Monday, April 28, 2008

Shrinking Childhood

There used to be a popular song with the words “Bachpan Ke Din Bhula Na Dena” which many of us loved to hum. That song, evoking nostalgia and angst for times and experiences of a long gone childhood may soon be rendered irrelevant for childhood is shrinking and doing so very rapidly.

According to a study carried out by in the UK by the publishing giant, Random House, childhood in today’s age ends usually by the age of 13. The study indicates that by this age, most of the adult behavioral patterns have already set in and the innocence that has always been associated with childhood has been killed.

Of course, a study conducted in the UK need not and probably in its entirety cannot apply to the Indian context, but the trends are revealing and certainly in metropolitan India, children are exposed to many of the same pressures as those in the West. The Random House study – possibly examining childhood from the perspective of a marketer – to gauge the size of the children’s book market has claimed that some of the factors responsible are media and marketing hype as well as busy parents who leave decision making to children when they are just not ready to make them.

The dwindling period of childhood is a cause for alarm, not just in a nice, fairy tale romantic sense, but as a lamentation. A good and wholesome childhood is the lodestone of a secure and productive adulthood. The time of childhood, particularly the time of adolescence is a time of formation, ripening and maturing.

But though Random House conducted its study in affluent UK, childhood has been shrinking for all sorts of other reasons in different situations around the world, including of course India. The reasons could be spin offs related to politics or poverty and often the two are inter connected : child soldiers biting real bullets instead of toyguns, trafficked children, street children – basically an child really who is thrust into the adult world before their time have lost a tranquil piece of their life

Maybe child care organizations ought to be taking note and reinvent themselves. Ever since its founding, institutions like UNICEF and others have taken the stage of life called “childhood” for granted and worked to make this stage of life a safe and healthy and productive experience – and so the emphasis on health care, education, child rights, etc., which has helped to ensure that this phase of childhood that every individual has necessarily to go through is a safe passage where bodies and minds are molded so that the end product is a socially conscious, humane and responsible adult.

But is it that today the ground is shifting below their feet and the priority today for these institutions is to fight the battle on the ground and ensure that childhood survives as an institution socially first and fore most. The many battles that are being fought today – to provide them with education, health care, recreation and human rights to name a few only hold some relevance if children remain children.

Why for instance worry about issues like child labor if there are increasingly fewer children to begin with? The battle against child labor in India as well as other developing countries is that children have a right to an education and recreation and these rights of theirs are being violated if the children are having to work in factories or workshops. But it is no one’s case that adults are to be exempted from work, and so if children of ten, eleven, twelve years old are metamorphosing, not into gawky adolescents that we all know about but rather into awkward looking mini adults who display albeit in a morphed form, all the attributes of an adult, then the case against child labor, child rights, special courts to deal with child crime, correctional homes, and lots of other edifices begin to crumble.

The whole child rights framework is derived from the fact that children exist and have special needs and rights and the responsibility of the State in particular and all in general is to work to ensure that those rights are observed and respected. But what if there comes a time when you have no more children left any more – only tiny infants and then dwarfed, Frankensten-like mini adults with limited skills, aptitude, and education because of a fast tracked evolution? Clearly we see the beginnings of a complex problem here.

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