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July 02, 2018 Monday 04:21:28 PM IST


3rd Eye

Customarily people run after miracles. They fall prey, quite often, to the chicanery of miracle mongers. The truth is that life is the core miracle to which, alas, most people remain indifferent. It pays to know the miracle that we are, and the miracle unfolding itself right under our nose. Especially so for parents.

That miracle is the growth of their infants, through childhood, into adulthood. Immanuel Kant that German philosopher, widely regarded as a central figure in modern philosophy, in Reflections on Education, sees the first stage of the life of an individual in three phases, with distinctive priorities for each. Infancy is from 0-2 years, when the spotlight is on nurture. This is followed by childhood,from 2-6 years of age, when the emphasis should be on discipline. The third stage is that of scholarship,from 6 to 18 years of age, when the emphasis should be on learning.

The formal education of a person, as per this scheme, ended at eighteen, when it was deemed, in Kant’s days, that a person became mature enough to raise his own family. Thereafter, he only taught himself, lifelong.

But what is miraculous about this scheme of things, you might well ask. You’d be right too. There is nothing miraculous about this scheme per se. But the scheme, in its first and second stages (that is, from 0-6 years of age), covers the period of the most astounding of all miracles.

Around the time a child is one year old, she succeeds, after a period of crawling about, and several attempts to prop herself up, in standing up. Parents feel the magic of this moment. I have had the opportunity to watch my daughter’s reaction when her child, Ananya, stood up for the first time. It lasted no more than five seconds. But that was enough to bring tears of joy into her eyes.

Excitement apart, it is necessary to know why such a thing moves parents so profoundly. Taken as a mere material fact — an infant who could not stand till then, finds herself able to stay upright — it is nothing much. The excitement, and mysterious joy, we experience in this regard is not explained by its physical aspect. Then what is it that we intuit, but hardly understand, in what is happening in front of us?


Well, standing up involves — hold your breath — negotiating the gravitational pull of the earth. No parent teaches the infant to do this. There is no school for standing up! The child learns this herself. In standing up she becomes part of a larger scheme of things. She establishes, according to a miracle encoded in her being, a relationship with the earth. It is a profound moment.

Little surprise, therefore, that ‘standing’ is a significant metaphor. We expect men and women of character to ‘stand’ their ground. We appreciate those who are ‘upright’, and do not ‘bend’, as Rabindranath Tagore says, “their knees before insolent might”. It is the duty of the intelligentsia to take a well-reasoned ‘stand’ on issues of human significance. The list can be enlarged.

To understand the profundity and complexity of what your one-year old infant achieves for herself all you have to do is to try and teach yourself driving. I dare say it would make for a pretty sight. And, perhaps, a costly affair too. You, for all the knowledge and the many manual and intellectual skills you have acquired, will fumble and falter; and give up in quick time too.

Now, on to the next stage. At the age of two, the infant begins to speak the rudiments of her mother tongue. Who taught her? You? Don’t be too sure! Your two-year-old taught herself a language. But what is language? And why is your child’s lisping a word such an unforgettable moment in your life as a parent?

Language is the foremost social skill human beings have. It connects us with the social web around us. Without language we will all be locked up in a social prison, cut off from all else. This also means that language, as Kant points out, can be a formidable barrier too: barrier between those who know a language and those who don’t.The two most insurmountable barriers, Kant wrote in Perpetual Peace, “are language and religion”.

In the case of religion, like in the case of language, it serves as a cementing force amongthe members of the community that practises a religion; but serves, at the same time, as a barrier between that community and other religious communities, especially in situations of communal or fundamentalist exclusivity.

This miracle — that of your child teaching herself a language — happens between 2 and 6 years of age. As Maria Montessori observes in the Absorbent Mind, at the age of two a child may know no more than two hundred words. But in the next four years her vocabulary explodes into a few thousand words. It is a rate of growth that adults can never match.

Maria observes that if an adult has to learn what a child does in four years (from 2-6 years of age) it will take him some sixty years! Just a hint to help us know what is taking place right under our nose. No one needs to tell you that this is a period of energetic curiosity in the life of a child. But parents take this for granted, and seldom prepare themselves to play a catalytic role in this sublime process.


The stage is now set for the third stage of the miracle. From the age of six onwards, the child begins to ‘think’. To ‘think’ is to establish connections at two levels: (a) between what one sees and what one registers (which are insubstantial images), and (b) between what one registers and the larger world; both visible and invisible, near and far. This is also the period when imagination assumes wings. That is why stories and fairytales appeal to children profoundly. It is a great pity that in this era of television, children are served more cartoons than stories.

A great deal of what the child achieves during these three stages is achieved by herself. This is a humbling truth for parents, who tend to think that they do everything for their children. They do; but only by way of ‘facilitating’ the achievements their children make for themselves.

How does it help to know what I have sketched above ever so perfunctorily?

Well, it helps us to play our parental role more appropriately. Also, it is such an enriching thing to be aware of what is going on! How can we play our rightful role beneficently and adequately, if we do not know what is happening? Imagine, besides, the pity of being an alien to what your child is achieving and undergoing. And you love your child so much!

Parents have a duty to help their children to become the sort of individuals who will stand upright all their life. They can play a hugely facilitating role in developing wholesome social skills and sensitivities in their children. I don’t have to argue that this has become, especially in the wake of the nuclear family, a matter of great importance. And, finally, parents can play a role —especially by creating a conducive domestic culture — in furthering the thought-life of their children. These three things consist the blueprint of a person’s destiny. All we need to do as parents is to ensure that the blueprint comes into being.

The rest will take care of itself.

Dr. Valson Thampu

Former Principal of St. Stephen's College, New Delhi

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