“Papa, how will I know what is right?”

The Episode

It started as a regular workshop with parents at a local school. We spoke, took questions, discussed strategies for handling situations, about shyness, morality, relationships, about sibling rivalry, about aggression; the usual range of concerns parents have. Towards the end of the morning an older gentleman in the audience raised his hand to speak. Between him and his wife, there was a young child, evidently their grandson. “I raised my hand not to ask a question, but to share something”, he said. Lifting himself off the chair, he walked up to face the audience, clutching the mike close. He didn’t seem terribly comfortable with the task of public speaking. This is the substance of his speech:

“I want to share something from long ago. We have two sons. When my boys were quite young, one night, we were walking the street after dinner when one of them looked up to me and asked: ‘Papa, sometimes you scold us, sometimes you say ‘no’. Sometimes you encourage us and often you give advice. When I grow up and you are not with me, how will I know when I am right and when not?’ For a moment I was taken aback by the question. What was I to say? How do I answer my son? I knew one thing, I HAD TO answer him, and that the answer would have long-term consequences. As parents, sometimes we just know such moments.


From somewhere, I don’t know where, I found my words. What I said to him is what I want to share with you all today”, he said. “I said to him, ‘Son, if what you are doing can be shared openly with others, then you are right. If it is something that you have to hide from other people, then it is likely to be wrong. This is a simple thing that you should remember. If you don’t have to hide it from anyone, if there is nothing to fear, and you will be on the right track. If you have reason to hide, and are afraid that others will get to know, there is probably something wrong in your choice’. This has worked for my children who are now grown men and have lovely families of their own, and my grandson is with me today. We are a happy family today and share open and loving relationships. I have no idea how I came up with the answer, but I knew that it was the right one, and time has proved that.”

His wife, the grandmother got up to add “One day, when the boys were small, they and their friends were playing cricket on the road outside our home and broke the windscreen of a car parked on the street. All the other kids ran away, and my boys came to me and confessed. Those days, a single pane would have cost us much more than we could afford. So when the angry owners came to ask for damages, I said to them, we don’t have the money, but here are the boys who did it. Take them and make them work every day to clean the car. When the money is recovered, you can free them from this task.” I said. “You see, my children never hid anything from us, this is how we brought them up. For a few days they were made to clean the car, after which the owners let them go.”

For a while there was dead silence in the packed hall. Then, as if taking a moment for the message to sink in, the burst of applause filled the room as the old man haltingly returned to take his seat beside his wife. The simplicity and clarity of their words was humbling, and it was a privilege to have been there.

The Commentary

Young children have minds of their own, and they also learn so much from us. At an early age, ownership, affiliations, prejudice, loyalty, superiority, power, truth, none of these intentions enter children’s minds. They confront the world at face value, and hurting others, hiding things, or taking what belongs to someone else are simple experiments with the world, and do not carry the meaning and intentions that they do for grown-ups. Yet, it is from these innocent explorations that intentional acts emerge. When people deliberately subjugate, humiliate, hurt, steal from, or lie about others, many of these actions have origins in how early experimentation was handled; and naïve maneuverings can become transformed into malicious acts. As research has shown, the ethics of conduct is a valuation that we gather from our surroundings. We have the choice to oppose, ignore or even encourage children to be mean and manipulative towards others. Fortunately or unfortunately, that is the power of being parent, and that is our collective responsibility. We need to be alert to moments of potential gravitas, something that the gentleman in our story handled with spontaneous, dignified wisdom. There is no denying that we are key players in the development of ethics in our children. In this, we have a choice!

Phones ‘r’ us: Parental controls in a digital world

By Pooja Bhargava

Episode 1

One evening after tucking the kids into bed I was about to sit down for some quiet time when the phone buzzed. It was a friend from the neighbourhood, a mother of two, a teenaged daughter and a son a couple of years younger. Her family has been in the UAE for over a decade now, and the kids have grown up here, successfully adapting to a multicultural setting. A great conversationalist and a doting mother, my friend recently got back to her career in finance after a break of about 13 years. Being a full-time mother, she was on top of challenges in all aspects of her children’s lives. From food to fun, activities were carefully monitored and mediated by her. However, after getting back to full-time work, she felt somewhat overwhelmed and confused about her absence from home for most of the day. More importantly (as I perceived it) her concern was about monitoring the children’s expanding worlds. What were they doing in the afternoons? What were they watching? Who were they speaking to?

Due to the living arrangements and weather conditions, life in Dubai is mostly confined to indoor activity for much of the year, and screen time is a common pastime for children. She was calling to discuss how to install parental controls on what they could access online and the placement of webcams in their rooms. Her doubts were related to how to communicate this decision to the children and how to justify her restrictions.

Episode 2

During a recent workshop about cyber-safety that I was conducting, several issues regarding potential threats for children of all ages were raised. Most of the participants were mothers who were keen to learn how to install safety features for managing access to online content. During the discussions, one participant described an incident related to her son’s friend who was ‘grounded’ for a month, losing access to all his electronic devices. Apparently, he had spent a lot of money on downloads and online games. All these purchases had been managed by manipulating relevant messages on his mother’s phone related to credit card purchases. The mothers were quite bewildered about the extent of the child’s transgressions and there was unanimous agreement that children should not be given so much freedom. They said also that the digital lives of children must be monitored from early on to prevent such an eventuality. There was an equally intense concern about HOW such controls were to be implemented and a palpable awkwardness related to communicating such restrictions to children since it would imply a ‘lack of trust’ in the child.


Threats have always existed

The management of children’s experiences is a universal concern, something that has always troubled adults. From inappropriate friendships to excessive indulgences, parents have always worried about their growing children out there in the world. When credit cards were not available, children would sometimes take money without permission; when online games weren’t accessible, they would gamble on the streets. Few children have grown to maturity without testing the boundaries of what they can do. A person who has never lied, who has never stolen, who has never tricked someone else, has never been a child, someone once said.

When books were first introduced, reading novels was a threat to morality[1], it was believed. If we move back further in time, literacy was assumed to be a risk when compared to oral communication, since the impressionable young mind was considered corruptible by outside information. This argument was also used to deny access of the written word to women. We can notice, therefore that the advent of every technology has led to a simultaneous reaction about its dangers. Therefore, at the outset, we wish to assert that potentially harmful experiences and children’s transgressions have always been around and families have (successfully or otherwise) been dealing with them for centuries.  

Although this is a perennial concern, we do believe that worries have become amplified with the explosion in digital technology. These fears are justified, but we can see two important misconceptions here. The first relates to the dismissal of threats that existed in pre-internet lives. It appears as if all contemporary risks are attributable exclusively to an access to the world wide web, before which parents had an easier time bringing up children. This is just not true. Secondly, we do believe, also, that there is a tendency to overestimate the risks related to technology, while ignoring other important ones and also failing to recognize the numerous advantages.

Parental control and the culture of autonomy

Another issue that emerges from the episodes is how and when to handle restrictions on children. It appears that there is an underlying feeling of guilt and an assumption that controls are ‘bad’. The mothers seem defensive about establishing rules and restrictions. Maybe this is related to the ideology of independence and autonomy, where control is believed to be wrong and supervision implies distrust. Suppose we relate to control as care, concern, and not distrust, and treat supervision of children and their guidance as a duty of being a parent, perhaps the subliminal guilt and discomfort with ‘control’ would be eased. In Indian families, for instance, a fair degree of control is normal and restrictions are omnipresent. Children are guided to behave differently with different people, and the appearance of agreement is sometimes more important than actual agreement. This does not at all imply complete compliance or perfect solutions, it's just a different way of handling parent-child relations.

