Uncovering the Tragedy of Modern Childhood

In twenty-first century, we do not even have a language to understand what is meant by qualified life or a good life. The potential that a human being has to rise above his base desires and go for some higher purposes has got totally forgotten now. | Image credit : Image by Vidmir Raic from Pixabay

It’s a usual sight today to see over-zealous parents, especially mothers, running with their children (or making their children run), over the course of a day for after school classes, followed by evening classes, home-work, extra classes, hobby classes, theater/dance/music, play dates and so on. Their energies and anxieties about their children’s future are proportionately higher than what children themselves have, and it also seeks to compensate for children’s apparent indifference. The adults spend major chunk of their time deciding on children’s scholastic subjects, academics, food, entertainment, physical activities and even something as personal as legislating over passions and interests. Interestingly, such a life of a parent and child is a norm today, and any deviation from this is seen as an aberration, at times a serious one.

This piece is a meagre attempt to understand this historic event. I call it so, referring to the works of Philip Aries (1965), Foucault and many more, as historically, neither a child has ever enjoyed this kind of attention, nor have adults ever structured their own lives, dreams and passions around children the way they do now. The adults and children, today, stand as a good opportunity to understand the times through which we are living. This paper is an attempt in that direction. This piece is also a result of my own anxieties and frustrations that I experience while interacting with other young parents, who struggle in the zones of normalcy. These are also some of the questions and dilemmas that I fight out on an everyday basis while I raise my two boys, and vacillate in the unchartered zones of aberration.

We might want to believe that children today have lot of voice and choice. To a great extent, in the present capitalist times, it is true as well, as we can see a generation that seems to be inundated with choices, while ironically being bereft of it. Unfortunately, the attention that children enjoy only goes against them, as they come to the centre of an unavoidable normalizing gaze. This gaze consists of all the small penal mechanisms, punishments, a judicial privilege of sorts as Foucault (1977) puts it that partitions the empty space that is left open by the laws. It consists of many micro-penalties centring around many things like lateness, absences, inattention, postures, gestures etc. In the end it’s a judgement that a child knows is always activated, it manufactures and produces rules which a child has to pre-empt all the time, not necessarily follow.  It is an effective way of controlling behaviour, as children are assessed not just on the set, standard norm, but how well these norms have been internalized by the child. Then, in that case, how do we understand the nature of choices that are thrown at children? Do they free children, making them critical and thoughtful or only enslaves them under the new slogans of free will, freedom and welfare.

The child-centred discourse has become prevalent in our everyday lives in a mutated form, having a significant influence on how children should be brought and taught. These practices determine the relationship that adults develop with children and the relationship that the adults think children should develop with the world around them – both living and non-living entities in it. I wish to argue that despite the visible and convincing rationality of these practices, they are not for child. They need the child as a medium, but they can be carried out only when they dismiss and transcend him/her. We need to explore the nature of these child rearing practices and ask some disturbing questions. What has been the truth mechanism of these practices, and how have they become so dominant? What is so peculiar about these practices? This piece touches upon some of these important issues.

Children today, 24 X 7, are under the full gaze of adults. We are at a point that it’s difficult to legitimately discuss the virtue of privacy for a child. The relationship between private life and creativity that we have long known has suddenly become absent for a whole section of our society and who we also consider the future of our society. We have mutated the private life of a child to a point that their privacy itself includes this normalising gaze constantly making them adjust to a certain other that may be absent from physical space. Foucault (1990) righty explains how this has not just chained children but has chained adults in the web that they wove for children. The external controls and discipline have entered into each aspect of their lives, and its proportion has increased to the extent that children do not have a relationship with any subject or any art form without the presence of adult gaze. Now whether they rebel against the adult by watching, playing etc., what they are told not to watch or play or obey, either way their response is centred around the adult. Adults thus are physically and philosophically present in the relationships that children develop with the world around them.

Children’s relationship with visual medium stands as an interesting example to understand this point. Knowing the harmful effects of TV, advertisement, video games and mobile phones, the educated, aware, middle class parents exercise parental controls, determining what children should watch and also how much. Children cannot have a playful relationship with the visual medium; it is mired with wisdom and tension. Adults have to constantly watch over what children are watching, and extract maximum from that experience of watching. Lot of volition and deliberation enters in this space.  For all obvious reasons, the result is quite contrary to what adults sought. Instead of watching being an experience of learning and growth, we can see children entering into compulsive watching. Most of the children, when left with their own choice, can watch anything.  They watch for the sake of watching, much to the chagrin of their parents and other adults, seeing this as an evidence of child’s immaturity and consequently further increasing their controls. This compulsive watching is a sign of the mutated relationship that children have with visual medium. The baffled parents forget that this is the result of their action gone wrong despite the best of their intentions.

Similar thing can be seen in eating practices where children unabashedly engage in the act of mindless eating. They have no relationship with the food they eat, consequently succumbing to the short-lived pleasure given by junk food. We need to see this as the result of the environment in which a child lives, which hinders him/her from forming a relationship with food in the name of balanced diet and the controls and the preaching that is exercised around it.

