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Absent Social Structure: It Takes A Neighbourhood To Raise A Citizen

The current ideological confusion and obsession with gadgets among the younger generation is leading to deeper psycho-socio-cultural changes in society

Absent Social Structure: It Takes A Neighbourhood To Raise A Citizen
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“Doctor, I’m worried that my child comes home from school crying that a couple of boys tease him and hit him. How do I teach my child to hit back?”

This is not an uncommon situation in a paediatrician’s clinic. While it is absolutely essential to oppose bullying, is this best done by teaching your child to be aggressive and physically hit back? To set this in context, would we advocate the same solution in a case of domestic violence between spouses? Or a disagreement between siblings over inheritance. Or between two corporates over non-compliance with an agreement. Or, indeed, between the State and a citizen.

While this context makes it evident that the law is clearly defined in the case of adults based on application of mind, parenting is largely left to “common sense”. As can be seen here, the latter is often times a knee-jerk reaction, and not the application of intelligence but the reflexive response of the primitive or limbic brain. 

As humans evolved within the animal kingdom, genetics worked on the inherited brain to go beyond the ‘fight or flight’ binary. This modification was largely in terms of what we call ‘higher functions’ like rational thought, communication, delaying gratification and, as Yuval Noah Harari popularly noted in his book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, the ability to think as and for a large group. Thus, over hundreds of centuries, our brain adapted itself perfectly to settled community living. Children were born in families and reared in neighbourhoods. Laws were developed from practices over time. Laws thrive because humans place the good of the community above individuals; paradoxically, this ensures the safety and wellbeing of individuals.

Perhaps it is the mundaneness of daily life that relegates such basic realities to the background of conscious thinking and dubs them egalitarian. In a five minute conversation between homework and dinner after a long arduous day, we are all about quick-fix solutions with our children. And we harken back to the binary ‘fight or flight’ mode that sustained us through our evolution. 

With 24-hour days being squeezed more into seconds than minutes, with multi-tasking monotonous rigour of daily life, it is easy to lapse into the sordid but easy comfort of binaries—strong versus weak, right versus wrong, good versus evil, and eventually, us versus them. And this happens more than ever in the laboratory of parenting which, within each lifetime, is the cradle of nurturing civilisation. 

As our children are born and develop in an increasingly binary world, fraternity, equality, social causes, morality, empathy are all beginning to get coloured with the tunnelled vision of quick-fix, poorly thought through, machismo solutions. This makes for an interesting regression. What the binary largely does is replace higher order cortical functioning with a paradigm and pervasive shift towards short term, narrow, self-serving, emotional decision-making.  The real victims of this lilt are reasoning and empathy and the gradual loss of the ability to resist impulsive thinking. 
Parents increasingly report that their children lack empathy—this is not due to the presence of some evil gene but rather the lack of practice of reasoning and reasonable thinking in multiple social situations involving families and neighbourhoods. Increasing rates of suicides are linked to a lack of resilience— children develop resilience when they are nurtured within diverse experiences to come to terms with failure. Unabashed instant gratification and decreasing human engagement at very young ages have led to altered human behaviours like poor attention span and impulsivity and abysmally poor coping skills leading to tantrums and phobias. 

Amidst this, the pervasive onslaught of electronic gadgets has vitiated the environment beyond the point that the current gene pool can deal with, and we have a young population that proclaims itself to be Gen Z but is truly as vulnerable as never before.

A mother told me that her eighteen-month-old needs the screen to eat; if the network drops or the Wi-Fi falters for a minute, the child flings herself backward flailing her hands and feet and starts screaming. A visibly stressed father shared that his four-year-old son was diagnosed to be obese, but he refrained from telling the nutritionist that her detailed diet plans may fall through since the son is habituated to directly ordering food over popular food apps. Parents of adolescents request help to connect with their children who represent a ‘lost generation’—inhabitants of a digital world with poor adaptability and resilience in the real world. Those belonging to this generation, they lament, are unable to connect with others during family get-togethers, are extremely rude and seem to have no insight into their behaviour. I had a parent who said his ten-year-old daughter ‘needed’ to stay up till 1 am every week night since her peer group’s favourite YouTuber released his video at that hour; consequently she would be irritable and drowsy the next day in school. 