This perspective will be alien to a society that values individual autonomy and identity as an inalienable right. In a culture where every rule must be “explained” to children, the imposition of controls needs justification. Alternatively, where the person in authority takes decisions, these matters will take on a different meaning. In both settings (there are many more than two options, but only two contrasting ones are discussed here), children will still violate boundaries, but the guilt of setting un-reasoned rules will be more likely to emerge in the former.

Digital residents

Perhaps some of the discomfort of parents relates to the fact that relatively, children are much faster in picking up technological innovations, and that allows them access to experiences outside of the familiar. Exposure to the world-wide-web is inevitable in today’s day and age. The ease with which children have taken to technology can easily justify the label ‘Digital Natives’[2], which means growing up with digital content as a primary source of information and education. More recently called digital residents, these children have started living seamlessly between virtual and real lives. Sometimes the intensity and frequency of contact with virtual acquaintances may even exceed real ones. A lot has been researched and written about the effects of excessive screen-time on children’s mental and physical health; ironically most of it can be accessed online. The internet has shrunk the world, dissolved boundaries, enhanced education, provided information on our fingertips, but it has also introduced challenges that we were unprepared for. Paradoxically, the same technology that provides the threat is what is depended upon for surveillance. Also, the internet is blamed for isolating people from each other, but it has also brought people much closer through easier and frequent (and relatively free) contact over social networking. As a mother of a young child, Punya Pillai finds much potential in the use of digital technology. It is not the technology itself, but how we use it that counts.

Children’s negotiations of parental controls

Indian families are a training ground for the development of multiple identities, and children are actively guided towards different presentations of themselves depending on situation and company. Some even have different names for home and school, a clear separation of the informal, intimate world from the public one. Within the world of the family, conduct is custom-designed to the expectations of different settings, like a greater deference before older people and so on. From a very early stage, therefore, children learn to negotiate these different roles as different ‘selves’, although not always without conflict.  For instance, in Indu Kaura’s dissertation, children found the expectation of parents for high cooperation within the family, and a high competitiveness with peers to be an unreasonable demand when it is first communicated. Kaura found that closer to young adulthood, adolescents realize that these demands are part of the fabric of layered relationships and learn to cleverly negotiate their associations with peers as per their own motivations, sometimes keeping them secret from their parents.

In order to demonstrate this point, we asked Shashi Shukla to conduct a session in her class at University yesterday. She asked her students (please note that they are young adults) how they negotiated the use of their cellphones at home. Of all the 13 students present, only one said she shared the contents of her phone freely with her mother. All others kept their instruments locked with a secret password and made sure not to leave their phones around. Parents were not happy about this, they said, and many conflicts arise about attempted restrictions. Yet cellphones are also necessary for keeping track on them and parents keep a constant track on their movements this way. Most of students live with their families. These rules were negotiated by using different strategies: missed calls to friends as signals to call back, excuses for sharing college work, etc. One of the girls mentioned that she had entered all her male friends under code names so that her Dad would not know the identity of the caller. She found him to be excessively strict.

Children will always keep some secrets from their parents, as they should. There is a need to keep an effective communication going with children that facilitates conversations about serious issues. Also, children watch parents very closely, and cultivating healthy habits related to confidence and confidentiality is essential for the developing child. Control need not be construed as distrust, and parents need to be confident about their responsibilities, not guilty.

When we sent this draft to Shraddha Kapoor, she said that in her dealings with her nine-year-old daughter, she was explicit about boundaries, clearly declaring limits on physical movement and accessibility to technology (use of the elevator on your own, going for sleep-overs to a friend’s place, having a personal phone) and the ages at which what will be allowed. She is told these boundaries are for her safety without providing long-drawn explanations of potential threats. Any crossing of boundaries is labelled as “acting too big for your boots” an expression her daughter has internalized, and uses often in her chats with her mother. “Oh! That would mean she's acting too big for her boots?”

Building critical skills and developing healthy habits

Stephan Hawking recently tweeted that “the greatest enemy of knowledge is not ignorance, it is the illusion of knowledge”. The internet can definitely enhance this illusion[3], especially when the user is unable to discern the quality of the information being accessed. We end this commentary by emphasizing that technology has entered our lives and there is no way that we can revert to a life without these gadgets, except temporarily. For those of us who have the benefit of living with digital innovations, the advantages of these mediators of knowledge and entertainment have made them habitual companions in almost every aspect of our lives. When something so powerful enters our lives, it is unlikely that the lives of children will remain untouched. If not at home, children will soon be accessing gadgets in their friends’ company. We argue, therefore, that like the development of favourable eating habits or daily exercise, nurturing a healthy consumption of digital technology is also essential. Children watch their parents very closely and most often, model their conduct on them, Punya Pillai remarked in her reading of our draft. Being a good role model of the balanced usage of technology is the first step to nurturing a similar practice in children.




[2] by Marc Prensky in 2001


The Elephant, the King and Silly Mama

The Elephant, the King and Silly Mama (Adapted from The Story of Ribhu[1])

One day, a young child named Rinku was going with his mother to a mela when they saw a king’s procession passing by. The king was sitting on an elephant. Playfully, the mother asked him: “What is happening here, Rinku?”
“That is the king”, the child replied.
The mother persisted, “Which one is the king, beta?” 
“The one who is on the elephant”, he answered quickly.
Deliberately wanting to provoke Rinku, the mother persisted, “But which one is the king and which one the elephant?” A
visibly annoyed Rinku replied “Silly mama[2]! You don’t even know this? The one on top is the king and the one underneath the elephant!”  “Beta, I don’t understand you, what is ‘top’ and what is ‘underneath’?” the mother continued.

By then Rinku was really irritated by the mother’s questions and decided to teach her a lesson“Okay mama, now I will show you. You bend down and I will sit on you. Then I will be on top and you will be underneath. I will be the king and you, the elephant!” 

Note: Please notice the segments in bold font for later reference.


Childhood (94)This story was used in a doctoral dissertation, ‘Children’s Understanding of Self and Others’[3], where it was told/given[4] to mothers, with instructions to repeat it to their child. The purpose of this task was to identify how adults mediate content when they talk to children, thereby constraining their meaning-making through social guidance. In the above story, the most commonly transformed portions have been marked above in bold font. We will provide examples of how these words were changed for children to demonstrate the shifts in meaning through which values are communicated.

The re-telling of the story held no serious surprises. Indian families are known for the importance placed on socially appropriate behaviour and how a child presents herself before others is a particularly important concern. Blunt statements like “Silly mama, you don’t even know this” would be instantly censored for being inappropriate if not outright rude. Also, the intention of “teaching the mother a lesson” and “instructing her to bend down” because he was “irritated” are potentially unacceptable. Sometimes, very young children may be forgiven for such errors because they are believed to be naïve, but the tolerance level for ‘misbehaviour’ towards others is particularly low in most Indian homes. Conduct like this is usually nipped in the bud, and in this instance even the seeds were thrown away, in a manner of speaking.

