Parenting in the time of crisis: Let kids embrace the messy realities in their play

We need to find meaningful ways to translate the beauty and disaster, the joys and failings, the triumphs and sorrows of our world for their pretend-play, and for the sake of our children, stop pretending as adults that all is in order.

Last October, my son woke up to the news that his play-school suddenly shut in response to the rising air pollution levels in the city. In December, his school shut doors again, imposed by curfew during the crackdown upon two of the city’s universities. Another unscheduled shutdown occurred in February, when the school was in the grip of fear from the week-long rioting, killing, burning, looting, and unspeakable violence which engulfed our neighbourhood. And now, in March, they closed doors again, this time for an unprecedented duration in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. A log of unscheduled school holidays has become an excellent way to keep a record of catastrophes that have besieged our world. My son is only three years old, and he is learning more about the world by being made to stay away from school than by being in it.

For their part, the play-school is working on the double, sending mails daily, enlisting activities which children would do at school had they been there. Many parents find these tips helpful; if you’ve spent a whole day with a kid and not run out of ideas and consequently out of your mind, you would be lying. Still, there is something amiss about nudging parents into hosting school-at-home. I imagine the role which a structured school plays to be different to what parenting does at home; they are to my mind occasionally at odds with each other.

School is where kids learn to be with others, where they acquire social knowledge and skills. I reckon home is a place where they explore the contours of an evolving interiority. School has unquestionable hierarchies in place – teacher/student, senior/junior, serious/play. Home could have blurred, fluid boundaries, a space never final, never symmetrical in relation to all that is in it. School is determinedly structured, while home could be kept spontaneous to the extent that it can be, so that kids feel free to indulge in a reverie not bound by a timetable.

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My son has his favourite window, his mornings and evenings are spent there simply gazing outward till I hear him sigh, which usually means that he has had enough of the outside world. I imagine parenting at home to be an unrehearsed duet with school, knowing very well that we need to synchronise our efforts for consistency’s sake, but every now and then making sure to spiral away on our own paths as well.

What is even more unsettling about the anxiety to complete pre-designated school activities at home is the signal that is being sent to children – that all is okay, that they should continue learning like they would in a world where everything is proceeding as planned, where all is well as long as they finish school-work. Parents obsessively concoct all kinds of juvenile stories to explain to their curious kids why their school is shut, and why school-work must be attended to by putting blinkers on. The world outside is considered a distraction at best, a panic-stricken reality at worst.

Don’t get me wrong, I am not advocating that we expose our children to the world’s horrors before they are ready to face them. Although how would we know what exactly is the right age? The age appropriate mark at which ‘exposure’ to such things takes place is getting progressively younger: one look at Greta (Thunberg) and her ilk of young climate warriors is convincing enough. But I do wonder if the unscheduled and frequent shutdowns are opportunities for us to reconfigure what kids’ “activities”, “learning outcomes”, “bedtime stories”, “age-relevant tasks” can mean in a crisis ridden world.

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Early childhood is more mysterious than familiar. In her book The Philosophical Baby, Alison Gopnik, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, argues that our mental development is more like a metamorphosis than an incremental process of growth. We as adults can boast of precious little understanding of how our kids’ minds transform. When my son plays, he knows he is just playing. Yet, play for him is a very serious business, where he gets to invent rules, and appreciates being asked how it all works. I love indulging him in playful immersions, in freely conjured hypothetical worlds, worlds of crisis even: ecological, gender, or his favourite parking crisis. Gopnik states that the luxury of a uniquely long period of childhood helps children to explore the world with unbound imagination, which in turn aids them to learn the ways of the world. She describes, for instance, how small children’s grasp of fantastical situations enables them to imagine alternative ways to ‘be’ in them. Children between the ages of two and six invent “invisible friends” who seem to help them learn how to interpret the actions of others. As if following the script, I recently noticed that my son has invented an imaginary friend too, a Dusky-leaf monkey who often falls ill, and how this is making him better at predicting the thoughts and feelings of actual people around him.

It is a common fault to regard small children as irrational and immoral. They drive parents up the wall by asking simple questions ad infinitum, questions which have obvious answers, or so parents believe up till they find themselves being pulled into the question’s philosophical quicksand (“Dad, why can’t I see my eyes?”). Gareth Matthews, a professor of philosophy at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, proposes that young children be regarded as “natural-born philosophers”.

Other scholars have followed this line of inquiry to suggest that children, as young as two, are able to grasp the difference between moral rules which are intended to avoid harm (“don’t hurt others”), and merely convenient regulations (“take off your dirty shoes outside”). Is it any surprise then that the famous German philosopher Descartes had developed a strong bond with his daughter early, and another accomplished philosopher Bertrand Russell ran a school for young children? Jiro Yoshihara, a Japanese artist, often drew inspiration from children’s art and gestures to create his experiments with conceptual and performance art. In How to Raise a Child, a young Susan Sontag jotted down 10 rules she arrived at, one of which was never to discourage childish fantasies. As a mother, she harboured a subtle but palpable admiration for the precious gift of “childishness”. Fate returned the favour; her son David Rieff colluded with her fantasy that she wasn’t dying, and went on to write a tender account of her final illness recounting how he ‘played along’ before she passed away.

Children make worlds out of dreams and failures of that which surrounds them. It is necessary that they are encouraged to embrace the messy realities of the real world in their wonder, for it is the make-believe play that helps them comprehend and reshape the world they grow into.

We are stuck with parenting in the times of crises, and I doubt if we are prepared for it. Our children might make profound sense of the tragedies that have befallen us today, that which keep them home. We need to find meaningful ways to translate the beauty and disasters, the joys and failings, the triumphs and sorrows of our world for their pretend-play, and for their sake, stop pretending as adults that all is in order. Perhaps we can find inspiration by calling to mind a scene from Duck Soup by Marx Brothers, in which Rufus T. Firefly (played by Groucho) grumbles about as he is handed the cabinet’s treasury report: “Why, a child of four could understand this report. Run out and find me a four-year-old child, I cannot make head or tail of it.”

(The author is a performance-based artist and professor at National School of Drama, Delhi.)

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