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Lost Childhoods?

By Parthiv N. Parekh Email By Parthiv N. Parekh
May 2023
Lost Childhoods?

Few things can compare to the joy of biting into a juicy, sweet-and-sour star fruit on a hot summer day—especially when it is sprinkled with some salt and red chili powder. Do you know what makes this experience even more exciting? When the star fruit is part of a payload of a meticulously planned heist by a bunch of Tom Sawyer-type kids: stealthily plucked from the neighbor’s prized kamrakh (star fruit) tree.

At my childhood home in Mumbai, a favorite summer activity of the gang of kids in my building, joined by others from around the neighborhood, was to plan and execute those mid-afternoon heists to raid the kamrakh tree—how to dodge the watchman, how to get to the tree, and how to pluck the fruit across the nine-feet stone wall separating our building from the bungalow behind.

Judging this act of “thievery” from the perspective of an adult, especially an adult of our overly politically correct times, would have some of you wagging your fingers. But our motive was not to grab what did not belong to us (The senior couple that lived in the bungalow, I’m sure, would have gladly shared the bounty of their kamrakhs if we had just shown up at their front door). Rather, it was the thrill of the adventure that we were after.

Our childhood was spent playing marbles, hide-and-seek, cricket, and a plethora of games that had us spending hours outdoors. We would be roaming around in our neighborhoods, hours at end, while our parents would have no clue about our whereabouts. We would get into fights (often physical!) with friends, but soon after were found to be teaming up for our next adventure.

One slice of life from those times, the memories of which still put a smile on my face, forty-plus years later, had to do with the Ganesh Chaturthi festival. Pandals—the makeshift shrines of Lord Ganesh—would spring up overnight all over town. We kids loved making a day of visiting as many of these pandals as we could, collecting prasad (sanctified sweets), and being awed at the creativity behind the Ganesh idols, each different from the others. From tiny one-foot idols to towering 20 feet ones, the variety of the idols, the décor, the prasad, the activities, and the entertainment offered by the pandals were a magnetic draw for us. After walking miles visiting these pandals, we’d return home late in the evening physically exhausted but mentally satiated.

When I compare such glorious childhood experiences with today’s children who grow up largely indoors, without abundant interactions with their peers, and mostly stuck to their screens—for both work and “play”—I feel melancholic about the lives we have built for our children.

The trajectory of civilization has brought us to a place where societies and communities no longer offer our growing generation a setting and an environment that is conducive to skill development, interpersonal skills, exposure to the outdoors, independence, resilience, character building, and most importantly, the carefree joy that should be a hallmark of an ideal childhood.

Spurred on by technology on steroids, and an increasing emphasis on the individual versus the community, we have created bubbles for our children that are not only isolating them but also cutting them off from nature. At the same time, parenting attitudes, in an age of information overload, have increasingly shifted from the heart to the mind. Age-old wisdom is getting edged out by an intellect that is at the mercy of contradicting advice from a multitude of experts. Helicopter parenting, borne of confusion, is replacing an innate trust in time-tested, old-fashioned values.

The result is an epidemic of mental illnesses among adolescents. We are raising a generation that may be brilliant in left-brain activities but is often ill-equipped to negotiate through life. Insecurity, confusion, performative competition, and fragility often mark their existence.

I realize life can be endlessly multifarious and that the picture I am painting might well be just one slice of a notoriously incomprehensible reality. In many other ways, children are better off today than generations past. As an optimist, I believe life works in a mysterious way—in a trajectory that eventually tends towards increasing benevolence and goodness. The reason I say this is, despite the drawbacks I have highlighted above, I still see brilliant children and youngsters around me, and that gives me hope.

Parthiv N. Parekh is the Editor-in-Chief of Khabar magazine.

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