Thursday, November 25, 2010

Child's Play

I come out of the shower to find Small Person pottering about the room. No hugs, there’s a cold war on over one of her transgressions. As I button my cuffs, I ask sternly “Who went potty in their pants today?”
Large-eyed solemn gaze directed upwards at me from my knee-level.
I repeat the question … “Who went potty in their pants today?”
“PAPA!”, she replies with a gleeful grin before she scampers away on tiny legs.

* * *

Kids! You can love them to bits, but there will be times when you will think Herod and Kamsa had just the right methods for dealing with them. Not the views one should express, however, when invited for coffee and conversation to discuss the issue of how adults relate to children. This was with a group called “Childwise”, at a bookstore on Park Street last Wednesday. It speaks volumes for the organisers’ persuasiveness that I forsook my biryani on Eid and toddled along to hear wise (child-wise!) things about parenting, schooling, learning and disciplining. I was not disappointed.

I expected pontification. Piety. Platitudes. Instead, we got straight talk. I expected a fair amount of preaching on corporal punishment. In the next two hours, we discussed class sizes, power structures, reading habits, role models. (And I fell in love. But more of that anon.) The main question was (and is) are we doing right by our children? Of course everyone has a different answer to this. And of course 99% of parents will assert that they are doing the right thing, but … Those “buts” tend to hide the essentials. Of time spent with the child. Of teaching by example. Of not pressurizing a pre-teen to excel in six different endeavours. And where does the school figure in this picture? Can schools be more than cramming centres? Can they contribute to positive discipline? Some teachers outlined innovative new schemes for motivating students – red cards like a football match, a bank of points at the beginning of the school year. But frankly, those schemes alone do not seem adequate.

Thankfully, the whole issue of corporal punishment in schools was summarily dismissed by Mr. John Mason, who said that its rights and wrongs are no longer open for discussion once the courts have banned it. One well-intentioned lady opined that all punishment demeans the child, that punishments “reinforce an unfair power structure”. I think that’s sheerest tosh. Children are not angels. (Well, not all the time.) Positive examples and rewards alone will not suffice to keep them on the right track. Sometimes a child needs to be made to stand in the corner. Besides, they’ll grow up into a world that has unfair power structures. Doesn’t it make sense for them to get used to it right away?

I was a little disturbed by the clear divisions between parents and teachers, the “we” and “they” attitudes evident. Parents are resentful of teachers who think they know all about teaching. Again, some of the teachers were aghast at how little some parents knew about their children. Thankfully, both groups articulated their issues clearly and within the hour the milk of human kindness was flowing freely. Yes, large class sizes do make it difficult for teachers to devote individual attention to children. Yes, parents should not need to spend 4 hours every evening going over school-work with their children. But how does one get around the problems of competition for limited educational resources?

We benefitted from the clear thinking of several teachers present, including the redoubtable trio of John Mason, Sister Cyril and Brendan MacCarthaigh. Two points that they made stand out. First, on the subject of exams and competition, Brother Brendan pointed out that in sports, a coach is fired if his players fail consistently. Why is it that if a student fails academically, the child is thrown out while the teacher remains? This raised a laugh, but it is a very basic issue in teacher evaluation.

A couple of people pointed out that the supposedly large class sizes in our elite schools are wonderful when compared to the situation in many rural schools. One lady mentioned a school where in one room, one teacher had to teach 80 children across four classes. Sister Cyril (whose appearance, sense of humour and no-nonsense demeanour reminded me of my very dear great-aunt), addressing the issue of overcrowded classrooms, said that the best way to deal with it is to divide the children into groups. This can be done in either of two ways. If the better achievers are grouped together, the teacher can concentrate on the other groups who don’t do so well. If children of varying abilities are put in the same group, they can help each other.

And what about the home front? Parenting is not instinctive. Parents cover the spectrum from those who smother with love to those who forget about their children. Parents need to understand better what makes their children tick and how the child can enjoy learning. Sister Cyril revealed that she has been running interactions with parents on these lines for 32 years!

All in all, a very instructive evening and an experience that I would like to have repeated. One niggle remained, however. For a body with the laudable motto of “Connecting before correcting”, Childwise could have made sure there were more young school-going participants in the discussion.

And yes, my falling in love? The object of my adoration was Sister Cyril’s distinct Irish brogue, which has survived 32 years in Calcutta!


Magically Bored said...

Very interesting post, and very valid points.
Personally, I'm not in favour of mollycoddling kids so much. All this brouhaha over corporal punishment - sometimes some kids are just asking for a whack or two across the behind. Of course, that shouldn't be the rule or the option resorted to ALL the time. But a little bit of disciplining is necessary. Most kids are brats nowadays. I don't mean to sound like a grandmother, but honestly, when I look at most kids today, I think how well-behaved my brother and I were back in our childhoods.

Sucharita Sarkar said...

A slap in the bum never did anybody much harm. But now, what with both bums and slaps becoming politically sensitive issues, while we parents and teachers are hesitating and psychologising ourselves into knots, the kids are having a field day. They are resilient and clear-eyed enough to see through the faff and survive a few blows. And manipulative enough to take full advantage of the situation!