Stop ruining that gate!” screamed the mother at her impatient toddler as she stood waiting for the school to let the children out. The boy was impatiently banging on the dilapidated school gate waiting to be let out. “Not yet at least,” she added with a smirk, “You still have two years to go.” The message rang loud and clear. The mother had been unwittingly teaching her boy that caring for and preserving public property was not his business unless he had any use for it. The underlying selfishness of the mother exposed the sad lack of social responsibility and community spirit in our country.
Sheldon Berman, author and educator, defines social responsibility as “personal investment in the wellbeing of others and of the planet”. He believes, however, that this does not happen by chance. It takes “intention, attention and time”. As parents we need to do our bit to instil in our children sensitivity and care for others and the environment, and by doing so wrench them out of the tangled mess of the “I, me, myself” world that all of us adults have welcomed them into. As a 2-year-old, my daughter used to sing her own distorted version of a kid’s song, “I love me, you love me, and we are one big family.” It is the moral responsibility of the parent to attempt to dig out this mammoth-sized inherent selfishness from your child, and help fill the resulting void with values and practices that urge him or her to look beyond themselves and impact a needy world.
Interestingly deep down in the heart of every child lies a strong need to belong to something bigger than themselves. Consequently, feelings of wholeness and meaning almost always follow when a child is given a useful task to perform. Useful tasks can be part of a child’s life from a very young age and can start at home. Allowing children to do things by themselves like rinsing plates, helping with chores, or preparing meals can instil in their little minds a keen sense of self-worth, which will enable them to attempt to make a difference even outside their homes.
The key goal in such training is to teach a child to be a problem-solver wherever and whenever. Most Indian parents do not include children in the decision-making process and are constantly making decisions on their behalf. Yet we are surprised when these same children have little confidence as they become adults, and develop a tendency to run away from making decisions and struggle to demonstrate independent problem-solving abilities. This is an unfortunate feature of Indian culture, and we should encourage our children to develop the capacity to make informed decisions.
Books play a great role. Children love to have role models and what better way to teach social responsibilty than to introduce them to books with these underlying themes. I grew up on the Reader’s Digest magazine in the Eighties and Nineties. These colourful magazines often carried true stories of ordinary people showing extraordinary kindness to the less fortunate. These stories left a deep impact on my young mind and motivated me to devote my life for the good of others. During my teenage years, I was introduced to the Narmada Bachao Andolan by the newspapers; Medha Patkar became my hero as I read about her relentless fight for the rights of the poor farmers from the breathtakingly beautiful Narmada valley. When Medha visited Bangalore for a rally, my school friends and I were there feverishly singing “Oh oh freedom” on behalf of the farmers who stood to lose their land in the name of development.
According to Sheldon Berman, children posses a keen sense of justice and can feel very deeply when it is violated. The type of school you choose can also make a significant difference. I studied in a down-to-earth convent where service was the motto. We had an Opportunity section for children with special needs. From our kindergarten days, the nuns drilled into our minds that the Opportunity section students were first-class citizens of the school. We were expected to volunteer and help them at all times. We cheered heartily for them on their Sports and Annual days. We were taught to believe that they were special and even today my heart warms up naturally to a differently abled child because of the influence of those benevolent nuns. The school you send your children to will go a long way in shaping their world view.
Another great way a parent can be an influence is by volunteering for social work. Research has shown that children whose parents have volunteered for social work are twice as likely to become volunteers themselves as adults. Changing our own selfish attitudes and involving ourselves in making our world a better place speak louder than words to our children.
Let’s get moving!
Published in the March 2014 issue of the Forward Press magazine
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