Instead of reading this as a rebuke to parents, it needs to be studied as a critique of certain prevailing practices of our times. After all, how children are treated through education and socialization speaks volumes about our present times and about the well-meaning adults.   Coming to these well-intentioned adults, it becomes important to understand the nature of their actions.

There are three things that characterize the actions of adults. Firstly, they are carried out with the right intentions, with a strong conviction that how some of these actions are for their children’s good, for their own good and for everyone’s good. Secondly, their actions are not the result of thoughtlessness and ignorance. On the contrary, the external controls and discipline exercised by them comes from their claim on certain knowledges and truth mechanisms. Thirdly, these actions have a purpose and are not random acts. They are carried out for predicting and achieving certain predetermined desirable behaviour from children. Let us understand each one of them.

Coming to intentions, as pointed out, most of the parents and teachers, are highly educated, aware, well read, well intentioned and do not mean any harm. The purpose here is also not to doubt their intentions but to understand it. Because it’s naïve of adults to have this reliance on their intentions, as if the right intention would lead to the right result. The chain that connects intention with the result is not linear and is much more complicated than is usually understood. The possibility of what science famously calls ‘chance events’ and ‘random events’ intervening in the chain of intention and consequence has a major role to play. Our overtly scientific outlook, the journey that takes reason to rationality has gone wrong by understanding them as ‘chance’ or ‘random’, which makes them look innocent and harmless, ignoring the magnitude of change that they can bring about. History has shown this time and again. It is fraught with examples where actions despite being carried out with best of the intentions have gone terribly wrong. Alexi de Tocqueville (2017) was making an important point when he notes in his Recollections, “I have noticed that most of those who have left us their memoirs have recorded their bad actions and inclination only when, as does sometimes happen, they have mistaken them for brave deeds or worthy instincts.”

Coming to the second point, it needs to be noted that these actions are backed by the prevalent knowledge mechanism, which is characterized by scientific education and rationality – leading to the relay of external controls and discipline, reliance on already laid out protocols, modules, rules and the long list of do’s and don’ts. This scientific education works on standardization and uniformity, and for it to work, they have to be dismissive of the child, as well as of the adult. It’s a common sight in the schools and homes, where a child is totally dismissed in front of the given module or rule. These protocols while being for the child, can work only when child is robbed off him/herself. A rule or a protocol has to be more important than the child under consideration.

The techniques also have an ostensible clarity, and they leave no scope for any doubt. Children are being worked upon with certain clarity, and are clearly instructed on how to – read, write, eat, stay fit, play and so on.  One can also see an interesting interface with class here. As one moves, from lower to the middle class, and also go little higher in the middle class, one can notice an increase in obsession for these rules and techniques. The kind of controls that a child going to high paying private schools undergo is much more than his/her counterpart in the State-run schools. Children from middle-class families are not just under the constant surveillance of adults, but are also directed about every step that they need to take.

The third characteristic feature of adults action further helps us to understand the nature of this knowledge that draws its claim from scientific education. This knowledge claims to be firstly, error free and secondly, predictable. What happens when a theory claims to be error free? A theory becomes error free at a very high price, which generally gets concealed when it is implemented. Any attempt to make a theory full proof, pushes it to go away from the reality, from the life and world that it claims to have theorized and understood. The same can be seen in child rearing practices which are backed by rationality. For instance, compulsive watching is a result of obsession with techniques that a child has to undergo under the adult supervision. Even a young adult today has not developed a relationship with visual medium, when left with it, he/she has no idea on what to watch and what not to. Hence, they have become standalone theories, with a lot of inner consistency but with no relationship with the world out there. Agamben (2016, p. xiii) rightly puts, “A theory that, to the extent possible, has cleared the field of all errors has, with that, exhausted its raison d’e’tre and cannot presume to subsist as separate from practice.” However, modern parents do not believe in errors. They don’t want to take any chances and want a full proof theory, which explains the popularity of these practices backed by scientific education. One has to look at the life of any child to see how such attempts go in vain.

It would be erroneous to blame parents and teachers here, as these theories and knowledge systems come with their own glitter and illusion. Scientific education and rationality – by the virtue of being backed by numbers, surveys, reports, formulas – make it look vivid and convincing.  Arendt (1970, p.8) rightfully calls the appealing nature of this inner consistency generating a “hypnotic effect”, as she puts, “The danger is that these theories are not only plausible, because they take their evidence from actually discernible present trends, but that, because of their inner consistency, they have a hypnotic effect; they put to sleep our common sense, which is nothing else but our mental organ for perceiving, understanding and dealing with reality and factuality.”

Second interesting feature of this knowledge is its predictability. The seemingly error free knowledge makes it commit a promise, promise of delivering the desired result. It convinces that if in our action, certain steps and rules are followed then the end result would be as expected and desired. It glossed over what earlier was referred as chance events, leaving their probability to chance only. Arendt (1970) in the context of war and violence, evokes the similar relationship, pointing out, no matter how much our actions are directed towards some predetermined result, they are fraught with controlled steps and protocols, the final result is something that can never be controlled.  As she said, “…results of men’s actions are beyond the actor’s control” (p. 4). Mentioning the problem with the predictability that science falsely leads one to believe, she quotes Noam Comsky who questioned by pointing out that the “…most profound objection to this kind of strategic theory is not its limited usefulness but its danger, for it can lead us to believe we have an understanding of events and control over their flow which we do not have” (Arendt, 1970, p. 7).

