Aparna Viswanathan


Social Emotional Skills: It is common to hear spouses say that they give freedom to their partners; parents say I give my child more freedom than needed. Where and how does this thought of owning another person’s freedom begin?

Soon as a child is born, the parents start building castles in the air about their future that revolves and depends heavily on the child. Even before the child can start thinking for him/herself, expectations and dreams are set by the parents and the family. The parochial attitude to mould the child according to the whims and fancies of the parent starts way too early and the identity of the child is the least of their worries. The free will and independence to form ideas and question existing patterns get restricted are the cornerstones in the development of a child’s social emotional skills. A child becomes a mere tool in satisfying parental dreams.

How do we break this pattern of handing over the same baton to complete the same relay? How do we kill the idea of owning another person’s freedom and identity from our deep-rooted belief system?

Let me give you an example. One of my uncles wanted his son to become an engineer as the uncle had aspired to but could not fulfill due to financial and other issues. When his son was born, he made a promise to ‘make’ his son an engineer and fulfill his dream through his son, come what may.

Now ‘making’ your son an engineer and ‘supporting’ a child’s wish (whatever that may be) are extremes of the same paradigm. Since the father had been dreaming of making the son an engineer, every small thing that he conjured up in the child’s growing up years had an invisible thread to the larger unspoken mission. The boy was artistic and wanted to pursue fine arts. Whenever he found time, he would run to his canvas and his clay moulds. His life came alive through his clay models and canvases. The father chose not to appreciate or encourage his talent, lest the parental dream came crashing. Since the boy was never given the space to express himself, the pent-up feelings and emotions started breaking his inner peace. Each time he tried to explain his lack of interest in physics and metaphysics, promptly came the draconian command to obey the elders. The son became mentally and emotionally detached from his parents and socially withdrawn. By the time, anyone could intervene and make the parents understand, he was already admitted to an engineering college. The first year into college, the son had a mental breakdown. By the time the parents realized their mistake the child had slipped into depression unable to express himself or be true to himself.

“There are no bad students, only bad teachers” it is said. In the same breadth let us also understand there are no bad children, there are only misinformed parents. The socially accepted gender definitions and gender-defined responsibilities also push parents to dictate do’s and don’ts to their children.  What leads to such incidents and how can we avoid them? The first step is to make the future generation aware of their rights, to make them independent at a young age, and to respect their choices and thoughts. From letting a toddler choose the dress he wants to wear, to not forcing religious practices, space and path to form character and identity for a child are aplenty. Introduce them to as many nuances and facets of life as possible. Discuss at length conflicting ideas, concerns, issues, and beliefs. Encourage them to read, research, interpret, introspect a matter in depth. Inspire them to form opinions and ideas. Handhold them when they tread an unhealthy path. Support, hold and help them back on their feet when they trip and fall. Let them bloom through their ideas, have their falls, and learn from mistakes. Hug them when they least expect it. Tell them you are with them on their journey. This way, you give them chance to evolve beautifully, and in all hue and color. They will learn to be independent and not be trapped in the shadows of their parents’ wishes or dreams. Unfortunately, economics trumps social emotional skills development in most Indian households’ decision making.

As much as parental care is important and inevitable, the child must be encouraged to think and learn independently. The first step towards building a socially and emotionally stable household starts here. As a first, parents should begin to accept a child as another ‘individual’ and not an extension of them. The thought of giving freedom would organically translate to encouraging them to explore and expand thus. As a parent take these first steps in nurturing your child’s social emotional skills!

Why it took a pandemic to accept the need to better our socio-emotional skills?

Just like that, the pandemic befell us. It was neither planned, nor foreseen. Seven months into the pandemic, we are still grappling to come to terms with the changes around us. We are forced to live the new normal. How have we been able to cope with it mentally and emotionally? Why are experts now discussing the need for better socio-emotional skills during our childhood?  Why did it take a pandemic for us to accept the same? While the World Health Organization has warned of declining mental health to be the next possible pandemic to envelope the world, it is time we woke up to the need to strengthen ourselves mentally and emotionally.

