Another Type of Childhood
I currently work as a Professor of Education and Humanities at Fairhaven College, Western
Washington University. After teaching for nearly 40 years at the university level, I will retire at the end of this academic year. Recently I travelled overseas with a group of my students for three months – one month in northern Thailand and two months working with children in three distinct areas of India representing the Hindu, Sikh and Tibetan cultures. This journey was sparked by my deep curiosity about the experience of childhood, what it means to be a child, and how ideas about childhood differ across cultures.
In America the ideal childhood is viewed as one where children are nurtured and provided for until they are young adults. However, in many third world countries children assume adult responsibilities as soon as they are capable of working for the family; many bring in income or contribute to work in the fields as soon as they are old enough to walk.
The Institute for Village Studies organized this trip with the goal of building longstanding
reciprocal relationships with our community partners and to bring vital resources to these communities. The students and I had the opportunity to observe firsthand the dynamics of child
rearing and implement projects that engaged children in educational activities.
In the Hindu part of India, we had the opportunity to meet an amazing man, Doctor Abhaya Jain, who works to provide educational opportunities for lowcaste children, or Dalits, in Sarnath. The Dalits, also known as the untouchables, have been denied access to education since the 1850s. Although education rights were granted to all children in India in 2010, the literate population in the Dalit caste still remains much lower than that of the rest of India. This is in large part because although everyone is offered an education, associated costs prohibit many families who cannot even afford the cost of a pencil.
Education, for both girls and boys, can be a pathway out of this poverty. Dr. Jain has opened a group of free schools for Dalit children, and his work has been transformative. He trains village women who open preschools on their front steps. He has also opened a free primary school, and one step at a time he is making education possible for these children.
Our trip ended in Dharamsala, home of the Dalai Lama in exile, and we worked with Tibetan children who travelled there from Chinese occupied Tibet so they could learn to read and write in their indigenous language. Families in Tibet often bring their children over the Himalayan Mountains so that they have access to their culture and religion, forbidden in Tibet. To get to the Tibetan Children’s Village, many of the children had to journey over treacherous mountain passes and walk long distances. Once they arrive, the children live in a boarding school.
We also spent time in a Rajasthani refugee camp in Lower Dharamsala. There we worked with children who earn income for their families by begging on the streets in Dharamsala for money from American and European tourists. Because these children are significant wage earners for the families, we have to supply the families with money in order to provide the child the opportunity to go to school.