Life is a do-it-yourself project. The choices we make today shape the future we will have tomorrow. Yet, through our childhood and schooling, choices were usually made for us by someone else — here is the school you will go to; CBSE or ICSE; doctor or engineer, and so on. Even those of us, who tread off the beaten path, were still on paths that were leading up to a job. But what about the other equally important paths that our lives take us on? Our adult life essentially comprises two aspects — professional and personal. Professional is the part that deals with the business of livelihood, and personal deals with self and what’s important to us in our life, people, places, things or ways of living.
Often, professional and personal are hard to separate or distinguish, and impact one another. While our education system prepares us ‘well’ for the professional, we are usually on our own when it comes to personal life. Yes, with supportive parents or family backgrounds, some of us ‘managed’. However, this is not the case with everyone; especially those who may be growing up ‘out of the mainstream’. Even with the best of support from family and school, some conversations just don’t happen. For example, the conversations around sexuality are usually muted. Very few parents or teachers speak to their children about sex. Even then, we might be overestimating. This is despite love, sex and romance dominating much of our adolescent years and youth.
Another subject that usually doesn’t come up is "failure". In continually aspiring and pushing our children towards success, we find it hard to talk to our children about failure. Every summer as the exam results are declared, the news cycle is full of grim reports on teenage suicides. Some of these are also over failed relationships or peer pressure, adding to the growing list of topics that are not talked about or taught in schools.
Working on sexuality, gender and life skills education for over a decade and addressing thousands of queries from young people every year on issues that matter to them, we have realised that there is a gaping hole from the age of 10 onwards. Information that young people should get during adolescence is only reaching them (if at all) after they have turned adults. By this time, they have already taken several decisions in life that they ought to have had more information early on, and some of these have lifelong consequences.
Delivering this information or having these conversations is not always easy. Often as parents, and even as a society, we are either uninformed or do not understand how to talk to children about their social and emotional struggles. Especially because no one talked to us about all this when we were growing up.
Some of us may even feel that we ‘sailed through’ just fine without any of this, and hope our kids would too. Unfortunately, the world has changed. Our children are growing up in a different reality, where they access information and content on the internet — a lot of which may not be suitable for young minds.
So not only is it important to acknowledge their needs and struggles, but it is also important to get there before the internet. Wouldn’t it be better if we (parents and schools) taught our children about life’s pressures, stress, consent and sex before they land on that dodgy clip on the internet, and before any harm is done?
As parents and educators, we need to talk about emotions and feelings — how to deal with stress and feelings of uncertainty, how to stay safe and responsible online, how to practice resilience and how to deal with many of those growing-up challenges. Most of these are often brushed under the carpet. There is also a need to do this in a safe and non-judgmental environment, with the right resources at hand to help with solutions and positive support.
This is where life skills education for adolescents matters. While it is still a fairly new concept in India, the relevance of learning life skills in schools has been recognised globally.
UNICEF says that the goal of life skills’ education is to equip individuals with appropriate knowledge and develop skills such as assertiveness, self-awareness, decision-making, problem-solving, critical and creative thinking that are crucial for holistic well-being.
Another report by UNICEF recognised the importance of life skills education in promoting psychosocial skills as a necessary part of learning and addressing the important risks facing children.
Life skills education prepares children to handle the personal aspect of life. It teaches them about respect, empathy, diversity and many such values that are integral to a healthy, happy and content adulthood. It also includes nuanced conversations on sex, sexuality, consent, bullying, peer pressure, dealing with stress, internet safety and everything else besides academics that young people today face as they grow up.
There are a few resources on the internet to enable parents and teachers in beginning conversations on life skills with their children. However, most of the content is foreign and not adapted to the Indian context.
The Covid-19 era has made such digital resources even more crucial. With the education system and schools under severe pressure, trying to just keep up basic schooling, social, emotional and life skills learning will, unfortunately, be put on the back burner. Ironically, as the pandemic hits our children’s social or mental well-being, schools are likely to be even less prepared to cope with the non-academic requirements of the children.
Digital resources will be even more useful for children in rural areas, where given the taboo and stigma around some topics, parents and teachers are even more unlikely to broach them.
In our experience, some of the life skills education we have delivered in rural Bihar has been life-affirming for many of the youth we interacted with. These affirmations are relevant to all our children, irrespective of where they are and what background they come from. Such conversations and education must reach all parts of the country.