Shruti, seven, looked up at me, her eyes wide and curious. I don’t recall much about our exchange except for the look in her eyes and her ruddy cheeks. Perhaps the conversation was about whether she liked what she ate for lunch. It didn’t matter. As with other encounters with children and young adults in the past, I was once again struck by that funny feeling — how small and fragile they are at this stage, I caught myself thinking.
I had never been able to place that feeling. But to my surprise, this time I found myself recognising what I had been subconsciously registering for many years. Perhaps it was the environs of my daughter’s new school where hierarchies are questioned that made me alert to what I was feeling. In any case, here is what I thought I spied behind that momentary hesitation.
Having been a teacher to primary and high school students, on many occasions I had experienced what I now see as a clash between my curiosity and wonder at encountering a young person and the ‘role’ that a teacher or an instructor is expected to essay. In fact, one is so accustomed to how this relationship is supposed to operate — and the implicit power equation favouring the teacher — that it is easy to slip into this part unawares.
The student-teacher relationship is also, on the whole, a good blueprint of interactions between adults and children. In fact, it approximates well to any relationship between unequals.
As for the child, it has to survive the world of the adult. Yes, survive. Most often the adult in question has the child’s best interest at heart. As a parent, he or she works very hard to make sure that the child is safe and well fed, gets access to material comforts and most importantly, feels loved. The teacher too, in many cases, works fairly relentlessly to help the pupil improve in one way or another. He or she provides support away from home and often comes to influence what the child loves.
Exposure to this power play can turn children into champion manipulators. They learn early about the subtle art of getting away with what they want irrespective of what is expected of them
The child’s sense of self is derived from these interactions and self-worth tied to the love and attention the adults provide. And yet for all the best of mind and heart on part of the adults, this is not a relationship bereft of the stamp of power. And children have the onerous task of dealing with this situation. I realised this is what had given me pause in my interactions with children in the past — an unsaid feeling of the power one actually wields when dealing with kids.
The child is powerless not just physically as compared to an adult, but also in a more fundamental way. Adults not just control the surroundings but also access to the one thing that the child is used to since birth — emotional acceptance. In many cases, adults use this relentlessly to control the child’s actions.
Exposure to this power play can turn children into champion manipulators. They learn early about the subtle art of getting away with what they want irrespective of what is expected of them. They come to understand well the gratification that approval brings, especially from a teacher or a parent who is distinctly more powerful, or they try to break out of the picture. Many use a combination of the two. Their own carrot-and-stick for adults in reverse!
Whatever strategy the child may resort to, there is just one fallout that the child must internalise and live with: his or her own thinking process is negated.
It’s worth pondering over how one can break out of this pattern of imposition — after all, we’ve all been children once and passed through the same stages. Moreover, this pattern of behaviour is not just limited to dealings with children but manifests in a lesser or a greater degree in interactions with those deemed as unequal.
For instance, it is common in relationships with those engaged in manual labour of many kinds or those doing work not deemed ‘important’ enough. Or in how women are treated, not just in terms of their objectification and abuse, but even in terms of the work they do in the household. There is no respect for the job they perform and hence no belief in their equality with others.
Beyond that even in the closest of relationships, one seeks to assert power, to get one’s way. A sense of wanting to become irreproachable, and at the same time having the power to instruct and demand obedience seem to underlie many of one’s interactions with others. Perhaps the conventional teacher-student relationship becomes the ultimate fantasy of this mode of existence!
When the lines of this relationship get blurred, as they very often do (thank God!), one is left with a sense of bewilderment about what the terms of engagement between children and adults ought to be. Perhaps bewilderment is a place from where conversations with the self can begin.
(Aarthi Ramachandran is a Bangalore-based journalist and writer)