Children more often than not ape the ways of people around them. Theirs is a world full of innovation, intelligence and innocence but also, one prone to another “i” – imitation. Earlier, children in Manipur would play the universal game of cops and robbers but gradually the “game’ has changed to UGs and commandoes while the more imaginative in the 8-10 year old group tend to stage blockades, bandhs and protests. Most children on an average of 3 among 5 children amongst boys will have toy guns, which comes in a variety of designs and with add on attractions. Thus, while there are the childish toy guns with battery-operated sounds, there are the pricier ones that comes with rubber pellets as bullets. There have been cases where children playing with such guns have been grievously injured, even leading to eye operations following borderline gun fights.
Do we need to lose some sleep over this spectacle? Isn’t it true that globally children are fast becoming prone to violence in the context of their games and recreation? If we have the toy gun shoot outs in Manipur, elsewhere there are video games that feature shooting, dangerous car games etc. Critics have also begun to look at cartoon and animation films that children all over the world have come to love and follow religiously. An example of cartoon related violence is the way that violence and bodily harm is made a laughing point in the much loved ‘Tom and Jerry’ cartoons. In India, a hugely popular serial called Shaktiman that was almost an Indian version of Superman led to a spate of incidences where young children often aped how the TV character would fly by jumping off terraces.
There are many layers of looking at the ways in which children today are engaged in their spare time. With time, the traditional structure of a large family support system for children in a family unit have broken down into small single family units with both parents engaged in jobs. While earlier, children had a huge peer group within a joint family system, today the child count has gone down leaving them in their lone worlds with mostly the TV and other media forms for company (films, newspapers, drama etc). The spaces for them to play and explore their world around them have shrunk with the division of land and family property and growing urbanization. Traditionally, family elders would gather the children in a family and narrate folk stories and parables. This gave room for emotional connection between different generations while also keeping children out of mischief while their mothers did the house work! Today, some folk tales have survived in Manipur owing to the efforts of people working in the animation industry but the other area of forging emotional bonds through story telling by family elders is no longer there since all that the child has to do is sit before the TV.
There is also the gendered manner in which children are raised. Thus, a boy will be given mostly mechanized toys while a girl will be given toys that end up making her confined in the house. So, boys will have footballs that will take them out of the house while girls will have dolls that will limit their mobility. New age parents do buy cycles but in this case, it is the attitude towards boys and girls that differ. Generally, a boy cycling at speed or able to do a few acrobatics will be lauded and appreciated while a girl doing the same will be chided and told to “behave like a girl”: in other words, to be all soft and sweet. Is it any wonder then that boys grow up more boisterous, fearless and physically enduring than girls?
The games that young children indulge in are indeed no matter of child’s play. They validate social norms and practices and even prejudices. Children on their part fit into the stereotypes that the elders around pitch for them and while the spectacle of violence is ever present around them, it is also true that video games and cartoons are something that they are not part of. The playing around with toy guns is more real since it involves them as players and parents and elders have to take the lead in making children not be seduced by toy guns and the trappings of exclusivity that comes with having a toy gun.
This piece came about mainly due to the many conversations I have with my 5 year old son, for whom I do not buy toxic coated plastic toys, much less toy guns. One day, he came back from school and told me that almost all his friends had toy guns and that he felt left out when they talked about their toy guns. The one way to make him feel better was to tell him that toy guns could injure people and even make children go blind.
Recently, he came with me to Andro where he saw the traditional hearth (funga) which is no longer seen in most kitchens anymore. He was more perplexed when he saw the “phunga lairu” and asked me, “why is that small hill for?”