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Values & Education

Sense Of Self Or Shame?

Shame shame puppy shame, all the donkeys know your name

Remember this jingle, sung in chorus back in our childhood when the elastic of our shorts gave way or the skirts turned traitor in the wind? It was an age when we were too young to be mindful of our bodies in times of gay abandon, but old enough to know that the 5-letter-word meant reason to blush when heard for our own selves.

Why the sweet donkeys, of all animals, would bother knowing our names in such moments of slips-and-misses is a riddle we need not solve. What we can question, and answer, is the puzzling way in which the psychology of shame finds place in the minds of our young ones.

At a public facility recently, I was busily pulling up my son’s shorts after a ‘what a relief’ moment when he, watching a female fellow-toddler undergoing similar fate in the hands of her mother, chose to announce without warning – ‘Oh oh. Girlie has no wee-weelie-weenkie.’ I confess – it was the only time in all these years that I was scared of a woman’s bag slapping my face. It was also the only time I thanked myself for choosing such a non-telling pseudonym for my son’s manhood. The latter kept the former away, as I quickly tucked in his tee and ducked out of the scene.

And then I sat down to think about it all – the sense of self our children develop about themselves, the sense of body we often ignore to tell them about and the idea of shame that comes marching in because of an incomplete understanding of the former and no idea about the latter.

Notice how, while we do not forget to feed into (or even force upon) our children a Sense of Self – be it comparing the baby’s nose with his mother’s in the early stages or admiring the ABC sung just like his father by a genius toddler – we forget to complement it with a Sense of Body, and ways in which it is to be regarded and received. Thus, while the child tries to discern the new environment and how it responds to his every action, the picture the child’s mind is forming about himself as a Person remains a little incomplete.

How the sense of body gets ignored in the initial days of parenting is this.

Till about a few months after their birth, our babies continue more as little beings we need to feed, wash, clothe, burp, put to bed, etc. rather than as persons. We nurture them as vulnerable newcomers and cater to their primal needs – of feeding and sleeping. On a hot day, it matters not if the baby does a full monty for a little air, or is bathed in full view of family members. They’re just babies, how does it matter? – is an oft heard statement. Perhaps, it does not, at that early a stage.

Then, a nappy and a vest suffice when your crawler wants to explore the world around on his knees – guests or no guests. His mumma can change the diaper in full public view of people in the mall or the little girl can squat on the road side behind the cars, and no one seems to mind. It’s just another activity for parents and babies alike, with no reason for fig leaves. As toddlers become talkers, we as parents find labels for their ahem-parts whether for ease of toilet training, bathing, or simply to calm their self-curiosity once and for all and save ourselves some red faces.

Alien Underpants

But then, just one stage later as they go to school, we hand them a blue book of decorum to do with their bodies, which till now could run amok in suspenders alone without being noticed as odd. We suddenly ask them to be ‘decent’, to sit cross-legged and keep those zips zipped. In short, we now ask them to mind the very bodies that no one, neither they nor us as parents, bothered about a little while back. Childish confusion rules supreme then!

Without building up the ideas of ‘decorum’ and ‘decency’ (however subjective) over the years, we have asked them to interpret it all pretty much on their own. The child may not exactly gather why his shorts have to remain in place all-too-suddenly, but goes ahead and invents a jingle for times when his friend’s doesn’t. The mocking idea of shame and its half-baked understanding has been thrust upon their tender-aged minds, perhaps never to change even with changing times. And hence the donkeys come in to know their names.

When the ‘wee weelie weenkie’ episode happened, I realised how helpful it would be for a child to develop a sense of body at the earliest (both for the sake of the child as well as those around him). One way could be to show respect towards their bodies, as well as our own bodies in their presence. Why let them run around naked when you would not want them doing it once they are a certain age, however subjective the number? Why change in front of them, or bathe with them, and giggle away their questions about the anatomy as if certain parts of the body can only be objects of laughter?

Could your laughter be the beginning of them laughing at another’s bodily accidents, and pronouncing “puppy shame”? If we introduce them to the idea of body early enough, through examples and practice, as something to be cared about, respected and presented in a certain manner, then the idea of shame attached with its various parts will find no place. This will not erase the curiosity but will, perhaps, make them regard another’s body with equal care too, and wipe out the mocking tones and the red faces, both.

Our children will always continue to be kids in our eyes, but they become persons even before our eyes can see it. Let the sense of self we make them develop carry within its folds the sense of body too. If we do that early on, chances are that instead of singing ‘shame shame puppy shame’, they might just say ‘It’s ok!’ when the cartwheels leave the little child at school a tad exposed. That day they would really have come into their own – whether 3, 13 or 23!

Sakshi Nanda went from studying Literature to serving the print media and finally settling with two publishing houses who called her editor for a couple of hard-bounds, no more! She writes as a work-from-home mother to realize herself as well as to be read, both – with her 2-year-old boy and her sarkari babu beau as the greatest source of ideas and inspiration. She believes eating baby food is therapeutic and that the pen is man’s best invention, after diapers that is! Meet her at: