New Kid on the Block

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Inside the mind of the modern child

YOU CAN HEAR the students laughing from the driveway. They drown out the sound of the SUVs that are slowly collecting outside; dispersal time at Sesame Street Schoolhouse in Ghitorni, Delhi, is only a few minutes away. One driver gets out of his Mercedes SL 63 to click selfies. As he poses and preens, he’s oblivious to the faces of Sesame Street’s star muppets, Boombah the lion, Chamki the Indian doll and Google the blue monster, staring down at him from a wall behind. The children have now started to sing verses from Elmo’s 12 days of Christmas—“On the third day of Christmas my true love gave to me, three great friends, two yummy cookies and one red monster up in a tree.”

It’s the week before winter vacation and the joy here is palpable. Crayon sketches of trees, snow and sprigs of holly flitter about in the wind. Christmas-themed books line up the shelves inside. Before the final round of carol singing, discussions had been on about what the children would like to bake for the holiday season. They’d been terribly intrigued to learn all about puddings and pies and biscuits and cakes. The teacher assured them that every task in life was simple and achievable if they put their mind to it. The idea of being able to assemble a four-tier frosted cake excited many and they started to count the people they would like to share the final creation with—“teacher aunty, mom, papa”.

When it’s finally time to go home, most seem reluctant to leave, hugging and kissing the teachers repeatedly, even more than one another. Their playful demeanour vanishes altogether when they approach their respective SUVs; few acknowledge their drivers or show any outward emotion. All eyes are still on the beloved teacher they are leaving behind. For them, she is not just the head of the group; she’s also their friend, confidante, mother figure, therapist and idol. But this combo of roles comes as no surprise. After all, Indian children do spend more hours in school compared to most other countries in the West and Asia. A study by Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development found that middle-school students in India attend school for 1,000 hours a year. Students in China, on the other hand, clock a yearly average of only 793 hours; England stands at 925, Australia at 983 and Japan at 868.

“To believe that keeping children in school for a fixed time period will make them better learners has no basis in fact,” says Avnita Bir, principal of RN Podar School in Mumbai. Despite her own belief in allowing children to learn at their own pace, Bir’s school has no choice but to follow the guidelines of the Right To Education Act that stipulates a child must receive 800 hours of learning from class I to V, and a 1,000 hours from class VI to VIII. “Today’s child is being shifted more and more to a life within school. Classrooms can only provide excellent educational material. Personal roots—this has to come from the family. But sometimes parents are too caught up with work and chores to find the energy to parent. School can be a second home. When it becomes the primary home, personalities and behaviour are bound to change,” adds Bir.

The idea of working parents and day boarding schools might not be new, but family anthropologists believe that the impact is being felt more today because of the changing nature of households in India. Tulsi Patel, a professor of Sociology at Delhi University and editor of The Family in India: Structure and Practice, says that work-related migration and social media have shifted us from a joint household to a joint family, the former having been the backbone of child support and development. “What is a joint family? A family can still be ‘joint’ without living in the same household— they can have Whatsapp groups, can Skype or FaceTime, they can meet at common events like birthdays and weddings. Such a system has only marginal impact on a child—yes, it is essential to have a close-knit family, but can technology substitute for physical day-to-day presence?” says Patel. On the other hand, she explains, joint households (where aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents and parents all reside in the same home) made the absence of parents during work hours seem irrelevant. “When there is chaos at home, someone always ready to hear your secrets or take you out for a walk in the park or scold you when you’re naughty, the way the child grows up is different from a nuclear household. There is little room for loneliness, insecurity, lack of attention or respect in the former. In some ways, schools today are seen as pseudo-replacements for the vanishing joint household,” adds Patel.

At the centre of this new school-based household is the counsellor. A study by a US-based data research firm Organization for Innovative Change shows there has been a sharp increase in the number of in-house psychology departments at private schools in the country. The study also points out that in schools which have counselling services, students between the ages of 7 and 16 spend an average of 20 to 30 minutes in the counsellor’s office each week. Several private schools have also started scheduling a mandatory counselling period. Others have taken to conducting psychological tests and mind maps for both children and parents (the latter only at the time of admission). A recent review paper, Emerging area of Counselling in Schools in India, by HS Kodad and SA Kazi, deans of Social Science at Karnataka State Women’s University, notes the reasons for the rise in school counsellors. The authors write: ‘In recent years the Indian society seems to have undergone a total metamorphosis with changing roles of women, a breakdown of the joint family system, increased competitiveness in schools, increased sociability of the children, immense technological advances, peer and parental pressures resulting in an environment laden with stress and strain for the children. School counsellors seem to have appeared like a blessing to the students and the parents to cope with the increased stress and strain and contribute towards maintaining the mental health of the younger generation.’ The paper concludes that a survey of student suicides, drug abuse cases and psychosocial problems reveals there is a major need for mental health counselling in all Indian schools.

