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The reversal of age - and role



WALK THE TALK: Just as parents rush in to fight with teachers who reprimand their kids, they lose no time in fulfilling their materialistic desires - from cellphones to video games, cars to luxury trips

Economic reform has affected many constituencies, but none as vigorously as that of children who these days play a key role in the new scheme of things. The transformation of the child into a client is visible all over urban middle-class India - at home, in the market and at school.

There was a time when being a child carried not too many commercial responsibilities. The child's relationship with money was of a fleeting and accidental variety, and depended on the largesse of others, notably relatives on festive occasions. One got some pocket money if one was lucky and that too was largely notional, the amounts being such as to serve an educational purpose alone. At a more fundamental level, children were seen as a collective, the 'bachcha party' being a gaggle of chatter and mischief, noticed more when they did something wrong rather than otherwise.

The child of today, on the other hand, is seen like a miniature adult and is addressed as an individual and consulted on many key decisions. Economic reform has affected many constituencies, but none as vigorously as that of children, for they provide a key role in the new scheme of things. Children articulate desire more innocently than can any other segment, unburdened as they are of any personal memories of a scarcityplagued yesterday. In the family unit, they play an important part as navigators through the unfamiliar shiny worlds of choice, newness and abundance. Children act as arbiters between the older generation and newer things, and give the rest of us a map on which to plot our new selves. Fluent in the language of technology and consumption, the two biggest drivers of behaviour in these times, they exude a worldliness that the older generation finds useful. It also helps that the parents of today are the first generation that sees self-conscious 'parenting' as a job that needs to be accomplished.

By seeing children as projects-inthe-making, the child gets treated much more as an individual that needs to be understood and catered to. Parents lack the presumptive wisdom, the knowledge-of-the-bones that an earlier generation so effortlessly displayed when it was their turn to bring up their children. For that generation, parenthood was not a task, but a natural condition that resolved itself without too much conscious effort. For this generation, children don't 'just grow up', they have to be constructed with care and precision. As a result, the child's desires are heard with greater attention and her progress monitored regularly on an ever growing variety of factors. The child is increasingly seen as a performer that needs investment, training and personalised attention. Parents find validation for themselves through the performance of their children and thus are dependent on the child to fulfill these expectations. The easiest way to fill up the gap between parental ambition and the performance of the child is through acts of consumption. The child is constantly being equipped for the journey ahead, and the equipment takes a variety of forms.
The transformation of the child into a client is visible all over urban middle class India. Children sit in on judgement on the variety of options that are thrown at them and pick and choose what works for them. Which is why the influence extends to areas way beyond those that traditionally involve children;today their influence can be felt in every crucial decision the household takes - from buying a car, planning an annual holiday to deciding menus for family functions. Advertising features children in a startlingly high number of product categories, including financial planning and insurance, and they act not as passive recipients of adult wisdom but know-alls teaching the older generation a thing or two.

Perhaps, we are giving our children too much and in return expecting too much. The parent is today both 'friend' and fervent cheerleader, giving lavishly and expecting unreservedly in an ever escalating cycle of reward and expectation. Not an easy burden to carry, not even for a child.

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