What are we teaching our kids?

There’s something I really appreciate about American culture and kids (there’s also lots I don’t, but that’s a story for another day).

First Lady Michelle Obama with children at Fort Bragg, N.C. in 2009

It is about how Amercian culture teaches kids to be independent rather early in life. For immigrants from other cultures, including India, this just does not come naturally. But most have adapted.

Specifically, you see young teenagers beginning some productive work earlier in life than what you would see elsewhere in the world. This may be with regular household chores or by being a paper boy or participating in a Boy/Girl Scout car wash during the weekend. It goes further than this. As they enter high school, kids find work during the weekends or summers. It might be about a service job in a fast food restaurant or hotel, or tutoring younger children in math, or helping coach basketball or working as interns (an outstanding concept this!) in businesses or with government organizations.

Young interns working for the National Museum of the U.S. Navy

Here are just some of the benefits that they end up receiving:

  • Opportunities to meet new and interesting people.
  • An appreciation for work, and hard work.
  • Pocket money and independence from having to ask mom or dad to support their hobbies, be it music or books or games.
  • Better social skills and the ability to communicate with adults and kids alike.
  • A keener appreciation and value for fun times or non-working hours.
  • Exploring new interests
  • Thinking about their future and what they might want to do in life, sooner rather than later.

Let me tell you what I see in India. Note: This is from my limited recent exposure. Plus I am focusing on the upper-middle to wealthy class of families here. I get the impression that these children are given everything. They are pampered. They are given a good education. They are provided extra-curricula activities. They are given the ability to socialize and entertain their friends (paid by the parents), they are given pocket money or taken shopping so they can get what they need or want. They go to the movies or restaurants or clubs or other entertainment. And, as they grow into teenagers, it only gets to be more.

School girls on a field trip outside Taj Mahal Palace Hotel, Mumbai

It is rare for the child of this class of family to hear the word “No”. After all, they need to fit in with all their friends and the parents need to fit in with their peers. On the one hand, it’s nice to see the child getting all he needs and wants. But isn’t there another side to life and one’s responsibilities?

By not getting an up close and personal perspective of working life early on, look at the benefits that they miss – in their prime period of growth and learning. It would be so nice to see a transference of this aspect of life from the U.S. to India. After all, we have transferred McDonalds, KFC, Subway and the uber-consumer mindset from there to here, surely this can happen too?

So, there’s my view on one side of India that I see.  

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Moving to the poorer side of Indian society, there’s a totally different side I also see, that actually contradicts what I just said about kids not working in India. It’s the life of the child laborer in India. This is a tragic sight that is visible everywhere. It is about working due to necessity and at all costs. It’s not to supplement education. It’s instead of education. It’s often the only way for the child to have food to eat or shelter for the night.

Even though it  is theoretically “illegal” as has been declared by the government, child labor is widespread, with examples that include household help, factory labor, hard labor in construction, hawking cheap goods and begging for cash (this is a job too!).

Child laborer in domestic work, India

The statistics are startling. According to one source:

India has the largest number of children employed than any other country in the world. According to the statistics provided by The Government of India around 90 million out of 179 million children in the six to 14 age group do not go to school and are engaged in some occupation or other. This means that close to 50 per cent of children are deprived of their right to a free and happy childhood.

Unofficially, this figure exceeds 100 million but the fact that a large number of these children work without wages in fields or in cottages alongside their parents, unreported by census, makes it very difficult to estimate accurately. However, it is estimated that if these working children constituted a country, it would be the 11th largest country in the world.

This situation, quite the opposite of what I described earlier, simply makes one want to weep at the injustice of it all! But what would be the the use of that?*

There are various NGOs who are working to reduce this tragic situation, the most notable among them being CRY (Child Rights and You). Commendable accomplishments by CRY abound. As an example, in 2010-11 alone, they have impacted the lives of almost 900,000 children in over 5000 villages and slums – moving them from child labor to schools and shelter. Any progress is great progress!

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So, here I am.

I started down one path and ended up entirely somewhere else.  It leads me again and again to that same state – the yin and yang of life in India.

In a country of so many dichotomies, what’s one more?

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* If you wish to help this situation, one simple way to do this is to visit CRY and donate online.  This is what your donation (even a small one) could accomplish:

Note that I have no affiliation with CRY except as a donor (possibly a fellow donor?). Honestly speaking, this is not anywhere near what this post was supposed to be about! It literally just happened as I was writing. But I’m glad it did. 

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Photo School Girls: By Wen-Yan King (Flickr) [CC-BY-2.0 (www.creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

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Posted on July 4, 2011, in india, US, yin and yang, youth and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. This is one of the most well-written, eye-opening, thought provoking and world changing posts I have come across in a long long long time. May the Force be with you Maansi.

    • Wow! Thanks Tarun!

      Whenever I find myself with writer’s block or feel discouraged about writing a post, all I have to do is come here and re-read this comment to get inspired again. 🙂

      Appreciate the feedback. Wow again!

      Maansi.

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