By Divya Badami Rao
As we make our way through the COVID-19 pandemic slowly, tentatively and uncertainly, our children are closest to our hearts. Much pain and anguish has been articulated on behalf of children worldwide, and by children themselves. In one fell swoop, the various forms of lockdowns and other physical distancing measures have adversely impacted children across the globe.
Maintaining our children’s well-being in the midst of the coronavirus lockdown has proved to be a challenging task. The social protocols necessitated go against the basic nature of childhood – spontaneous, energetic and carefree. This freedom is necessary— it aids the physical, psychological, emotional, and social well-being of children as their brains and bodies develop. Perhaps we might use this interlude to re-evaluate how we approach the well-being of our children, not just in the midst of the pandemic, but also over the long term.
There are two principle ways we, as a society, have inadvertently initiated the decline of our children’s well-being. As I will explain, these reflect our collective failure to differentiate between concepts of risk and hazard in our day to day living environment —both, in terms of the systems within which children operate, as well as the natural world we inhabit.
The web of protection we offer our children defines the allowances we give them. We find ways of protecting our children as a family, a society and a culture. Being protective is a natural human tendency, and not wrong in itself. However, we might look more closely at what we imagine ourselves to be protecting our children from and why, and how we choose to protect them. When children play, we protect them from the tiniest of falls and the slightest of bruises. We offer them safe and sanitised environments to explore more regularly than we do the great outdoors, for a range of reasons —access, the fear of bugs and a repulsion towards germs. Even when they leave the house for short periods of time, children are expected to follow strict rules about where they can go, how far they may venture, and by when they should be back. There are good reasons for this —streets are unsafe, as are building compounds after certain times of day. Yet, our fears might be inadvertently teaching our children to be afraid of the unknown, mostly without reasonable limits.
Another, perhaps less obvious form of over-protection is the manner in which we structure our children’s education. The ideal of “the best education” currently popular, is one that has given rise to extensive childhood anxiety and stress, born from the coercion of curriculum, as well as extremely demanding extra-curricular activities. The stress created by these forms of education often leads to mental disorders down the road, and on occasion, suicide.
These tendencies point to a risk-averse society: one that is unable to create a meaningful balance between childhood freedom and the protection we instinctively want to provide for children. Our well intentioned measures of protection often end up hindering our children’s ability to build and grow resilience. Resilience is the ability to bounce back in the face of stress, failure, challenges and other trauma. It is encouraged by allowing healthy risk-taking, and teaching children to trust their instincts, accept mistakes and develop a growth mindset. Deeply relevant to the times, building resilience is also as much about fostering the ability to navigate uncertainty as it is about extending relationships of care and connection by fostering healthy relationships with our children.
The other reason we are failing to promote our children’s well-being has, ironically, to do with the lack of adequate protection: not of their immediate environment, but of the world in which they currently live and will grow up to inherit. The impact of our lifestyle choices, shaped by the forces of industrialisation and consumerism led by dominantly capitalist structures have little regard for the health of the Earth, the consequences of which will be borne by our children and future generations. Earth Overshoot Day, the day in a given year that that resource consumption exceeds the Earth’s capacity to regenerate those resources in that given year, has been coming forward annually in the calendar year, with the exception of this year because of the pandemic. The effects of global warming are serious, and the effect of worldwide lockdowns on global warming are not going to make dramatic changes in the long run. The coronavirus is itself a zoonotic disease, born and spread from the rapacious nature of the relationship between man and the planet. In more disturbing news, zoonotic diseases are predicted to occur more frequently if we fail to systematically guard against them.
When we neglect to care for our natural environment with our intentions and our actions, we put our children’s well-being in severe danger. Our approach to protect them now and in the future will have little bearing on their well-being if they have to deal with the systemic instabilities that arise from our current unsustainable consumptive practices. With childhood resilience in mind, perhaps it’s time we collectively adjust our notions of what constitutes risk and hazard for the sake of our children.
Rethinking Child Well-being
A whole new layer has been added to our understanding of what it means to protect our children in the context of the global pandemic. While physical distancing is of paramount importance, it has been particularly hard on them. Children today sorely miss the basic ingredients of childhood well-being – playing outdoors, being in the company of friends and family, socialising in school and other avenues, and the access to public and natural spaces. Adult caregivers have been quick to register the impact of these extreme measures on their children. Many issues are in the process of being addressed and plans are being worked upon at many levels, such as the reopening of schools and other public places, and creation of family pods in order to alleviate some of the distress caused to children, and to society at large. As families, institutions and governments tackle the more obvious impacts of the pandemic by establishing new norms, they are also presented with the opportunity to re-evaluate the old ones.
