December is the time when we celebrate the birth of the infant Jesus. We must especially remember how he encouraged little children to be brought to him. Jesus taught that you can only enter heaven as a child. “Whosoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.” (Mark 10:15)
The love for young children, I had always thought, came instinctively to adults. Hence, I never fail to be shocked when I hear of cruelty to children and I am keeping far away from war atrocities. I sink into despair when I see parents being unkind to their children. Why do most of them drive their children so relentlessly and compel them to give up everything they hold dear just to perform well in exams? Is it the parents’ own ego and a sense of vicarious achievement or is it future-related anxiety that makes most of them go after their children?
It is not fair to be judgmental about the absurdly early age at which children are being sent to school. This is largely because of social circumstances. ‘Nuclear parents’ realise that their children benefit from interacting with other children and gain from the supervision of teachers. Some parents have noted that after joining a playschool, their children eat their food without the fuss they make at home and become independent in other ways. In joint families, the need to send an 18-month-old to school to learn social skills is not felt. But the factor that is vital to all parents is admission to the nursery section of a reputed school. Getting children ready for a bright future and all the anxiety that accompanies it is, thus, starting increasingly early.
Many playschools conduct ‘mock sessions’ for nursery candidates and their parents. In their interaction with the school, parents are advised to be spontaneous with their responses, yet they are supplied with a list of appropriate questions to ask the interviewers. The children themselves are given practice interviews so that they become used to strangers asking them questions.
Some schools choose not to interview nursery candidates formally. I believe that it is neither fair nor possible to assess such small children. They may decide not to open their mouths when their turn comes or decide to protest or cry or just ignore everyone. Apart from being unfair, unkind and meaningless, such ‘interviews’ add to the parents’ stress.
Today, almost all young children are made familiar with colours, shapes, letters, numbers and names of animals and birds. Moreover, some parents enrol them in special classes to learn art and craft, dance and music and even get them to attend ‘cultural sessions’ to learn about their heritage. Once, a nursery candidate’s mother sent us a video of her two-and-a-half-year-old daughter reciting the names of the states of India and their capitals. Such a feat at this age is not necessary to be demonstrated. The poor child was made to memorise names without understanding the meaning of the terms ‘state’ and ‘capital’.
The irony is that most parents feel disappointed when their children are not assessed formally for nursery admissions. They feel that their little offspring are so bright and so well-prepared that they would certainly have an edge over their peers. Parental pride is blind to the reality that almost all children can do the things that their own child has been painstakingly taught. If one child can distinguish between a square and a rectangle, another will identify a rhombus. I have come across amazing children who may not be interested in reciting rhymes but they make fascinating observations on what they see around them. One child, I believe, did not open her mouth when asked for her name but on the way home she explained to her distressed mother, “My name was on the card that they pinned to my dress. Can’t the aunty read?”
Let us be kind to little children and spare them the burden of performing and competing so early in life.
Devi Kar is director, Modern High School for Girls, Calcutta