Caring is really a part of that profound thing called love. It begins with the care of little things...

To have real affection for people, one must not only look and listen, but also care. Do you care for anyone? Do you care for your parents? Do your parents care for you? Caring means looking after others, being kind, seeing to it that they are not treated cruelly. And you cannot really care for anyone if you do not see, if you do not observe…

J Krishnamurti

When teachers met during our annual curriculum meeting, I shared an observation of children which we then discussed and looked at carefully: Do teachers feel that children are becoming increasingly uncaring towards the spaces they inhabit, the things they have around them and the people? Has meanness become the habitual mode of relating with others? Do we feel that care and kindness can be taught? Should there be a more concerted effort in helping children learn to care?

While an account of varied examples of insensitive behaviour ensued, there were many voices of caution too: Are we simply complaining? Are we making a complex problem out of what seems to be lack of etiquette? Have we been inattentive to certain behaviours that need addressing? Since a large part of our observations was related to junior and middle school children, we decided that our discussion would focus on this age group. There was a general consensus—what we are seeing needs mindful engagement on the part of adults. It is of little relevance at this point to establish whether or not the problem is a result of lack of etiquette!

We examined our current approach in working with junior and middle school children. When we notice behaviour that concerns us, we address this through conversations with the particular child. Weekly dialogue sessions with a group of children offers another opportunity for engagement; however, whether or not specific themes like care and kindness feature in the dialogue classes is left to the discretion of the adult guiding these sessions. Through these conversations, we hope to draw the children’s attention to what is happening within them and the impact it has on others. In other words, we would like children to be reflective. Now we were asking: Should this engagement in helping children learn to care be ongoing and independent of specific incidents? It is without doubt important to address specific incidents of insensitivity, but can there also be a continual engagement with this aspect of living together? What would this engagement look like?

Before we explore what we can do to help children ‘learn’ in this realm, let’s take a look at some patterns of teacher response that come in the way. Do teachers find it difficult to say, “Hey, that is rude” or “That is disrespectful”? What are some reasons for such a hesitation? Are we confused and unsure about what behaviour needs confrontation? Does fear of being disliked by children stop us from challenging them? Are there differences amongst teachers in their expectations of children’s behaviour?

It seems to me that we can, without attributing ill-intention to children’s rude behaviour, certainly register our displeasure and make a clear demand for politeness. This approach may look a bit odd at first, especially if we feel children will come to an understanding on their own, as these themes do emerge in our dialogue classes. It is true that children actively engage in dialogue with adults and are not just passive listeners, and may even make connections between these conversations and what they see in themselves. But this should not take away the need for simple, straightforward demands/ instructions/requests to be made by the adult!

Mindfulness is a state of alertness. You are alert to what is happening in and around you. As adults, we hope children will slowly come to understand this. We may not know how to teach it, or if it can be taught at all! What we can do is provide reminders, point out, and draw their attention to psychological movements that may otherwise pass them by. Here, it is important to ask: Do we need to build our skill in talking with children succinctly? It is easy to lose children in lengthy explanations—many a time we are not only unaware of our long winded sentences, we feel we have been lucid and crisp in our sharing! Verbose responses from adults hamper even the faintest likelihood of reflection in children.

There have been many struggles as we help children learn to live cooperatively in a community—things are stolen, others’ belongings are meddled with, children are excluded by peers; there are dirty toilets, plates and bowls left unwashed. These are not unusual, we will all agree, when people live together; they nevertheless need to be addressed and strong responses from adults become inevitable. Last year, we decided to dedicate an hour and a half each week for middle school children to care for spaces. The intention was to help children take responsibility for a particular space and attend to it regularly—to keep it clean, tidy and aesthetically appealing. At the end of the year, we heard from children about what they had learnt from this engagement. Many said that it made them, “a little more alert” to things around them; otherwise they would be mostly engrossed in something with their friends. It is true that children are preoccupied; we often hear or see them sharing with one another their excitement over shows, movies, songs, video games and so on. This is a strong preoccupation amongst children, and they tend to be excited about little else. For adults, it definitely feels as though we are fighting an enormous battle against media, since it comes with such a propensity to lure! It is of course noticeable, on the other hand, that preoccupation is a habit of the mind for young and old, that there seems to be no dearth of self-referential content, whether we are enticed by media or not. This habit is bound to make one blind to the outside world.

