NEW DELHI: Soaring ambition has within its grip a young victim — the lonely child. Double income nuclear , for all their progressive, self-assertive ways, are grappling with the predicament of leaving children at home, with sometimes, only a maid for supervision and company. With a steady erosion of the Great Indian Joint Family, children are now, more than ever, vulnerable to both physical and mental abuse.
An enraged Vikalp Verma, deputy manager with a city hospital, recounts how a maid from a placement agency had subjected his nine-month-old baby girl to physical torture. Both he and his wife Jolly (who works for an NGO) found it odd that their once cheerful child was clinging on to her mother at night and sleeping fitfully, wailing as they left for work and crawling towards them as fast as she possibly could, when they returned. They decided to install a web cam and soon discovered, that the maid, who was extremely polite in their presence, was hitting the child. "The 45-minute tape shook me up; she spanked my baby for crying out for a diaper change," says Vikalp, advising young parents to never depend on a maid totally.
Cruel domestic help is only part of the trouble. A child growing up outside the safety net of large families with grandparents and cousins, is subjected to unhealthy influences all the time. Like Lavanya Anirudh Verma, client services director at an discovered, when she and her husband were called to her seven-year-old daughter's school, because the child had used foul language in class. "I couldn't believe it," says Lavanya, "We never use foul language at home, so where was she picking it up from?" She later discovered that a group of older kids were using obscenities in the playground and decided to have a chat with her daughter instead of scolding her. "I told her that that it is a bad word, and some people do use it, but we don't." Both Lavanya and her husband believe that since kids nowadays are bombarded with spicy images on TV, and via the Internet, it's best to talk to them about the birds and bees, "good touch and bad touch" early. How early depends on when they start questioning, like their daughter did, when she saw an on-screen kiss. "I explained to her that only mummy and daddy can kiss you, everyone else has germs!" says Lavanya, voicing concern over how kids are also vulnerable to slobbery uncles within the family. A child, even at 3, should be able to say I don't like it when an uncle or older cousin touches him/her in a strange way.
Most working parents are hounded by the fear of child sexual abuse. Aruna Broota, a clinical psychologist and professor at Delhi University, recounts how one of her clients, a busy schoolteacher, left her six-year-old boy with the domestic staff — servant, driver, chowkidaar. "After the child's constant pleading, ‘Mummy, don't leave me', failed, he decided to take drastic measures and lock himself up in the bathroom. This compelled the family to investigate and they discovered, to their horror, that the child had been abused, time and again, by the male domestic staff."
"We need to be vigilant," warns professor Broota, citing web cams and closed-circuit TVs as a good way of monitoring what goes on in the house. However, she laments the passing of a time not too long ago, when there was enough people at home to ensure the safety of a child. "Neighbours too, were once friendly and reliable, but today, we don't even know who lives next door. And even if we do, we dont want them to interfere in our lives." She wonders where a child's park friends have disappeared, and believes that if children grow up with only Bahadur for company, they will become like Bahadur, with his mannerisms and crude language.
Working parents of teenage children have their own demons. Like Amal Sethi and wife Kishori, who head an ad agency, are constantly worried about their 16-year-old daughter. "As a parent, how does one keep control, without seeming like one is keeping control," he asks, emphasizing the teenage revulsion to interference of any sort. "How do I know that when she's off to the mall with a group of girls, she is actually with a group of girls!" he says. And while he believes he shares a strong bond with his daughter, he worries about her succumbing to peer pressure. "She talks about other girls in class who have boyfriends, and while I'm certain that she doesn't have one, how much can I continue to influence her decisions?" Grappling with the need to be open-minded while at the same time keeping a check on her, he regrets not spending enough time with his daughter.
Dr Amit Sen, psychiatrist, believes that working parents needn't be riddled with guilt, but should definitely be aware of the dangers of leaving a child alone at home. And while rape and murder are the most extreme forms of abuse kids are vulnerable to, neglect, criticism, and sexual overtures by "friendly" uncles are an equally real threat. He cautions working parents against sudden changes in a child's behavoiur, unexplained aggression or sudden sibling rivalry. For, a childish tantrum could very well be a cry for help.
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