Parsley and Thyme

Archive for November 2012

I think wherefrom I am

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It all begins with practicality, necessity even.

Mom I want a Barbie doll, the little one pleads as we linger at the toys section of the two-storeyed bookstore. A long-time hater of all things Barbie, I react almost instantly.

No, you can’t have a Barbie!

Why mom? He persists.

Taking a moment to assess his ability to comprehend point-blank logic, I decide to give him the quickest answer. One that I desperately hope will nip the whys I see sprouting all around this stubborn four-year old gene of mine.

You are a boy, that’s why!

Crrrr-ack! A big chunk of ice breaks off from my glacier-like resolve to never create stereotypes in his tender brain, and falls into the melted pool of quick-fixes below. The impact of that statement is as evident on me as it is on him. The little one is silenced for now, but my own torture has just begun. The first emotion I feel is guilt for having used such a pathetic short-cut to curtail his demand. But I convince myself – he’s little, he will forget. Besides, however cautious I may be, somebody else will surely introduce him to gender based stereotypes anyway? Momentarily clobbered, my guilt sullenly retreats to a familiar corner and proceeds to sharpen its claws for an opportunity in the future.

And it arrives soon enough. At playtime a few days later, a little girl, my son’s playmate from the neighbourhood, asks for a spanner from his toy tool-set and a question is immediately fired at me.

Mom, I cannot give her the spanner, no?

Why not? I ask.

Girls cannot play with spanners! He giggles and cups his mouth with soft, pint-sized palms.

Now my son has the ability (as I suspect most children do) of delivering knockout punches at the least expected moments. So while I have no clue how the gender associations took off from where I left them at the bookstore earlier that week, I wonder how a careless statement I made – and promptly forgot all about – has become a tool he will use to make sense of the world around him.

The girl looks at me inquiringly. Their play is paused and the silence is almost intimidating. Suddenly, in my head, their make-believe city morphs into a courtroom. My little one, the accused, is smirking at me from within a plastic dock – building blocks in bright yellow, red and green. The timid-looking girl, uncharacteristically so, has become the prosecutor and I, the judge, with a questionable bias toward the accused, hold the crucial verdict on my tongue. Thankfully for her, I am incorruptible.

What nonsense, girls can play with tools too! I declare.

While it seemed a minute ago that the future of their friendship depended on my statement, the children now sport none of my own seriousness once they have heard me. My son gives a momentary acknowledgement with an emphatic ‘no-oo-ooo’ and resumes playing. Perhaps he is confused that I didn’t stand by my statement at the bookstore, I will never know. The girl is silent, almost nonchalant, and for her sake I desperately hope she has taken my word over his.

I am struck by how my son’s personality is quickly being built upon imperceptible layers of influences from the world he interacts with. Looking at this little incident, I wonder how far into our own childhood can some of our likes, dislikes and deep-seated opinions be traced to.

If “personality”, in essence, is nothing more than a bundle of accumulated influences and learned behaviour, imagine the interesting situations that could arise if we were to eliminate the human ability to be influenced, altogether. Imagine a world where your personality would be immune to the thoughts and influences of others and instead be based on your direct experiences alone. Would it result in more open-minded individuals? Or would it lead to chaos?

As a hypothesis, in this case, since my son wouldn’t have built upon the concept of gender-based toys that I unwittingly introduced earlier, he might have shared the toy spanner with his friend. Which is great. But consider the other possibility. Stripped of the ability to “learn” from experiences that are not directly his own, he might not be able recognize the danger from fire, sharp objects etc. when he is warned, as an example. Or he might not consider my screams of disapproval when I catch him bending over the railings of our third floor stairway, for another. Basic safety issues that give me goose flesh every time I think of them.

On a less serious note, take the language learning process in children – when a child goes “A for apple, B for bat” as early as two years, he doesn’t “understand” why he is being made to do it, or that it is a process involved in building vocabulary. A child learns the basics of language simply by an unquestioning faith and an adherence to the learning process. In the same way he absorbs the basic ideas of society – possession (“That’s not yours, ask for permission!”), role-play (father, mother, teacher etc.) and issues relating to space and gender. Imagine a world where, owing to a loss of being able to extend and apply ideas around us into our own lives, critical cognitive abilities such as perception, reasoning and judgement would become so minimal that they might as well vanish.

But this isn’t to say that we do not possess a certain amount – however miniscule – of our own innate reasoning even when we were less than five years of age. Called the ‘formative’ years, many of the influences we were subjected to in our early childhood were weighed, readjusted or rejected based on our own experiences. For instance, how many of us believed as children that a visit to the doctor would turn out to be pleasant? And don’t we remember being repeatedly convinced by our parents that it would? But no one could convince us that visiting a doctor was essential or pleasurable. Cut across to adult life. If you have ever been wheeled into an operation theatre for surgery, you know you have taught yourself to believe that a roomful of masked strangers with sharp objects is your ticket to get healthy and whole again. Does it not seem ridiculous? So what happened to us along the way? And how the hell did those of us who screamed and kicked as children while being carted to a doctor end up meekly submitting and in some cases even taking the role of our own parents in offering false consolation? So it seems that in some situations such as this one, it is easier to influence adults than children.

Then there are those subtle influences that have held on to us like lifetime hypnotic spells. What is your first thought when you see a fox on TV? How does it change if, for example, you see a goat? If you answered cunning and innocent respectively, blame it on the bedtime stories we were exposed to as children. The fox perennially clever, the goat perennially gullible. Encounters between the two always crafted to ensure that the goat ended up nursing a raw deal. And to subtly aid the cementing of such perception within our brains, phrases like ‘sly old fox’, ‘foxy scheme’, ‘poor goat’, ‘stubborn mule’ etc. are abundant in colloquial language.

Okay being a child is not so gloriously easy afterall. But what about us adults? Don’t we have to struggle with those million opinions creating little pockets of judgement in vacuum every second? And thanks to social networks, as the ease of accessing them grows, the population of capricious individuals too varies in direct proportion. I have had the displeasure of conversing with many more people now than I did five years ago whose opinions on everything from nuclear power plants to parenting – heck even the bath soap they use – are gleaned off social networking sites swarming with self-anointed subject-does-not-matter experts. So while cow-urine therapy starts off as an undiscovered panacea for all afflictions on a Monday morning, by afternoon same day we have a thousand recommendations (courtesy Facebook, Twitter) from friends and foes advocating its greatness. By the end of the week, a bottle of the same on my mother’s medicine shelf is a possibility not to be discarded thanks to an overzealous internet-addict relative or friend. Excluding me, that is.

So is it fair to use quantifiers such as ‘too much’, ‘too little’ or ‘just right’ when it comes to being influenced by external entities? Is it fair to say, for example, “Oh lady so-and-so absolutely lacks originality, all she says or does is borrowed from her Page3 community” or “I respect Mr.X so much for his independent thinking!”? Then if it is impossible to lead a life without imbibing external influences, the consequent battle against settling into a monochromatic world is one that needs to be fought continually. How? Examine minutely your greatest likes, greatest dislikes, deep fears, idiosyncrasies and you will be surprised to see how many of them were not even ‘yours’ when you first sheltered them. Relinquish a few that threaten to make your view of the world that much myopic and feel the freedom I felt when I added a Barbie doll into my shopping list for that week.

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Written by Kanchana

November 26, 2012 at 8:07 am

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