Parenting in the Age of Anxiety

An exploration of the new challenges children face in their school years and how parents and educators can help them grow up to be grounded adults

Parenting in the Age of Anxiety

Abha Adams

There was a time when the years between five and twelve were the halcyon days of cheerful learning, family time, and minimal conflict. Children loved going to school, enjoyed their lessons, came home brimming with stories of what they did and as a parent you basked in their happiness and warm energy. But a few years into junior school, and all this appears to shift before your very eyes. Behaviours that we would expect from teenagers are now evident in grades four and five, and in the early years of middle school, when the children are eleven- and twelve-year-olds, we now have a full-blown adolescence that parents need to survive.

There is a new term for pre-teens now— ‘tweens’. It’s that time between eight and twelve years when they are not quite teenagers but behave like them. The phenomenon of ‘advancing adolescence’ is a global one. So if you are the parent of a ‘tweenager’, chances are that you are suffering a range of emotions that include frustration, despair, anger, and hopelessness. The sweet little child you knew and loved has been replaced by a moody, secretive, monosyllabic recluse who has declared their bedroom to be off-limits to you and all non-tweenaged humanity. I knew my son was still in the house because I could hear music from behind the door that he almost always kept locked. He would shuffle into the dining room only to eat, grunt, and ‘aw mum’ me, but almost immediately return to the privacy of his secret place.

And it is a secret. Ask what tweens are doing in their room and they will tell you that they are doing their homework or some other activity that sounds constructive. When you point out that the amount of homework produced does not tally with the number of hours they have spent locked away, they tell you they were ‘chilling’ or ‘whatever’—words which can mean anything, everything, and nothing

So why is it happening earlier? Growing up has accelerated, and we have the phenomenon of Advancing Adolescence or Compression, as it is referred to in the US. In 2009, Mintel, a marketing team coined the term KGOY and KGOYF. 1 The full form is Kids Growing Older Younger and Kids Growing Older Younger, Faster. So what does that mean?

Pooja Jain has had several years’ experience as the head of a junior school, and has observed this acceleration. ‘What my nieces did at eighteen, my daughter is doing at fifteen. I can see it with every successive class. It’s due to the exposure to the world, and unfortunately children are in such a hurry to grow up. Information and resources are so easily available that they are bringing about this change in themselves. And it’s manifesting itself physically. Girls are reaching puberty as young as eight, nine, or ten. In schools we have had to shift our education on what is happening to their bodies much sooner, to younger classes.’

A survey conducted by the Federation of Obstetrics and Gynaecologists Society of India, FOGSI, found that the age at which girls hit puberty in urban India had dropped. It was found that 80 per cent of girls in cities are reaching puberty around age eleven— two years earlier than in the past. Today, one out of three female children experience early maturity. Growing up earlier than scheduled has become a matter of concern for parents and paediatricians. In discussions with parents and teachers it was evident that in many cases girls get their first period as young as eight or nine years of age. This raises many questions on what parents and schools can do to prepare girls for this major change in their lives.

It started with two kids running around in school, looking for pads, not being able to find them—and in their frustration they came up with the idea of a ‘period box’

There are schools that are approaching this with sensitivity and care and getting it right. Rajani Khanduja, a counsellor at St. Mary’s, shared that ‘Sessions on menstruation and hygiene are done intensively with the girls, and we start with class four’. On why it is done separately for boys and girls, Rajani adds, ‘We start with the girls separately first because it’s sudden and intense and we don’t know how they are going to respond. There is no silence around it. Class nine presented an assembly on demystifying menstruation and the whole pad thing.’

Janani, a teacher and counsellor at the Shri Ram School in Gurgaon, recounts her experience of breaking the silence around periods and extending that understanding to parents. ‘It started with two kids running around in school, looking for pads, not being able to find them—and in their frustration they came up with the idea of a “period box”. They decided to have a circle time on it, and asked questions—why are there no pads accessible in the classroom? Why do we have to go to the nurse and ask for a pad which is then given to us wrapped in newspaper, or worse, a black plastic bag? One of the kids said, “It’s shameful if we have to feel shameful about this, after all the growing-up workshops we have had.”’

Janani recounts how the girls first had a circle time to ensure that they were all on the same page with their strategy and then brought in the boys of their class for a discussion. They swiftly organized a period box which had pads, panty liners, medication for cramps etc. There was the inevitable opening of pads, the cracking of jokes as the boys tried to get comfortable with the concept. The boys felt the box should be in the teacher’s cupboard but the girls refused. They insisted it should be placed in full sight for all to see. In their words—“We aren’t going to hide it. We will open it, we will take the pad, and none of us is going to feel embarrassed about the fact that we’re bleeding”. Once the first set of pads got over, it was the boys who volunteered to get the next set! How about that as an example of student agency!’

It didn’t stop there. The boys wrote a note to the parents and informed them about their participation in the period box. There was no dissenting voice from the parents. At a class assembly (incidentally for class eight), the principal addressed the entire staff, and the students told their teachers why they thought this was important to them and the girls told the sports teachers sitting there—“Sir, the next time I come with my diary, I will not say I am not well, I will just tell you I have my periods. You’ve got to deal with it if you’re uncomfortable, I’m not.”

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