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Public tragedy as a learning tool? February 22, 2009

Posted by reader111 in India, Psychology.
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1 comment so far

Gouri Dange


After the 26/11 attacks, my friend often tells her children, aged 13 and 15, when they complain: “Stop whining— you’re lucky to have this food. People today can be killed in the middle of their dinner.” If one of them complains about lack of space in the room she shares with her brother, the mother says: “People have spent hours, days, hidden under beds… count your blessings that you are safe and have a nice room and a brother alive to share it with.” I find all this too much. She says it is time for her children to get some perspective. I agree, but isn’t there another way?


Like the rest of us, your friend, too, is shaken to the core by the events of November. We all process tragedy of these proportions in different ways but from what you describe, her way of doing it is really doing no one any good. Events of this kind force many of us to change our way of looking at things in a fundamental way. For her, like for many other people, the tragedy has brought home the fact that it’s a blessing to be alive and well. Nothing wrong with that. However, expecting her children to see it in exactly this way is inappropriate.


Incorrect approach: Don’t use the 26/11 attacks as a means to discipline. Lorenzo Tugnoli / AFPWhile she may feel prompted by those events to sensitize her children to the suffering of others and to be grateful for what they have, this is simply not the way to do it. This way, in fact, will ensure that they get desensitized to those tragic events. It will soon become, for them, just something that their mother holds over their heads when trying to get them to do something.


No doubt children need to be taught empathy and guided to see themselves as part of the larger picture of things when there is a crisis in the public domain—whether disasters or attacks or other such life-changing occurrences. But the lessons that flow from such events should be taught or reflected quite, quite independent of day-to-day home and family rules about eating and sharing space with other siblings, among other things. First, if your friend keeps processing her response to the tragedy in this in-your-face fashion via her kids, she may be deeply shocked one fine day to find that they will just laugh her off as their connection to it becomes trivialized.


Second, when we keep telling kids to see their own complaints or needs in comparison to other much worse things, it tends to invalidate their real anxieties, likes and dislikes, or needs. Of course, in comparison to something like a terrorist attack or a flood, a child’s whining about something or the other that he wants looks trivial. But to keep reducing and dismissing it in the way your friend is doing, under the name of “keeping perspective”, simply denies her kids legitimate access to her time and attention on something.


If she wants to sensitize her kids to the larger inequalities and unhappiness in the world, she needs to do it in an ongoing, non-guilt-inducing way, by involving them in a larger programme of sharing and caring and volunteering somewhere in any small way. This is much harder work for a parent than simply telling them that their problems are nothing compared to 26/11. How long can a horrific tragedy serve as a life lesson, after all?


Gouri Dange is the author of The ABCs of Parenting. Send your queries to Gouri at learningcurve@livemint.com