"How come you don't tell me anything?" The 14-year-old's voice was brimming with resentment.
"What do you want me to tell you?" I knew exactly where this was going.
"Well, most of my friends know what they want to be when they grow up, whether they like science or commerce, which colleges they will apply to, you know, they are clear!" His arms were flaying as if the words were not enough to convey exasperation. "I'm the only one who has no idea!"
I put down my book. This was going to be a long conversation and I had been waiting for it.
"It is good to not know. It gives you time to explore. What's the rush?" I put arm around the awkward teenager.
India has one of the highest suicide rates in the world, and those in the 15-29 age group are the most at risk.
"How come you are not worried?" He frowned.
"You are worried because I am not worried!" I couldn't help laughing. His frowned deepened so I suppressed my smile.
"Relax! All these kids who are so sure of what they want to do? They're probably just sure of what their parents want them to do. I cannot be that parent. I'll wait for you to find your own way - the way you should." His shoulders relaxed a bit and he let out the day's worth of stress in a long breath.
For today, we have dealt with it, but as a mom I worry. I live in fear of the what-ifs. What if I am not enough to tell him that it is all right? What if one day the pressures outweigh my assurance and unconditional love? I shudder at the thought.
What is more disturbing is the fact that most children lack even basic support. Most parents let their own insecurities cloud their minds, overlooking the importance of psychological health in the name of 'crucial academic years' and 'building a secure future.' The children are made to run relentlessly on a treadmill, and blindly follow a goal that has been set for them. The stress that they express is blamed on hormones and the tricky teenage years. The school counsellor is usually not approachable.
The fact is that most kids see walls around them. And sadly, for some, those walls cave in. We tut-tut, shake our head, blame the one-off incident on faulty parenting, and move on. What we fail to see is, that there is a thin line that separates us from turning into a statistic. India after all has one of the highest suicide rates in the world, and those in the 15-29 age group are the most at risk.
The students know only one way of de-stressing - a score that ensures they are liked by the teachers, respected by the peers and approved of by the parents.
This definitely doesn't mean that we need to cushion every fall, hold their hands all along the way and weed out every obstacle on their path, lest their heart takes a beating. On the contrary, we need to feel lucky if some amount of failure comes their way, for it presents a perfect learning opportunity. As parents, we can teach them to face failures and successes with equanimity, we can help them learn to compete with themselves rather than others, and assist them in getting in touch with their inner selves. But what happens when they go out? Are the schools, teachers, and counsellors providing a similar level of support? Sadly, no.
I am found in the school premises pretty regularly to talk to the coordinator or the principal or the class teacher over issues relating to the children (not necessarily mine). Unfortunately, I see fewer positive dialogues being initiated than teachers bullying the kids and making their lives tougher, ultimately forcing me to take the back seat and being vigilant on the home front.
And I am not alone in this. Ask any parent whose child goes to a regular public school. They rarely approach the authorities if the child is going through trouble at school for fear of being singled out. And singled out they are. The older one today is biding his time in ninth grade and putting up a brave front thanks to his home-room teacher constantly picking on him since I made the mistake of raising a valid issue. The younger one forbids me from coming to school and talking to the coordinator about one of his teachers who uses shockingly unacceptable language to express her angst against the children in her class.
Children in India are not only dealing with the social pressure of excelling at everything, the peer-pressure, and the headlines screaming the unachievable cut-off percentage to get into colleges, but they are also mostly alone in their fight. Schools lack the support structure and seemingly the will to recognise and deal with the dire situation. Scores are the only measure of worth. The life-skills teacher once in a while gives a well-rehearsed lecture about the importance of de-stressing that mostly elicits yawns from the students. The students know only one way of de-stressing - a score that ensures they are liked by the teachers, respected by the peers and approved of by the parents.
The square pegs are the ones that should be making us sit up and re-evaluate our approach.
As long as the children neatly fit into the round holes cut out for them, they are fine, they are a part of the giant assembly line our education system has become, and they will get their tiny cubicle in the future after stepping on and squishing their passions. But the square pegs are the trouble-makers. They bother us so we ignore them. Yet, they are the ones that should be making us sit up and re-evaluate our approach. They should send educational institutions in a huddle to work out an effective strategy to help the pegs discover their shapes, to help them cut out their own holes, and to encourage them to be what they ought to be - children who know that this is the best time of their life.
The older one came back after brooding a little bit and sat next to me.
"Our teachers say that childhood is the best time of the life. I really do not think so. Mum?"
"I agree with you." And I drew him into a hug. "I think the best is yet to come and it will. I think you guys are going through a rough time but the good news is that it does get better."
I felt him loosen up. This time the breath that he let out was one of relief. I think he knows that I am there no matter what. I hope that he remembers that forever. And I wish every child had that faith.
Young Minds Matter is a new series meant to lead the conversation with children about mental and emotional health, so youngsters feel loved, valued and understood. Launched with Her Royal Highness, The Duchess of Cambridge, as guest editor, we will discuss problems, causes and most importantly solutions to the stigma surrounding the UK's mental health crisis among children. To blog on the site as part of Young Minds Matter email firstname.lastname@example.org
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