The booking representative at the famous five star hotel was polite but adamant, “I’m sorry ma’am. We will not allow more than one child in a room. We are a luxury hotel.”
LeaveThemBehind.com, ‘dedicated to the peaceful side of life’, urges you to remember what holidays are really about, i.e. escaping from worries and stress. The ‘them’ though refers to children; the site specializes in locating spas, resorts and restaurants with strict No-Kids-Allowed policies.
In a poll conducted by airfarewatchdog.com, 85% of respondents wanted a special section corralling children on an aircraft. Malaysia Airlines has banned children from the top deck of its A380s. A recent TripAdvisor poll of 2000 Britons revealed that up to a third would pay more for a ticket on a child-free flight.
Our (erstwhile) favourite Italian restaurant had closed its doors to children except on Sundays. It is run by a cantankerous chef who earlier resorted to a printed warning, noisy children running around would not be tolerated, which was not only received gratefully but also ensured our kids learned to eat politely at his delicious, well-loved table.
It takes a village, they say, to raise a child. But has the village turned against them?
That society develops traits and trends counter-intuitive to survival is hardly news. Most among us are sentient enough to acknowledge that racism, religious fundamentalism/phobia, misogyny and war can eventually descend into political insecurity, poverty and hunger. But these shallow smarts are hard-won from recent historical wounds or from watching parts of the globe cry for help on social media. We’re not big-picture-viewing enabled, but will admit that our all-important personal survival depends on stemming the dark nature that lets these societal poisons spread.
So what are we to make of this casual, increasing enunciation of a hatred of children? Beginning innocuously with people kvetching about crying babies on planes (as if parents actively look forward to this), it has spiraled into serious debates about children in public places and descended grimly into abusive trends like the dead-baby-jokes.
The current urban Indian ‘childist’ trend seems, like most sociological imports, a couple of decades late to the party. Remember the ‘west’ in the early nineties, when the first adopters of the ‘thirty-is-the-new-twenty’ Peter Pandemic began to spill their me-first attitude into the streets, movie theatres, last-season’s designer sales? The media dubbed them the ‘adultescents’: drawing out tenures at their old student digs, eating cup-a-noodles, theirs became the summer that was supposed to last forever. Buying a home or getting married was for when you ‘grew up’.
For those who didn’t receive the memo, who fell in love, got married and found themselves with children, the schism between them and the adultescents was impossible to bridge. Subtly or vociferously, the Peter Pandemics were unanimous: children were a terrible inconvenience, they didn’t get the jokes or drink beer or sleep at 4 a.m.
Some parents reluctantly retreated into early middle-age, chafing, tired, (no more socializing without affordable babysitting) but another set embraced their new identities. You encountered, while traveling, youthful couples, children in tow – seamless, organic, functional families. As nationalities, the Israelis, French, Italians and even the Indians, stood out. The children seemed independent but cared for, the parents were relaxed, loved-up, occasionally doling out the infant-paracetamol. This was no lotus eating, trance dancing neo-hippiedom. They had real lives; mortgages, researched daycare, demanding jobs yet managed to travel, eat out, live, ensemble. You could imagine the future of society to spring from this.
Meanwhile, the tilt towards the Victorian ‘children should be seen, not heard and preferably not seen’ attitude began to have visible repercussions. In a 2007 study on disadvantaged children in England, arguably most vulnerable to society, the UN found high rates of delinquency stemming from not just parental, but societal neglect and an attitude of abhorrence.
““Al Aynsley Green, the children’s commissioner for England, acknowledges that the UN has accurately highlighted the troubled lives of children. “There is a crisis at the heart of our society and we must not continue to ignore the impact of our attitudes towards children and young people and the effect that this has on their wellbeing.”
“It is time to stop demonising children and young people for what goes wrong and start supporting them to make positive choices. To bring an end to the confusing messages we give to young people about their role, responsibility and position in society and ensure that every child feels valued and has their rights respected.””
