I grew up in a house by National Highway 17 in Kozhikode (Kerala) city. My days and nights were filled with sound–a maddening cacophony of cars, trucks, buses and auto rickshaws, people cursing, cussing, swerving. Noise, noise everywhere. Every day. Every hour.
Except in our backyard, where there was (and still is) an old mango tree. This tree casts a benevolent shade over our red-tiled house. When I was a little girl, my father fixed a swing for me on one of its overhanging branches. The swing was just a little plank of wood with both ends strung up through a thick rope and wound around the tree branch, but this simple contraption transported me to far off places. I spent many a magical hour on that swing, weaving fantastic stories in my head, singing nonsense rhymes out loud, holding involved conversations (with myself) and yes, perfecting my touchdown skills.
Have you ever tried the swing touchdown? First, you build up a good momentum till you’re swinging smoothly and swiftly, and then when the swing is at its highest arc, jump. You sail through the air, the wind in your hair and believe me, it’s truly exhilarating. Of course you can break a leg if you’re not careful, but that little bit of fear makes it more fun. So that’s what I did every time I felt bored, all by myself, far from the frenetic pace of the highway just metres away. It never occurred to me that someone, some stranger perhaps, could climb over our wall (it’s just a metre or so high) and assault me. Well, nor did it occur to my parents, that my playing by myself, in our own backyard, could actually be unsafe, in some way.
A safer time?
My cousin Priya, grew up in Ooty. And most days, she would go play at her friend’s house. “This girl’s home was beside a little patch of trees, so we would spend all our afternoons there. We never told our respective moms that this is what we did; nor did it occur to them to even ask us how we spent our time,” Priya told me recently. She grew up in an idyllic time, before Ooty became touristy and all trashed up. But like me, her childhood days were fun. More important, as little girls growing up, we took the innocent fun of our childhood days for granted. Of course, sooner rather than later, we did experience the dubious joys of adulthood–the groping and pinching, the trauma of being followed home, the shock of being flashed at, but even then, we never thought someone would attack us, or rape us. That was something that happened only in B-grade films.
Today, Priya and I are mothers ourselves and we live in Bengaluru. And yes, we worry about sending our children to the nearby park. In fact, what worries us most today is the fear that our children are no longer safe, even when they are at school. So, now I regularly go through a check list with my five-and-a-half year old—no hugs from strangers, no accepting candies/sweets/chocolates and scream if someone tries to hold or touch you. Be careful, be aware, I tell him. And all the while I’m hurting inside because my little boy is not free to stay innocent or carefree. I’m forcing grown-up fears on him.
But as parents, do we have a choice, really? For one thing, sexual violence and abuse is so rampant today, and for another, we now know to our horror just how vulnerable our children are to such dangers. Because, even the poshest of schools, even ones that boast of air conditioned classrooms, skating rinks, swimming pools and indoor gymnasiums, are not ‘safe’ havens any more.
Yet, what troubles me is that the ‘good’ touch, ‘bad’ touch lessons I give my son may not even help–it will probably just end up confusing him. In fact, my friend Revathy (whose son and daughter attend the same school as my son), knows a little girl who is utterly psyched by all the ‘good’ touch, ‘bad’ touch talk that has been drilled into her. “That child freaks out even if my daughter touches her shoulder,” rues Revathy. Viji Ganesh, a reader of one of my previous blog posts (titled Good Touch Bad Touch), had pointed out that it is better to teach children about ‘Safe/Unsafe Touch’. Viji said that at a workshop she conducted, “…a kid walked up to me and asked “Is it a good touch if I feel good about a bad touch?”. A bad touch, said Viji, can make them (children) feel good and can be wrongly/confusingly taken as a good touch. “The right vocabulary and identifying the feelings (caused by touch) are the skills to be imparted to kids before empowering them with skills to protect themselves from abuse of any form,” she had stressed in her comment to my post.
Protect and prevent
However, Revathy, as a parent, believes preventing any chance of abuse is the best way to protect our children. It is up to us parents, she insists, to ensure that our children grow up in a safe environment. That means being involved in every aspect of their lives, not taking anything for granted, especially their safety while at school, or at any after-school activity. So, how can a parent like me do that? After many involved discussions with other parents from my son’s school, (all conversations conducted through WhatsApp groups and in person) here are a set of simple things parents can do:
What you can do
If your child goes by school bus, find out who the driver is, if there is an ayah present during pick-up and drop.
If you send your child by school auto, make sure there aren’t too many kids crammed into the auto. Sometimes, the auto is so crowded, kids are forced to share space with the autodriver and sit next to him–not a good situation at all.
Further, approach the management of your child’s school. Are they open to volunteers for any activity?
Be proactive at Parent-Teacher meetings; or if PTMs are not held, insist that these be conducted regularly.
Does the school need funds for CCTVs, can parents pool in resources?
Does the school have the staff to monitor the cameras? Or can parents too hep?
Ask if the management has checked the antecedents of all staff (teaching, non-teaching, bus/van drivers, ayahs, others on campus).
If your child goes to dance class, karate, sports or other after school activities, don’t just drop him or her off at the venue, make sure the teacher is present. If possible, stay till the end, especially if your child is less than 10 years of age.
If you are a working parent, coordinate with other parents (specially moms in your area), you’ll be surprised at how ready people are to help pick up and drop your child. All you need do is ask.
And most important, listen to your child.
Ask him or her what happened in school.
Know your child’s everyday routine.
If he or she is behaving strangely, find out why.
I spent many evenings on that swing under the mango tree. And in summer, the red-tiled house by NH 17 would be filled with the aroma of ripe mangoes. That’s when my parents picked the fruit, arranged them carefully in rows upon rows in one of our upstairs bedrooms, and later, sent them packed in wicker baskets, via state transport buses, to Priya and my other cousins and aunts in Tamil Nadu.
I grew up without knowing what variety of mangoes we have on our tree at home. Alphonso, Badami, Totapuri, Mulgoa, Neelam? I didn’t know then. And I don’t want to know now.
For me, the mango tree is part of my childhood, of the time I spent innocent and carefree. All that matters is that our children, yours and mine, experience such pure joy as well.