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April 19, 2018

The theft of childhood


April 19, 2018

Each year, most notably after results of the matriculation examination are announced, there is an escalation in cases of teenagers committing suicides because they believe they failed to meet parental expectations.

The evidence is anecdotal, since suicide is of course a crime under Pakistani law. There are also deep religious and social taboos that prevent people from speaking up. This makes exact numbers extremely hard to ascertain – though the Madadgar helpline has reported an increase in the number of calls from depressed teens. Psychiatrists and other mental health experts from around the country confirm that the phenomenon has grown, notably over the past decade. They attribute this trend mainly to increased pressure on adolescents and young people. Cases of suicide have also been reported from among children of a privileged class, giving O and A Levels exams. However, these cases are often kept well-hidden by their more influential parents.

Besides cases of death by suicide, according to hospital surveys, multiple cases of attempted suicides have also been reported. These attempts have normally been by highly distressed teenagers who may also be suffering from mental disorders such as depression. While depression is not a condition frequently associated with very young people, there is clinical evidence that the rate has rapidly grown among children. A suicide survivor, now an adult, recently wrote about how academic pressure from her father drove her to attempt suicide – she had swallowed sleeping pills. Fortunately, she was not harmed, but the young woman says her relationship with her parents has been permanently affected.

As we move into the exam season for O and A Levels, conducted under prestigious UK-based syndicates, we hear of children spending up to 14 hours a day on studies, they are either at tuition centres or by home tutors. Some of these youngsters have spoken of their inability to cope with so much pressure, but are afraid of letting their parents down, who have spent a lot of money on fees and have made it clear that they expect a result comprising mainly grade A. The kind of consumer competition that exists over owning cars, televisions, smartphones and other electronic devices placed at the higher end of the price spectrum also appears to have trickled down to the level of classroom performance. ‘Owning’ a child who clinches 12 to 14 As adds to the prestige of parents, who place a greater emphasis on these grades than the happiness, or even the physical and emotional wellbeing, of their child. It seems like we do not believe in the concept of happy children.

This trend becomes apparent in many cases well before the child is to appear for important exams. In some cases, even the first and second graders are under acute pressure to perform well in classroom tests, or in the case of more privileged families other activities that parents opt to enrol their child in. The situation is quite similar in other South Asian as well as Western countries. We are effectively stealing childhood from children as young as four or five years old. As the race for admissions into prestigious schools begins adults start choosing what they perceive would make their children high achievers rather than what would make them happy.

The well-known example of schools in Finland where children up to the age of 15 attend schools for 20 hours a week or less, are given no homework, take no standardised test and still attain highest scores in mathematics, reading or sciences, according to the list released regularly by the Programme for International Student Assessment, should make us think. Of course, the Finnish model is extremely difficult to emulate given that it is based on teaching excellence and in understanding that children learn all the time, whether inside or outside the classroom. In the last five years, Finland has also reported that it is experiencing problems, notably with boys as they spend more free time playing computer games rather than reading, indulging in sports, music or family activities. The country is assessing how to adjust to this new age of electronics so as to restore its position on the list of high achievers, who also have the time to enjoy their childhood with relatively very little pressure.

In contrast, ‘hikikomori’, a practice initially witnessed in Japan over the last few decades, has spread into other countries including those in Southeast Asia and also the US and UK. Hikikomoris are people, mostly adolescents, who assume a life of extreme isolation or social withdrawal by restrict themselves inside their rooms for years, even decades, essentially as an effort to escape social pressure. Japan has only recently begun examining the problem at an official level given the reluctance of families to talk about the issues that have compelled both boys and girls in their family to live like hermits, and who have limited their interaction with their own families to only accepting meals handed to them.

Of course, everywhere in the world parents want their children to excel and be happy and successful. It is often assumed that high grades will lead to good jobs and consequently a good life. This is not entirely inaccurate. But in our own setting, where the emotional health of children is perhaps too rarely discussed, we need to adopt a more open approach to the problem. It is surely not normal to expect that children can study every moment of the day that they are awake. Schools also need to assess why tuitions and extreme hours of home study are necessary to succeed in examinations taken even by 15 and 16-year olds. The rate of suicides among those under the age of 30, including many who have still to enter their 20s, should put us on alert.

Somewhere in our quest for learning, something has gone wrong. The welfare of a child must be placed ahead of the satisfaction of the parents and other such considerations. Of course, education is essential, but we must understand that not every child will succeed at math or physics or English, regardless of how much money the parents spend on this effort. The extremely poor level of teaching at most government and many private schools aggravates these difficulties. There has to be room in society at all tiers for young people who are naturally gifted in arts, music, graphic designing, entrepreneurship, or other less orthodox spheres of life. The same roadmap cannot be laid out to direct the life of every child. Individuality has to be recognised, and both parents and schools need to realise that they should also strive to produce graduates who are not only academically successful but also well rounded in terms of personality. These students must have the ability to empathise with others and accept differences.

Experts at top hospitals have already warned that we are heading towards a crisis. To add to that, the limited number of child psychiatrists have also reported an increase in the number f seriously depressed children. As we move into the exam season it is time we took a step back and examined the impact of what is happening.

The freedom children once had to play and develop their creativity must be returned to them. It has been brutally snatched away in too many cases.

The writer is a freelance columnist and former newspaper editor.

Email: [email protected]

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