May 31, 2009

Paradise Lost or Rejected

'Dev D’ reminded me of the DPS MMS scandal that shook the nation a few years ago. At that time I like many others was unequivocal in my disgust and loathing at the spectacle of young children who had made news out of peddling what should have been the most sacred (ok, I am old fashioned) and private of acts into a sickening display of how fast track technology coupled with rampant consumerism had eaten into the moral fabric of our lives. I cannot say that I never stopped to think about the girl in question, I did; but there was a sort of quasi ‘she-got-what-she-deserved’ strain that diluted much of my anxiety and concern about her future. A larger share of my sympathy was reserved instead for the parents who through no fault of their, were being forced to live and participate in this nightmare.

I think time and motherhood has changed a lot of that – not that I find the whole episode any less distasteful. What has changed is perhaps that the focus of my attention, the pivot, has shifted from the two adolescent participants to the surrounding world that encompasses them.

One of the common ideas that has unified all nations and civilizations across ages has been a uniform insistence on the ‘myth of the lost childhood’, a recurrent idea that has permeated popular culture through films, TV talk shows, and literature, and even occupied a special place in anthropological and scientific studies. This theory of childhood as an exalted place of special privilege and innocence that has succumbed to a Faustian future of eternal damnation actually arises from our own inability to fight the very forces that usher in such bleakness. Parents regularly lose sleep over a whole range of issues and usually interpret ‘corrupt’ or wayward behavior in terms of simple morality, of ‘good’ versus ‘bad’, of ‘us’ versus ‘they’, of ‘then’ versus ‘now’. What we fail to realize is that they are a product of our lifestyle – the 24x7 stress, high degree of competitiveness, parents’ busy schedules and the accompanying compensatory consumerism. All of this often results in conveying conflicting set of instructions to children.

A closer examination of our motives and lives will reveal that most of our moral panics regarding our children are merely a reflection of our own fears. Mostly it is the fear of losing face, alongside the more fundamental fear of loss of ground. Not only are we apprehensive about what others’ will say, we’re plagued by insecurities regarding the social standing and economic well being of our children. So great are these insecurities that we struggle without comprehending that the real focus of our anxiety is not that the child fared poorly in his mid-term semester but that we intuit in this the seeds of a far greater failure to live up to the standards prescribed by our success.

It doesn’t help that medical jargon and the media often offer an easy way out to parents with their overblown focus on ‘messed-up kids’ or, ‘emotionally disturbed adolescents’; they offer clueless parents a way out to avoid looking inwards, to introspect and take stock of the highly complex problems of everyday life.

Maria Kefalas, of St. Joseph’s University, a specialist in teen sexual behavior says, “For a 14-year-old to be having sex it’s usually a symptom of a kid who’s really broken and really hurt. ...Teen pregnancy is so high in America compared to other places not just because of access to contraception but because we have a lot of poverty. But Americans don’t want to see themselves as a poor society. They want to make a moral argument: if only teens had better values.” The same can be applicable in every case in differing degrees.

While I largely agree that more than parenting, one’s peer group influences early behavior to a large degree, the onus on setting the right milestones rests squarely on us parents/guardians. In this light it is important that we re-examine the very nature of the milestones and whether they gel with the larger domestic fabric of our shared lives and interactions. It is no use lecturing one’s children against rampant materialism if buying a toy after every bitter argument you’ve had with your child is your way of demonstrating love. Instead of blaming the West or the onslaught of MTV or Channel V or mulling the strange appeal of teenage style icons like Britney Spears, we need to cast a keener eye on the kind of dysfunctional household where a child finds nothing wrong in uploading nude photographs of oneself on the Net. Imagine the lack of real life model in the child’s life who cannot even envisage a lack of self esteem in the act; imagine the desolate solitude of his existence where he is so starved for attention that he is incapable of discerning between right and wrong kinds of attention.

Cross posted from 4indiawomen

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