The big question is how to remove the stigma of being sent to the ‘therapist’s office’. Counselling should be intigrated with teaching, not separated

But while there may be a need along with growing availability of school counsellors, educators and policy makers still struggle to get parents to come on board with the idea of classroom counselling. “The big question is how to remove the stigma of being sent to the ‘therapist’s office’. Counselling should be integrated with teaching, not separated. It is not at all what society imagines it to be—therapy is not a sign of weakness, but a sign of the times we live in,” says Arun Kapur, principal of Vasant Valley School in Delhi. At Vasant Valley all teachers are also trained counsellors and curriculums are no longer only content- based but also value-based. Kapur adds that our perception of therapy can often coloured by sitcoms and that in most Indian schools, the practice is well adapted to suit the domestic cultural context. “Teachers are there for the child to talk to, often just about school-related topics such as career decisions, academic stress, bullying,” says Kapur, “If there is anything else that the child feels a need to discuss, then that communication channel is always open to them.”

At Uday Foundation in Adchini, Delhi, parents have found a third communication channel for their children as well. The after- school play group and therapy that the NGO offers is especially popular among those who either don’t have a place to keep their kids after school or feel that neither home nor school is able to anchor them emotionally. In a wood-panelled basement, tables and chairs are piled high with board games, chess sets, books, comics and drawing equipment. Children between the ages of 6 and 18 from some of the city’s best known schools come here every evening to ‘chill’ and ‘hang out’.

As I watch one group play a relaxed game of Monopoly, the founder of Uday Foundation, Rahul Verma, points out the different forms of subsyndromal symptomatic depression (symptoms that don’t meet the criteria of a major episode of depression but are harmful to a person’s psyche nevertheless) that each is showing signs of. “She hit her mother the other day because she wanted her phone back. Both these girls were dumped by online boyfriends and now fear talking to anyone new; they only trust one another.” The children appear as cheerful as their counterparts at Sesame Street School, yet all have had a history of violence, depression, hypertension, social media addiction and unreasonable fear.

“Globalisation and technology have altered the psychological composition of our children,” declares Verma, among the few people in the capital to offer therapy for technology-addicts. “The constant need to be connected, to show an image that we think the world wants to see—it’s turned children into insecure and volatile people with zero sense of self. But in my experience, I have seen insecurity in parents as well. Why would a mother make an Instagram account for her child even before he or she is born? And if she does, if the child, from the moment they open their eyes, is constantly viewing a world where success is a measure of a certain kind of imagery and behaviour, what kind of confidence can we expect the child to have?” Verma adds that the one word that sums up a child’s psyche is ‘worry’. He says kids today worry all the time. “Most children don’t know what it is like to be relaxed anymore, to be happy.”

A study conducted by King George’s Medical University in Lucknow verifies Verma’s assessment—today’s children, while being more aware, faster learners and better connected, are also more prone to depression. In A clinical study of subsyndromal anxiety symptoms in children and adolescents from a north Indian child and adolescent clinic, the authors write, ‘The significant prevalence of sub-syndromal anxiety symptoms, the significant psychosocial impairment associated with it and the possible chronicity of its course should make the subsyndromal anxiety symptoms a matter for serious consideration by both clinicians and researchers.’ The effects of such anxiety were discovered in another study by the World Health Organization last year which concluded that a quarter of children in India, between the ages of 5 and 19, are overweight or obese. Among the reasons cited were stress and depression.

Personal roots have to come from the family. But some parents are too caught up with work and chores to find the energy to parent

But why are children depressed at all? The reasons are varied and much debated. The popular argument that parents today care less for their children and thus they’re less happy is written off by experts as simplistic and baseless. An HSBC study, The Value of Education: Learning for Life, found that parents were more obsessed with ensuring successful careers for their children than they were with their state of mind. However, the same study also noted that 71 per cent of Indian parents, more than any other nation in the world, were willing to take on debt for their children’s education. Parental concern is in clear evidence, but it seems to extend to the wrong areas. Psychologists say that the key to a happy, secure childhood lies in the biological and physical connections we experience in our early years and has little to do with how much our parents love us. The will to care and sacrifice isn’t enough; parents need to be aware of what to give and what not to give their toddlers.