Many years ago, in an effort to help children take responsibility for what they had done and gain comfort in admitting, “I did it”, we would encourage them to speak honestly when we met as a group. Every time we met a group of children after a difficult incident, we reassured them with, “you know that adults here will not do anything to you”. We have tried many ideas—writing ‘yes’ or ‘no’ on slips of paper (‘yes’ implying that the child was involved in the misdemeanour and ‘no’ implying that she wasn’t), whisper in the adult’s ear to confess, talk to a senior student, talk to any adult she was comfortable with! None of this worked. We would also sit down for hours with children, waiting for someone to own up. On one such occasion, we were happy that a child finally confessed in the group. It was only later that we realised what had happened—“There is one way to get done with this. My stomach is rumbling, I can smell the dosas and it is past breakfast time. I’ll confess, even though I didn’t do it”. We certainly weren’t achieving what we had set out to do! We also tried this amusing approach, “We know who it is. Whoever did it, please talk to an adult!” This last one worked once.

We continue to feel it is important for children to own up, but are no longer certain of the various methods in the list I have described in the preceding paragraph. Something is amiss if we need to reassure children who have been with us for many years and who already know that we won’t resort to punishing them! What makes it difficult for them to own up? Is there something else at play that disallows this?

In our conversations with children, it emerged that they are overly concerned about how they are viewed by their peers. Underlying their interactions with each other is fear—fear of disapproval, of losing friendship and of being excluded. Children seem to comply with one another to make new friendships or keep the existing ones. This fear pushes many to continue being part of a group misdemeanour, even though they experience a nagging feeling that it isn’t right to be involved in it. This feeling can also coexist with high excitement—there is a thrill that comes with ‘not being caught’ the first time, which drives them to seek more of the same experience. In responding to a recent incident in school, teachers met children in very small groups of two or three. The small numbers perhaps helped them respond well to our request for complete honesty. Having a conversation with an adult and only one or two other peers seemed to dissolve, to some extent, their worry about each other.

It is necessary for adults engaging with children to be able to discern the difference between playful mischievous deeds and malicious acts. Sometimes, our frustration in witnessing repeated misbehaviour makes it difficult for us to see this difference; every small prank then becomes a serious concern that needs addressing. It is valuable to also help children distinguish between what makes something a naughty prank and what makes it an act of meanness.

Many educators and psychologists see the need for a curriculum that emphasises care, kindness and mindfulness. When I read about such a curriculum on the internet, there was an uncomfortable feeling, almost a reaction in me to the words ‘kindness curriculum’. This reaction probably stems from the feeling that kindness is a ‘natural’ (and yet rare?) attribute in us and a specific programme to teach this must be superficial or artificial. This possibly also comes from the feeling that care and kindness is not merely an outcome of practising a list of kind acts! It is clear that we cannot simply adopt a curriculum, implement it, and be assured that children will now become kind and caring.

What we would like is for children to be alive to what they see around them and respond intelligently. It is perhaps this quality that we call ‘care’. There cannot be a set of prescriptive responses that are taught to the young from which they wisely choose when desired! This is not to disapprove of the intent of the ‘kindness curriculum’; rather it is a caution against passivity in the adults and children that comes with simply following a prescribed method.

The first step in learning about ourselves is to observe and acknowledge what we see within. There are ways in which we can make space for this observation in children. In exploring this approach, a few simple ideas came up. Role play, for example, helps bring one’s feelings to view and at the same time, also see how others feel and respond. Reading aloud stories that attempt to speak to children about empathy and kindness, which children can easily relate to, usually work. Non-didactic, non-moralistic but intelligently written open-ended narratives could be used as conversation starters with children. Senior students too would be able to support adults in working with younger children. This is possible when there is adequate contact between the age groups in their daily life at school. This presupposes that the senior students are themselves interested in enquiring into different aspects of their lives, are insightful, and able to share their insights with young children.

Having said all this, one can never be quite sure what makes change possible in children! I feel this need not render our attempts meaningless or make us continually frustrated and disheartened that nothing works.

Although adults’ struggles are much the same as those of children, I have focussed here on children alone. A bleak picture of children is not intended, neither is a romantic one of an enlightened adult!