To begin with, we need to shift registers: we need to move from a mindset that seeks merely to protect our children, to one that actively trusts them. The impression that that children cannot be trusted has percolated down over generations. Consequently we have learnt that we should not trust our children. It takes great effort for the adult to dismantle old notions in favour of honouring their children in the wisdom of their age and experience. We need to recognize that “responsible childhood” sets in at around age four, from which time children will only grow in their desire and ability to be independent. We also need to start actively including them as stakeholders and an interest group in their own right, while keeping sustainability practices in the forefront. So as not to further accentuate problems of inter-generational equity, it is vital for urban planners, architects, landscape designers, playground engineers, parents, educators, psychologists, doctors and policy makers to enlarge their focus to consider the needs and capabilities of children, to create the social space for their potential to breathe and thrive. Children should be made participants in city planning, as well as plans to protect the environment. We must remember that our children are capable of expressing their needs for themselves. As a recent research paper authored by children in the UK demonstrates, children have well developed critical thinking abilities, especially on issues that impact them.
So what would it look like to create an environment where we protect our children by building our ability to trust them, and from where they can embrace their whole beings in the way that they feel encouraged to participate fully in the world around them?
The home and the school are the two most influential settings in any child’s life. In both these spaces, children often get treated as mini-adults before their time, as the naturally slower pace of childhood is rushed and children are not given the room to breathe. Within the home, allowing children to feel heard and accepted for their thoughts and actions, for their interests, abilities and failures is key to protecting a child’s self-worth and self-esteem. Being accepted and supported by parents for who they are, rather than earn their acceptance through attempting to fulfil the projected desires and expectations of who they could be or what they can potentially achieve is a critical component of a child’s wellbeing. It extends into the classroom, where the system of education has to be redesigned and tailored to the individual child, rather than the other way around. Standardised teaching and testing does not provide a child with the best possible chances to thrive. Recent survey- based studies regarding the impact of school closures on children in the UK and US exhibit improvement of the psychological well-being of children and teenagers in some aspects, though the long-term effects of the pandemic on mental health are yet to be revealed.
Cities with Inter-generational Equity and Justice
Redesigning cities to be safe, sustainable and child-friendly will also have a huge impact on the ability of children to exercise their autonomy, while also enhancing their interest and motivation to participate as active citizens, acquiring skills of engagement with development and environmental issues that respect the notion of intergenerational justice. Public spaces like streets, parks, and playgrounds where children have the freedom of mobility, might provide them with the confidence to navigate their world more independently and ensure their right to play without fear. Child-friendly cities are also inherently more socially just and environmentally sound. Tim Gill, an urban planner and ardent advocate of child-friendly cities described a child-friendly town or city as a place with “low traffic levels; complete, safe networks for walking and cycling; easy access to public transport; a diverse set of accessible, welcoming public spaces for play, leisure and recreation, including plentiful green space; and a public realm that is clean and free from pollutants. [….] and […] compact neighbourhoods. Friends, facilities and fun places need to be close at hand.” During the lockdown, those living in independent houses or housing communities, with no access to private parks or gardens have possibly borne a particularly high physical and mental brunt of being stuck indoors. Access to neighbourhood streets would have made world of a difference to their state of wellbeing. In fact, some areas in the UK implemented the idea of play streets for children in their neighbourhoods by closing the street off to vehicular traffic for a set period of time. It was easier to help children play and maintain their physical distance on a street rather than in a playground.
Further, access to urban greens also hugely impacts the well-being of children. Known for having coined the term “Nature Deficit Disorder”, Richard Louv describes it as the “psychological, physical and cognitive costs of human alienation from nature, particularly for children in their vulnerable developing years”. The therapeutic effects of nature which include reduced stress, anxiety and attention-deficiency, enhance children’s cognitive development, psychological and physical health. However, this can only be experienced by having spaces to seek nature. Also, as children learn to love nature, they will protect it in the choices they make in the future. Therefore, Louv recommends a “social-nature networking”, which encompasses ideas such as public and private stakeholders coming together to protect public lands with urban nature and to create new ones. With regard to our current scenario, while there were those who were able to seek respite in nature, but for many, the lockdown state shut down access to beaches, parks, hiking trails, making its loss felt more acutely than ever before.
Transformation In The Time Of Coronavirus
Keeping the wellbeing of our children in mind while forging the ‘new normal’ is crucial. If we limit it to superficial changes, however, the approach will be a blinkered one that treats the symptom at the expense of the cause. As Nicolette Sowder of Wilder Child, a parenting and “wildschooling” website puts it , “There are all sorts of children: quiet, introverted, loud, quiet, movers, dreamers… […] The idea is not that one choice or preference is better than another, but just that our society needs to provide better options to children at all… Often our society and systems tell us that our children prefer something, but the reality is that there were simply no equally nourishing options presented.”
Facing this gigantic nightmare as a global collective has triggered a strong reawakening of our humanity. It is responsible for prompting a range of transformational reflections for individuals, families and communities, with a bearing on personal priorities that can potentially lead to a breadth of social change. The novel coronavirus has achieved the feat of bringing together a widely diverse people across region, race, faith, orientation, gender, age, class and politics in acknowledging grief, voicing concern, building resilience, and most urgently, in search of solutions and resolutions. A lot can change, just by unravelling the importance of being a child – a seemingly simple start with complex underpinnings.
Divya Badami Rao has a Masters in Social Work from Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai , a Bachelors in English Literature from Delhi University, New Delhi, and is part of The Curio-City Collective family.