Mothers changed the stories in innovative ways, some examples:

  1. Switching the characters: Some mothers retained the storyline and switched the characters (Mother became Rinku and vice versa). After all, it is quite common for a child to persist in asking ‘silly’ questions, and for mothers to teach their child a “lesson” and get “irritated”!
  2. Another change some mothers made was to turn the task of identifying the elephant and the king into a “game” between mother and child so as to take the sting out of the rude comments: “So Rinku said, ‘let’s play a game mama, so you can understand….’”.
  3. Some mothers simply edited out the words, for instance “Then Rinku said “Silly mama” while retaining the procession, king and elephant portions, which were followed by a pleasant conversation between mother and child.

Although we were expecting some changes, the extent and efficiency of censorship was illuminating. From the perspective of the learner, the process does not end there. In fact, there is (fortunately) a constant and parallel process of reviewing, reimagining and reinventing meanings, and this prevents the collapse of the human mind into a culturally defined automaton. Despite the tremendous influence shared beliefs have on the way in which attention is managed from a very early age, individuality is preserved through the active participation of a person who learns very early on, to make his or her own versions of their experiences. What we may label as peculiarity, defiance or stubbornness in people is in fact, the expression of their uniqueness. Whether these departures will be tolerated, ignored or encouraged also bears influence, and so the dance continues. Throughout our lives, we balance between these complex forces to constantly recreate the manifest image[5] of the world around us.

Why do we do this?

Childhood (93) (1)To dig a bit deeper into why adults control content, we spoke to some young parents. Apart from teaching social appropriateness, another important concern was ‘age-appropriateness’, yet another was limiting viewership of what was labelled as ‘gross’ content: blood, sex, violence. Some parents even mentioned that many classical Indian stories with moral lessons (Jataka tales, Panchatantra, Mahabharat, Ramayan) were considered inappropriate because of the graphic content! Snakes biting babies, animals killing each other, men tearing off the heads of an enemy, Krishna suckling out the life out of Putna[6] while feeding at her breast, were not considered particularly suitable for children. Despite the great appeal, some Krishna stories can be particularly graphic, one parent said.

Such manipulations are the medium for transmission of culture, and facilitate the formation of cultural identity. Mediation is not limited only to story-telling and neither is it used only for what is considered graphic content. Adults push children towards favouring some relationships while deliberately shifting them away from others, thereby determining the ways in which children will learn to approach other people. In ordinary conversations, content and meaning are moderated, providing a customized version of the world and our memories. In one research study on autobiographical memory of childhood among teenagers[7], we found that Indian adolescents tended to remember events and objects along with who was linked with these memories (who I used to ride the cycle with, who bought me the doll), whereas German adolescents were inclined to remembering personal accomplishments, like singing independently before an audience. Memory construction and reconstruction is an exciting field of study and the recent issue of Culture and Psychology[8] is dedicated to the shaping of personal and collective memory.

Restricting the flow of information can also be paternalistic, patronising or pernicious and it is important to be judicious in our interventions in other people’s lives. The celebration of diversity and uniqueness, of individual differences and autonomy are also important goals along with the transmission of values and beliefs. We need to recognise both aspects of our psyche, especially when we are in a position of authority in deciding what should or should not be experienced. We do hope this post has facilitated an inner dialogue about when and how and why and in what direction we constrain the people around us, especially little people!

Postscript: More about the original story in case you’re interested

Sri Ramana Maharishi (1879-1950) was a Hindu Sage regarded as an outstanding and enlightened person who was dedicated to the spiritual study of Self and Advaita[9] philosophy. He was well-known for teaching through few words, simple stories and silent congregations. According to him, the sense of individuality (thoughts about the Self), the Self itself (I), and the Ego (I am this or that) are different dimensions of self-knowledge and important to distinguish between, for the journey towards self-realisation. The story of Ribhu from the Puranas, was his favourite one for initiating debates about constructed boundaries between self and other, and the notion of collective Self. In the story, a Sage disguises himself as an ignorant passer-by and irks a young man (in fact his favourite student) with naïve questioning about the passing king and elephant, and pushes him to confront the concepts of self and other. The annoyed student says to the teacher (in disguise):

“Top? Underneath? You ignorant man! Now I will show you what these words mean. Bend over, now I am on top and you are underneath!” to which yet another plain question is added by the guru: “You and I, pray tell me what these words mean?” This marks the moment of realisation for the student.


[1] http://nondualite.free.fr/c_ramribhu.htm Also see postscript

[2] This was Buddhu mummy in Hindi

[3] By Pooja Bhargava, Supervisor: Nandita Chaudhary

[4] Depending on literacy levels

[5] The framework in terms of which man came to be aware of himself as man-in-the-world, Sellars. Source: https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/sellars/

[6] https://theindianmythology.wordpress.com/tag/story-how-krishna-killed-putana/

[7] https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs12124-010-9136-5

[8] http://journals.sagepub.com/toc/cap/current

[9] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Advaita_Vedanta

‘The Wig That Was Caught For Stealing’ and Other Stories

‘The wig that was caught for stealing’ and other stories by Shashi Shukla

From my father’s side, we are six cousins; four girls and two boys all born between 1978 and 1985. My father and his older brother were working in jobs away from their ancestral village, and annually, we would travel from our respective homes to the region of Awadh, where both sets of grandparents lived. This was common practice among many families at that time, where holidays were spent in rural areas with close relatives. When I look back on those annual visits, I realise how deep our connection with the village was and continues to be. Through this piece, I hope to weave together some fragments of our lives in those days, when holidays always meant a homecoming, and we were blessed to have many homes.

In retrospect, these episodes seem so ordinary; perhaps that is what makes them so special, because despite being so, they had a profound impact on our lives. We used to have so much fun running around the house, the courtyard, the village streets, playing with other children, climbing trees, going off for a village mela, or to the fields, just spending time without much on our minds. Most of all, we were liberated from the constant supervision of our parents, who seemed to have a lot more interesting things to do, and didn’t mind being unaware of our whereabouts for hours together. If we needed anything, we would go straight to our grandmother, who we, for some reason, addressed as Didi, the kin term for older sister.

Every morning, we woke up to the heavy fragrance of a chulha[1] fire, much after the elders had got the household running. Their early mornings were occupied in the processing of milk and milk products. After collection, the milk was cooked and by the time we woke up, the hot, thick liquid was ready for consumption, with its characteristic muddy colour and flavour from baked earthenware pots it was cooked in for hours. That taste was so distinct to the village. I have intense recollections of some of our activities, among them was the feel of the damp, warm mix for uplas in our hands. We used to prepare the mixture from fresh cow dung, some clay or mud and straw, and then pat down lumps in an arrangement around the courtyard to dry in the sun. These would then be stored for later use as fuel. Although this was very much household work, I remember ‘playing’ with this and enjoying myself immensely. Another fun task was the weaving of hand-fans from strips of dried grass, a local craft. I doubt if I ever finished making a single fan, but I remember intently attempting the weave on my own.

