them things as compensation for not spending enough time with them!

Not surprisingly, business and advertisers have welcomed this opportunity, with ever more aggressive marketing aimed at children (including the creation of the new category of "tweens" six to twelve years olds). Anyone who has come across primetime children's TV viewing will have seen the virtual bombardment from advertisers, on goods ranging from food to toys to clothing and accessories. But parents alone should not be blamed for what is happening. Many who would like to spend more time with their children are unable to do so because of the demands of employers, and the hectic pace of 21st century lifestyles; others feel unable to counter the influence of media, and wider social values to which they do not subscribe.

There are undoubtedly questions to be asked of the wider societies within which we operate. Why is it acceptable to spend so much time, love and money on bringing up some children, at the same time as ignoring or actively contributing to the deprivation of others? What kind of adults are spoilt, self-centred children likely to grow up into? What is the actual quality of a childhood where children spend so much time in study, under pressure in an unrelentingly competitive atmosphere? What kind of impact does fear (e.g. of excessive discipline, harsh punishment or of random strangers) have on the psyche of a child whether it is a "privileged" child or a working child? Is it really fair to children if parents (those who have a choice) choose to leave their upbringing almost exclusively to others e.g. household or nursery staff? These questions can be asked, in some form, in most societies today. Maybe we should take the time to stop and ask them now, rather than wondering in a few decades' time, where it all went horribly wrong...

Copyright (R) thedailystar.net 2004