Empathy Amid COVID-19: Time To Teach Kids ‘We’ Is Not Just Us

·7-min read

Our family cook Bhagat Ram came to us in Punjab when my father was a child. It was many decades later, just after my marriage that he retired and left for his village in Himachal Pradesh. The in-between years were a lifetime, he never spoke much but the unspoken said it all, he had no children and we were his. He was family.

Since then much has changed, yet even a cursory glance of the last few days will tell you, in our society much has also remained the same.

That imaginary line- the them and us divide- has become so stark since our lockdown that heart- breaking visuals of stoicism in the midst of abject hopelessness are our nadir.

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The great Indian migration march of innocents pushed to the edge, their one fault they were born poor, is the only curve- learning or otherwise, that needs to rise. In these conflicting times, when as parents we need to decide how much is too much information, let your kids see for themselves how the face of another child- not much older than them- looks on a beaten track as he walks behind his jobless father and exhausted mother. Let them realise how Robert Frost has come alive from the pages of their literature books, that for so many it is literally miles to go before they sleep.

A child will understand more than anyone the human tendency to huddle down with family in the times of crisis, whether it is bad marks or bad news we all want the familiar. Countless students and other Indian nationals have been evacuated from countries, many children have made a beeline for their parents across cities and continents. Social distancing in the comfort of our sanitised drawing rooms, so many with mouths full and dripping sarcasm have questioned this ‘foolishness’ of fleeing for home. Those on the ‘other side’ are not educated enough to keep the fear out.

But the young ones are intelligent, they of all people will know the unfairness of expecting it otherwise. They have seen it in their own homes how panic and hoarding has gone hand in hand.

This pandemic has once again exposed the fabric of our society that resists inclusiveness. The thought that while it is imperative, we sit home but the migrant labourers should be barred from reaching theirs, is a call not just adolescents but even their parents need to reflect hard and deep on. This is on par with choices healthcare workers across the globe are making on who to save and who to let go.

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Never Underestimate The Curiosity Of A Child

In recent years, our children have been the first ones to go around promoting a green Diwali or standing up when trees have been destroyed. They listen. And, they will hear the poignancy of the man who broke down after eating his first meal in three days. They will feel the desperation of thousands jammed elbow to elbow trying to just get a foot in on a bus home. Which is perhaps why, there is no better time like today when they are all staring at online classes, to nudge our children towards real learning, outside. Let them decide for themselves if even one helpless, walking miles home is one too many.

Maybe during this virus, our children will go beyond hand washing tutorials and show their parents how the apple can sometimes fall far from the tree. They are our only hope.

Our kids who have been fed on fairy tales know that the mirror never lies. It is time to show them one- that the rich, the privileged, the entitled have put the lives of India’s unfortunate in jeopardy because they couldn’t stop their craving to socialise or travel, sometimes even both. Intelligent as they are, they will probably grasp it better than their elders that we may have dealt a body blow to people going quietly about their daily business of earning money to make the future bearable for their children. In the daily juggle of how much information to expose our children to, start with how life is not cheap, even if a few pretend that some are children of a lesser god.

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If Ever There Was A Time To Teach Our Children, That ‘We’ Is Not Just Us, This Is It

Insulating dear ones from reality because it is uncomfortable, is doing them injustice especially when misinformation flows so easily in the digital age. Instead, do them a favour because it is obvious, we will all come out of this a bit bruised mentally or physically. Even Goldilocks learnt the hard way.

Explaining to our children the difference between good and bad though may be less complicated than making them understand why our society has never been equitable, that disparity isn’t just between the beggar outside their car window and them.

Even though they have a vivid imagination, kids will not fathom why some labourers were splashed with a chemical substance after their travels while those at airports even managed to avoid quarantine.

In the snippets that you allow to slip in, let this be one. Show them pictures of the exodus being welcomed by police lathis, of foreheads being labelled and they will perhaps tell you themselves, that dignity has no class. More than that, let them judge how the silent acceptance of a majority is putting to shame the loud noises of those who think themselves literate.

Let them read about how some racist men stopped our countrymen from the North-East from buying basic food or how middle-aged ‘uncles’ continue to throw muck at young girls only because they look different, this when everyone’s life is equally hung in a balance. Our children need to understand, if we want to make it together on the other side, our faith is on them and theirs should be on empathy.

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And finally, teach them to not be scared of questioning anyone. Let them think why we have a humanitarian crisis, let them question if in our calculations, did we forget their didi and her family? Even before the virus, it was apparent that the one thing we need to teach our children is to stand up and speak, to have an opinion.

They should know, the onus of a billion rising does not lie at the door of a mud house. Let them ask why we need statues and superfast trains when we can’t promise so many health and education. Most importantly, let them wonder, why our society lacks compassion.

The biggest fallacy of our young ones is they think their world is ideal. At their age, romanticism is but fair. Now as we wonder how things will be once all this is over, one thing is obvious, empathy doesn’t begin and end with humans. Let our children pause their video games or Harry Potter books and glance outside, the blue of the sky will reflect on their face, the dance of nature will resonate in the chirping of the birds outside their window. Let them take a step back and wonder how we have destroyed our habitat. The evidence is before their eyes, all it took was two days for man to backdown. Teach our children to own their future.

And, also when this is over, maybe we all need a Bhagat Ram in our homes, and lives.

(Jyotsna Mohan writes extensively for most major publications in both India and Pakistan. She is a former senior news anchor and senior news editor with NDTV)

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