19961100_10154845126283367_3483393778576638540_nMy paternal grandfather had a very distinct personality, and we used to all vie for his attention. Although us girls would spend most of our time around the house, playing, assisting others, listening to the older women chatting, we would long to go to the fields with our grandfather. He was just in his dealings with us, and believed that girls and boys were equally capable. Although our grandmother would urge us towards an early marriage, he always said that we would someday become “collectors[2]”. In order to catch his attention in the mornings, we would compete with each other to fetch his stick, or umbrella, or hand him some water or his gamchha[3] so we would be picked to accompany him on his bike-ride to the fields on a given day. It was mostly the boys who went with him, but we would get chances too, especially when we were noticed.


Dada’s early morning routine was fixed. He would check on his cattle, even have a small conversation with Shyama, his favourite cow. After this, he would get ready for the day, cycling his way to the fields that seemed like a very long distance to us. There, he would supervise the farming work and return home late in the evening. On his way to and from the fields, he would stop to speak with others, and we loved watching the respectful way in which people addressed him. Dada had been a wrestler in his youth and was affectionately known by two names, one of which was Pehelwaan[4] baba. Upon his return, and after a brief rest, Dada would start a daily ritual that earned him his other title. With practiced precision, he would portion out the ingredients of his favourite drink, thandai: almonds, pepper, some jaggery and poppy seeds, onto the flat stone of the silbatta, slowly grinding the mixture to a fine paste. This was then dissolved in milk or water to make the drink that was reputed to keep the summer heat at bay. The decoction would then be strained through a thin muslin filter before it was ready for consumption. Daily, we would sit around watching his meticulous moves in the hope of getting some leftovers, with frequent success. In the end, he would spike this mixture with a special substance: Bhang[5]! This mild dose of bhang would have a curious impact on Dada. Gradually, he would start to mutter to himself. His conversations with imaginary creatures gradually became louder, a transformation that earned him his second name: Bhangedi baba. Till today, long after his passing, villagers will still direct you instantly to the home of Pehelwaan baba aka Bhangedi baba, if you visit our village.

We would also travel to our mother’s natal home fairly regularly. These visits were different because it was just us three kids, and Nani made us feel very special, she was very gifted at narrating kissas. Here I would like to distinguish between kahani (story) and kissa (anecdote or tale). Although the folk stories from Awadh region were very engaging, sometimes we would want to hear kisse, or real incidents about our parents and grandparents. One particular anecdote was our all-time favourite: The wig that was caught for stealing! This is the story:

As a young man, Nanaji was posted as a police inspector in Lucknow. One day, he happened to be in hot pursuit of a thief who had snatched up a traveller’s bag at the Charbagh railway station. He was chasing after the thief who was himself running, away from Nanaji and towards a departing train. As the train picked up speed, Nanaji lunged forward to try and catch the thief by his hair so that he could not escape. With full force, he yanked at the hair as the man stepped onto the train. Suddenly, to his great dismay, he found that he had been successful in securing the hair, but the man was safely on board the train, and out of reach. The man was wearing a wig! This item stayed on display in his home ever since. I must have heard this story a hundred times, but the magic of the moment when the wig slips off, letting the thief escape, held us spellbound for years to come. That was the first time I had heard of false hair.

Somehow, listening to these ‘real’ kissas gave us new perspectives on our parents and grandparents, and we would pester both our grandmothers endlessly. Another story Didi would tell us regularly, was about my father’s journey to school. The school was across the river from their home, and every day, he (my father) would cross the river with the school bag on his head since they did not have enough money to pay the boatmen to get to the other side. She narrated this with great pride, and also perhaps in the hope to drive home the importance of austerity and caution regarding money. I don’t think that worked very well, at least not in my case!

We also heard from Nani that my mother used to love to dance. One day, when she was asked to go to the market to buy some vegetables that were needed for dinner, she got distracted along the way. When she reached the shop, a catchy song was playing on the radio and my mother, forgetting all about the task she was assigned, started to dance to the music. Soon, her older brother was dispatched to find out what had happened; what was taking so long. When he found her at the shop, dancing with gay abandon, she received a serious warning and was punished, forbidding her to dance ever again! Well, my mother retained her love for dance throughout her life, and continues to be her liveliest in every family function.

Nani also had a very effective strategy for getting us out of her hair when we annoyed her with endless demands for more stories. She would say that stories should be told only after nightfall, or else “your Mama (mother’s brother) would lose his way and get lost somewhere, never to be found”. This clause would never apply to her choice of moral stories! I don’t know why we believed her, but it was immediately successful in getting us off her back. Both agreements and refusals were communicated obliquely to us, couched in indirect references to take off the edge, I suppose.

More recently, I watch my nieces with my parents, and I see them (my parents) transform in their company and I realise the precious nature of these relationships. For everyone in the circle of influence, these relationships are enriching, deeply nourishing emotionally when there is mutual respect and affection. Sometimes grandchildren say things to their grandparents that no one else is able to. There must have been undercurrents of resentment and conflict, but when we were young, we were not tuned into any of that. Recently, when my father was recovering from an accident, he was advised to start walking despite the pain it was causing him. One day, my niece, who had watched the physiotherapist with great concentration, stepped up to her Nana and said “Agar jaldi chalna hai to exercise to karni hogi”. My father, who was not paying much heed to the advice of others, began responding to her words instantly. She helped him gather the motivation to heal himself. Childhood (98)


Humans are among the only species where adult males and females survive well beyond reproductive age, and that makes them an important resource in the care of babies[6] who are the most dependent in the animal kingdom when they are born. In this blogpost, we attempt to consolidate the value of multi-generational relationships among Indian families. Please note that we are avoiding the term joint family because this leads to an artificial separation of families and fails to capture the jointed-ness among modern nuclear families in their functioning.

We do not wish to make exclusive or universal claims about Indians. In fact, the close nature of the relationships can intensify animosity and resentment in the absence of acceptance, understanding and mutual respect. Further, grandparents are greatly valued in all cultures, but the ways in which families are organised tends to be different. Increasingly however, the isolation of the elderly from others marks a shift that we estimate to be a cultural loss, not just for the older person, but also for the in-between and the younger generations, who miss out on the experience and opportunity to be cared for by, and care for a loved one. It is a responsibility that can be profoundly challenging and greatly rewarding, densely packed with personal and social significance and sacrifice.

From Shashi’s story and other readings, we are able to glean some of the benefits of co-residence of multiple generations providing valuable benefit to everyone concerned. Apart from the more obvious advantages of mutual care, there are subtle outcomes that greatly impact our lives when vertical arrangements are expanded, whether temporarily, periodically or permanently. However, the linear, neat sequence of the family life-cycle is completely overturned when this happens. We learn from text-books that the trajectory of development moves from independence to intimacy, followed by expansion, the launching of children and finally, the isolation of old age. Well, in multi-generation households, the family life cycle is transformed into a family merry-go-round of sorts!

Multi-generation families have an important objective: to provide each member of the family with a sense of purpose, however young, and however old, unable and fragile a person may be. Children who are cared for by grandparents will in turn be depended upon as a source of support as they grow older. How many times work is ‘created’ for the elderly to provide them with a meaningful place in the household and family life; tasks that could very well be completed, sometimes more efficiently as well, without their presence or assistance. The industrial aspect of family life in a functional multi-generation household is thus aimed towards making everyone useful, and more importantly ‘feel’ useful. We deliberately chose the expression ‘depended upon’, realizing fully well that in many cultures, it is construed as a bad word!

