Life often presents itself in contrasts. As if to highlight the point it is making.
This evening on my usual run to the grocers, I watched a family – a mother, father and a toddler making their way down the stairs, opposite me. The little girl was hopping across, with her wide eyes spanning everything but her steps. And as one would predict, she tripped, slipping across a few steps on the stair way. Her watchful Dad held her before anything could happen and the mother let out a gasp, the shock of the fall and the sound of the gasp painting an expression of terror on the little girl’s face.
Not an unusual sight. Toddlers and little kids trip all over the world and parents fuss over them. That’s the norm, right? Children play. Parents fuss over them.
What made it special for me this evening was what I had witnessed earlier in the day.
My weekend errand this time also included taking recyclables to the local “gujiri-wala”, the agent who will buy your garbage and sell it to industries that have use for them. This place was being managed by a couple with two daughters. While the mother was dealing with me and my bundles old newspapers and plastic bottles, I noticed her older daughter washing towels and clothes in buckets while the younger one was prattling around.
I struck up a chat with the mother and enquired about the older child. “How old is she?”, I asked. From the dexterity with which she was doing the washing and the maturity on her face, I guessed she might be 6. Or 7. Felt too young to be doing a chore and laundry almost felt prohibitive. “Oh, she just turned 3” responded the mother nonchalantly. I almost jumped! Three years old and doing laundry!! I am not sure if I hid the shock on my face as I tried to express my surprise as lightly as possible.
It was an effort to put my judging self behind and think; to consider the fact that the child did not look abused nor malnourished or any of those bad things one can imagine. On the contrary. She looked quite content in fact, with a sense of achievement that she was helping her mother. The mother was anything but full of kindness and love. I had to remind myself it was a not a scene so off the charts. I have swept floors for as long as I could remember, although not particularly sure if I wielded a broom at the age of 3. I learnt to do my own laundry (without a washing machine) at the age of 9. It was just a chore. Not child labour.
And then I had to ask the next question. “Does she go to school?” Not that I think a full-time school is a better alternative to doing chores at home. “Yes, she will start coming summer”.
As I struggled to reconcile my thoughts, I realised that what was wrong in that scene was not the 3-year old doing laundry, but my heart racing at 100 miles an hour, trying to come to terms with the fact that it is ok to for a child to help.
Is it really ok?
Would I have felt better if the child was older? How young is too young?
Does everyone looking happy and content doing what they are doing make it ok?
What exactly are the rules around when can a child start pitching in for family duties?
It is ok.
I guess many of us get caught in this fantasy to give our kids all what we missed or could not afford when we were children. We give them a privileged life that we did not enjoy as kids. But may be what they need is just the same life; unplanned/ unsupervised play hours. Less to no TV. Books. Lot of books. Home made meals. Climbing trees. Running behind dragon flies. And chores. Shelling peas. Doing dishes.
The child’s content face appears before me. Happiness, as it has been proven time and again, does not come from privileges. I end my day struggling to find out why we focus on creating and accumulating material comforts in spite of that knowledge.
Photograph by Himanshu Singh Gurjar from http://www.unsplash.com