Parents and teachers are often fooled by this promise of delivering the expected result. It’s a usual sight today to see adults becoming uncomfortable when they see their child’s inability to learn something. Instead of letting child find his/her own way from there, adults enter in a mission, a mission to correct it, fix it. All these modules and steps come handy at such a time.  This can be seen not just with maths, science and other subjects but even with sports and different art forms where children are constantly pushed for guitar, piano, karate, kathak, theatre, music and so on. Adults become uncomfortable when they don’t see their children passionate enough to purse these forms, forgetting their own role in killing it by not letting a child develop a relationship with it at the first place. In their meek, yet convincing, attempt to predict and control its course of action, adults have severed those nascent ties that a child was developing with the world around them, and with its entities. Of course, a time comes when a child revolts, refuses to go on any further with this incessant maddening control. Disappointed and tired, adults also give up, but by then, it is very late and comes with certain sadness. By then, a child has lost whatever little interest and linkage they earlier had with themselves and with different art forms or subjects.

At this point we also need to wonder about their popularity. How have these practices, despite their failure in the field, continue to enjoy popular appeal? The reliance of adults on these knowledge mechanisms is much more than the faith that they have in children? What does that indicate?  What does it reflect about the nature of adults themselves?

Adults have not just lost trust in children, but have an unhealthy relationship with themselves and with life. Ironically, it’s happening in the times when the clamour around “believe in yourself”, “trust your instincts” is at its peak. It’s interesting that we humans today can believe in ourselves, while having no relationship with our own selves. How is that possible? Do we even have a mechanism to understand the insight of Paul Valery (1998) when he said, “whatever requires nothing of me fails to give me the sense that I have lived it” (p. 298), bringing to the fore this necessity of being in connect with oneself for living life. How does one understand Aristotle today, who around two millennia back, while raising the question of life, alluded to the idea of a good life, a qualified life. It becomes an added capacity in all of us, and we should aspire for it. In twenty-first century, we do not even have a language to understand what is meant by qualified life or a good life. The potential that a human being has to rise above his base desires and go for some higher purposes has got totally forgotten now.

What does it mean to live today? This word today is chained within the connotations of survival. If one takes away this survival from it, one is left with a demon. Life has a become a demon today. We have developed a fearful relationship with life, where it only scares us. We fear its unpredictability, which has a force to leave us empty handed and ruined. And we pass through life fearing it, avoiding it. We want to constantly handle life, control it, manoeuvre it, tame it. We cannot let life be. We do not think that life can be there in its own ways, taking its own course of action, surprising us, teasing us, teaching us and so on.

This unhealthy relationship that human beings have developed with life today is a cause and a consequence of their temptation to succumb to the idea of determining results and achieving the expected behaviour. Life is considered too unfaithful to be believed in. The space created by the non-relation that adults have with life is occupied by scientific education and rationality, which wants us to believe in certain methods, which if followed steadfastly will lead to the desired result and behaviour.

I can’t think of a word better than irony to summarize the times through which we are living.  A cold, brutal irony. It has spread itself to every nook and corner of our life, and one has to only scratch the surface of apparent blessing only to find layers of tragedies underneath. How else to understand the seemingly altruistic interest of adults in children’s life, which has to dismiss life, its living in the first place. Moreover, what appears to be an investment on a child is nothing more than a determined interest in a certain future. Not any future, but the future which was thought, meticulously planned, and was worked upon by committed adults. Is it not ironical to live through the times that constantly clamour on ‘living fully’, but only trains us to live in such a way that we extract maximum from life, strangling it, blocking it or maybe even killing the ways it could have travelled with us.

Jyoti Dalal teaches in the Department of Elementary Education at Institute of Home Economics, University of Delhi. She is also General Secretary of Comparative Education Society of India (CESI).

Agamben, G. (2016). The use of bodies. Stanford University Press.
Ariès, P. (1965). Centuries of childhood: A social history of family life.
Arendt, H. (1970). On violence. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
De Tocqueville, A. (2017). Recollections: French Revolution of 1848. Routledge.
Foucault, M. (1990). The history of sexuality: An introduction. Vintage.
Foucault, M. (1977). Discipline and punish: The birth of the prison, trans. Alan Sheridan.
Valery, P. (1998). The Collected Works of Paul Valery. 15 vols. Translated by Denise.

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  1. Ver well said jyoti! The capacity of the children to find their own balance has indeed been brutalised by parental and state control. Just like the tendril of creeper finds it own path through obstacles and it’s own footholds as it climbs up- so does a child negotiate his or her own balance. The condition for its growth is freedom to express his own inner dance- a combination of movement and balance, The challege of parenting is to be able to step back sufficiently so that children can express what they integrally need to. Science and rationality indeed cannot be guides her as a parent need effect an intuitional fillip to see what really works for their child and in the same stance-for themselves.


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