The temporary retreat of parental responsibilities, is another outcome to be noted. In this a situation, parents can get a much needed break from their constant supervision of growing children, and children can explore their worlds somewhat differently and experience different kinds of care, form many attachments. In her doctoral dissertation, Shraddha Kapoor found that the choice of grandmother as an additional caregiver was at the top of the list for Indian mothers employed outside their homes (Note that we’re NOT calling them ‘working mothers’, all mothers work!). The use of the term ‘additional’ as opposed to ‘substitute’ is significant here, and Indu Kaura needs to be credited with this observation. Care by one does not only imply the removal of the other, sometimes a temporary relaxation, otherwise a welcome addition. Research points to us how important this support is for young mothers[7]. Returning to the grandmother as carer, Kapoor found that the older women have a sense of authority in childcare that was not likely to be questioned, even when there were differences of opinion. In the words of one of the mothers, “What better childhood could I expect for my child, than for her to have the same experiences as I had?” The dynamics with paternal grandmothers had a different flavour, Kapoor found, but as far as the care of the child was concerned, there was little doubt about its quality. We can also see this in Shashi’s story. Throughout the post, she mentions her parents only through descriptions of the grandparents, they were not absent, but they had temporarily receded in the background. In terms of active intervention, they didn’t feature during vacation time. For all concerned, this shift of power had significant importance, giving meaning to the lives of the elderly, children greater freedom and some change to parents.

A child’s search for multiple perspectives on her parents is natural. What were they like as children? How did they spend their time? One of the pleasures of visiting grandparents is seeing parents’ spaces and articles from when they were children. Perhaps, along with the benefit of an extended knowledge of their own parents, it is also possible that the larger-than-life presence of parents is somewhat mitigated in these conversations, thereby allowing a more realistic, reasonable and multi-dimensional perspective on parents. Everyone has a boss, the children realize very quickly.

Sometimes, children and grandparents accept things from each other that they may otherwise refuse. For example, children sometimes accept food from grandparents that they may not otherwise agree to. In Shashi’s story, we read how effective her niece was in communicating with her grandfather about the need to keep moving for his recovery.

Relationships between grandparents and children are also a playground for examining the politics of family life, and a great source of ethnographic data on relationships. In a project for which we were visiting households with young babies to ‘listen in’ on conversations addressed to children, we found clear patterns in the direction, content and functions of speech to babies that would mediate their orientation to different people: Who was to be spoken to, who should be ignored, and who should be given priority! Mila Tuli found that the middle-class educated mothers in her study were carefully interceding in how and how much time the child would spend with whom. This sort of play was not in evidence in Shashi’s story, although this does not imply its absence. Perhaps these differences could be attributed to rural-urban patterns of family life.

Regarding grandparents as gatekeepers, in her freshly released “All you need is love”[8], Shelja Sen argues that grandparents keep a close watch on family life. They supervise and balance excesses or insufficiency in different dimensions of parenting, whether it is information, indulgence, accounting or disciplining. Several adolescent participants in Indu Kaura’s study claimed that their grandparents were allies during conflicts with parents over relationships, studies or mobility.

Anandalakshmy once wrote about roving grandparents, the rather lost-looking elderly Indian couples that one usually encounters at international airports. (They don’t look as lost anymore). Many of them are following their adult children to faraway places, especially after the birth of a child. A successful life in Silicon Valley may be very well for a young couple, but for a new born baby, it is believed to be inadequate and isolated. Such visits can of course become a nightmare in case of serious difference of opinion about child care practices, but a solid, practical training in joint family dynamics can come in handy in such situations. Not much has been written about these aspects of moving populations.

Several writers have noted that grandparents themselves change a lot between their parenting and grandparenting, usually becoming far more easy-going, talkative and demonstrative in their dealings with children. For the adult children who are parents, this brings to the fore new aspects of their own parents, sometimes greatly enriching this relationship. In a delightful essay, Wajahat Ali writes humorously about how grandparenting transformed his own father[9].

Life with a grandparent resonates with a much older way of living, for every subsequent generation. A beautiful example of this is provided in Kamala Das’s short story ‘Summer Vacation’[10]. We wish to thank Punya Pillai for the reference. In the story, the passing away of her daughter leaves Muthassi in despair that is broken by the annual visits of her daughter’s daughter, Ammu. For the child, these visits strengthen her connections to the mother through the formation of a deep, permanent bond with the older woman. The gentle tale of a summer vacation with Muthassi is imbued with a slowness that is also evidenced in Shashi’s essay. Not all questions find answers, and not all demands are fulfilled, yet the bond is strong and resilient. In this extract, the child is exploring what her presence means to the older woman:

“Muthassi”, I called out. “Mmmm” she stopped her reading and turned to me. “Will you be unhappy when I leave?” “Yes.” “Terribly unhappy?” “Why should I be terribly unhappy, Ammu? You’ll come again next year, won’t you?” “But if you die meanwhile..?” Muthassi brushed aside my fears with a laugh. “I won’t die so soon, Ammu. I will live long enough to see you married and have children. Isn’t that enough?” “Muthassi, please tell me who I will marry?” “Who knows…….” It was very comforting to put my head in Muthassi’s lap. Gradually my eyes closed. I could hear the humming of a bumble bee from some part of the verandah. Muthassi explained “The bumble bee is building its nest”. Very much later, I woke up….

As Ammu was leaving, overcome with the fear that the old woman would not be there the next summer, her father reassures her that Muthassi would never die……“‘Will never die, will never die’……the wheels of the train seemed to chant”.

Perhaps that is exactly how grandparents feel when they are with the young: “We will never die, never die, never die…..”.


Further reading:



[1] Cooking hearth made from bricks, mud and clay

[2] An administrative officer in the local government

[3] A scarf that he would wrap around his head when the sun got too strong

[4] Wrestler

[5] Edible preparation of cannabis

[6] See Anthropology of Childhood by David Lancy. https://works.bepress.com/david_lancy/69/


[8] https://harpercollins.co.in/book/all-you-need-is-love-the-art-of-mindful-parenting/

[9] https://mobile.nytimes.com/2017/06/17/opinion/sunday/my-dads-sudden-outburst-i-love-you.html?smprod=nytcore-iphone&smid=nytcore-iphone-share&_r=0&referer

[10] The Kept Woman and other stories by Kamala Das http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/11465025-the-kept-woman-and-other-stories

Breaking Blog

The expression ‘Breaking News’ dates back to the use of concrete plates or blocks for offset printing that needed to be ‘broken’ at the last minute to accommodate an important update. Given the effort and cost, it was an occasional event unlike our daily news bulletins today. Anyway, this blogpost is not about media technology or information processing. We have an altogether different agenda for which we are breaking blog, so to speak. Up until now we have featured stories with an upbeat, somewhat optimistic view of the world of children and families, while also making attempts to address more serious, underlying issues. The story that was planned for this week related to the place of grandparents in children’s lives, has been broken into and postponed to feature this discussion of the politics of child care using multiple positions, individual, local, national and global. In India, the visible minority can rise up theatrically against injustice towards individuals, especially when there are ethnic overtones; and can remain apathetic towards and even participate in others injustices towards  individuals and collectives, especially when it concerns people living in poverty.

