Sunday, September 11, 2011

It takes a village... even to have fun!

Was the world a better place when I was growing up? Life was harder, for sure. Mom was an office-goer, grandma was strict, teachers were sticklers, and worst of all, TV had one black-and-white channel where the highlight was aapan yanna pahilat kaa - a show that listed out names and descriptions of missing people. If we were really lucky, we caught the fleeting, animated Amul ad.
My daughter has it easier - freelance, stay-at-home parents; a choice of wildly similar cartoons and reality shows on TV; and apparently, a liberal academic system. What does she lack that I had? I guess the answer is friends. Friends who live nearby and are just one loud, afternoon-nap-ruining yell away. We had this growing up - friends who were always ready for play, fights, trips to the corner shop and sharing comics.
Now we live in a neighbourhood of low-rises, where all the young people have left, following jobs that take them to where other young couples - and their kids - are. We live among retirees and are indisputably the only people of child-bearing age around. Our kid, therefore, has no playmates.
In fact, our neighbourhood is so kid-free that BMC’s Pulse Polio staff took a long time to figure out that we existed and needed reminders and booster doses. This may make no sense to the un-kidded among you, but those with kids know that the Pulse Polio people are the most dedicated sniffer-outers of children under five. It took them time to find us, and that is saying a lot. When they found us, they shook their heads in wonder and said, ‘Kisko maloom tha ki iss building mein bhi bachche hai...’
So we started taking baby to the garden. The few kids who turned up there were a floating population. The only permanent people were the grannies, and though our child loved playing with the arthritic old ladies, it was obvious that she needed peers.
Young couples with kids automatically seem to gravitate towards the newer gated complexes, and since we couldn’t move to one of those, playdates seemed like a solution. But fixing up ‘appointments’ for toddlers is an insanely awkward and pointless exercise. Firstly, it’s not like you’re walking into the neighbour’s place for a game of ‘house-house’. So it’s not casual. The moms and dads have to like and ‘approve of’ each other. Then schedules have to be discussed and tweaked. It all begins to feel way too strained, artificial, and too much like work.
What I wanted was for my kid to have a village of her own. A set of friends to play, fight and gossip with every day. Children need to build relationships outside the comfort zone of families, so that they understand the dynamics of social intercourse. This knowledge is so important that most tribal societies have formal spaces like youth dormitories and age-sets to foster it.
Just when I was about to give up hope, I met an old schoolmate in the garden, who generously said, “Come play in our building, there are many kids.” So I located her building, about eight streets away from us, full of young people, their kids, and their friends’ kids. A small oasis of 25 children! Presto, my daughter had her village, albeit a bit further from home than I liked.
At first, playing with peers was difficult for her. So far her playmates had been obliging adults. Children are instinctively not polite or obliging to one another - with them, you have to, like in the jungle, earn your stripes. So every evening would end in a fight and her howling loudly, and yet, come the next evening, she wanted to go back.
Some time later, in a shop, she picked out a yellow Tantra t-shirt which said: ‘Friends are better than TV’. Maybe she just fancied the colour, but I like to imagine that she was trying to say something.

This article appeared in the DNA dated Aug 28, 2011.


Banno said...

I am glad that she has found her village.

Anonymous said...

I found your blog through Saee's 'My Jhola' and I have really enjoyed reading all ur posts. I so agree with you on this and the birthday party post, you just said what I have been feeling and thinking for so long. We don't have kids yet but our friends and family do so I have been observing the same trends around here. The 'play date' concept commonly exists in the US and I find it really strange, I am shocked to know its happening in India now. Please keep posting, I absolutely love your blog and look forward to the next post.

- Priti

Anita & Amit Vachharajani said...

thanks banno and priti :)