When the average Indian middle class home gets a visitor, the person most traumatised would surely be the child of the house. Because the child’s performance would form a significant part of the guest entertainment schedule. It may start with reciting the legendary ‘twinkle twinkle little star’ and gradually move to the child displaying some raunchy Bollywood dance steps. If the child is learning to play any musical instrument or singing, it becomes completely traumatic for both the guest as well as the child. Usually then, it’s nothing less than a full recital performed in front of the guest. Children in India have the highest display value and ‘performing’ kids are always a source of pride for the parents. But is it a typical Indian trait or is it an universal phenomenon? To get an answer, just do a search on YouTube. There is surprisingly high number of Indian posts where a child is performing something beyond the ordinary. The one I remember clearly is a little 2 or 3 year old rattling off the capitals of all the states of the US. Why would some parents force a child to memorise all state capitals and why would the proudly put it up for display? The Indian obsession of putting a child on display has its roots in the way we have culturally looked at our progeny. Children are new improved versions of the parent –– they don’t and can’t have an identity of their own. The expectation of ‘extended self’ is so much that most people don’t bother to make a pension plan. It’s almost a given that the child will take care of the parent because they are one and the same. The display value has got nothing to do with the child––it’s got everything to do with their parents. Most metro urban professionals measure their success by two factors –– where do they live and which school their children go to. When the father, most probably taught in a vernacular medium, waxes eloquent about his child’s fees in a Cathedral or Bombay Scottish School, he isn’t talking of the child. He’s talking about himself –– his graduation from a school somewhere down the hierarchy to a school of societal recognition and approval. When he’s asking the child to sing, dance or memorise state capitals he’s putting his own skills to display. The child as a form of self-expression of the parents, essentially denies the role of child as an individual. The famous nexus between the grandma of the house and the child happened because both of them were denied their individuality. One was a form of responsibility and the other was an expression of achievement. Advertising, for many years, have leaned heavily on this concept of a ‘display’ kid. Most kid products were targeted at parental competitiveness. The visual vocabulary had clichés like trophies , ‘outsmarting’ other kids, winning competition etc. etc. This is, of course, the most expected ‘child product insight’ as viewed by an adult.
But what happens when children find an ally that can help them express their individuality and connect to a child-only world? The first impact is felt by the parents. Remember the ‘Pokemon’ mania? Most parents found the creepy looking characters extremely putting off but at the same time they couldn’t deny the force. They would have been comfortable if they understood it from the Disney-like wholesomeness––but here they had to accept something their ‘extended self’ was doing which they didn’t understand. They tried to resist it for as long as they could––but then finally gave in to the social pressure that was created by Pokemon. Most parental conversations were centering around Pokemon––desperately trying to measure each other up driven by a sense of inadequacy. There is a recent urban phenomenon that has been jargonised as ‘kidfluence’. It’s the unabashed acknowledgment of the parent that their kids’ opinion counts. Some people have mistaken it as an indication for an increased acknowledgment of kid individuality by parents. That’s fundamentally flawed. It’s a reverse expression of vicarious living. Over last 10 years, popular culture has grown more complex and intellectually challenging. Try playing a new age computer game and you’ll know exactly what I mean. (The good old book reading was far simpler and less taxing.) So has been the consumption culture––it’s not only complex and layered, it’s fairly new to us as a society. Children have the capacity to interpret and adjust to these complexities better and Indian parents are using that to live vicariously through their children. The age old boasting of a child’s academic performance is now getting replaced by the ‘phenomenal dexterity with the mobile phone’ or ‘unbelievable savvy with gaming’. It’s just a change of form for the ‘extended self’. Indian parents are far from giving up their legitimate demand on the child as a form of their own self-expression. Only change is that You Tube has replaced the neighbourhood discussion and the ‘performance’ for a visiting guest is upgraded to a reality show on the national TV. (Partha Sinha, Regional Strategist, Publicis Asia)