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HARK, THE ALARM BELLS ARE RINGING

Of the recent spurt of crimes committed by children, the one that generated the greatest shock country-wide was the gunning down of a 14-year-old boy by two of his classmates at the Euro International School in Gurgaon. Our attention is increasingly turning to children as aggressors rather than victims of violence.

There is a fear that “breakneck economic development will bring American-style gun crime to India’s usually peaceful classrooms”, wrote Peter Foster in a British daily. In fact, several headlines referred to the deadly US trend in this context, while there was speculation on whether it was a one-off incident or a sign of times to come. Whatever it may turn out to be, we must all take this as a wake-up call before it is too late. Experts have predicted that children will become more and more anti-social and aggressive, less sensitive to violence and readily take to violence as an acceptable way to settle differences. The American Academy of Pediatrics has officially declared that violence as a cause of death for children and young people is more prevalent than disease, cancer and congenital disorders. It is therefore reassuring to learn from existing research that prevention and early identification and intervention can reduce violence and other disturbing behaviours.

For such preventive measures we need to explore all possible causes. The one that is most often bandied about is the constant exposure to — and uncontrolled consumption of — media violence. Although there is no research-based conclusion to establish a causal link between juvenile crime and media violence or the extent of ‘copycat behaviour’, it has been suggested that aggressive dispositions and gender (boys are more easily affected) are aspects to consider in this context. Factors in the media that have been found to be significant are: whether the violence is committed by an attractive hero; whether the violent act is justified, rewarded, or goes unpunished and whether it is in a realistic context. De-contextualized viewing, such as violent film trailers without the storylines, is believed to have a strong impact. Unsupervised TV viewing or internet use are potentially dangerous. In India, parental guidance for television programmes is yet to be introduced. Some parents are concerned about the interactive and repetitive aspects of video and computer games that have made an entertainment out of brutal acts.

Other causes of violence among children that are being widely discussed are irresponsible parenting and incompetence of schools in maintaining adequate discipline. With reference to the Gurgaon shooting, apart from failing to take the basic precaution of storing firearms safely, the parents of the prime accused failed to instil a sense of right and wrong in their child. Nor were they in touch with his feelings or moods. And the school authorities kept speaking in terms of security measures they had taken. It would be a pity if one day, our schools have to be equipped with metal detectors and scanners and students have to be frisked. Airports are bad enough.

It is interesting to note that the Gurgaon school, like many others, emphasizes all-round development, preparation for the future, global acceptance and “grooming for smartness” in its vision and mission statements. Schools these days flaunt their infrastructure and their examination results. Yet there are many intangibles that characterize ‘good’ schools — one of them being the ability to instil discipline and values. (Of course this can only be achieved with parental support.) It is true that the concept of teaching morals and ethics is considered old-fashioned by some. But perennial values, irrespective of culture, religion or time, such as integrity, good manners, fairness, compassion and empathy, need to be reinforced. Just as children must question — and even disobey at times — they must also have a healthy respect for authority and be responsible for their actions and learn to face the consequences. Far too many of today’s affluent and ‘successful’ parents tend to be over-protective and indulge in immediate gratification so far as their children’s wants are concerned. As a result, their children are turning out to be fragile and over-sensitive beings who cannot respond robustly to setbacks, take correction, criticism or an occasional rebuke.

The world outside does not help them either. Road rage is a daily experience in cities. All debates are ‘big fights’, parliamentary ones are slanging matches, sledging is acceptable in a gentleman’s sport and children thrill to headbutting and football hooliganism.

It is imperative more than ever before that schools, parents and communities be in touch with children’s feelings, especially of those who are isolated or troubled. Anger-management skills differ from individual to individual. While some have a short fuse, others allow their anger to simmer and escalate for a long period before they finally explode. The escalation phase should not be allowed to continue for long and peer mediation is very important in this exercise. Since children have their own ‘honour code’ and disapprove of ‘tattling’, it is important that they be encouraged to be discerning. They must learn to appreciate the urgency of reporting behaviour that can lead to serious harm.

Psychiatrists and counsellors in India report that emotional and behavioural disorders among schoolchildren have multiplied in recent times. Schools need more research-based information and guidance that is relevant to our culture. Teachers ought to be aware of anxiety, panic attacks, stress, depression, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorders, suicidal tendencies and more. Now knives (witness the recent stabbing case in a Murshidabad school) and guns have found their way inside our hitherto peaceful school compounds. These are alarm calls and it is vital that we respond to them rightaway.

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