F is for Families
The family is a much maligned monster. It consists typically of clashes between sexes and ages, and following on that, of interests and desires. The mother and father are frustrated because each often feels they could have done great things on their own, were they not bound down by the trivia of marital existence (the man), or by being forced into giving up career and freedom (the woman). This impacts on the children. As the movie Hook says, with the captain inciting children to revolt against their parents, “They really hate you. You appeared and spoilt their lives, took away their freedom.”
While this is of course satirical, there are some truths that will seem familiar to us. The role of the family is to civilise children. Originally in a state of savage innocence, children have to be moulded into end-products that can perform desired roles in a world already structured. They have to be fashioned into pillars to maintain these structures. They have to be reproduced into faithful likenesses of what adults consider valuable in their culture and ethics. Now children may have different values. When they are small they do not have the power to assert anything different to the adults, and can only create disturbances that are controlled through the magic activity, “discipline.” When they grow up, they themselves become frustrated adults, more and more vaguely aware of what they could have been, what they have missed.
I want to argue that the family has a more positive role than this, even though it is undoubtedly a role of power and domination. A family is a small multi-purpose unit in which the most meaningful skills for survival are taught. Since a school is also such a training unit, the family and the school are exactly similar and indeed most of the time in competition with each other. An average child goes to two schools. One is institutionalised, and is recognised for what it is. The other is disguised, and derives its power from its cloak of “culture.” At her most vulnerable and impressionable, the child learns from this family-school how to interact with the world, her own body, and other people. The child builds up narratives of the self, that is, a general idea of who she is, where she is heading, and how to understand everything that impinges upon her.
In the formal school the child learns specific skills, the better the school the better the skills. The school distrusts the family in different ways. Working class families “neglect” the child and cannot do their share of supporting the child’s educational chores. Middle class families “spoil” the child and make it difficult for teachers to teach. The ideal family is one that co-operates fully with the school and is willing to follow in ensuring the child’s perfect disciplining by the school
What is the solution to this peculiar tension between the school and the family? First, the family should have a more specific role in the school apart from paying the fees and being the audience for annual events. Through parents-teachers associations and bodies run by parents themselves there should be a greater involvement by parents in understanding the situation within schools, with their wards, and in a changing world.
Second, the image of the family should not be as that of a “backward” and “illiterate” entity, such as happens consistently with working class and village families. There should be professionalism on the part of the school: it knows the business of teaching all kinds of children. Part of the professionalism would be supportive relations with guardians that exclude both condescension and condemnation.
Third, families should realise that they cannot have it both ways: to reproduce their preferred relations of gender and age hierarchy, and to be modern citizens in a globalising world. To be modern, adults have to give space to children. They have to resign themselves to individualism, to choice-making, and to challenges to authority. Everyone is equal in modernity, whether girl or boy, younger or older. If the family does want to teach an ethics of respect, it has to learn to do that in ways that do not subvert the more important lessons of modernity.
Fourthly and finally, the school should actively import images, language, and values from the world of home and family. I do not mean the literal replacing of “Little Miss Muffett” by a little Indian girl. To learn about distant places and times is an empowering thing. I mean to plan imaginatively how the big distance between our homes and our school campuses can be made smaller and the wall between them removed so that the child feels that indeed it is one world with different agendas and not that adults are confused and block out reality.
F is for the important art product, the Film. The funny dance “You gotta pick a pocket or two” that Fagin does in the musical “Oliver!” is more than just a funny dance. It is a mockery of the adult world that has built structures that cannot sustain themselves, reducing adults to prey upon children. The adults depend on the children’s agile bodies and minds to earn, rather than nurture them as is the children’s right. All this is explicitly portrayed by the actor Ron Moody as Fagin. Starving boys singing “Food! Glorious food!”—the musical has squeezed into it more social commentary than long speeches or essays. Because a film reaches more people in today’s visual age, it has more power than any written version.
Indian films and other performances are recognized as great the world over. But surely there is something strange that Indian films are mostly one kind of film? Where are the films for children? Ah, you say: there is a long list of films in the archives of the Children’s Film Society of India. And there are recent ones….
But when was the last time you saw children, your own or others, excited by a movie specifically for children, keen to watch it, to discuss it, to see it again, to own it, to talk about it? When my own children were small, I would have loved to have them watch Indian films of the calibre of Disney’s Winnie the Pooh. In the absence of any such, they watched Winnie the Pooh. Again and again and again.
There is something greater than the family, greater even than films, and that is friends. No one has fathomed what gives friendship such a special charm, but my own shrewd guess is that it is the escape valve that we have permitted ourselves in this tight structure we have built called society. Friendship goes beyond caste, class, community, gender, and even age. It is like a magic click between people; there is no matching of horoscopes, no eternal bonds, no obligations, just a mutual pull and a commitment with no names.
We have been hosting Food Fairs for some years now. Sometimes called “Healthy,” sometimes “Nutritious,” the story is the same: how to reach the right balance between what is good for the children, and the chips and chocolates they seem to crave. My granddaughter, with no teaching from us, asked for cakes and sweets since she was two. Desmond Morris in The Naked Ape explains that homo sapiens evolved to becoming addicted to sweets from ape ancestors who survived on the sweet fruits of the forest. One way or the other, we continue to often frown at children’s snacks, promote fruit, and hold seminars on “Arhar ki dal,” our metonym for healthy eating. Come to the next Food Seminar!