When we were growing up as children, the only inkling we had that we could do something for the underprivileged was when we were sent out with forms and asked to collect money for Helpage India or the National Association for the Blind.
Or when the mater, irate at the veggies on the plate being discarded, would tell one about the hordes starving in distant famine struck lands, images of which would flash on the black and white telly – children with limbs like matchsticks and bloated bellies, too weak to even shoo away the flies crawling all over their faces. The guilt would compel one to scarf down the complete meal; it never struck one to ask, how exactly would us eating up our meal help those who didn’t have anything to eat.
Those were gentler times. Everyone we knew was ‘middle class’. Few people had cars and telephones and one waited for years to get a Bajaj Scooter. The differences are much more glaring these days. Children in cars will encounter children their age knocking at the windows asking for money or food. They are taken to old age homes and orphanages as part of the social responsibility curriculum in schools.
In your everyday life you get many opportunities to teach your child (or your nephew or niece!) how to be more sensitive towards the underprivileged. Use them to help your child develop empathy. This will not just help them be better citizens but also make them more resilient and able to cope with a puzzling, unequal world.
Here are some parenting tips on teaching children about the larger society and help your child develop a social conscience.
When you are traveling in a vehicle, and a child knocks at the window asking for food or money, this can be disturbing for your child to see. They might place themselves in the place of the child who is begging. The first indication to the child is your reaction to the child begging. While it may not be possible to always give money to begging children, do make it a point to carry leftovers you can hand out to hungry children and explain to your child the need not to waste food, and to value what he or she has.
On a personal note, my son accompanies me occasionally to the three pavement schools that India Helps co-runs. He initially wondered why the children were learning on the pavement, sitting on chattais. Now he knows that he is privileged to be studying in a school, and carefully sets aside spare compass boxes, erasers, pencils and boxes to give the pavement school children.
My son has a simple rule for new toys, which helps keep his overflowing toy basket in check and his ambitions too. For every new toy he wants, he must give one away to a child who doesn’t have a toy. All these toys to be given away get collected in a bag, and when full, this bag is handed over by him to either the children in the basti behind our building, or to the children at the pavement schools co-run by India Helps. He is made aware that toys cost money. He has to merit getting the new toy through either good behaviour or through positive achievements.
Teaching children about money is essential to help him/her understand its value. Storybooks are a good way to explain the inequities of the world. Through storybook characters, children are able to develop empathy with children who don’t have enough, and need help, as also help them develop admiration for those who struggle against all odds to make it to the top. When you do come across such inspirational real life success stories in the newspapers and the magazines do talk about them to your child.
In your everyday life you get many opportunities to teach children how to be more sensitive towards the underprivileged.
Inculcate a sense of civic and environmental responsibility in your child. This would mean prevent your child from littering public spaces, keeping a check on electricity and water wastage. If there are global events like Earth Hour, make sure you participate and explain the concept behind it to the child. Most schools talk about recycling plastics and papers and follow up with what the school teaches. Teach a child to make rough pads from wastepaper, to use paper bags, to avoid the use of plastic bags unless necessary.
During festivals like Diwali, explain the waste of money involved in firecracker bursting and the health hazards that children making these firecrackers face. Also do talk about the ill effects of the pollution that the smoke caused by firecrackers has on young babies and people with respiratory problems. This year, my seven year old volunteered to cut down on his entire firecracker purchasing except for a tikli gun which was primarily employed in playing cops and robbers. Although at the last minute, his good intentions paled and he demanded “Only liddle” fireworks, I am hopeful that next year he will be more resolute.
Says Rohini Haldea, 33, Mother of two, “Instead of ignoring beggars at traffic, talk about poverty. Teach them to be kind to animals. Talk about extinct species and the plight of stray dogs. Discourage them from teasing animals. Discourage littering. Make them pick it up and put it in a bin. Join clean-up drives on Juhu beach, Sanjay Gandhi National Park etc. The kids have great fun and learn a lesson. When school teaches them about firecrackers being bad – child labour, pollution, etc – follow through. Don’t ignore what they have learnt and go ahead with it anyway.”
Most importantly, set an example yourself. Children learn what you teach them and learn by example. You need to be conscious about electricity and water wastage yourself, in order for your child to learn from you. If you are involved in a community project, take your children along with you to help. If you donate to a charity, talk about it to your child. Every festival or birthday, make sure celebrations are tempered by distributing goodies to charity, or better still, have a celebration at an orphanage. Make it a family ritual, that some charity must be done either through voluntary effort or through giving away things during festive seasons to help those in need.
After all, learning by doing is the best way to learn!