Though we have red-flagged the impact of climate change, the impact of present-day environment on children’s mental and behavioural development has gone relatively unnoticed. 

Infants are put on screens as early as six months—parents seem to have perceived that screens offer an incredible benefit in weaning their infant. Placing a screen before an eight-month-old is the easiest way to make her finish her porridge quickly allowing the parent to return to the next work-from-home meeting. The child continues to find solace in the screen while the parent is grateful to the electronic nanny. This gradually weakens the infant’s skills of interaction within the home. 

The isolation of children begins in the family home but is complete in the neighbourhood. A child weaned on screens is unlikely to bridge social gaps in interaction with diverse neighbours; neither do neighbours have time to indulge little ones as they could a couple of decades ago. In fact, the neighbourhood is prominent by its absence today. 

As political scientist Ajay Gudavarthy describes it, ‘living together, separately’ is the reality for most of urban India’s children. Parents have a scant need for neighbourhoods, being focussed entirely on academic careers. Soon, the battle for admission and the ubiquitous ‘school interview’ becomes the harbringer of the child’s journey into academia. 

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Unfortunately, all the social manoeuvring children traditionally learned in the neighbourhood is missed and is expected to be learned in the pre-school! Failure to master basic social skills in the neighbourhood makes it difficult for many children to adapt to the social skills required in the classroom. This dangerous leap ‘from cradle to classroom’ bypasses the scaffolding of family and neighbourhood, hitherto essential components of human rearing over thousands of generations. Psychologist Lev Vygotsky immortalised the importance of both in developmental biology with his theory of the zone of proximal development— the human infant learns from those closest to herself, thus developing early skills that can be used to then connect and learn with those further away. Taking away the human scaffolding renders gaps in social behavioural learning as children are unable to connect and establish secure and nurturing relationships in the community. This reinforces their attention towards screens. In the proverbial chicken and egg situation, it is difficult to say who came first—the aggressive courting of fragile attentions by screens or the forsaking of gentle minds that were reaching out to those in their proximal environment only to be ignored. 

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This is imperative since schools are no longer the inclusive and assimilative spaces they were for all classes and castes. Name-calling and prejudice has spilled over to personal choices like food or clothing. Children are bullied or boycotted over the choice of food; the hijab controversy is another case in point. 

‘Apolitical’ parents underestimate and brush them off as just another “election issue that doesn’t concern me”—the matter cuts far deeper. A mother complained to me once about the bullying her seven-year-old was subjected to since his namesake was a notorious international terrorist. It is not only her child who is traumatised. It is important to understand that the children who see others being bullied are equally affected—either traumatised into silence and fear, or beginning to enjoy the process of joining a baying pack in terrorising a weak peer. 

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Way back in college, I remember a colleague cajoling me to join him for a sermon by a young preacher. This gentleman was popular for his oratory in extolling youngsters to embrace a more rigid religious identity and practices. Most of his fawning audience was college-going students who were easily impressed by how he could shut up others in the audience questioning him by answering them back by referencing other religious texts. The key to this quick conversion towards adopting stronger religious identities and practices was actually the insecurity generated by the then recent Bombay riots; the orator’s persuasive skills merely reaped the fruits of a grim harvest. Suffice it to say, a significant proportion of potentially brilliant minds who may have otherwise been impressive secular professionals, artists or businessmen representing the educated moderate face of the community ended up innocently doing exactly the opposite—projecting an inward-looking, identity- flaunting, non-secular face. Though entirely harmless in itself, this loss of secular educated images could never be filled.

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Parents lament they are helpless to prevent this. If prevention means taking away social media or current lifestyles entirely, then the battle is already lost. You cannot deny a generation the fruits of their predecessor’s toil. Post-liberalisation, the neo-middle class has become the new bourgeois and refuses to give up their share for those they left behind the poverty line not long ago. The young cannot be persuaded to give up their bright screens. It is their socio-political inheritance that is at fault here, not just the shiny lights. 

