Age of awareness

Chitleen K. Sethi checks out the reaction of parents and schools to the CBSE’s recent move to treat nine-year-olds as adolescents and educate them about the facts of life

How much to tell and how much to hide from curious young minds.
HARD QUESTION: How much to tell and how much to hide from curious young minds. — Photos by Manoj Mahajan

Your child is growing up faster than you think. The Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE) is considering directing its affiliated schools to treat students above the age of nine as ‘adolescents’, reducing this milestone age from the earlier 12 years. Teachers are being told that all attendant issues which were tackled from Class VII onwards are now to be taken up from Class V onwards and handled accordingly.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) defines adolescents as those between the ages of 10 and 19. According to WHO, these years are marked by rapid physical growth and development, social and psychological maturity, on-set of sexual activity and experimentation, development of adult mental processes and adult identity and transition from socio-economic dependence to relative independence.

Since these physical and psychological transformations during adolescence have a major impact on the later adult life, it is believed that parental and institutional intervention is essential to guide adolescents, more so now because these changes are happening at a much younger age.

Early maturity

"Children are attaining puberty at as young as nine and 10 years. The resulting gap between mental and physical maturity has widened and when coupled with indiscriminate exposure to all kinds of sights and sounds through television, Internet and newspapers, the consequences can be frightening," said Dr Simrit Kaur, a Mohali-based paediatrician.

Does this mean that, if ignored, this ‘innocence-lost generation’ will grow up to be lonely, information-loaded zombies lacking social skills, and confused about love, sexual behaviour and relationships? While this is widely feared, there are some who are sure that this would not happen and the great Indian family could take care of any such ‘growing-up pangs’ without external intervention.

However, in the past five years, many government and non-government efforts have been initiated to cater to the special needs of adolescents even as these needs markedly differ between rural and urban adolescents; adolescent boys and girls; and the literate and unlettered adolescents.

Health care

Justifiably these efforts have paid attention to the much more needy section of rural adolescents (who may or may not be in schools), focusing on providing the minimal reproductive health care education, especially to girls. But when some such efforts have focused on school-going urban adolescents, specifically in terms of formalising sex education in schools in the light of the growing threat of AIDS, these have not been able to evolve a mechanism to help parents and teachers to effectively deal with them in households and classrooms.

"The CBSE directive is one way of recognising a fact that is staring parents and schoolteachers in their face. But the truth is that most would want to close their eyes to it. Parents have no idea how to handle the onset of early maturity in children, some don’t even think that it needs to be handled," pointed out Dr Avinish Jolly, Coordinator, AIDS Helpline, Chandigarh.

And those who have begun to see the tell-tale signs of physical and emotional changes creeping up their nine and 10-year-olds and feel that parental intervention is required, are at a loss to know what to do and say. Is it time to tell my kids about the birds and the bees? Or is it too early? How much to tell and what to hide? Should we do it or let the school handle it? Is there any professional help available?

Psychiatrists suggest that pre-adolescents or the ‘hidden young’ need to be monitored and guided. "It’s a tender age where kids are curious and experimental. Children exposed to a deluge of information are both fascinated and shocked and are itching to experiment and find out more. Parental intervention combined with school guidance is the general solution. But with each child, the answer would differ," said Dr Simmi Waraich, a psychiatrist in Chandigarh.

Eager to explore

Though most children of this age are not sexually active, only curious, responsible sexual behaviour is considered imperative. "The AIDS helpline is receiving calls from kids as young as eight years," said Dr Jolly. "The problem with this age is that they think they know but actually have only dangerously low levels of information," pointed out Christina Singh, in charge of the British Council Library, Chandigarh.

Parents too seek counselling when they are able to effectively monitor the child but are unable to provide a solution when required. Mother of an 11-year-old rushed to a psychiatrist’s clinic wondering what to do with her child, who having stumbled upon a pornographic film, was now often locking himself in his room.

"Parents have to know what to tell the child and not pass on their own myths and misconceptions about sexual behaviour. Give information in the right quantity at the right time depending on the child’s age, sensitivity, intelligence and the extent of exposure. Children at this age are very pliable, which is the key to the solution also. Parents should answer the queries of a child on this subject carefully, giving out only that amount of information as is required to assuage the child’s curiosity level at that age. But the information given should be close to the truth, comprehensible to the child and not fairy tale explanations," added Dr Monika Singh, a clinical psychologist.

Most schools till recently seemed to have a standard method of handling all sorts of deviant behavior. Beat and deter. And if corporal punishment is banned then teachers resort to being rude and abuse the child, humiliating him or her in front of the rest of the class. Rarely was an effort made to understand whether a particular behaviour pattern is a result of bad intention or plain curiosity.

