It was a November afternoon in 2012. I got onto the narrow gurney and parted my legs in practiced nonchalance. The technician stuck the probe in with equal but real nonchalance and pointed to the black screen - “Look, that’s the heart beating.” I had not realized till then that I had been holding my breath ever since I had gotten on the gurney. I exhaled a tiny tear drop. There it was, my years of pain and prayer and hope. But no matter. She was come to me now. She was beating her tune inside me now. A wave of gratitude welled up and I gushed silently - “Thank you for coming to me, little one!”. And then I did something that every mother has done before me through all time. I made a fierce promise to that little being. “I will do everything I can to protect you, everything I can; so that you can be everything that you can be, the highest expression of humanity, the apogee of human evolution in thought and spirit - especially in spirit.”
Through eight months of pregnancy (this fellow was in a hurry), I watched everything that went into my body - and my mind. I listened to the most beautiful music I knew, the most soul-stirring kathakalakshepams (evocative expositions of scriptural tales). And I started getting my world ready. You know when you buy something and then you start noticing the same thing everywhere? There probably are the same number of people wearing ankle-length tights today as yesterday but you “see” them because you are primed for it. I was primed for baby - and everything I saw, I saw in her light. And what I “saw” disturbed me deeply. Everywhere, there was crudeness. Loud serials on TV, sleazy ads, Tom (in Tom & Jerry) chasing hot female cat, roadside Romeo chasing similar species, while beating up the villain.
Oh we've developed so much. There’s so much technology now - Wi-Fi, the ubiquitous smart screens. Yes, everything’s changed from when we were kids. And nothing’s changed. Fairness creams are still deriding dark women except now fair skin gets jobs instead of marriage alliances, women are still washing clothes whiter except Lalithaji now has a laptop and wears jeans, mainstream films still run on the formula of (Hunky hero + sexy heroine + evil villain) * (6 songs + 5 fights + 1 Item number) except they shoot digital now, aati kya khandala is now sheila ki jawaani. The websites have pornography and dark net, even the ISIS wants viewers on its videos, social media can literally kill, TV is a time-sink and zombie machine, screens are not just radiation zaps and ovens for eyes but as addictive as heroin. And if practice makes perfect, why are little boys practicing killing and burying skimpily-dressed female targets in their video games?
A being of light was arriving and I was readying my world for her. But my world was far from perfect. In fact, it was downright adversarial in many ways, ready to sabotage her budding wings.
Robin Williams quotes Thoreau in Dead Poets Society, “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately…” Well, we don't have the luxury of going to the woods, unless it’s the urban jungle. But we do need to live deliberately, a considered life, a good life, a meaningful life, an essential life. We need to do our bit in raising up the collective evolution of humanity. But against this upward movement, there’s a counter pull downward - the yang to the yin perhaps but a debilitating counter-evolution of the basest, meanest, vilest possibilities of being human - the impact of unfiltered media on a growing mind. And more than any other type of parenting - more than the need to make a better learner, or a successful champ, or a better eater, or a more obedient child - I felt a deep need to protect my child from this hydra-headed creature called media. And this new deliberate parenting - to filter content, to control screen exposure, to understand content cues, to read the subtext, to remain watchful of media use - I called MediaParenting. It isn't a new idea and thankfully, countless parents practice it already, but perhaps naming gives us strength of purpose.
Of course technology or media isn't bad in itself. That’s a non-sequitur. It is unarguably a powerful energy. Like electricity. So, would I allow my child to play unattended with a live socket? It’s a pity we only recognize physical injury. But the injury unseen cuts the hardest and takes the longest to heal.
MediaParenting hinges on three ideas:
1. The Idea Of The Child/ Sacredness Of Childhood
A child is not a miniature adult. Not for nothing does our culture describe children in various growth terms - moulding clay, bending a growing plant and so on. A child is a being of light on a journey of discovery. And childhood is a state of being - pristine, joyous, wonderful. Of course, a child needs to know “reality” but not by any orchestrated “exposure” to reality. She needs to explore the world on her own terms, at her own pace. The transition from childhood to adolescence to adulthood is one of the most delicate, complex - and sometimes life-long - processes. There are enough books on child development and psychology to fill libraries but the essence is that childhood is precious. When childhood is fractured, adulthood cannot be achieved. You can’t raise a building on a shaky foundation. Most remain as fractured children in grown people’s bodies, barely able to cope, who take a lifetime to understand why they feel incomplete, seeking to fill themselves up with the world but never quite filling the void within.
2. The Idea Of The Message/ Power Of Repetition
It takes 10,000 hours to master something. By that definition, by the time our children leave school, they would have mastered the lessons on misogyny, patriarchy, discrimination and mindless violence delivered through the cliches of seductive heroines, heinous crimes, crass humor, stereotyped outliers, black & white values and alpha male heroes. Because an average child sits more hours in front of the TV than she does in school. Add to that other screen exposure - smartphones, computers. The pipes may be different but they all serve the same rubbish. There is a reason this is called programming. Media content literally hardwires a child to be a certain kind of person, to value a certain kind of life. Perhaps there’s nothing wrong with that kind of person and that kind of life - but it is not of your choosing or your child’s choosing. This is the mind-control that Floyd was warning us about all those years ago. It’s the system, silly!
3. The Idea Of Parenting/ Goal Of A Parent
So what’s the job definition of parenting? This is a tough one and parents have it really hard. They can’t win no matter what. They might as well resign themselves to the fact that no matter what they do, an 18 year old will point his finger at them and blame his life’s misery on them. But nevertheless, every parent I know would readily sacrifice their lives in the blink of an eye for their children. In fact, they actually do - they bear obnoxious bosses, mad maids, cramped urban spaces and the dull daily rhythm of making a living - just so their children can get a better life. But what is this better life? It is usually defined in terms of better education, better jobs and a better lifestyle in a better country perhaps. However, this is focussing on the output. If the children are steeped in a morass of unfettered media, we can be sure that they will be just as miserable and as prone to suffer from sexism and peer pressure to be alpha male as this generation and perhaps even worse - except may be in bigger cars and fancier clothes. So as Gibran said, "Your children are not your children. They are the sons and daughters of Life's longing for itself." Then the goal can only be to create a safe and healthy ecosystem in which a little life can thrive and flourish without fear, grow up confidently and be all he can be. This is the focus on the input.
So how do we practice MediaParenting? It is not just controlling screen time, though that’s a good start! It is not just curating TV shows, though that’s a great start too. It is an awareness of the physical, mental, emotional and social impact running through all media exposure of the child. That’s what we strive to learn and explore and share with you, our community at ChildSafeMedia.
Yes, MediaParenting is an uphill task. It is a deliberate process, definitely tougher than parenting by default. But it is not another buzzword. It is not another stick to beat parents with. It is not anti-media or anti-technology propaganda. It is just a gentle reminder. That just like I did, not so long ago, you saw a little heart beating on a black screen, and made a promise.