Talking politics to children: Hiding truths is futile; honest, sensitive conversations can help build empathy
Talking to children is of utmost importance, not just to help them cope with what they may get exposed to directly or indirectly, but also to raise responsible, non-judgemental and inclusive human beings. If they are prevented from being exposed to conversations, they may become more vulnerable to biased information.
The bottom line remains that children uncover information and there is seldom any way to prevent it.
If children are prevented from being exposed to conversations, they may become more vulnerable to biased information.
It is important for parents to hold inclusive and unprejudiced views themselves to be able to build positive influences on children.
Talking to children is of utmost importance, not just to help them cope with what they may get exposed to directly or indirectly, but also to raise responsible, non-judgemental and inclusive human beings.
Amid the ongoing conversation about Delhi's Shaheen Bagh, the headline of a recent piece questioned the presence and participation of children at the protests against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) and National Register of Citizens (NRC) across the country. The National Commission for Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR) has reportedly raised concerns over the possibility of children developing "mental trauma" resulting from the exposure to "misinformation and rumours”. Though it is difficult to comment on this particular move, it does raise concerns over how children process information pertaining to prejudice.
India is currently witnessing a surge in communal violence, and stories of those who have been displaced, lost homes, schools and loved ones abound in the media and everyday conversation. In the face of such adversity, it is very likely that children may develop mental scars in the form of trauma and other mental health issues. On the other hand, children are also vulnerable to acquiring bias and bigotry, depending on socio-cultural and identity-based factors.
Having the time, space and resources to discuss these issues with children is a matter of privilege. Children who primarily fall victim to discrimination and the violence associated with it do not have space spaces to explore these subjects, instead discovering such realities in traumatic ways, usually after witnessing horrific tragedies. Nonetheless, in the long term, parents, psychologists, teachers — as well as research — speak of the significance of making conversations about oppression and related affairs a part of children’s worldview.
The bottom line remains that children uncover information and there is seldom any way to prevent it, as Waheeda Saif, a mental health counselor in the US, says, “As parents, we often shy away from having these conversations. We tell ourselves our children are too young, they won’t 'find out'. But the reality is, children know ― whether it is through the news tab left open on the tablet, or through playground gossip.”
Where does it all begin?
“Humans are the only living species that have been unable to accept individual differences arising out of genetics, race, religion, caste and economic status. And anyone who doesn’t belong to a majority can be looked down upon, threatened, bullied or subjected to violence,” says Smriti Joshi, a clinical psychologist based out of Pune, “Talking to children about these issues is of utmost importance, not just to help them cope with what they may get exposed to directly or indirectly, but also to raise responsible, non-judgmental and inclusive human beings.”
Infamous developmental psychologist Jean Piaget devoted his life to studying how children learn cognitive functions, knowledge and conscience. Using Piaget’s framework, contemporary psychologists have tried to understand how the conceptualisation of racial and ethnic differences develop among children. Between the ages of five to eight, children orient themselves towards their peers and show a willingness to be part of groups. Racial name-calling and labelling follow suit, and children try to perceive new encounters through already held concepts.
Other perspectives like psychoanalysis stress on the relational aspects of development. Indian psychoanalyst Sudhir Kakar emphasises that religious identity in a child is formed through an intergenerational transmission of narratives about one’s own religion in the form of stories, gatherings, rituals and observations. The child strongly identifies with these values and forms their perceptions and opinions about the world.
Such perspectives advocate for the nurturing of a safe, non-judgmental and informed environment for children to mediate, examine and assess their own views, no matter what stage they are at. But how important is it for parents and teachers to be a part of this?
The role of caregivers and educators
“My daughter, now 11, had been exposed to news and current affairs since Class 3, owing to my ex-husband (and her father) being a journalist and me being a writer. Instances like being bullied in school for being a non-vegetarian made it critical for us to have conversations over differences from the beginning,” says Pooja, who is based out of Delhi.
Pooja began by introducing her daughter to her own diverse set of friends and acquaintances who belonged to different backgrounds of religion, caste and sexuality. “I have always spoken to her about our personal challenges as a single parent, single child, as women/girls, about my own struggle with fibromyalgia and then extended it to larger issues like privileges, disability and discrimination.”
When Chaitra’s six-year-old son asked why people from Pakistan are ‘bad’, the Mysore-based entrepreneur wondered where he would have learned this from. “I think this is something he picked up at school. Because at home, we don’t watch regular news debates of this nature, and especially not with him around.” It is often that such spontaneous questions and play behaviour mark the emergence of these thoughts.
For Chaitra, this moment was a catalyst for conversation. “I picked up a map and showed him where India and Pakistan and several other countries are, and how they are merely divided by borders, how similar the people and their ways of living are. It is important for children to first know who it is they are talking about, and what they are like.”
Pathways to healthy dialogue
Mahalakshmi Rajagopal, a psychologist based out of Delhi who works with children and parents, suggests that it is important for parents to hold inclusive and unprejudiced views themselves to be able to build positive influences on children. “In case parents do have a specific discriminatory opinion, which is quite normal, they should refrain from influencing their children's opinion.”
She further adds, “Parents will always teach children values based on their own belief systems. So you need to first be a person who believes in peace and equality yourself. Children also form opinions based on their experiences. For example, a child whose exams/school has been postponed due to an event like a protest may just develop a targeting opinion, without anyone influencing them.”
Pooja and Chaitra echo this sentiment. “I try not to impose my views on her and let her form her own, egg her on to read more about things,” says Pooja. Chaitra prefers taking time and reaching the root of the issue. “No matter what our opinions may be, we should give the child the freedom to have their own opinions. But I ask him questions to probe his curiosity about these things, and then use his own ways to answer them. For example, I talked about children who come from different backgrounds in his own class.”
Varun Gwalani, who works as an educator in Mumbai, developed innovative ways to talk to his students about social issues. “I wrote a children’s book called The Story Circle in which I touched upon several topics such as gender inequality, child marriage and similar themes, but I have done it in a way to which the children can relate... As a teacher, I believe it is our responsibility to talk about everything that is happening around them."
Varun says that if children are prevented from being exposed to conversations, they may become more vulnerable to biased information. "One needs to orient themselves to the methods of children to be able to explain to them what is right and wrong.”
One way that Smriti suggests is to link discussions on discrimination and violence to values of “being mean” versus “being kind”. “Very young children may start noticing differences in skin colour or hairstyles or abilities and will ask questions about it. Seizing these moments as learning opportunities rather than embarrassing moments to be hushed up or ignored can help the child avoid imbibing stereotypes and into a deeper understanding of the world around her," she explains.
Honesty seems to be an important element of such talks, according to Smriti. “When we don’t have the right answer, we can always be honest about it. A statement explaining that you don’t know why this is happening and that it is sad that people are treating each other with disrespect and hurting each other is usually the right thing to do. Other methods involve preventing exposure to biased information via the media and an in-depth introspection about the kind of beliefs and sentiments we form about what is happening out there, its impact, its portrayal and where children come into it.”
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