And the desire for their child ‘to hit and come home, rather than be hit’ is where the fault line defines itself. The middle-aged middle class has been made to give up the luxury of quality time—for themselves as much as with family—for the carrot-and-stick model of economic survival. This manifests as the not-so-latent aggression lurking beneath the thin veneer of civility that barely shrouds society. Any safe space, e.g. parenting your own child behind closed doors, is all it takes to shatter this surface. And the lesson is not lost on the child. Thus, both sides of the parent-child equation are increasingly hostage to narratives that peddle consumerism or toxic hatred and prejudice. 

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It is this vulnerability that the industry and politics feed off. Young minds are more impressionable than ever before. Social media is the new university—without an academic council. With the young generation being social media natives, reaching them and consequently getting them hooked on to a narrative—whether consumerist or political— is not difficult. 

Replacing extended family members with screens and skipping neighbourhoods for the blind dash towards schooling are sudden changes in the environment over the past couple of decades—something mankind has not had time to evolve for and deal with. This provokes anxiety and opens the doors to doubts, fears, suspicion and an easy rejection of equality and fraternity—both defining principles of our Constitution. Flaws in early childhood are very difficult to rectify later. It may not be apparent at an individual level or in the near term, but will certainly and inexorably lead us as a civilisation far from our guiding principles—ethical as well as socio-political. 

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Solutions may not be as impossible as they seem. The potential damage to young minds, either by poor social interaction or by indoctrination, affects society as a whole, even trans-generationally, rather than merely harming individuals. Yet, from a developmental perspective, this battle must be fought at the individual level. Every child must be provided a nurturing scaffolding of care, acceptance and love—the only way to draw her into a trusting and conducive relationship with the world around her. Redeeming the priceless worth of families—co-inhabiting with a chacha, maama, kaaki, khaala, aunt, bua, nanaji—is urgent and imperative, and is doable at least in small aliquots or temporary measures. The screen cannot be substituted with another object, it can only be replaced by human interaction.

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Parents are in a perpetual rush to enrol their children in ‘non-academic’ classes—swimming, language, learning an instrument, etc. We counsel parents to realise that these may make the child better in performing those skills but to be careful that the child does not end up more self-focussed and consequently, emotionally isolated.

In working-class nuclear families, after school hours while parents are at work, children stay glued to the screen. In order to help parents overcome their child’s screen time addiction, we suggest parents in a neighbourhood form group of five or six. Every day, all children go by rotation to one family where that parent takes that much time off from work and decides what games the children will play, what food they will eat—while the other parents are busy at work. This ensures each child stays away from the screen and at the same time experiences and builds relationships with other families. There is something different to learn in each home and the child learns empathy and self-regulation in social situations.

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We advocate parents encourage the child to participate in community activities that serve others—without self-gratifying certificates of personal achievement or medals of individual excellence. Interestingly, today in a busy city, these opportunities are available in gurudwaras, mandirs, masjids and churches. Send your children here not merely to memorise and chant verses, but to help an old uncle up the stairs, to serve at the langar, to sweep the floor or to fold the carpets. Take them to all these religious places. Let them observe that basic beliefs are similar, but practices are different. Learning to adapt to different practices in small measures helps the child develop self-regulation better. 

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Let these different practices be the many arms of the scaffolding. Your child will be able to grow higher and eventually look over the fence! She will be able to learn patience, resist the first impulse that hits his mind, prioritise what she deciphers from many books over an inflammatory social media post, and be able to take failure in his stride. 

Attitude to attempt and adapt gradually and meaningfully to changes, resilience in the face of failure, collaborating with peers with care, humility and humour are vital. These timeless values and skills that sustain the child as an individual, and at the same time sustain society, cannot be developed in a tuition class or on an app. They can only be developed in a safe, thriving, secure diversity. And it is essential that parents take a pause, think beyond binaries and quick machoism and go on to mirror and role model these timeless values and practices. 

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A proverb tells us that it takes a village to raise a child. It is time to add that it takes a neighbourhood to raise a citizen. 
 

(Views expressed are personal)

Samir Dalwai Is a developmental pediatrician with expertise in contemporary interventions for children with special needs

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