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How Do We Deal With All the Mixed Messages Kids are Getting?

Still from film 'Sairat' (2016). A teenage girl sitting behind a teen boy on a two-wheeler. She has her arms on his shoulders, and is caressing his head with one hand. He is wearing a black shirt, and she is wearing a red ruit, green bangles, and a bindi on her forehead.

Since I work outside my home, my children go to a day care centre after school, and one of the many tasks of the weekend is to pack their day care clothes for the coming week. My 9-year-old daughter insists on packing only pants or tights and not any frocks and skirts. Curious about it, I got into a conversation with her about it, wondering whether she felt exposed to someone touching her inappropriately when she wears a skirt.

I got into a discussion about this directly as I have already spoken to my children many times about appropriate and inappropriate touch. She dismissed my apprehension and told me how everyone at her day care wears only pants, and even if they wear a skirt, they wear tights underneath. She told me how it helps in covering their thighs. When I didn’t understand the need to cover her thighs unless their being uncovered prevented her from doing something, she promptly reasoned that it was simply the most appropriate thing to do, “Not to show!”

The feminist in me cringes at the idea of my daughter wearing those silly bloomers or tights just to cover her ‘Not To Be Displayed’ areas; she seems to attach some kind of shame to some of her body parts already! In fact, I have always made it a point to, upon occasion, change my clothes in front of my children without any qualms, just for them to understand that there is no inherent shame in revealing one’s body parts and also for them to realise how a ‘real’ body might look with all its scars and flab.

My plan is to bring up my children without the idea of any shame or discomfort, but here I already have my daughter starting to believe in some of the dictates of patriarchy.

On another day, I had my 7-year-old son commenting on one my Facebook pictures with my friends and how he thought it was inappropriate for us (read: women) to pout! However silly that picture might have seemed, I wanted to understand why he thought so, and, immediately, in a condescending manner, all he had to say was, “They just don’t look right!” “WTF!” I thought to myself, he already seems to have some misconstrued notion about ‘right behaviour’.

In spite of my conscious efforts to provide my children with a non-judgmental and a non-patriarchal environment, these young minds are already being loaded by a larger society with a sense of propriety that supports patriarchal views. Before I can get my children to see a few things through my lenses, they have already learnt so much more from the glares of society. This leaves me feeling helpless and having to constantly fight all those messages that are invading their minds.

Bringing up children in an era of rapid information transmission and processing is a challenging task for parents. Youngsters are bombarded every day with messages related to sexuality, sex and relationships from various sources. And we also know that not all the information they encounter prepares them well to make choices.

On the one hand, there are motivational images about how women have come a long way, almost making us believe that we live in a gender-equal society. But on the other hand, these women are shown within a stereotypical norm of conformity to consumerist beauty standards, which carries the message that it’s important to have a certain body type to be ‘happy and successful’.

On the one hand, there are freely available sexually explicit pictures and ideas from the media of a sexually liberal community; on the other, youngsters are constantly told by social and religious institutions how it is a ‘sin’ to be involved in any sexual act before marriage.

Love songs and stories reaffirm the idea that everyone is free to feel and express love, but young lovers are murdered for loving outside their caste or religion, or for loving outside gender mandates.

On the one hand, the concept of family is elevated to a high plane of sanctity and safety, and on the other, it is in homes that the highest rates of abuse and violence occur.

All this blaring cacophony is very confusing for growing children, and worse, they do not even have spaces where they can talk about their apprehensions without being judged, especially on matters related to sexuality.

While there is peer pressure to ‘hit up’ a certain number, there is also societal expectation to remain a virgin (though only for women) till marriage. While there is temptation to experience pleasure, there is also fear for one’s safety.

It is in these terribly confusing marshy lands that our children are trying to take a stand.  We could lessen their agony by creating a sex-positive environment[1] to help them take wiser decisions.

I fear that my son might think it acceptable behaviour to bully a girl for her appearance or consider taking up dance classes too feminine a thing for him to do. I’m dismayed at the thought of my daughter not standing up for herself and being irresolute about prioritising her aspirations. I do not want my children to be trapped by the idea that the institution of marriage between a man and a woman is sacrosanct, and that parenthood is essential. Sadly, it is not in our capacity to tactfully filter out these messages that are being received. Along with all that we want them to learn, they are going to be exposed to all that we do not want, too. As a parent, one is well aware that one is not the only influencer of one’s children and their decisions.

But as a parent I am not going to stay silent allowing my children to hear only the noise that drowns out the few determined voices that speak for equality and diversity. If I fail to address the importance of inclusion, my children might grow up thinking that discrimination is a way of life. I will need to continue to have open talks with them for them to view the world from a perspective of inclusion. There might not be many role models to exhibit or any substantial research to offer as proof or even strong collective voices that resonate. Nevertheless I must assure my children they will be supported if they make choices that defy patriarchy and that don’t fall within the realms of acceptable behaviour.

If all the voices heard by our children echo the importance of equality for all, the world would be a different place. That is the challenge for any parent – to be heard amidst the insane din! I hope that someday the voices of equality and inclusion will start being heard and understood by more and more people, but until then, I am going to yell till I am heard!

[1] The term “sex-positive” might be misinterpreted as openness to have as much as sex as one wants, as if sex is the only way to attain liberty. But it actually means to devise mechanisms to impart information which enable the children in making decisions that are consensual, safe and healthy.

The cover image is a still from the Marathi movie Sairat (2016) about a forbidden romance between a low-caste boy and upper-caste girl.