My friends often ask me how come my children don’t fear the wild. What training have I given them? The key is to start at the beginning.
The growing years of a child are perhaps the most magical of the parents’ lives. It is at this stage that we need to be careful about what we say and how we say it, because everything children hear or experience is stored up in their subconscious.
Sometimes, in our enthusiasm or ignorance, in an effort to distract, or have our way, we feed misinformation and sow the seeds of fear or apprehension.
It’s while feeding children that parents often use these “props” to get their way. Innocent baby talk is generally full of good intentions, but sometimes it can be harmful, leaving a deep impact on tender minds.
A typical interaction between a young mother and her young child (still heard in many homes):
“Do you know who lives in the dark jungle?” “YES, the Tiger and the bhoot (ghost).”
“What does he do if you don’t go to sleep?” “He comes and gets you…”
Or... “If you don’t drink your milk, he will eat you up.”
But, have you ever seen a real tiger? “No!”
The assumption is that the tiger is dangerous; very dangerous and very, very strong. The tiger is the villain and a favourite Bogey Man for mothers.
So it is not surprising to see groups of children teasing caged tigers at the zoo: You scared me enough, now I will scare you.
No wonder many childhood nightmares are about tigers attacking. “What are you afraid of…?” “The dark.” “Why?” “There’s a tiger hiding in the dark.” They’ve never seen one, but they are afraid of it. Rather like the bhoot.
With such a negative picture embedded in their minds, will children ever grow to love or understand the true nature of the animal? Does the Save the Tiger project make sense to most children? Certainly not.
We need to look at ourselves and at what we teach our children. Yes, we would all like to teach them to love the jungle, the wilderness, animals and nature. But the first step is for us to stop scaring our children and instilling fear in their impressionable minds. We need to rewrite our stories and banish questionable folk tales from our repertoire. We need to portray the tiger as the hero; show the tiger’s point of view. The animation world has done a lot to create an image of animals as lovable, likable and approachable through works such as the Jungle Book, Lion King, Fern Gully and several others.
My wife still has a huge collection of these films. They were a regular diet for our children in their growing years, along with Hatari, Born Free and some excellent natural history documentaries. Having pets at home was also excellent training in caring and rearing. The fish aquarium was our baby ‘TV’. It was guaranteed to quieten the crotchety baby, especially in the evening. We would switch off all the lights (except the aquarium light) and have the baby watch the multicoloured fish swimming gracefully.
Watching birds, pointing out animals and observing them, spending time outdoors in parks, fields and farms, rather than cinema halls was what we chose to do. Collecting leaves and making albums of dried flowers and seeds were holiday activities and projects.
Soon, stray puppies were being fed and injured pigeons brought home. It was a tragedy when a sparrow died. Full burial with honours, flowers and prayers was given by the gang of friends, their heads bowed in reverence for the little life.
The key word is empathy. When you feel connected to all life around you, then a lame dog tugs at your heart and the felling of trees moves you to action. Leaving matkas of water for birds and animals in the blistering summer heat becomes a part of your nature. Then, caged birds are no longer attractive. A soaring baby eagle that was nursed back to health by good-hearted children brings tears of joy.
The connection between the jungle and the city, the tiger and us is no longer a mystery. A healthy respect for nature makes you simply a better human being and a better citizen capable of nurturing the earth, instead of harming it.
Mike Pandey is a Green Oscar winning documentary film-maker.Write to firstname.lastname@example.org