The recent story in the press about Norwegian child protection services taking way two young children belonging to the Indian couple Anurup and Sagarika Bhattacharya has raised a lot of debate. The reports indicate that the Indian couple living in Norway have been accused of being “unfit” to be parents and hence the intervention of the child protection services who have taken the children away to be put in foster care. While the reasons do not appear to be very clear – one point that keeps appearing in most of the stories is about the objection taken by the authorities to the fact that the children sleep with their parents and are fed by hand!
Surprised? Well, so was I when I read these reasons. While I am not sure if these are THE reasons, the fact that they are mentioned raises some concerns about cultural sensitivities. Tell me, how many of us in India have slept with our parents till we were teenagers? And about being fed by hand.. I feed myself with my hands and so is it unnatural if I were to feed my child with my hands? Spoons are western cutlery that do not figure in a traditional Indian kitchen.
So the question that is bothering me is why were the Norwegian authorities so insensitive to this?
Child rearing practices are very closely linked to the society that we live in. There are tribal communities who leave their children away in forests to learn survival skills and some other communities who get their adolescent children together to experiment with each other and learn about sex. Is it right for us to say that these are “wrong”? These practices are linked to the lifestyle of the people living in these societies. A child who is from a tribal community needs to learn how to survive in a forest as much as an adolescent in certain society needs to learn about sex so that procreation is not a problem. But when we look at it from our context they may seem bizarre and even perverted! The point is to see it through the lens of the communities practicing them.
It is really unfortunate that the Norwegian authorities have not been able to look at it in that way.
The issue of foster care itself is something that can be contested. It is a very western concept followed in countries where the social systems are breaking down and therefore the need for state intervention to “rescue” children and put them into the care of families that are paid to look after them. It does not in anyway suggest that these families would provide the love and affection that children require for their upbringing. There are also numerous cases of foster parents abusing the children under their care. Therefore , how can we expect that children being taken away into foster care would solve the problem?
While not contesting the fact that the Indian couple in question may have had their problems in extending the right type of care for the two young children, therefore affecting their development, would it not have been better to have counseled them and tried to understand what are the drivers behind the so called “unacceptable” practices? I do understand that what we take for granted in terms of child care like yelling at children or slapping them for misbehavior would be considered cruelty in certain other societies. I am in no way condoning such practices. But then as a society we are used to this sort of disciplining and it is therefore not strange if parents should adopt that for their children.
There is also this thing about the thin dividing line between the private and the public domains. I am surprised how these authorities were able to cross these boundaries entering into the family circle and make a judgment about the couple’s parenting skills. It also assumes a certain cultural superiority about what is right and what is not where child rearing is concerned.
I am now beginning to wonder if a person who lives in these countries has to live by their rules even within the house? I have heard about the rule of children not being allowed to sleep on the same bed as the parents being followed in other countries too. Many Indian couples living abroad are so afraid about what might happen to their children if the authorities find out about this They may not believe in it but adopt it –rather like having to wear the “abaya” or veil when moving around some of the middle eastern countries.
I am often surprised when I see the way children are brought up in western societies. They are carried around in baby carriers, prams, sleep on separate beds – all this leading to limited physical contact between the parent and the child. While I am not going to be judgmental about this, I can only say that though this lack of physical contact may make the child very independent which is probably a must for the western societies where they are being brought up it also runs the risk of making them emotionally detached- they may not be able to bond with their families the way that an Indian society may require!
Breastfeeding on demand is what doctors say about children during the first three months after which mothers are encouraged to follow a feeding schedule. However, as many mothers would agree, it is easier said that done. A child used to being breast fed on demand may protest when its demands are not being met. It would be very exhausting for a mother to deal with a crying child. We mothers often give in feeding the child whenever it cries, throwing the feeding schedule to the winds! It is more likely that an Indian mother who is living alone in a foreign country without any social support and with another toddler to care for would be finding it doubly difficult to follow this schedule. It is surprising that the Norwegian authorities have not been able to understand this simple fact and have instead added it to the list of misdemeanors cited against the mother.
Children are not state property. They belong to the parents until they are legally old enough to be on their own. However, this does not suggest in anyway that parents can treat them like their property using or abusing them. A parent who is unable to care for a child whatever be the reason needs to be counselled. If a parent is found “unfit” there are other family members who can be brought it and the issue dealt with in a different way. Placing a child in the care of a family which wants to earn money for the child’s upkeep is nothing but emotional deprivation of the child. We are not sure what criteria the state of Norway uses for selection of such couples or families for giving foster care. Do they receive some form of certificates I wonder?
Childcare is a difficult skill. Not all of us are perfect care givers as parents. And there is no perfect way to raise a child. It is often a society that feels culturally superior to others which tries to impose its child rearing practices among all its residents. Or it is a society that has so many depraved individuals living in it who do not adhere to what is culturally appropriate child care even within their own social norms that an external government funded system has to be introduced to protect children from these individual. The problem arises when such societies impose it on other cultures refusing to see it from their point of view.
Is this what “Child Protection” is all about? In Norway it probably is....!
( picture courtesy NDTV)