Childhood and society

Increasingly, childhood has become a contentious field, closely watched by newly appointed gatekeepers, impacting children’s lives in many ways, some that we may not even be aware of. We can no longer hide behind the curtain of innocence and privacy that family life has enjoyed for centuries. But don’t get us wrong, we are not implying that traditions are always favourable towards children; yet, in the past, circumstances were closer, more immediate, and therefore more visible. This is not, therefore, a nostalgic reminiscing of those golden, olden times, but rather a call for greater vigilance regarding current influences on children’s lives by all concerned partners.

Let us take the example of advertising. Promotions of products are becoming increasingly assertive in the linkages drawn between ‘loving your child’ and providing them (paying for) the ‘best’ of experiences, from the most soundless drive, or the most exciting holiday, or the best school experience, to that newly released learning device. Surely these advertisements must be having an impact, or else the industry would not be paying for them. The company does not care about your child’s future, they are selling a product. Yet, our concerns here are not about this sort of blatant solicitation either. In today’s world, there are far more subtle influences on children and family life, and therefore on us.

The ways in which children are cared for is a delicate issue and a struggle that every culture prepares for, and every family endures and survives; well mostly. Having a child seriously alters the course of our lives, and whether or not we have experienced babies before having our own is an important factor in determining our ease with a baby. Even among societies with close social linkages and well-defined, shared traditions, individual children will provide new challenges for which assistance is sought from others. “It takes a village”, as Hillary Clinton’s bestseller declared. Within this ‘village’ of resources, human and material, the information that we access, the conventions that we follow, the people we reach out to, and the advice we seek, is not a level playing field. Some sources are more valued than others. Some people are more valued than others and some children are more valuable than others, despite all our lip-service to rights and responsibilities.

Enter the UN!

In the year 1990, the United Nations declared the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), under the umbrella of human rights, within which children have been identified as requiring special care and attention. Accepting the importance of family and community values, the Convention identifies that all children must be “protected and cared for” as is necessary for their well-being, for which member countries need to ensure legislative and administrative commitment. India, along with 190 other member countries, is a signatory to this document. However, some countries have refrained from adopting the document as binding, these include Somalia, South Sudan, and (wait for it)……..the US of A! This is despite the fact that the US is home to UN headquarters. The CRC has not received a majority vote from the US Senate that is required for its ratification, although it was symbolically accepted during the Clinton regime. The main reason for this restraint by the US government relates to the assumed sovereignty of the nation and its people, and the unwillingness to concede authority to an external body. This would imply a threat to parental rights of American citizens, it is believed[1]. The US prefers to be governed by its own laws rather than a global Convention, although there is obviously no problem in imposing these standard guidelines on the rest of the world. By deduction therefore, the signatories of the CRC have in fact allowed the entry of these ‘universal’ guidelines as superior to local practice. As a consequence, there is a notional separation of an individual child from its social setting, and the separation of development from the cultural context. See Burman[2] for an excellent discussion on these issues.

Who decides what is good for your child?

In his Ted talk, Tom Weisner[3] argues that the central, most important factor that determines a child’s development is neither love, security, nutrition, friends, stimulation, moral training, nor money per se. These are all important of course, but the primary circumstance that will impact a child’s life is WHERE he or she is growing up, under what conditions: in what family, which neighbourhood, what community, what nation. If a child is born into the Jarawa tribe of the Andaman Islands, she will be one among the 300-odd surviving members of this endangered group of hunters, isolated from the modern world, protected by a shared knowledge of survival in their forest habitat. If a child is the first-born offspring of a young couple living in a high-rise building in Tokyo, the circumstances of her life, as we can imagine, will be profoundly different from our Jarawa child. Different communities have different beliefs about what is best for children, and the ways in which children are brought up are closely adapted to the worlds in which they live[4]. Please see the listed books by Heidi Keller and Alma Gottlieb and co-authors for more instances of cultural differences.

Cultural differences are complicated by another aspect of human society: the influence of affluence. There is no denying that wealthier societies, and within a particular society, wealthier people, have greater confidence in their ways of living, and also of bringing up children. But even among the wealthy, there are nuances about ‘more advanced’, better developed, having superior values, as the film Hindi Medium[5] demonstrates so effectively. Although the young couple featured in the film are as wealthy as the others in their recently adopted neighbourhood in New Delhi, their lack of sophistication in Western ways, symbolized by an inadequate knowledge of the English language becomes an major hurdle in accessing admission for their daughter into a “good English medium” school, without which it is assumed that her life would be worthless. Although the film is somewhat hyperbolic in parts, it brings up an important truth and has been endorsed by one of our eminent educationists, Krishna Kumar[6]. He argues that the film exposes how nursery school education has lost all sense of purpose in the country.

Scarcity and social capital

Matters related to the lives of the poor are much more serious and far-reaching, since they are disenfranchised not only on account of being poor, but also as a consequence, short on social capital. We often assume that the poor in any part of the world are also automatically poor parents, a fact that multiplies the disadvantage for children. This terrain is ripe for the entry of interventions that promise dramatic change and dreams of better lives. How many of these experiments have in fact worked? What is in fact a successful intervention? There are several important criticisms of philathrocapitalism that we need to be aware of[7], including the argument that is advanced against academia for perpetuating the use of poverty, oppression and pain for their own intellectual gratification[8]. Our fear is that a majority of welfare work is carried out on auto-pilot, with little regard to ethical concerns. By the fact of being poor, families seem to lose their entitlement to respect and dignity when they are enrolled in a welfare programme. They are assumed to be unwise, otherwise they would not be poor, it is believed.

In fact recent research on poverty has argued that the poor are not so because they think differently, but that they think differently because they are poor, as economist Sendhil Mullianathan[9] argues, concluding that we need to change the ways in which we think about scarcity in people’s lives. Yet, we persist in believing that poverty is a condition, a characteristic of people who are poor. Another important reference for the ethics of engagement with poverty comes from Bhrigupati Singh in Poverty and the Quest for Life[10].

In India, children from rural families face similar consequences of being powerless, despite not being technically poor in many instances. Regarding schools in villages, Krishna Kumar writes that “The message that rural children received and absorbed was that they must change their behaviour in order to become good citizens. Education of the rural child has failed to depart from the stereotype which associates modernity with city life”. The stereotype of the simple-minded village peasant is very much alive, even today.

Changing local practices through intervention

Welfare programmes for children across the world vary in their objectives. Some make attempts prepare children for formal schooling through providing early childhood education, others target health and sanitation issues and some others deal with providing nutritional and other services, or support for older children.

Recently, a leading journal in the field of Child Development reported the results of an intervention programme in Senegal where mothers were educated to speak more to their babies, apparently as a strategy to improve the circumstances in which the children live. In fact the study reports tremendous success since the child-directed speech by mothers doubled in the one year between the assessments[11]. In our experiences with families from villages, we have found a similar phenomenon, the practice of sitting and ‘talking to’ children is not common, and silence is greatly valued in many settings, especially in the company of visitors (researchers in our case). Children are mostly free to play on their own, in the company of other children and communication relates to instructions or information that needs to be shared. The structure of family-life is largely transacted between many adults with many children around, rather than one-on-one, which is the primary setting for verbal exchanges of the type recommended by researchers in the Senegal study. Other research studies have corroborated these patterns in speech between adults and children. Does such an intervention also have long-standing consequences on the structure of family relationships and social life? Is such an intrusion justifiable? Language and communication is not just about quantity of speech as linguists have informed us, how and when we speak to each other, and when we should remain silent are all important components of conversation and cultural identity. Do we ever consider the inadvertent consequences of interventions that are likely to change the form and function of social relationships forever? Could we plan such an intervention with families living in the West Coast of the US, for instance, to suggest “improvements” in interpersonal communications? Intervention and welfare is a one-way street punctuated by unjustifiable claims and unethical practices in several instances.

