What is my notion of childhood?

Sharmila Govande

What is childhood? Who is a child? I believe that these are two fundamental questions a teacher should dwell upon from time to time. However, do we teachers think deeply about these questions which appear to have relatively simple answers? Or are we satisfied by these simple answers: “Childhood is a stage of life which begins after infancy and ends at adolescence” and “a child is an individual who falls in the age group of 6-14 years”? Do we ask more meaningful questions such as, “Is childhood really a stage in our life?” and more personal questions such as “What is my notion of childhood? What is it based on? How is my notion of childhood impacting the way I teach and most importantly shaping my relationship with children, my perceptions, my attitude towards children, my expectations from them and my interactions with them?”

Since we are all well-honed products of our education system, we have the ability to give perfect answers. But do we really reflect on them? Are our experiences in sync with these textbook answers? A few years ago, a teacher, totally frustrated with her inability to get a child to comply with her demand of completing homework, shared, “I tell you, these children nowadays – they are full of excuses. We should learn the art of negotiation from them.” This same teacher gave a contradictory answer when asked to define a child during a workshop. She said, “Children are innocent beings who are incapable of doing anything wrong.” For me the source of her frustration was evident. She wanted to believe that children were an epitome of purity, incapable of any wrong. But she experienced something different – children who gave excuses and did not obey their teacher.

Social constructivists regard childhood as a social construct, i.e., the concept of childhood has been constructed by society. The way we perceive children and childhood, plays an important role in shaping our behaviour toward them. Romantics conceptualize children as pure and innocent individuals capable of no harm. According to them, children get corrupted by the evil bad world and it is important to keep them away from harmful experiences. The romantic view places the children closer to God. Teachers who have this romantic notion of childhood are protective of children and set many rules regarding what they can do and cannot do. For instance, a science teacher disallowed children from touching any apparatus and always demonstrated the experiments herself. She believed that the lab equipment was unsafe and children would not be able to handle them themselves. The focus is on protecting children not only from physical harm but also being sensitive to their emotional and mental wellbeing and hence teachers from this discourse are conscious of the words and tone they use. On the flip side, such teachers are in danger of being over protective of the children which results in hampering their creativity and development of independence. One such teacher I knew found it difficult to leave children alone in their classroom even for a few minutes, resulting in her getting tired and children unable to deal with situations that arise when there is no teacher in class. As shared earlier, such teachers also find it difficult when they experience children scheming, lying, and negotiating their way to escape from a demand or a classroom requirement.

Such teachers also get disturbed on seeing children from backgrounds unlike their own. A teacher volunteering at a municipal school shared, “The life of these children is so tough. I try to give them as many pleasant experiences as possible. I do hope that somewhere I make a difference and they do not turn to negative things.” This notion seemed to be very common among volunteers and teachers working with the poorer sections of our society.” The attitude is that of the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots’ and a feeling of pity toward such children. However, perplexed by this situation was an acquaintance who worked on the issue of prostitution. He observed that in spite of living in such unimaginable situations; many children developed a strong resilience and grew up to be responsible and caring individuals. He wondered whether this romantic view was true and displayed an interest in understanding what factors contributed to building resilience in children.

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Contrary to the romantic view, the Puritan view states that children are naturally evil and need to be disciplined and tamed. During a school visit, I observed a teacher using a cane on a child. On noticing me, the teacher stated, “This child needs to be disciplined, or else he will not become anything in life.” My son’s teacher justified his being strict by giving the same reason of discipline. Another teacher shared during a teachers’ meet, “When we were kids, our teachers were so strict. My science teacher always had a cane in her hand. We have turned out fine.” I recollected the Chennai case where a boy killed his teacher. This teacher was apparently very strict and used various disciplining techniques including threats and physical beating. This boy instead of getting tamed nurtured a sense of hatred toward the teacher and finally ended up murdering the teacher. Another case worth noting was the Betul case where the teacher beat a boy so badly that he died. A news report on the findings of a survey conducted by the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR) in 2009 – 10 brought out the extent of the problem. This report published in TOI (Times of India) on 2nd March 2012 stated…
…the study says that as many as 81.2% of the children were subject to outward rejection by being told that they were incapable of learning. Out of the total, 75% reported that they had been hit with a cane and 69% had been slapped on their cheeks. Shockingly, the study found that the practice of giving electric shocks was also being followed in some schools.

The question we need to ask here is whether force and fear can be successfully used for the so-called “disciplining” of children? I remember how I had developed fear of the ball during my childhood when my sports teacher threw a ball right on my face because, something in the vicinity had distracted me. For years later, I was teased about my ball skills and was never able to play various ball games.

The work of John Locke states that children come into the world as blank slates. He calls this the ‘tabula rasa’. Love, guidance, and support of adults help them understand their experience and develop into rational human beings. This is an interesting way of looking at children. Teachers with this viewpoint would probably allow children to explore, discover, and experiment with a teacher playing the role of a facilitator of learning. However, this view can also be misunderstood. This is widely seen among teachers who assume that their students know nothing and have to be told/taught everything. I had to go through the lesson plans of a civics teacher as part of my field placement assignment. I observed that this teacher hadn’t included anything around child participation for the module. Her reasoning was that the children do not know anything about our parliament, ministers, and leaders. After much debate, we agreed that I would conduct the first session to see how much the children knew about the topic being discussed. To the teacher’s surprise many students knew a lot about political parties and how they campaign during elections and why there is a fight to win these elections.

Whether children come into this world as blank slates or not is being highly debated in the academic circles. However, the fact that children build their knowledge through experience is unanimously accepted and hence the question that teachers need to ask here is whether they should presume that their students know nothing or first try finding out what the children already know? The common notion among most teachers is that children have to only do as told. The teacher tells and the children listen. The teacher is the ‘giver’ and the student the ‘receiver’. However, aren’t children exposed to various experiences every day? Thus, wouldn’t they have tried to make sense of these experiences? Isn’t it important for a teacher to be curious about whether the children have had some past experiences on the topic being taught and what is their understanding of these topics?

Another view propagated in recent times is that of childhood as a preparation for adult life. A phase where children develop an understanding of the world surrounding them, learn skills required for becoming independent and responsible beings. This view brings forth the rights of a child which would ensure holistic development through happy and meaningful experiences. The major rights are those of right to education, right to expression, right to play, health, safety, and protection from harm. As teachers, we play a significant role in helping children develop and we need to be aware of how our understanding of childhood impacts this development. We need to check whether our attitudes, perceptions, and demands are in line with the rights of a child? So let’s begin by asking this fundamental question and reflecting on our experiences before we jump to answer it.

The author is an education and social development professional. She is involved in teaching, teacher training, and conducting parental workshops. You can visit her blog www.shikshanaarthee.com to know more about her work. She can be reached at sharmilagovande@gmail.com.