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Magazine Editorial

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Category My World: Mary E Clark
Title Lessons from India's Children
Details I have been fortunate to visit India twice. After my second visit in 1995, I returned to the US on Christmas Eve. On arriving at my nephew’s home, I experienced a tsunami of cultural shock. I could barely walk across the front room, so covered was the carpet with toys, all belonging to just two tiny children! Jake, aged 2, and Tess, 6 months old, lived in a sea of gaudy plastic objects! I had just returned from two months at a Ashram Shala in rural Gujarat, where each child, wore on a string round her neck, a key. This key opened a small metal box – not much bigger than a laptop computer – which contained all her worldly possessions: one change of clothes, a workbook or two, pencils, scraps of coloured paper, a few pictures torn from magazines, and two or three precious treasures – such as a polished stone, or perhaps a brightly-coloured bird feather, a special gift from someone dear. Despite all their toys, my great nephew and niece were bored. If the television wasn’t on, they were restless; without attention from someone, they fretted. My friends in India were never bored. They lived in a community comprising mostly children and some nearby adults. They invented things to do. Older girls carried younger children around with them. There were no life-threatening dangers in or around the Ashram. Even the nearby road had only an occasional car – unable to speed, owing to the abundance of potholes. The physical lives of these children would not be easy. But their psychological lives would likely be far more stable and secure than those of these American children. Rural village life might demand hard labour and offer few tangible pleasures, such as hot and cold running water, electricity, and a personal automobile. But it would be full of companionship, conversation, and mutual caring, and lots of spontaneous creative games among both children and adults. That indelible culture-shock reminded me of another — not unlike the first, which took place in a single moment in Vadodara in Gujarat. The main avenues there are quite broad, often having six- to eight-foot unpaved verges on each side of the traffic lanes. Some of these “sidewalks” became parking places for vendors’ pushcarts. But some of these areas were semi-permanent homes of the poorest of the poor. While walking along such a street, I passed one such abode – a gunny-sack “roof” supported on three or four poles. Its rear side abutted the six-foot concrete wall of a nearby mansion. From the slightly raised pavement, I could see over the wall into the spacious garden.On the lawn, a pair of young siblings played on their hobby-horses and other expensive amusements – isolated from the world outside. My attention turned to the scene on the pavement. I noticed a toddler, about two, wandering beyond the edges of her burlap home to an area of dried grass beside the road. There, she gathered several handfuls of the fuel, carrying it triumphantly back to her parents as her contribution to the fire that would cook the evening meal. I glanced at her parents. There was a look of intense adoration on their faces. This tiny baby already was making her contribution to the survival of her family. She had a gift to give and her gift brought, for her, love, respect, and appreciation. Which of these children were luckier? In the first case, the “gifts” were from parent to children, in order that the children be “amused” and feel – what? Loved? Satisfied? Pacified? In the second, the “gift” was from child to parent. The child’s “reward” was the triumph of being able to contribute to the good of the family. Each time I recall this story, I realize that showering gifts on children has a very different psychological consequence from that of affording each child meaningful opportunities to contribute to the welfare of others The point is, that “consumption” offers but a shallow reward. The permanent, long-lasting rewards come from active participation, from feeling appreciated for one’s spontaneous contribution to the welfare of those around us. It is present in any shared endeavour, from the cooperative game-hunting of our ancestors, to playing together in a symphony orchestra or in a play. Compassion and consumption are at opposite poles in the “reward centers” of the human brain – the first, like a secure rock of joy – the second, mere candy-floss. We should be grateful that some children, in some cultures, are still given the opportunity to experience the first of these rewards, through meaningful engagement with the people nearest to them.
Volume No. Honey Bee, 16(4):19, 2005