In recent news, the Uttarakhand government in northern India has decided to convert the 18,000 Government schools to the English medium of instruction[12]. One can only imagine how much investment in time and energy will be required for such a transformation, if at all it is possible. It is true that learning English is an important aspiration among many parents, and the language can surely be taught without the change in the teaching of all subjects. But such a choice in favour of English is also a rejection of the mother-tongue and local language, and will have far-reaching consequences for language use and cultural identity. Why has the State not looked at other options from within the country regarding language teaching? Why not follow the guidelines adopted by the Orrisa State Government where mother-tongue education and multi-lingual education[13] have been experimented with for the last so many years, and with great success? Our worry is that such a transformation will further alienate children from the local community as well as the education system for years to come. As a country, we are primarily multi-lingual, with 122 major languages and 1599 other languages according to the 2001 census. Why have we been unable as yet to find local solutions for language learning in formal schooling?

Paths to success

The pathway to a successful life according to policy makers, educationists and welfare agencies appears to be narrow and well-defined, one that culminates in the singular model of an urban, educated, English-speaking, office-going individual as a success story. For a country as large and as diverse as ours, this is too tight a garment in which to fit us all and is neither inclusive nor sustainable. We need multiple images of success and multiple meanings of well-being to accommodate our diversity.

What is the point we are making here? Certainly not that all interventions are misguided, but that we must keep a “critical vigilance” (as Burman suggests) on the objectives and possible (intended and otherwise) consequences of welfare programmes. It appears that we are headed towards a global epidemic of sameness[14] and differences and diversity are likely to come under serious threat from these forces. This is evident also in the surveillance of child care practices of immigrants by Child Protection Services in many countries[15]. With increasing movement between countries, and a lower tolerance of cultural differences, especially of immigrants from poorer countries, families need to be informed and aware of different conventions in the care of children and possible consequences of a mismatch. Child Protection Services need to be educated about cultural diversity when they search for cases of abuse and neglect.


While we sustain a world-wide campaign for the preservation of natural and cultural resources, let us also look closely at favourable aspects of child-care practices, language use, family relationships and other cultural exchanges as valuable practices within which children have been affectionately nurtured for generations. Let us concentrate our efforts to provide education and other interventions that are inclusive, respectful and sustainable. Serpell and Nsamenang[16] argue that early childhood education in Sub-Saharan Africa is largely aimed at correcting the course of development and learning of young children to fit into formal schooling, a familiar story for us as well. Maybe it is time for us to see how we can fit schools into children’s lives out of respect for them as individuals and members of communities in the true spirit of the Convention on the Rights of Children, and not as a synthetic application of an alien version of childhood that many of us are perpetuating as a pipe dream.

Endnote: It was an effort to write this piece without a single reference to our colonial past, and we are delighted to have been successful. These problems are now very much our own, perpetuated and supported by our own people!

[1] https://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/post-partisan/wp/2014/11/21/why-wont-the-u-s-ratify-the-u-n-s-child-rights-treaty/?utm_term=.959734c68ad7

[2] http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/0907568296003001004

[3] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gIZ8PkLMMUo&sns=fb

[4] http://www.iaccp.org/sites/default/files/spetses_pdf/5_Keller.pdf and http://www.amazon.in/World-Babies-Imagined-Childcare-Societies/dp/0521664756

[5] https://g.co/kgs/bpvXKN

[6] https://g.co/kgs/bpvXKN

[7] https://thewire.in/25579/the-gates-foundation-and-the-anatomy-of-philanthrocapitalism/

[8] http://racebaitr.com/2017/04/06/how-academia-uses-poverty-oppression/#

[9] http://harvardmagazine.com/2015/05/the-science-of-scarcity

[10] http://press.uchicago.edu/ucp/books/book/chicago/P/bo19085493.html

[11] http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/cdev.12882/abstract

[12] http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/city/dehradun/uttarakhand-govt-schools-will-teach-in-english/articleshow/59378814.cms

[13] http://www.thehindu.com/todays-paper/tp-national/tp-otherstates/odisha-to-extend-mothertongue-based-education-to-all-tribal-students/article6182063.ece

[14] http://seedmagazine.com/content/article/in_defense_of_difference/

[15] http://www.thehindu.com/opinion/op-ed/cultural-sensibilities-matter-in-parenting/article7562231.ece

[16] http://unesdoc.unesco.org/images/0022/002265/226564e.pdf

On Dolls

She was about half my age when I first met her, although we had heard stories about her constantly expanding family of dolls. We spent some time together one summer when she came to visit her aunt, my mentor.  An intensely curious young girl in a quiet sort of way, one always got the impression that there was a parallel world that she inhabited which was infused with other creatures. So many years later, I caught up with her – now a market researcher with two lovely girls of her own – and the memory of her ‘alternate family’ came rushing back. At Masala Chai, we are so glad that she agreed to feature in this post: ‘On Dolls’, where we get a glimpse of the imaginary world of relationships, one that emerged as a constant commentary on the real one.


By Yeshwanti Balagopal

I was known for having hundreds of them. People marvelled at my “doll collection”, wondered why I needed so many, sneered at some that looked a little the worse for wear, mocked me for loving them well into my “tweens”. And I never understood why. Because it was never just a “doll collection” for me. Each of those creatures – dolls, teddy bears, stuffed animals of various shapes and sizes was for me a living, sentient being. Each, when it was acquired, was lovingly named and given a special place in my heart. Some were more talented than others – Jacqueline was a blonde, blue-eyed “walkie-talkie” – but Sagari had a cloth body and painted papier-mâché face that had chipped away over the years until it looked like a patchwork quilt. But no one doll was any more or less in my esteem. Yes, some had the sheen of novelty and were played with incessantly when they were first acquired, but these may have been expensive or something I made myself from an old sock and some wool. My dolls were never thrown around, flung on the floor, treated roughly, because they all had feelings. If anyone else treated them badly I would rush to their aid, causing much hilarity amongst people on occasion. But to me they were real people and it hurt me that others didn’t see that.

What was my relationship with them? It varied. I know that I was always their protector. I would always be there for them through thick and thin and never let any harm come to them. Depending on the game of the day, each took on different roles. Some became my children, or my children’s friends. Sometimes they were my students and I their teacher, all neatly lined up in rows. Sometimes I went camping in another room with a bundle of food and clothes and they were my fellow travellers. The stuffed dogs were often put on a leash and dragged all over, a substitute for the real dog I wanted but never had. The bears were anthropomorphically dressed in doll clothes and sometimes given earrings.Dolls3

Choosing a name for a new acquisition was an involved exercise, and often the whole family was roped in. The ethnic origin of the name had to match the origin of the doll, or its appearance. Two dolls could never have the same name (would you call your children the same name?) so much thought would be put into coming up with something original. I think these also helped cement them in my head as separate, unique entities. Josephine the blue sausage dog was completely different from Mumfie the boy doll I made myself with my mother’s help (he had a woven shirt and blue denim shorts and was named after a character in a book I read[1]) who was completely different from Tubby. Nandita, a bear originally named Tubby, was rechristened after I met a young lady I loved deeply! And these were very different not because they looked so different from each other but because each had a name and a unique personality.