When the UK riots broke out two years ago, it reflected the previous decade’s troubled, violent children: hoodie-phobia, pre-adolescent gangs with baseball bats terrorizing adults, drug addiction, teen mothers. A friend, coming home from work, was attacked by a gang of pre-teens who broke her nose, spectacles and stole her phone. Others told horror stories of being threatened when they tried to at least engage with these aggressive children, “we’ll call the cops and tell them you fiddled with us, you pervert, you pervert.”
Why are these British children so angry? And what does it have to do with us, here, in India?
(In the month this was written), four minors and an18 year-old fatally stabbed Santosh Vichivara in Mumbai. Government crime statistics (available till 2008) indicate a trend in juvenile crime steadily increasing in instance and severity. Is there a connection yet, between the growing anti-kid tide and juvenile crime?
The process of bringing up city children, physically, emotionally and financially, has become so fraught that even debates on whether to have them or not are often presented as intellectual one-upmanship: “Overpopulation causes poverty”, “they’re bad for the planet”, “I have better things to do with my time than spawn.”
Our Peter Pandemic came, like many western sociological imports, late to India and we are seeing the first generation of those reluctant to grow out of their Endless Summer. But surely it cannot be as simple as that: a petulant disinclination to tolerate a section of society that is guaranteed to grow into ‘adults-like-us’.
What compounds this issue, is that some parents seem complicit in this trend, themselves: outsourcing the unwieldy growing years to increasing armies of employees, leaving the children behind on long holidays or finding it unacceptable to travel with them without a nanny.
The message is clear, children are inconvenient and not just for you, sipping your Bellini with your Business Class socks on.
Demonising children doesn’t come naturally to Indians. True or false? Outside the self-conscious cities, where super-parents evangelise parenting ideologies and baby strategies, beyond the tiger moms, helicopter dads, the attachment parenting handbooks… isn’t our nation’s prolific fertility a sign of our optimism? The more tickets you have to the offspring lottery, the likelier one of them will hit the jackpot, a doctor, an engineer or an IAS officer. Or is it opportunism?
Mumbai based sociologist, Manjima Bhattacharjya, who works at the Urban Aspirations Project, Tata Institute of Social Sciences, asks a plain question, “What does a society that likes children look like? (Not) random people taking pictures of my kids or pinching their cheeks in the elevator. I don’t think that is an indicator.” Instead where, she asks, are, “the structural changes, organized support systems that show me that children are included in the State plans; maternity/paternity policies, workplaces made flexible and open to parents, enough safe play areas in cities, good, affordable crèches, room for strollers on public transport.”
Blogger and mum of two, Rohini Haldea says even the fact that it is impossible to find a clean toilet can make a public space non-child-friendly, “I would love to travel with the kids by train, but the thought of those loos freaks me out.”
Space priorities exacerbate the situation. Ugly urbanity is greedily eating away at the child’s environment. Building compounds are now double-parked with luxury cars, playgrounds are disappearing, children are squeezed into apartment blocks masquerading as schools. Parents, pushed for space and time with their offspring, often have no choice but bring their rambunctious broods, full of pent-up urban child energy, into places not strictly meant to cater to children.
Perhaps the discussion on whether children should be allowed into movie-theatres or certain restaurants is valid, but the current dismay at having a crying baby on a flight is at best ludicrous, and at worst, racism or childism. Haldea was traveling by air, alone with her two children, under 7, when a passenger in the seat ahead complained that the children were speaking far too loudly to allow her to sleep, “She was fairly rude and asked the airhostess to move us. This occurred, when my kids had sat through the flight, without any battles or meltdowns. We were just chatting. Also this was a mid-day flight, not one in the middle of the night where she could have been forgiven for expecting silence. I found this typical of the growing intolerance. I understand when people get upset when kids are raising hell, but normal, playful behaviour should be acceptable, no?”
While some airlines subtly discourage children (reluctance to upgrade passengers with children or crew being very businesslike even with very young travellers), most manage to gracefully toe the line between the crotchety anti-child traveler and the uncomfortable baby’s parent with intuitive policy.
Though on most airlines, families must now forego the traditional placing in the roomier bulk-head seats for the rear of the plane for ‘easier access to the lavatories’, Vineet Recriwal of Indigo Airlines says “cabin attendants are trained to recognize this (children traveling) as an opportunity to create a customer experience.”
