Paranoiac Activity: The Birth of the Anxious Parent


Paranoiac Activity: The Birth of the Anxious Parent

Illustration: Akshita Monga

Ipassed from school 10 years ago. That’s one short decade. It’s barely enough time for a good bottle of wine to age properly but apparently it’s enough for the landscape of India’s educational institutes to change…. drastically.

Just like one day Delhi woke up to find itself foisted with the title “rape capital of India”, schools, once safe sanctuaries, have now been recast as places where children are knifed, slapped, and raped. This is stuff bad prison movies are made of.

The horrific incident at Gurgaon’s Ryan International School has me schizophrenically trying to reconcile the monsters who did this, with Cundi Uncle, the friendly school-bus conductor, who would break up the bus fights and wipe away tears of the children who got bullied. And Sharma, the peon from the chemistry lab, who would be our “informer” on teacher movements, and who taught us how to mix silver nitrate to make indelible ink that would ruin immaculate, white shirts. I’m wracked by the thought: Could it have gone another way? In a time when everyone’s a suspect until proven otherwise, should Cundi Uncle have been allowed to hug a bullied child? Should Sharma have been trading secrets with us? Would we allow it today if our children (future child, in my case) were to go to the same school or would we report someone like Cundi Uncle for crossing the line?

When I think about it, there’s a lot that happened in school that would be considered high risk today. I remember I was in class one and had a fall from the jungle gym. I was bleeding profusely, and while my classmates panicked and joined the wailing, the school gardener rushed me to the first-aid room. The nurse dressed the wound and a peon was instructed to drop me home. A little woozy from the fall, he carried me to the cab.

Childhood is no longer an adventure – it’s a 15-year-long gauntlet.

Image credit: Parveen Kumar/Hindustan Times

Today a school peon accompanying a child without any “supervision” of concerned school authorities wouldn’t have gone down well with parents. Today, the incident would have become a subject of debate in multiple WhatsApp parent groups; the school would be branded irresponsible and some would even demand the sacking of the peon.

It might be an overreaction, but perhaps the only thing to cheer about in this entire situation is that this is the outcome of awareness about the sort of horrible abuse that has gone unchecked in the “simpler” times that we tend to romanticise.

But by that count nearly half of our childhood experiences would be considered unsafe. I’ve made friends with the hawker down the street, crept into the school groundsman’s hut to catch dragonflies, packed off on my bicycle from Churchgate to Babulnath to run errands for my mother. All these would send any parent today into a panic attack. Childhood is no longer an adventure – it’s a 15-year-long gauntlet.

Children aren’t supposed to be reared inside hermetically sealed bubbles.

At least, that’s what the paranoiac inside you wants to believe. Yes, children’s safety should never be taken for granted, and instances of child abuse should not be brushed under the carpet. But we should also realise that not every person is here to cause you harm. A parent today has a difficult tightrope walk ahead of them: To have a keen eye on everyone who interacts with their child — but equally, to refrain from automatically treating everyone as a predator.

I know how hopeless it can sound when we’re greeted with news of the sort that unfolded in Gurgaon, but not everyone who comes in contact with our children is a rapey paedophile. And it is especially easy to attribute malafide intentions to anyone from a lower socio-economic strata, to those who’re not “people like us”. For every murderous bus conductor, there are thousands of Cundi Uncles, who will wipe the tears off a crying child’s cheek, give them a smile, pacify them with words of encouragement, and wave goodbye as the bus pulls away.

Children aren’t supposed to be reared inside hermetically sealed bubbles. They’re supposed to get dirty, scuff their knees, explore their environment, and learn about life through their own experiences, not the internet. Our instinct to protect them shouldn’t turn into an extreme version of helicopter parenting, where sheltering kids “for their own good” ends up with the opposite result. This issue involves walking a fine line – leveraging the modern tools of mobile phones and CCTV footage that have allowed us to become aware of the true, darker nature of school life, and also trying to maintain a healthy detachment from a child’s personal growth.

So educate and inform the children. Let it be known to them that monsters do not exist only in the pages of their fairy tales, but also in real life. Also, tell them that just like in fairy tales, those monsters can be defeated by good. Let them play, cry, and fight, but above all, let them be kids while they still can.