"Two boys of Class IV in my son’s school were hit by the school Vice-Principal on the ground that she thought that they had tried to behave obscenely with a girl in the bus. Is beating the solution? Did the Vice-Principal inquire if the boys really knew what they were doing or was the adult mind working overtime believing that all that an adolescent thinks of is sex?" asks Jyoti Singh, a college teacher and mother of an eight-year-old son.

"You have to see to believe what is going on in co-ed schools these days. It is shocking to watch students barely in Class V and VI holding hands after school. The senior school students have since long graduated to kissing and fondling," pointed out Meeta Singh, mother of a 12-year-old daughter.

"I am not justifying harshness, but schools try their best to help and intervene. We call the parents and inform them. Mostly parents start blaming the other’s child for the problem," remarked Principal, Gian Jyoti Public School, Mohali.

"Also since this is the age when the child is feeling the most misunderstood and is in a rebellious mode, anything sane told to him or her adds fuel to the rebellion. The younger of the lot is more open to suggestions but if children harden their stance specially in the light of an unloving environment at home, they become permanent rebels and feel that their parents cannot be trusted," said Komal Anand, Principal, YPS Junior School, Mohali.

Though, primarily, most adolescent issues deal with sexual behaviour, there are a host of other problems associated with this phase. "The term adolescence means ‘to emerge’ or ‘achieve identity’. In this age, children want to be at the top of the world and if that does not happen, it leads to undue stress. Also students are faced with a lot of peer pressure. With nuclear families, single parents and busy parents, these children have no one to talk to either. They are depressed, detached, have no social skills and lack positivity," said Dr Renu Gandhi, senior project officer at the Department of Adult and Continuing Education, PU. "We are getting cases of children in this age group suffering from emotional problems like high anxiety and even worry about the future," maintained Dr Monika Singh.

Tackling stress

"Children of this age are growing up in a very competitive world and the stress of succeeding is substantially high. Even in Class II, school classrooms have charts comparing performance of the students giving stars for various achievements. Also a lot of schools use guilt as a tool to discipline and punish the child. A slow child is constantly made to feel that he is no good," said Kanwalpreet Kaur, a college teacher and parent of a seven-year-old.

Neelima Choudhry, Counsellor at Vivek High School, Chandigarh, says the school is already dealing with issues of stress among pre-adolescents. "A school can only harness the students’ attention and direct it towards academic pursuits. Parents are expected to deal with the child’s emotional needs. They should try to spend quality time with them rather than load them with material things. They should maintain some discipline and not give too much liberty to the child too soon," she added.

Parents however feel that schools are not doing enough to take care of such problems. "Most schools handle what is the tip of the iceberg. The child is counselled when some part of the inner turmoil begins to show itself in behavioural changes and is identified. However what needs to be handled is the inner turmoil itself," said Supriya Sharma, mother of a 10-year-old boy.

Dr Waraich suggests, "Parents should keep communications channels with the child open. As parents, a compassionate and understanding firmness works much better than being condescending and patronising."

Jagjit Singh Sekhon, Principal, Ajit Karam Singh School in Chandigarh, said parents and teachers have to complement their efforts. "There is no way you can stop the child of today from having some idea about everything around them. Instead of complaining about it, we all should use the attributes of this age group and teach them life skills: how to deal with difficult situations, trying people, relatives, inculcate a sense of right and wrong, responsibility and accountability. The key, of course, is to first make your child or student feel that you care, you understand and you are there."

Confusion prevails

Schoolteachers as well as parents are treading on slippery ground as they do not know exactly how they should ‘educate’ the child and hope that the other party would take care of the problem.

An Indian study of 1998 recommended school-based AIDS education programme for adolescents. The National AIDS Control Society recently gave impetus to the suggestion with a move to implement it through various state AIDS control societies. However the scheme has its critics. "Such programmes would do more damage than good. These are issues which can be handled better if parents, teachers and the community were to inculcate moral, religious and cultural values among children at this age," pointed out Dr Amarjit Singh of the Department of Community Medicine, PGI.

"If the government wants sex education in schools, the teachers need to be trained first. Do we have a sex education module in the B.Ed courses?" asked Bir Devinder Singh, MLA, Kharar.

Need for awareness

The situation in rural schools is markedly different. The grandmother of a 16-year-old in a village near Chandigarh found her grand-daughter pregnant. The child had been raped by her uncle. She had no idea what had happened to her. "While urban parents are dealing with media and Internet-related information overdose, adolescents living in rural areas and slums — who primarily have single-room dwellings — are also exposed to everything at a very young age. The intervention required for both these groups is entirely different," said Dr Renu Gandhi from Panjab University.

Reproductive health and hygiene education in villages and slums is on no one’s agenda. Last year a girl child was made fun of by boys in the class when she had her periods in the school. Three days later, she committed suicide as she could not sum up the courage to go back to school. "We roped in a pharmaceutical company to provide hygiene kits to girls in every government school. But there is so much more to be done," said Bir Devinder Singh.