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Tue21Oct2014

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Childrearing practices, culture and psychology

Could there be some minimal universal parameters for child rearing that could be considered with culture-specific ones in cases such as the one where two Indian children were taken from their parents by Norwegian child welfare, asks Rakesh Shukla

Norwegian Child Welfare Agency

Any attempt to look in a balanced manner at the issues involved in the saga of two Indian children, Aishwarya and Abhigyan, taken from their parents in May 2011 at the ages of one month and two years respectively, by the Norwegian Child Welfare Agency involves a lowering of the emotional temperature. The construct of ‘warm, perfect Indian’ versus ‘flawed, cold Norwegian’ (read: western) childrearing practices does not enable us to do justice to the serious concerns thrown up by the tussle between the parents and social services. Regardless of an amicable settlement in the present case, thanks to the intervention of the Indian government, several issues remain.

The reality of the warm, effusive Indian family culture coexists with the findings of a government survey backed by the UN Children’s Fund that over 50% of children face child sexual abuse in India. Alongside the pampering and notion that childhood is a golden era is the reality of the National Commission for Child Rights’ recent findings that over 99% of children are caned, slapped, hit on the back, and get their ears boxed at school. Varying childrearing practices probably evolved in tune with preparation for development in harmony, and the eventual integration of the growing individual with the mores and norms of diverse societies.

The colonial era is long past us, and formulations premising a culture as superior to another do not enjoy much acceptability except among a chauvinistic section of society. Every culture has traits that appear positive and others that appear idiosyncratic, if not harmful, when viewed from the ‘outside’. This is applicable to childrearing practices as well. There are certain universal aspects in the growth and development of a baby, such as ravenous hunger which is satisfied by feeding. And there are other aspects of childrearing that are culture-specific, such as whether babies should sleep in a separate cot or bedroom. Disciplines like modern psychology originated in western societies, and the insights were understandably affected by the practices of the specific culture in which they evolved. However the formulations, in a sense, got severed from their moorings and acquired a universal hue. Now, understandings regarding growth, mental health, pathology and functioning of the human psyche are increasingly taking on board diverse cultures and societies.  

Apparently, the fact of the Indian father sharing a bed with his two-year-old son was one of the factors in the Norwegian Child Welfare Agency’s (Barnevernet’s) decision to take the children away from their parents. From the Indian cultural viewpoint, it could be asserted that European or American children are sensually starved or under-stimulated as they sleep in a separate bedroom and are cuddled less. From a western perspective, children in India face an overdose of sensual stimulation and excitement. In fact, Erikson, pioneer of locating an individual in the specific cultural milieu of his/her community, speaking of America writes: “Consider our coloured countrymen. Their babies often receive sensual satisfactions of oral and sensory surplus adequate for a lifetime. It is preserved in the way in which they move, laugh, talk, sing.” The Indian practice of feeding children with the hand seems to have been viewed as ‘force-feeding’ and weighed with the Norwegian authorities in deciding the issue of custody for the children.

There is a lot of middle ground between the two ends of the spectrum -- minimal requirements like feeding which must happen for the baby to live and total absence of human touch which must not happen for the baby to not die or be severely stunted. Different societies have evolved different practices in the middle arena which they consider ‘necessary’ for healthy childrearing. These cultural practices are designed to shape and mould the growing baby to fit, with the least amount of friction, into the community’s specific habitat as well as norms of being in that particular society. 

A perspective that considers the minimal universal and the specific cultural would offer a more constructive way of approaching the issues involved in this controversy. News media describing the meeting arranged by the Norwegian agency between the children and their parents reported that the one-year-old Aishwarya did not recognise her mother. This could be seen by the parents as: “Look what the cruel Norwegian agency has done in taking away the child. Little Aishwarya does not even recognise her mother!” The agency could turn it around and view the non-recognition as evidence of ‘attachment problems’ between parent and child.

At four weeks, the age at which Aishwarya was taken away, a baby feels instinctive hunger and something is put in its mouth that brings satisfaction. At this stage of development, the baby does not reflect upon the source of the milk supply. It has no concept of a person outside of itself who satisfies its needs. It does not have a memory for faces and, in that sense, does not ‘recognise’ its mother; there is no visual memory yet. However, the baby receives an infinite number of impressions through physical contact, which lead to the association of ‘mother’ with ‘pleasure, satisfaction and protection’. It is only gradually that the satisfactions of nursing become associated with the human face. Initially, the baby smiles at any human face that evokes the memory of pleasure and satisfaction. Similarly, in the early months, the baby feeds regardless of the person who gives it the milk bottle. Later, even when hungry, the baby may turn away and howl at being fed by strangers. These responses of the growing infant indicate that positive identification and differentiation of the mother’s face take place at around eight months, and point to the reassurance and security provided by the familiar faces of the parents. This is applicable to all babies, including Aishwarya and Abhigyan.

Regardless of Barnevernet’s reasons for taking away the babies, the fact that they were placed with three different sets of foster parents in the course of 11 months is bound to have been unsettling and must have worked against a sense of security and protection in the children, leading to greater anxiety and distress.

In sharp contrast to the Indian authorities that have a penchant for disclosing the details of minors involved in legal cases, the Norwegian agency, citing confidentiality, has refused to say anything more than a vague mention of ‘emotional disturbance’ and/or some sort of ‘attachment issue’. In the absence of data, it is difficult to discuss the merits/demerits of Barnevernet’s decision to take the two children away from their parents.

The figure of 12,500 children having been taken away by the Child Welfare Agency in a small country like Norway is worrying, more so if it involves a disproportionate number of immigrant families. Understanding the trajectory of a baby’s development at various stages of its growth would help chart out a course of conduct in the best interests of children. And avoid getting caught in the trap of judging the ‘rights’ or ‘wrongs’ of childrearing practices across cultures.

(Rakesh Shukla is a Supreme Court lawyer, Member, International Council of Jurists, Affiliate, Indian Psychoanalytical Society, Member, Indian Association of Family Therapy, Psychotherapist, Centre for Psychoanalytical Studies, University of Delhi, Delhi)

Infochange News & Features, March 2012