Where and how do we begin? Brought up as an equal and raised in a household of independent women, I hardly experienced gender inequality or understood ‘what it means to be a girl’ in this patriarchal world until I joined a women’s college. The subtle reminders of one’s gender hit me every day – from wearing our uniform dupatta pleated and properly rested on our chests, to not being allowed to stand on the veranda for too long as our eyes may accidentally cross paths with the boys at the college nearby. Honestly, I didn’t know how to fight and where to begin. Though I did have the position of chairperson of the student body then, I should admit I could make little difference to equate genders or call out wherever it was required.

The thought of working towards an equal world started thus, though it took me close to a decade since then to commence the actual work towards a larger change. An incident that touched me at every sensory level pushed me to research and start work soon. It was in 2010 when my son who was just five years old had an unwelcome brush with a gender stereotype, which raised many questions in me and led to the launch of a socio-emotional learning program in schools and colleges. Phrases and expressions like, ‘cry like a girl’, ‘how can boys cry’, and ‘let her stay indoors as that’s the safest option’ are part of our daily lives. Normally we laugh it off or play our part in endorsing the same. Very rarely do we think of the scar that is left on the child or how one sees gender and the privileges that not everyone has.

First step in building socio-emotional skills framework

To make changes at the ground level, a team was put in place to study the gaps in education and research on ways and means to bring about gender and sexuality awareness in individuals. This led us to begin our training workshops for children as young as 10 years. The transformative years when a child discovers and questions the self, and things around is also the ideal age to introduce variations and differences in gender and how to respect and include every gender into our fold. That is how we started our gender and sexuality workshops which form the core of social-emotional learning. Through these workshops, a child is made to understand the differences in gender and how and why it is of utmost importance to see and treat every gender equally and respectfully. The deep-rooted stereotypes in our lives come out unaware, unplanned, and unwanted. Society has conditioned us to think, act, and behave a certain way. Any deviation from what is the accepted ‘normal’ invites derision and makes us feel guilty most of the time. The change in the accepted norms and conditioning is what we call as the larger change and it must start from every house and school. From not encouraging boys to take up household chores, reminding the girl in the family to learn cooking for better marital prospects, scorning at a transgender in a bus or a metro, the reasons and expressions are innumerable. When the world is moving towards creating equal opportunities and equal spaces, awareness about the same must start as early as possible. And hence began our work towards advocating socio-emotional skills as part of the academic curriculum.

It was not easy for us to breakthrough as managements at many schools considered our socio-emotional learning workshops as unnecessary. They instead preferred to focus entirely on academics, scores, and grades.

With the digital revolution dominating the psyche of a child, the pressure buildup was becoming evident. Depression, anxiety, and suicidal tendencies have risen. As the sole focus of many parents and teachers in India is towards academics, the social and emotional wellbeing of a child is not heeded to. Even though organizations like WHO, UNICEF, and UNESCO had recommended life and social skills as essentials during a child’s developmental phase, they are yet to find a permanent place in the co-scholastic curriculum in schools.

This Covid-19 pandemic and its subsequent repercussions have led educators, parents, and decision makers to alter their thinking and engage in meaningful conversations and discussions revolving better mental health. This thought process had a trickle down effect into various spaces that brought about the realization that for a better and healthy tomorrow, social-emotional health and care needs to be given utmost importance and it has to begin from a young age. From understanding oneself and people around us, breaking stereotypes and conditioning, developing empathy and compassion, to analysing one’s emotions and behaviour patterns, social-emotional learning encompasses all the necessary life-skills that one needs to be adept at for peaceful coexistence. Short term arrangements to handle mental health is not a solution for a healthier future generation. The road to a healthy tomorrow is in making a child understand his/her capabilities and shortcomings at an early age and handhold them in their transformational journey. Socio-emotional skills are the way to building a tolerant and compassionate young gen and the work has to start now.