Seeking the Teachable Moment in this week of horrible news about the rapes of young girls in Kathua, Unnao and Surat may be the only way for any of us to crawl out of the funk of anguish and anger.
Your child or your student cannot have missed the headlines, the poster images or even the odd WhatsApp forward that pops up in your feed and surely has their own reactions and questions.
- What happened to that little girl?
- Why are you switching off the TV during the news? What do you not want me to see?
- What does rapist mean?
- Why did people want to hurt those children?
You may not know how to frame the answer or even have the answer to the last question. I know I don’t. However, our not knowing the answer may enable the most important Teachable Moment in our classrooms or homes.
Mostly simply, it models the possibility that even as an adult, you get to be unsure and open to learning. In an age where everyone feels great pressure to be (or sound) completely certain about everything, giving oneself permission to visibly not know is personally liberating and also, a great democratic practice. My not knowing is what allows me to reach out to you and learn from you. When we teach and help each other, we make a better world than when we live in silos, faking perfect confidence and living in absolute fear. We make a more peaceful world by allowing other people to see that we are learning.
A Teachable Moment is not just me teaching you; it’s also me taking the time to teach myself.
But let’s look at the news itself. How do you address all the questions it throws up?
The actual events
At one of the Chennai protest rallies, a speaker quoted a child’s description of what happened: “Someone did bad touch to the girl and she died.”
If your child or student is really small, but wants to know why that girl’s photo is on the news, it may be a good time to start talking about good and bad touch, if you haven’t already. It does not need to be so dire as to link child sexual abuse to death; we want alert children who know they can share but we don’t want children to be frightened of the world. There are many places where you can learn how to have this conversation.
Here is the Tulir resource page, but most resources including their A Parent’s Practical Response to Child Sexual Abuse are not available online. Look instead at the downloads page, and check out Tickles and Hugs, which is an audiobook with a read-along pdf.
The Hindu published a short how-to on talking to your children about sexual abuse.
There are also many short films online:
Safety Lessons on Child Sexual Abuse, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uJCWysVuxcs
If you have already spoken about this, you can just use the child’s explanation quoted above. But if your child asks why someone hurt a child, then what do you say? Turn the question back.
Why do you think anyone hurts other people? People strike out because they are angry, insecure or hurt.
But you don’t want the conversation to stop there. You want to explore together a more important question: Is this the best way to deal with bad feelings? If you don’t like the colour of a table, must you break the table? If you don’t like a person, must you hurt a person?
If your child is a little older, perhaps you can also talk about the fact that in Kathua, this was about keeping nomads from the village and that the nomads were also followers of another religion. This offers us a chance to discuss acceptance of diversity. What do we gain when we live with people who are different from us? If we do gain then why do people fear those who are different? How can we get over that fear? What can you and I and our children do?
In addition, this conversation opens up an opportunity to learn about nomadic lifestyles, their cultures and histories. Learning about people who are different from us is an important peace promoting activity. Likewise, it could start an exploration of different faiths—the values that unite humanity and the practices or politics that divide us.
With older children, discussing the actual news is also a point of departure for exploring our biases and prejudices, not just about cultural and religious diversity but everything else. This could become an ongoing game, for instance, linking a noun to the adjective opposite to a common bias about that person/place/ culture: a muscular girl, where the expectation is that girls will be delicate and frail.
Of course, it’s a great time to talk about patriarchy and the use of violence to control the actions of others. If you are a school administrator, this may be a good time to get someone to come in and do a session on the spectrum of violence.
What is patriarchy? London Feminist Network.
Suzanne Moore, What connects rape in war, domestic violence and sexual harassment? The Guardian, October 18, 2017.
At the high school level and beyond, any discussion of the actual incident would be an invaluable opportunity to discuss its politics. Given the partisan support for the alleged rapists, the Kathua and Unnao incidents facilitate a discussion of the government’s role in protecting citizens. What is the role of government? How much is government responsible and what is beyond the government’s capacity? When the government sides with the wrong-doers or does not take action, we also need to discuss what our options are as citizens: whether to resist, what to resist and how to resist.
It is also a time to revisit our shared values as a society. It was possible for MLAs to protest in defence of the alleged rapists and that shocked most of us. What are the values that we think we should all protect in India? What is within our freedom of speech and is there anything that is too bad to be defended in that way? This opens the door to revisit the Indian constitution’s chapter on Fundamental Rights.
This could also segue to a conversation about global covenants and norms, such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Convention on the Rights of the Child. You will find lovely little films online about both of these and child-friendly posters like this one.
Communal hatred tinges the violence in Kathua and Unnao. For teenagers and college students, the Teachable Moment is incomplete without opening up a discussion on communal conflict, its history in the subcontinent, our constitutional safeguards against it, the role of the government and most important, the role of citizens, in guarding against it. It is also a chance to talk about majoritarian politics and social and political hierarchies.
What is meant by communal politics? A CBSE guide.
Pramit Bhattacharya, The alchemy of Hindu-Muslim riots in India, LiveMint, December 5, 2014.
