Despite what their fiction suggests, the Scandinavian ideology of child protection is commendable indeed. In Norway, if the Child Welfare Services suspects that a child is being abused at home, they simply take him away and place him in foster care. Their definition of abuse is stringent — any kind of physical or mental violence and neglect. In Sweden, currently, there are 25,000 children in the foster care system. Child rights in India are dismal. The state doesn’t intervene and, judging by the newspaper reports, lakhs of our children suffer gross trauma at home. The Indian couple, currently languishing in a Norwegian jail for serious child abuse violations because of burn marks found on their seven-year-old son’s legs, have a lot of explaining to do. Irrespective of whether it was an accident or inflicted, their concept of discipline and Eastern parenting at large has come under scrutiny.
I don’t know any Indian kids in my generation who didn’t get an occasional whack from parents and teachers. My mother tells me in her generation, even distant relatives were allowed to whack her and her siblings. I had a Maths tutor, who used to twist my ear till it was red when I got a sum wrong. I don’t think I’ve suffered any massive damage because of it. In fact, I think of that tutor quite fondly since he’s probably the only reason I got a decent grade in Maths. I also have memories of a nun hitting me on the knuckles with a pair of scissors for being lousy at needlework. Every child growing up in the ’80s in India will have similar stories to tell. Not that I think slaps and arm twisting is the solution: the arguments against any form of physical punishment are compelling. Studies suggest that spanking harms a child’s self esteem, the consequences of which reflect right through adulthood. It shows progress that our standards have changed and corporal punishment is no longer acceptable in India.
Yet, anyone who’s a parent will agree that it requires the patience of a saint to not succumb to the occasional slap or screaming bout because children are constantly testing your patience. And now and then, if your frustrations get the better of you, so be it. I had the opportunity to interact with some regular 10-year-old Dutch kids on a sunny afternoon in Amsterdam this summer. Their world was about rollerblading, biking and boating. Nice kids, leading a sheltered and Utopian existence, oblivious to the world because everything is so beautifully taken care of by the state: the problem that has come to haunt Europe, now accused of having a population of lazy, unmotivated and entitled people.
Indian kids, on the other hand, even the privileged ones, cannot escape the grim realities of poverty and inequality, faced as we are by it everywhere. They seem more mature, ambitious and better equipped for life’s challenges. The Scandinavian concept of zero tolerance to corporal punishment may be setting world standards, but they have many other questionable ideas on parenting.
They encourage sleep training from the beginning by letting infants cry themselves to sleep: is it too much for a traumatised baby to expect a cuddle when he’s getting used to a new environment? A new school of thought says kids who sleep with their parents grow up to be more confident and secure individuals. Parenting has many dimensions and there are no absolutes.