We find ourselves settling into a post-pandemic world in the last quarter of 2023. Our country is undergoing political and social upheaval, with the insidious prevalence of climate change, artificial intelligence, social media algorithms, and ChatGPT evident in our daily city lives. Distinguishing between what is real and what is fake has become increasingly difficult. Insulating schools, teachers, and children, particularly, from the effects and influence of all these factors would be impossible.
As we observe Children’s Day, it is imperative to examine what educators should do to ensure that children are not buffeted in the 21st century's sea of uncertainty and virtual realities. How do we help them stay human, connected, and grounded while exploring uncharted areas of knowledge, opportunities, and frontiers? There are deep concerns about the futures we will leave behind for today’s children. Violence, intolerance, and social divisions based on caste, religion, and region seem to be erecting walls not only between communities in neighborhoods but also within classrooms.
In my work with schools and teachers, I sometimes have the privilege of interacting directly with students. It is obvious to say that children today are markedly different from those of a few years ago, with the pandemic particularly taking its toll. Children today are more guarded in their interactions with adults and each other, and less likely to voluntarily share their thoughts and feelings. They have also been exposed to a vast amount of unverified, biased comments, beliefs, and opinions, both at home and at school. Consequently, they are highly susceptible to formulating their own personal and social identities based on these influences.
During recent interactions with groups of students, I heard troubling comments such as, "I don’t like to sit or eat with a person who eats non-vegetarian food," "Terrorism is always linked to one religion," "I get body-shamed by my friends and family," and "only corrupt people become politicians." Statements like these are concerning for anyone in education because they promote a narrow narrative in a large and diverse country.
Meanwhile, schools tend to focus on delivering the curriculum and primarily developing students’ academic skills, along with a few other essential skills like sports and drama. On the other hand, especially for busy double-income parents, attention is given to the physical needs of their children—food, clothing, shelter, and some leisure activities. Open and honest conversations between children and adults are rare in schools and at home.
Way back in 1972, the American family counsellor, Dorothy Nolte wrote this inspirational poem, that she titled Children Learn what they Live:
If children live with criticism, They learn to condemn.
If children live with hostility, They learn to fight.
If children live with ridicule, They learn to be shy.
If children live with shame, They learn to feel guilty.
If children live with encouragement, They learn confidence.
If children live with tolerance, They learn to be patient.
If children live with praise, They learn to appreciate.
If children live with acceptance, They learn to love.
If children live with approval, They learn to like themselves.
If children live with honesty, They learn truthfulness.
If children live with security, They learn to have faith in themselves and others.
If children live with friendliness, They learn the world is a nice place in which they live.
The message in this poem is as relevant today as it was 50 years ago. Children's interactions with adults – teachers or parents- could reinforce the positive or negative outcomes that this verse suggests. The choice is ours! But the choice we make is a critical one.
How can we craft interactions that consistently nurture and uplift children? Proposing a solution is simple – cultivate thoughtful and sensitive adults capable of fostering a culture of intentional conversations. However, this seems elusive and uncommon, both at school and at home. Why is this the case?
There are at least three reasons. Firstly, in India, we are bound by the belief that adults are always right, and children must be respectful and emulate their elders. This deeply ingrained notion requires parents and teachers to engage in profound self-reflection to become aware of their expectations of young people and how these expectations might negatively influence them.
In contemporary India, hyperconnected to the rest of the world, what children absorb from the onslaught of social media and the comments from family members or teachers is uncertain. These comments could be heavily influenced by one-sided arguments fed through popular media, deep-seated biases, or plain ignorance. Amidst all this, children might become bewildered, cynical, or learn that it's acceptable to say one thing and do the opposite.
Secondly, even the most conscious and well-intentioned parents or teachers often believe it's best to shield children from societal mess and division. They prefer focusing on well-orchestrated national themes, such as India's success with the Chandraayan 3 mission or its growing importance on the world stage. While these are undoubtedly moments of pride, it's crucial for adults to engage in authentic discussions about what's going wrong in our country and the world, why, and what could be done differently. The National Education Policy 2020 stresses the importance of developing critical thinking, problem-solving, and decision-making abilities in children, as well as fostering their social-emotional learning capacities. None of these are possible if adults seek to fit children into a predetermined mold. There is profound value in nurturing in children the distinguishable capacities for dissent vs. compliance, debate vs. discussion, empathy vs. compassion, agency vs. adaptability, and more. These are essential life-sustaining human skills best learned through engaging with other thinking, feeling humans.
This brings me to the third reason creating a culture of conversations is challenging. Teachers and parents have not been exposed to ways in which this can be done at school or at home. They did not grow up experiencing frank and open communication with adults themselves. How can we create opportunities for children to share their feelings, pose profound and personal questions, seek answers, and listen to different points of view without offering one’s own opinion at the outset?
This calls for introspection and training in the art of having open-ended conversations, a topic we will explore in a future article.