Archive for March, 2012

I am not talking about obvious, blatant child abuse where children get beaten up, remain unfed, and or constantly subjected to derogatory remarks that cut at their very sense of being.

I am talking about the subtle [or otherwise] nuances present in the way children are brought up in different cultures and/or circumstances. Depending on your perspective, you could vouch for parents’ caring or denounce their life style and rant about the need to take children away from ‘such’ abusive parents.

Every so often, I come across situations at home, and at work when this ‘debate’ / discussion starts up again. Sometimes there is a news item that will flag these issues. Over the years, I’ve lost count of the number of times a situation could be interpreted either way.

Just a few examples…

Lohit, at age 3, typically sleeps in between his parents [sometimes grandparents]. Anand slept next to me till was almost in his teens [and will still do so from time to time if he is upset, or we have guests and he needs to give up his bed for them]. I shared a room with my brother and sister till my brother went away to university. All these situations are typical for most Indian kids. The idea of having a room entirely to yourself is an alien concept, and not only because homes are typically small….

So… does this classify as abuse?

Child labour… it’s awful when one sees a young child, often just 8 – 9 years old working to support and contribute to the family income – in a store, as domestic help, in a restaurant… Yet their family could be close to starvation without this additional income.

I remember being shocked as a Master’s student in the USA many decades ago when a professor proudly shared that his 15-year-old daughter  was paying ‘rent’ for her room from her earnings from a weekend job. But I soon recognized it was to do with his desire to encourage her ‘independence’ not a lack of caring.

More recently, an Indian family in Norway has been in the news because their children were taken away by child welfare services because of perceived abuse. Feeding the children by hand was apparently one of the behaviors leading to such conclusions. An emotional disconnect was, I understand, another reason. But how does one determine this? Specially in a culture where physical demonstration of affection is not, even today, that common.

Several years ago on a trip to several countries in Europe as part of a project, I remember being uncomfortable at the sight of  kids all over – in strollers and with pacifiers in their mouth. The absence of the sound of children’s crying, as well as their laughter, and ‘intrusive’ interruptions in adult conversations bothered me… It seemed ‘abusive’… shutting the kids up!

Sometimes it’s a limited professional perspective that leads to such conclusions. A particularly telling experience was in remote Raniya [Jharkhand] where special educators classified the mother of a “mentally retarded” 8-year-old girl abusive. Her crime? A widow with 3 children trying her best to eke out a living in an area that is challenged by the presence of Naxalites at every turn, doing her very best to protect her severely intellectually disabled daughter. [The little girl had a tendency to run off constantly on to the road that was near their house, as well as elsewhere and the mother couldn’t afford not to work]. What the professionals failed to notice was that ‘Budhagi’ was not tied up all day, that the mother kept her in sight and kept up a constant stream of conversation with her while she worked around the house and kitchen garden, that Budhagi nuzzled at her mother affectionately when she was sitting next to her, once the day’s work was done.

Was tying her up the best solution…? Probably not… but here’s a mother who didn’t know any better and no resources to help her out… NOT ABUSIVE!

When will we learn to see beyond the overt behavior, to stop automatically interpreting behavior from within the context of our own understanding…?

Through the many years that I have worked with parents, I have met very few that were truly abusive. Misinformed, with minimal resources, even with inappropriate priorities… but very few that took pleasure from their kids suffering.

 Parenting is possibly the biggest challenge…

So, how about a little openness, more understanding, and [where needed] a genuine helping hand…?


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