I also remember the excitement and anticipation that heralded the arrival of a new being into my life. I was lucky enough to have a dad who travelled a lot and was willing to indulge me in my passion. So each trip he made, I would wait with bated breath to see who would emerge from the suitcase. Who would this person be? Male or female? Cuddly or hard? Clothed or not? Would I love them and they me? Of course I always loved them – I can’t remember a single doll I didn’t like – and made sure they felt welcomed and loved, for it must have been scary travelling many miles to end up in a new place – if I was uncertain of being loved by them, what must they have been going through? Elaborate introductions would be made to the occupants of the doll cupboard, with strict instructions to be nice. And of course they always were – no-one in my world wasn’t!

Reflecting on all of this now – what did all that play mean? Why was it important to me? I realise some of it was just a reflection of the happy family I grew up in – never any harsh words, certainly no physical punishment, just a live and let live policy and a world full of love. And this I modelled myself on, and strived to provide to my dolls. Some of it was, as the youngest in the family, an opportunity to “give gyan” to people less knowledgeable than myself, who couldn’t answer back or tell me something I didn’t know! The empathy – did I learn it through play, or was it always a part of me? I don’t know. The comfort – of always being surrounded by beings you loved and who loved you back unconditionally. They were my world. And I sometimes think today, when I am dealing with kids of my own and my dog, that it doesn’t feel very different from those days of make-believe – because those were real people too.

Commentary: Work, Play and the World of Childhood

All children play, using the involvement to express themselves, take on roles, manipulate materials, solve problems and engage in imaginary worlds. Yet, what they play with and the ways in which they play differs on account of social and material surroundings. Where children are engaged in real work, this seems to become reflected in their play. Where there is greater difference in adult work between the sexes, children’s play mirrors those differences[2]. Play seems to mirror real life. As the author of our post realizes: “….some of it was just a reflection of the happy family I grew up in”. Children play for a variety of reasons, and sometimes even without reason.

The conventional dichotomy between work and play is misleading and becomes blurred when we watch children playing. Often, children have to suffer the consequences of this partition by adults when they are forced to abandon one (play) for the other (work). Not only do children play seriously, but play has many uses that are likely to go unnoticed. As developmental psychologists have also noted, child’s play is serious work. From reading Yeshi’s post, it is quite evident that the relationship she had with her dolls was not just playful; although it was play in the technical sense of the word. She had a serious engagement with them and was quite unhappy when others couldn’t see that.

What do adults do while children play?

It varies. Adults can be supportive of play, actually making time and effort and providing materials to play with, sometimes they may oppose play as a ‘waste of time’ or else, they may simply ignore children while they play, treating it as something natural to childhood. The point is that all children will find time, material and opportunity to play, except under grievously precarious circumstances. Children require only opportunity and not instigation to play. In the words of Dr. Anandalakshmy, children will benefit a lot by some “judicious neglect” to do their own thing, play in their own ways.

Play with dolls2017-06-28-PHOTO-00000300

There is something universal about play with dolls. Wikipedia defines dolls as models of humans that often (but not always) function as toys for children. Evidence of dolls in religious and social customs[3] is available across cultures and time-periods, and are used for display, decoration or devotion. The Shankar’s Doll Museum in Delhi exhibits a staggering collection of around 6,500 odd dolls from 85 different countries[4]. A visit to the museum is a must if you’re a doll enthusiast, and even if you’re not. Another delightful collection is to be found in the Losel Doll Museum in the IMG-20170627-WA0006Norbulingka Institute, a Tibetan culture centre in Dharamsala (See picture).

Are all children drawn to dolls? Are all dolls attractive to children? To find answers, we will invoke some of our field experiences. In several research projects, we carried hand-made dolls as props for engaging children, sometimes incorporating them into playful activities aimed at studying some aspect of children’s minds. Although most children were instantly attracted by these objects with child-like garments and woollen hair, some were terrified. For instance, Shashi and Reshu[5] remember a young girl from Delhi, who instantly cringed at the sight of the doll and threw it away as if it would bite her. “Bhoot, bhoot” cried another child when the doll was taken out of a bag, unwilling to return to the tasks until the doll was hidden away. The dolls we used in our Theory of Mind task in rural homes generated contrasting reactions, some children were terrified, others were fascinated, staring speechlessly, still others wanted to hide them away to play with them later, while some engaged with them quite willingly and would be reluctant to let them go. In one instance a young girl gave several names to the doll during the session, and it was discovered that all these names were the ones the family used with her. The doll was her! 19095841_10154746236598367_1336735059_oAnother observation by Punya Pillai at the Tibetan museum she visited recently, was of a young girl who kept tugging at her mother and asking “But where are the dolls?” The museum pieces, out of reach for her to play with didn’t count! In our work, no particular gender differences were noticed in these reactions, although other studies have indicated that girls take greater interest in role-play in comparison with boys who prefer more physical activity[6]. There was no denying that children in villages were more fascinated with dolls and had more intense reactions to them, whereas children in cities were moderate in the reactions. The presence of dolls was much higher in urban homes. Also, as adults, we are not likely to provide dolls for boys to play with for some strange reason, although little models of superheroes would also count as dolls of a kind. Some of the very life-like new-born dolls that kids carry around these days look terrifyingly real for someone who hasn’t seen them before.

Cultural differences in doll play

This brings us to the issue of cultural differences in play with dolls. One of the most interesting findings related to doll-play is that communities where children had greater access to real babies, there was less evidence of the presence of dolls[7] and vice versa! Can we assume therefore that dolls as toys arrived because children were increasingly becoming distanced from experiencing real babies? Whatever the reasons for their emergence, we can see how valuable dolls are for children. Yeshwanti’s story demonstrates that dolls can provide a rich, imaginary world for children to inhabit, providing a great deal of intense engagement, sometimes reflecting real events (origin of the dolls) and sometimes compensating for a felt absence (of a dog). Children take to them as serious play partners, some as family members, some treat them as just another toy and some are frightened of them. As always, we end by saying that there is no prescribed way of playing with dolls, no recommended pattern for boys and girls, except to say that children should be allowed their ways to play, and for that, we should know when to indulge and when to leave them alone. Parenting is mostly, a balancing act, between the world, yourself and your child!

Picture credits: Punya Pillai, Pooja Bhargava, Shashi Shukla

Further readings and other references

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Magic_Adventures_of_Mumfie

[2] http://digitalcommons.unl.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1000&context=famconfacpub

[3] See this link for an interesting example of the Kolu dolls: http://www.thehindu.com/todays-paper/tp-features/tp-downtown/Thematic-Kolu-a-fascinating-experience/article15774926.ece

[4] http://www.mapsofindia.com/my-india/travel/the-iconic-dolls-museum-in-delhi

[5] Shashi Shukla and Reshu Tomar

[6] http://www.academia.edu/11264818/Socialization_of_Boys_and_Girls_in_Natural_Contexts

[7] http://digitalcommons.unl.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1000&context=famcon