PTI, A chronology of communal violence in India, Hindustan Times, November 9, 2011.
Around India, there have been protests in the last one week, demanding justice for Asifa and the victim in Unnao. Your students may have been to the protest or your children may have seen television reports. You may hear them talking about it. Perhaps they are repeating something they heard, such as, how the stupid protesters are causing traffic jams.
This is your opportunity to start several conversations.
With really small children, it could be about why people protest. What do you do when something happens that you don’t like? How do you express your feelings? You start with the personal and take it up to the political. With slightly older children, even toddlers, you could talk about rights. The right to dissent and express yourself is important; but for children and adults of all ages, it is important to underscore how we protest. Are we clear about what we oppose?
As I grow older, I think more and more about the standards Gandhi set for satyagrahis. This would be a good time to tell small children about his various satyagrahas. You cannot start rights education early enough, and you cannot start early enough to teach non-violence, I think.
Mohandas K. Gandhi, Qualifications and Training of a Satyagrahi, Harijan, 1940.
With older children, the protests everywhere could be linked also to lessons on citizenship. What are our rights, how can we claim them and what are our civic duties? To hold leaders accountable is one of them. Too often, in our haste to get civics lessons out of the way, we resort to simplistic and wrong formulations like the purpose of government is to control and discipline people into following rules and citizens are supposed to obey the government. Delivered and abandoned as crudely as that, they offer young citizens no chance to fully reflect on the nature of government.
What is government supposed to do? What are my rights? How do I hold government accountable? And what do I owe my fellow-citizens? The protests everywhere could be starting this conversation as well in your home or classroom.
There has been a great deal of discussion about fake news and news manipulation, and when we are overwhelmed, we blame the media, including news channels for all our ills.
But what if we take this unfolding story and make it an opportunity to watch the news critically?
Within a classroom, we could each adopt a different news channel or newspaper, and then report back what news is covered. We could share striking headlines or graphics and discuss what they say to us about the news. Did we actually learn something new about the incidents or protests? Did we just learn what different people thought? Do all the headlines have one slant? With any unfolding story, we could begin to think critically about ‘news’ with a view to sifting news from opinion and reliable news from fake news.
Within a family, we may sit down to watch news together on a different channel each night, not just discussing what is reported but also what strikes us about how it is being reported. We don’t need to be media scholars to be thinking viewers.
What is media literacy? The Media Literacy Project
With older, college-age students, it may be possible for them to start a research project around the news, and to create their own informational resources—an infographic or a presentation with context.
The communications media—news and entertainment—are an important pillar of democracy but also an easily manipulated one that slides comfortably into a lowest common denominator level of performance. Our children, born into this Information Age, are instinctive consumers of content but not necessarily critical ones. That is up to us to foster. Can we get them to ask questions about what they read or view, to ask who is paying for it, to ask about underlying agendas and to wonder about how to sift something like truth from an ocean of alternative facts?
A history of activism
One of the hardest things for a young person to understand may be how there are horrible things happening and no one is stopping them. Adults are struggling with this too. However, in this Teachable Moment, we can also be remembering and narrating that through human history, we’ve tried to make things better and we have succeeded from time to time.
This could be a wonderful time to read together about different kinds of rights activism, to discover heroes from everywhere and to learn about the successes we have had. Children need to know that the world can be changed for the better, because let’s face it: they have a lot of that work ahead of them. We have to give them role models and success stories and hope.
One wonderful exercise to do together is to just look in the immediate environment—in the family and even within the school—to identify those who have helped others or done something that benefits others. This may be a parent who decides to have the school yard landscaped and flowering bushes planted. It may be an older student who comes early to school to help others with homework. It may be a local company that sponsors a swing set.
What can I do?
After all the discussion, comes the time for action. What can I do? I am—whether I am five or fifty-five—a citizen, and I can make a difference in my world.
In these desperate times, finding a way to be useful (like writing this post in my case) can help us crawl out of despair. The world is a horrible place; the perpetrators are barely human; the state is corrupt and vicious; no one cares what I think; nothing has made a difference and nothing will. If this is where we leave things, we will not be able to function and our children will only inherit our negativity and apathy.
We need to leave them with a sense of optimism and a faith in infinite possibilities.
The best way to do that is to pick a small feasible activity and do it.
It may be something personal and immediate: to notice and call each other out on gender stereotyping, for instance. It may be a sustained family commitment: to support a domestic violence shelter by donating rice every month, for example. As a classroom, you decide to create a newspaper that reports on the good things that people are doing in your city. Or, perhaps the children in your school can promise to make their parents vote in the upcoming election—doesn’t matter for whom they vote, but vote they must.
Bad things happen in the world, very bad things. But it is in our hands what we do with those moments. As parents and teachers, we need to look behind the dark and the bleak to excavate the Teachable Moment that will enable us, as a family or a classroom, to crawl out of shock, anguish, fear and despair and move purposefully towards action, hope and peace.