“Sleep, touch, freedom, play—no child should be deprived of any of these till the age of five,” says Malavika Kapur, a Bengaluru- based psychologist and visiting professor at the National Institute of Advanced Studies. “In Eastern philosophy, there’s a term known as ‘internal locus of control’. It means how self-assured we are from within. A person who possesses an internal locus of control will be emotionally mature, unruffled by stressful situations, relaxed from within. Today, most people possess an external locus of control, where our sense of self and our decisions are based on what others think. What determines where our control lies? Parental touch,” she adds. Parental touch, when a mother hugs the child, breastfeeds the child, kisses the child goodnight, holds the child’s hand or cuddles the child on her lap, has been long-agreed as the most effective psychosocial device for personal security and development. “This early touch, even before we can speak or see or understand language itself, is what grounds us as people. Several studies show that baby animals die if they aren’t touched within the first few weeks of birth. Humans are no different. A baby who is denied that loving touch will have also been denied an emotional cushion for life.”

PARUL DIWAN, a counselling pscyhologist who has worked with The Shri Ram School and Mother’s International School in Delhi, adds that the fault lies less with parents than it does with the modern way of life and the access it affords. “Children are smarter today by leaps and bounds, they are also quicker at picking up different technologies than the previous generation. A five-year-old can unlock a smartphone, a seven-year-old can google answers, a 10-year-old knows how to find the latest music videos on YouTube. They might be cognitively adept to handle technology but are they emotionally mature enough at such a young age? And what happens to them if they are not?” asks Diwan.

A survey by the Internet and Mobile Association of India indicates that about 28 million out of a total of 400 million internet users in India are school-going children, while a Telenor India study conducted on child online safety in 12 countries found that children in India are at highest risk. “If parents are at all unaware of what their child is experiencing, it is certainly not by choice. Today’s demands and pressures are simply something most parents have never experienced themselves,” explains Malabika Sarkar, principal advisor at Ashoka University and the former vice-chancellor of Presidency University, Kolkata. “Our generation viewed the world through a different lens, our aspirations were of a different nature. The current crop of students is much more independent, courageous, outgoing, innovative and street-savvy. They aren’t afraid to start their own company, take up an unheard of career, travel solo or question life itself. On the downside, they could be prone to bouts of loneliness, stress and depression. But which generation didn’t have its own brand of problems? How and why our children are changing can be argued upon endlessly, [but the] fact is, they are changing and we should be aware of that,” she adds.

Since at least 1999, educators have been trying to prove that this change among children is indeed happening. Sugata Mitra, professor of education technology at Newcastle University and chief scientist, emeritus, at NIIT, was one of the first in India to note how computers were reshaping the DNA of learning. His ‘hole in the wall’ experiments, which involved placing a computer in remote rural areas in India, proved that when given the freedom and equipment, a young child could learn how to use a computer all by himself in a matter of weeks. Not only could they become technologically proficient, but they could also teach it to others. “It’s quite fashionable to say that the education system’s broken. It’s not broken. It’s wonderfully constructed. It’s just that we don’t need it anymore. It’s outdated,” says Mitra in his viral 2013 TED Talk that won him the TED prize for that year. His concluding remarks were, “We take our children, we make them shut their brains down, and then we say, ‘Perform’. Why did they create a system like that? Because it was needed. There was an age in the Age of Empires when you needed those people who can survive under threat. When you’re standing in a trench all alone, if you could have survived, you’re okay, you’ve passed. If you didn’t, you failed. But the Age of Empires is gone. ”

Sashwati Banerjee, MD at Sesame Workshop India (the educational mission of Sesame Street), too feels that the dichotomy between an archaic system of schooling and the fast-paced, progressive minds of the current generation needs to be urgently lessened. “Why are we fighting our children, trying to cage and control them in an age where freedom is everywhere you look? We should build a system of schooling which embraces the contemporary child. Instead of books, they need activity and play. Instead of examinations, they need examples and experiences. Instead of black and white blackboards, they need colours and stories. This is where the future of learning lies,” adds Banerjee.

At Sesame Street School, some of these philosophies are under implementation. “We want the children here to have a bond and attachment to school, to not view it as an exile their parents send them on. They are aware of the possibilities of technology, but remain rooted in the real world,” says Banerjee.

As two sisters wait for their pick-up, the teacher asks them not to forget what they learnt today. When the car finally arrives, they barely look at the smartphones the driver hands out to them. They’re too busy making a list of what they’ll need to bake their very first holiday cake.