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     Volume 4 Issue 43 | April 22, 2005 |

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Food For Thought

Unhealthy Competition

Farah Ghuznavi

Parenting can be a tough job, and most modern parents spend considerable energy working out how to raise their children well. Often though, their efforts centre around the development of their child's skills or potential -- hence the bestselling CD/video series entitled "baby geniuses" (e.g. "Baby Mozart", aimed at ensuring that your child grows up to be a musical genius!) In fairness, I should add that one very down-to-earth friend of mine claims she plays her twins "Baby Mozart" to keep them occupied (allowing for the occasional conversation with her husband!), rather than because of any expectations of emerging genius. In her case, this may well be true. But I cannot help having a sneaking suspicion that a good number of parents take these things rather seriously. And it is hard then, not to be reminded of a Canadian friend, whose parents invested considerably in ballet, football, violin lessons, etc, but failed to produce any commensurate outputs, let alone producing prodigies!

In any case, children's development must be seen in the context of their wider environment: the messages they receive from parents and society about issues such as competition; the behaviour of their role models; and the influence of media, e.g., television, movies. All of these (to a greater or lesser extent) inform their development and shape their behaviour, and it's worth remembering that it's not only about achievement.

Children grow up increasingly quickly nowadays. It is natural for them to learn from emulating adults, and unsurprisingly, they often want to be more like grownups - not least because of their (correct) perception that adults have much more freedom. Of course, they can't be expected to realise that that freedom comes at a high price. And it is up to adults, who are all too aware of how much work it is being a grownup, to help them to enjoy (for as long as possible) the freedom of childhood!

Some children become more adult with the assistance of their indulgent parents, who think it's cute to listen to them making smart-ass comments ("paka kotha") and playing dress-up. While this may seem harmless (and up to a point, is harmless enough), it's surely worth remembering that this is the one time in their lives that they can and ideally, should, be free of adult expectations, especially around how they should sound, look, dress, etc. I am, therefore, a bit disturbed when a Bangladeshi friend of mine tells me that her three-year-old daughter regularly accompanies her to the beauty salon and has her nails done!

And this attitude goes well beyond a little nail polish. With high-street shops in the UK selling padded bras to pre-teenage girls, there is clearly a niche market that has been seized upon by the ever-alert manufacturers. Recently, the sale of bikini tops for girl babies was rightly banned on the grounds that it constituted the unacceptable sexualisation of children. But it does illustrate the point that this top could only have been chosen for a child by a parent (since one-year-olds do not choose their own clothes), and also raises the question of what kind of messages we are, perhaps unconsciously, sending out to children.

This is a particularly disturbing development, given that we live in a world where children face so much danger from predatory adults. For example, police raids recently resulted in 19 Spaniards (including teachers, computer engineers, cleaning staff, civil servants and military officers) being arrested on charges of child pornography. The fact that this occurred in Spain is incidental, since child abuse is a global phenomenon. Furthermore, while it's true that parents cannot protect their children from everything, there is nonetheless scope to do quite a lot, e.g., boycotting the "baby bikini". At a day-to-day level, particularly until their teens, parents remain the primary influence on most children's lives.

To give just one example, how parents approach the issue of their children's learning can be very important. Some wealthy parents are obsessive about child development, deluging their children from birth with "suitable" learning aids (e.g., Baby Mozart), in an endless search for stimulation. By contrast, others are so preoccupied with making ends meet, that they may be unable (or unwilling) to provide even the basic level of attention necessary to monitor their child's progress. As a result, some children are so spoilt (or neglected) that they are raised on a diet of fast food, videogames and mindless television-viewing, with predictable results. By contrast, other children (particularly middle-class children), are relentlessly driven into academic competition, with long study-hours and little leisure.

While neglect or spoiling are clearly bad recipes for child-raising, excessive preoccupation also has its drawbacks.

Overambitious or highly competitive parents can ultimately damage their children, not least through depriving them of the opportunity to learn for pleasure, or engage in pastimes such as music or sports for fun rather than achievement. To what absurd extremes this can go, is evidenced by the case that emerged some years ago in the US, where the mother of one cheerleader became involved in the murder of another girl, who was threatening to outshine her child in some cheerleading competition!

Nor is it only the area of academic and extracurricular activities where children are feeling the relentless pressure of competition. A recent study of young children in Australia has found that the majority of the girls aged six are unhappy with their "body image"! While only a small minority of the children were overweight or obese, and few of them appeared to realise what these terms actually signified, the majority remained unhappy with the shape of their bodies. It is also telling that when the children came into the school (at the age of five) most of them did not have any understanding of these concepts. So worries about this are clearly as a result of peer pressure, and ultimately based on messages received from the "adult world".

The majority of the children surveyed also now understood the concept of "dieting" i.e. the idea of eating less in order to lose weight. Rather disturbingly, further probing revealed that they associated thinness with "likeability", i.e., how thin they were would determine how popular they were. Since every child longs for acceptance, it is hardly surprising that this was an issue that concerned them! Clearly, priorities are being inculcated in children at a very early age, with potentially unhealthy consequences.

It is difficult, as an adult, and as someone who grew up in a much simpler era, to deny that the world that our children grow up in today is far more complex and fraught. While we cannot avoid all external influences, we can probably mitigate the negative effects of some, not least in terms of making children understand that we love them for who they are, rather than who we might want them to be i.e. successful, clever, charming. There are real dangers involved in parents pushing their children into unnecessary competition (particularly if children feel parental approval depends on achievement). What children need most from their parents is unconditional love (with a healthy dose of discipline). If that is sometimes hard to give, then perhaps we should just work at it harder…

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