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What does rape mean, Ma?
The media’s saturation coverage of brutal incidents like the Delhi gang rape has left parents in a dilemma on what and how much to tell children
Ididn't know how to explain the concept of rape to my daughter, " says Savita Ray, a media professional and mother. "She's not 12 yet, and we haven't had the mandatory sex education talk. Given that, I didn't want her first introduction to the subject to be through something so brutal and negative. "
These past few weeks have been a tough one for India. People across age groups, gender and class have had to come to terms with the brutal gang-rape and subsequent death of a paramedical student in Delhi. Unprecedented outrage and anguish followed the incident, and it's been an especially traumatic time for parents, who besides having to deal with their own feelings, have also had to decide on what and how much to tell their children.
Given the cross-media hypercoverage that events like these attract, there is no way children can be shielded from dark truths about the world they live in. In this world, parents kill their children and then themselves, the overwhelming narrative is one of corruption and dishonesty, and stories of rape, torture and grim accidents swamp front pages of newspapers and the TV news tickers.
"My daughter has been full of questions about the Delhi rape. She's barely six, but she knows how to read - and this was a matter of pride for us until now. These days I wish she couldn't read, because often I have to hide the newspaper from her, " says Sayoni Bhattacharya, a 34-year-old stay-at-home mother in Bangalore.
Bhattacharya says she first became aware of this problem when her daughter read the newspaper over her shoulder one day and started obsessing over a news story about a three-year-old boy who fell from an apartment balcony and died. "For a month or so, she would show extreme reluctance to go to the balcony, and would ask painfully detailed questions about how exactly the boy died, " says the mother.
"When talking to a child about traumatic incidents that have happened to other people, use language and imagery that they can understand and relate to. The kind of details parents should divulge should depend on the age of the child, " says Anita Gracias, psychologist and counsellor. In incidents like the Delhi rape, children below the age of 10 should not be exposed to the more gory aspects of the case, she says.
But short of sealing one's family into a media-free bubble, how does one manage that? "We tried not to expose our daughter to media mentions of the rape but she overheard me and my husband discussing it. It was not something you could keep silent about for days, " says asks Vandana Sharma, an IT executive whose elder daughter is now eight. "I do believe that it doesn't work to avoid children's questions, because that just confuses them. So I told my daughter that the girl and her friend had been beaten up badly by some really terrible people and that she was suffering because of it. "
Mythili M Sarma, psychologist and therapist at Bangalore's Aadhihara Clinic, endorses this approach. "Some parents, in their belief that parents should be frank with their children, tend to go overboard with the candour. The personality of the child has to be taken into consideration in these situations. If you know your child tends to brood over negative things, or is the sensitive type who tends to overempathise, it may be advisable to tone down the details a bit, " says Sarma.
PR professional Manjunath Padiki, 37, believes his daughter, who is six-and-a-half years old, is not ready to be told much about rape or even violent assaults. But he believes this violence provides a context in which to discuss the 'good touch, bad touch' issue with children. "We have spoken to our daughter along these lines by creating scenarios and building a sort of game around it, " says Padiki, whose daughter's TV viewing is heavily monitored. He feels today's children are both heavily exposed to as well as shielded from realities. The media exposes them to reality but the nuclear family set-up protects them from getting too close to reality. "In joint families, being around older siblings or cousins meant that kids 'grew up' faster, " he says.
If a child seems unusually troubled by such incidents - and Sarma says she has dealt with cases where a very public incident has led to revelations within a family - it is important to hear the child without asking leading questions. This is called a 'non-directional' approach. "It is possible that the public discourse is forcing the child to deal with her own feelings about something negative that has happened with her - real or imagined. Parents must talk to her, but without leading her into confessions or revelations, " says Sarma. If the child's mood does not change over days or weeks, it might be better to seek professional help, she says.
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