A SOCIETY’S ROLE IN SUPPORTING PARENTS
There can be no keener revelation of a society's soul than the way in which it treats its children. Nelson Mandela
These words invite us all to think about how we, as a society, treat children. Let us take this question a step further. What do we as a society do to support parents in this challenging task of raising their children? Our mentor, Ruth Beaglehole, who has been in the field of parent education for nearly 5 decades, persistently brought this into focus during our training with her here in Chennai. She encouraged us to explore this not only as parents or parent educators but also as a community and questioned how we held our space when we were around other parents and their children. What was our role? What words and actions of ours could bring calm and understanding to any parent and child around us?
She went on to elaborate actions that were really simple. Take the example of a parent, with a tired toddler, in the store. The child could be exhausted, or bored after the long shopping trip and starts to communicate his discomfort by whining or crying loudly. The parent is tired too and in the presence of other shoppers’ fears being judged. The toddler with all that noise is the centre of attention! Ruth pressed home the point with determination and asked us, “What is our role as the community present there towards that parent alone in the store with her irate toddler?” These were some answers that came up: give up our space in the queue so she can finish billing; see if the toddler responds to our smile or even smiling at the parent with understanding and making an empathetic statement, “ It’s been a long morning for both of you, hasn’t it?” We realized that how we behave in that moment can actually influence how the parent will go on to interact with her child. When she feels supported and understood she may be more patient and loving to the child than if the society around her is impatient to her child’s behavior.
This support and kinship from the community provides parents help them in turn to be compassionate towards their children. The interaction that follows between them is that of understanding. Traditionally, we are a society that is nurturing towards children and the group at our workshop began to recollect such incidents where the community has helped their family innumerable times. We all had incidents to share about times when the society has brought ease to the parent and child when outside the home in public spaces. People unknown to us, while travelling with little children have helped us board a train with our bags. They have understood when toddlers walked up and down the aisle (under the ever present eye of a vigilant parent) and wanted to engage with co passengers. They have kept the children engaged for a few minutes giving the parent some time to relax.
I remember a time when my children were toddlers and i visited an older relative. She took time to go and search for little play things that would keep my children engaged while I was at her place. This simple act brought me so much of an ease! It’s taking the same thought outside to people unknown to us. We explored how we could be the society that could be of help to the parents. Being aware of the children in our own neighborhood and letting parents know that we are willing to help them if they need anything. And in cases of families who live in our apartments, we also offer to drop by for a bit incase the mother feels like company, it can be lonely for a young parent. They might want to vent in which case we can lend them a ear and hear their challenges. In a restaurant if children come to talk to us at our table we can interact with the child without making it feel like it’s a disturbance.
Through this discussion we realized that when a society sees children as a joy and not a nuisance the parent becomes more relaxed. Helping parents of infants, toddlers and small children is crucial. Travel and social occasions are fun as well as tiring for little ones. When we model this behavior we will find our teenagers and young adults also finding joy and playing with and nurturing little children. Being compassionate and understanding as a community helps parents to be better parents! Yet we also observe that in todays hectic and stressful urban life we may be losing this sense of support and community. We are all in a hurry, we worry about encroaching another one's space and that it might be perceived as interference. As a result we may not help another person .
When parents sense an understanding support from the society, their immediate interaction with their child is soothing. How safe the growing child will feel in such a society and how these little actions from the community help the parent and child. Supporting the youngest members of the society is an important issue. How the community speaks, acts and holds its space with regards to what the child needs impacts the parent child relationship. On a deeper level this community support is a social justice issue. Each one of us, steps out of our home, and forms a part of a community. A community in the form of a neighborhood, fellow travelers, shoppers, patients at a doctor’s waiting room etc. Sometimes we might have been the parent where we received help from someone unknown while shopping, travelling, or in the park/road with our toddlers. Bringing this issue out and actively thinking about it, encourages each and everyone to hold their space consciously. And this is the gentle soul of the society that helps parents raise their children. This act needs to done, seen, and recognized often enough, which in turn will pass on to older children, teenagers and young adults. The more supportive the community the stronger this manner of interacting will be passed on and reveals the soul of a society strong enough to be the village that raises the child.
Author: Mrinalini Ponappa Banerjea is a certified Parent Educator with Parenting Matters, an organization that promotes parents to build deeper connection within families.