A Dilemma


On my way back from my evening jog, I saw a curious incident in the parking lot. A man had caught hold of a boy, not more than 10-12 years old, and was slapping him. I stepped in, told the man to stop it immediately and asked him what the matter was.

I recognised him as the person who runs a small provisions store next to our building. He told me that the boy been caught shoplifting, and that this was the fourth of fifth time that this same boy had been caught shoplifting from his store.

I turned to the boy and asked him his side of the story. He was terrified, naturally. I consoled him so that he would open up to me and talk. The boy admitted to shoplifting, and from his halting answers, I could tell that this was not his first time.

I asked the boy to call his parents. He told me he could not remember their phone number. It was quite obvious that he was scared of letting them know.

I pondered over the various options presenting themselves.

Naturally, the shopkeeper beating the boy was not an option. Not only does no one have the right to hit a child, it would have only sent out a convoluted message of “street justice”. It would have been disastrous if the boy ended up with a message that street-beatings is a legit form of justice.

Talking to him was not an option either. I was a complete stranger. There was no way that I could have established the emotional bond that is an essential prerequisite in convincing him that what he did was wrong. If at all it had been his first offence, I might have possibly considered letting him go with a stern warning – but it wasn’t. The message had to get through that what he did was wrong. A lecture from a stranger would have perhaps convinced him that crying a few tears is enough to get away with a wrong-doing.

So I did this – I told the shopkeeper that under no circumstances is he to lay a finger on the child. He is to take the kid home, and tell his parents what happened. Given the situation, this was the best I could do. And his parents are best placed to impress upon him that his conduct was wrong and that while not a “worthless, criminal, good-for-nothing”, he should not repeat this behaviour either. The entire outcome of this incident – does it become a learning experience or does it end up harming the boy – depends on his parents’ reaction.

And herein lies the crux of the problem – how will his parents react?

Perhaps I am being far too judgemental, but my premonition, based on the boy’s behaviour, was that he would get a beating. And as bad as it is for a stranger to hit a child, it is equally wrong for a parent to beat a child. I think it is plainly obvious why this is wrong on so many levels, and therefore I will not elaborate.

His parents need to sit him down and talk to him. And this has to be done over a period of time. And for this to be conducted successfully, a level of trust and communication has to be established The equation between them has to be such that the lesson has to strike home, and the boy emerges a better person from this incident.

That’s more easily said than done.

In today’s hyper-competitive and high-pressure world, most parents are reeling under the stress of their lives.

As humans, is it not possible that they might not behave rationally and give a knee-jerk reaction? Will they have the time to communicate with they boy? Perhaps they might not believe that communication is the best way out, and might instead think a harsh punishment might instil “discipline”? Or perhaps they might be far too judgemental or disapproving, and end up making the boy doubt his own self-worth? Will they be able to strike that fine balance between sternness and laxity?

Even if his parents do reach out and talk to him, will the boy hear them out? At that age, most kids disregard their parents because they do not speak the same “language”. Speaking for myself, far too often have I belatedly realised the wisdom of what my parents taught me. In the given circumstances situation, it is but natural for the boy to conclude that his parents don’t understand him.

Besides, will he and his parents enjoy an equation where he would feel comfortable talking to them? An admittance of a mistake made can only happen if the boy believes that there will be an opportunity for atonement. And self-improvement can happen only after accepting that he did his wrong. The emotional bond necessary for communicating with absolute frankness cannot be created overnight; it has to be nurtured over the years.

And what about influences from all over the world that bombard the boy? The boy in all practicality had picked up a packet of chips or a chocolate bar. Today, everything from television to newspaper ads (Yes, ToI, I’m talking to you) are promoting consumerism. The boy has to only notice that he is the only one in his peer group who is not being allowed by his parents to eat a packet of chips (health be damned), and what we have is a natural reflex action. Do we honestly expect someone at that impressionable age to be able to decipher influences – gathered from every waking moment – and tell right from wrong?

I remember some time back, there was a great uproar over Miley Cyrus’ latest video-song. Out of curiosity I checked it out, and I was extremely disturbed and distressed. All that I saw was a troubled, misguided girl who needed a paternal, elder-brotherly arm around the shoulder; a girl who needed someone who she could talk to, and who could tell her that she’s going wrong, without making her doubt her self-worth.  What worried me the most was the number of young boys and girls she would be influencing. The number of youngsters being convinced that what her behaviour is appropriate, and that someone who disagrees is basically encroaching on their freedom, and that they need to rebel mindlessly.

I think about the way my parents have brought me up, and I realise that I have been extremely lucky. My parents never, ever hit me. But then, my mistakes were dealt with sternly. Wrong doings were never condoned, but I was always told what I had done wrong and I never was in a situation where I was insecure about my self-worth. Today, as a consequence, there is not a single thing that I cannot share with them, but hearing a grim “Hrishikesh” being called out still does scare me.

What I saw today was a confused small boy, not a criminal. And what he needed was not punishment; it was an opportunity to become a better person.

Slapping a boy – that is easy. All you need to do is stifle your conscience.

Talking to him – that is tougher. You need patience and time.

Reaching out to him and making him a better person – that’s the toughest.

But isn’t that what it’s all about? What we’re all trying to do? Make the world a better place – one boy at a time?