At instances where passengers are unable to tolerate a crying child, they have been offered a change of seat. The airline is also conscious that mums themselves can get ‘irritable with kids crying’ and may try curb bad behaviour by saying “the cabin attendant or Captain will take action against them,” but “our cabin attendants engage with the children through the flight, creating a greater tolerance and empathy within the cabin.”
While it seems unlikely to ever happen, even the half-serious call to ban children from public spaces is a hark back to a Dickensian world; a nightmare that our armies of child labourers still live in from where everyday, stories of abuse, malnutrition and neglect litter the news.
There is enough evidence, anecdotal and otherwise, that proves societies with a healthy, supportive attitude to children and parents are safe-guarding their present and future. The French government, for example, subsidises day care among other family-friendly initiatives. Pamela Druckerman’s ‘Bringing up Bebe’, suggests French children are better behaved than their American counterparts. She says French parents cherish their adult pursuits, feed their children ‘adult food’ (within a culture that encourages kids in restaurants) and sit around chatting on the perimeter of parks as kids careen down slides and sort out their own problems. This is no silver tinged cloud of Gauloise-smoke and mirrors. The same is true of Italy. And the opposite of highly urbanized areas like London and New York where café regulars in tony neighbourhoods now disparagingly refer to mummy-mafias and stroller-jams.
Happily, not all those in the hospitality industry believe children are detrimental to their business. Deepti Dadlani, Brand & MarComm Head at deGustibus Hospitality says, “We have no discriminating policies, including towards children, at any of our restaurants whether it’s our casual profile Indigo Deli or even the slightly more fine-dine profiles of Indigo & Neel.” Reassuringly, Dadlani has noticed parents use their discretion when eating out, “One may see plenty of young kids at the Indigo Delis, while Indigo & Neel sees an older demographic of children.” She shrugs at the suggestion that demanding families may run roughshod over other customers, “Parents, dining out, are more respectful of fellow diners. They take greater pains in speaking to their kids before coming to a restaurant and seem to be doing their homework as to how to keep their kids occupied.” In the event of a rare complaint, “I am confident that the staff manages the situation by accommodating guests at another table or section of the restaurant. We must realise that all situations can be managed by simply being polite and empathising with guests.”
Bhattacharjya believes it’s not all about children though, “I think this attitude is part of a larger attitude of ‘exclusion’ that I increasingly find – ways in which certain groups with purchasing power and influence keep out ‘others’, including the poor (evictions, slum demolitions etc. to ‘clean up’ our cities), Dalits (contestations against reservation), disabled, minorities and now in some cases, it includes children. We ARE becoming an intolerant nation.”
A quote attributed to MK Gandhi affirms, “A nation’s greatness will be measured by how it treats its weakest members.” Recent events have taught us that the politically and economically disenfranchised, women and the elderly, are being hard done by with little intervention if not active encouragement from the powers that be.
It is an issue of rights, Bhattacharjya says, “Even our child sex abuse law has taken decades to come through. Any child’s rights activist will tell you that this is not a country where we think in terms of a child’s ‘right’ to anything. The RTE is the first child-friendly policy we have.” What is alarming, is that “just the definition of ‘child’ is constantly shifting; 18 to vote, 21 for sex, 15 for marriage if the father agrees.”
In addition to all our instabilities, if we allow a generation of Indian children to be treated with neglect, disdain and abhorrence, we risk a future of insecure, angry, aggressive young adults. As economies teeter, as countries raise their hackles at each other, as the climate begins to bite back and the next twenty years promise to manifest into something grim, it is time to begin to challenge those who say with impunity that they ‘hate children’.
It is in our own interest, as a civilized society that will champion a range of causes from the rights of poor farmers to the decriminalization of homosexuality, to recognize the rights of children to be treated with respect and to show consideration to their age-specific needs. Remember, that crying child in the airplane, treated right, will learn to offer politely to help you get your bags off the conveyor belt, twenty years from now, when your hearing will be mercifully less acute anyway.