Tips for teaching kids about equality and respect, which will help them grow up to be balanced and responsible individuals.
By Sandhya Renukamba
I have had a fairly traditional and conservative upbringing.
Aaji, my maternal grandmother, lived with us right until my mid-twenties. She was an amazing woman who had been widowed early, but did not hold truck with much of tradition. She was a great influence on the way I think, and much of what my relations think of as ‘rebellious behaviour’ could be attributed to the world-view I imbibed from her.
My paternal grandparents though, were a completely different story. Oh, I loved them as a grandchild, but there were many things we disagreed on. Whenever Tayi, my paternal grandmother visited, all our discriminatory traditions would kick in. The house-help, or even my mother, after coming home from work, would not be allowed ‘to pollute’ the kitchen. The women had to sit apart in the house if menstruating. I of course, rebelled against the indignity of letting the whole household know that I had my menses, but sometimes there was no getting away from it. There was also the disapproval shown by Tayi when Aaji wore lively colours.
Little things like these were subliminal discrimination for being born a girl. It certainly made its mark, and I was determined that if I had a daughter, she would not be subject to all that.
Until 2-3 years ago, my daughter would be content with running around and generally having fun with her various cousins when the extended family got together. Since a year or so though, she has begun to observe everything that happens during any ceremonies keenly, and has plenty of questions and opinions later.
My daughter’s questions set me thinking. Here was my child trying to make sense of the puzzling things she saw.
Why should thread ceremonies be only for boys? Why was that priest shouting at that Amma (my mother’s house-help)? Why can’t she touch the puja flowers? Why did that aunty not wear jewellery and flowers like everyone else? It was her daughter’s wedding. Then why were the bride’s uncle and aunt doing everything for her instead of her mother? Why was Monu-didi (a 22-year-old cousin) not allowed to go near the puja the next day?
My daughter’s questions set me thinking. Here was my child trying to make sense of the puzzling things she saw. Things that I too had rebelled against, but at some point had given up fighting. I certainly did not want to endorse all of that as something she should identify with as a woman and internalize. What she observed was clearly counter to the values I try to teach her. Teaching equality and respect to my child is important to me, if I want her to grow up to be a self-respecting, thinking and caring human being.
1. Be available to your child.
I let my daughter chatter away to me even if I am busy. She knows she can always come to me with anything that’s on her mind.
If I am mentally unavailable at the time, I always make time for her later. Even in families where both parents work, some quality time can be set apart to just be with the child. Keep channels of communication open.
2. Listen. Be respectful of their opinions. Empathise.
Children are little persons with minds of their own, and it is important to give them a fair and patient hearing. They are often confused about or offended by traditions that we take for granted, and a logical explanation helps. It doesn’t help to brush them off with a ‘this is how it is.’ This is especially true if they have been at the receiving end of stereotypical notions.
3. Answer any questions truthfully. Keep any answers age appropriate, but do not side-step the issue.
As a parent, I do not have the luxury of feeling embarrassed when my child comes up with questions. It is best, in my opinion, to give her a straight answer. If she wants to talk about bodily functions or taboos surrounding say, menstruation or the caste system, I find that talking in terms simple enough for her to understand usually works. She is now old enough to comprehend videos like this, as it underlines the fact that these traditions do not have any scientific basis.
4. Capitalise on any teaching opportunity.
Something learnt at school, ads on TV, news items, some stray remark that makes her curious, any book she read…the list could go on. A National Geographic programme on widows in Vrindavan provided fodder for a discussion on related socio-cultural practices.
Sanitary napkin ads or news items on any discriminatory practices can trigger these discussions. My daughter was doing the Vedic Period at school, giving a reason to speak about evolution of the caste system and status of women in India through history.
Use the Internet; always educate yourself and your child. Books that teach diversity, as also stories for children by authors like Premchand, Tagore and R K Narayan give a historical perspective of society as it was in India. Discussions triggered can easily emphasise on equality and respect towards all. We recently read a wonderful book, Victory Song by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni. It is the story of a 12 year old girl, Neela, on the background of India’s struggle for independence. It triggered many questions about the restrictions that Neela had to face and overcome as a young girl.
5. Walk the talk.
I do not follow all that our traditions entail. Festivals at home stress on the celebration rather than mind-numbing and discriminatory rituals. Menstrual taboos have no place in my home. Discriminatory remarks or behaviour by ‘well meaning’ relatives is always countered politely but firmly. My house-help is given the respect due to another human being, and treated like a valued member of the household. Our daily interaction with her demonstrates without explanations how to treat people equally. She is an intelligent, gentle and hard-working lady, and my daughter often takes her help in the Kannada homework that is beyond me.
As parents, let us all ask how we should go about teaching our kids equality and respect.
*Photo credit: Nepaliaashish (Used under the Creative Commons Attribution License.)