Give children a chance to thrive | Sunday Observer
Yesterday was Children’s Day

Give children a chance to thrive

2 October, 2022

During an interview with a famous American film star, the interviewer asked him whether he knew about children. His answer was simple, instant and straightforward: “I have been a child”. Indeed, it is not just possible to become an adult instantly without passing that rite of passage called childhood. Thus we all know what it is like to be a child. This is the phase of life that most of us will recall with glee later on in adult life.

Yin and Yang. Children and elders are two sides of the same coin. After all, one must pass childhood to become an elder. On October 1, we celebrated the Universal Elders Day and the Universal Children’s Day in Sri Lanka, though many countries celebrate the Children’s Day on November 20 after the date which marks the anniversary of the dates when the UN General Assembly adopted both the Declaration and Convention of Children’s Rights.

The Convention, which is the most widely ratified international Human Rights Treaty, sets out a number of children’s rights including the right to life, to health, to education and to play, as well as the right to family life, to be protected from violence, to not be discriminated, and to have their views heard.

Unique perspective

However, by celebrating these two days together, Sri Lanka offers a unique perspective on the importance of both these segments of the population. Children also get an idea of how important it is to take care of their parents and other elders, a trait that is ingrained in our psyche.

The goal of Universal Children’s day is to improve child welfare worldwide, promote and celebrate children’s rights and promote togetherness and awareness amongst all children. Children in today’s world face a multitude of problems and challenges that the world must come together to resolve.

Just what is childhood? It is generally believed to be the period from age 4-5 to 16 (No one really remembers anything about the years of infancy up to around three-four years). There is no doubt that it is the best time of one’s life, a time that never really comes again. It is the period in which we learn about life, go to school, make the first friends (some of whom will stand by you for life), study various subjects and above all, play and have fun. In the formative years of childhood, we also pick up a language or two.

Near-universal school attendance

Education is a basic right of every child, but worldwide there are around 300 million children and youth around who do not go to school. They do not get to put on a uniform and walk or take a bus to school; they don’t get to sit in a classroom, listen to a teacher, read a textbook and take notes. They don’t have the opportunity to learn to read, write and do math. The situation in Sri Lanka is very different, as there is near-universal school attendance by both boys and girls (in many countries, girls are compelled to stay at home doing housework), though education here was disrupted by the Covid pandemic.

Moreover, the vast majority of children with disabilities in the developing world do not go to school. They face multiple barriers, from stigma and ignorance, to lack of infrastructure, materials, or trained teachers. Sri Lanka though has a good education structure for children with visual and hearing impairments, in particular.

Child labour

Child labour is another problem that has to be tackled. Too many children around the world don’t even have a chance to be children. Worldwide, it is estimated that more than 150 million children are engaged in child labour. Most often because their families live in poverty, children are asked to contribute to their livelihoods. They do household chores like cleaning, cooking and fetching water, selling goods or working in factories. Child labour can be a couple of hours a day to a full day.

Child soldiers are deployed in many conflicts around the world, which means they have no chance at all for any kind of education, apart from weapons training and the like. It is a harsh life as many of them are abducted in the first place and then compelled to undergo training, with rudimentary facilities and meagre food rations.

Thousands of children are also trafficked for sex and slavery worldwide. Conflicts and terrorist incidents have displaced children and separated them from their parents, as have natural disasters. More than 50 million children have been uprooted from their homes due to conflict, poverty and Climate Change while millions more face violence in their communities.

The world has to confront the “uncomfortable truth” that around the planet, the rights of millions of children are being violated every day. One can take note of the dire humanitarian situation of children in war-torn Syria and Yemen; the threat posed by extremists in northeastern Nigeria against girls and boys and the severe nutrition crisis facing millions of children in South Sudan. Here in Sri Lanka, a debate is raging on the nutrition levels of children, with some doctors and Government officials disputing the figures announced by UNICEF.

Victims of violence

“Children’s rights are being violated around the world, in every country, wherever children are the victims of violence, abuse and exploitation, violated wherever they are deprived of an education. Their rights are violated wherever they are denied the chance to make the most of their potential simply because of their race, their religion, their gender, their ethnic group, or because they are living with a disability,” the UNICEF has stated.

But can the world address these problems? It costs an average US$ 1.25 per child in developing countries (low- and lower-middle income) to provide a full cycle of pre-primary through secondary education (13 years).

The largest share of this cost, 88%, is borne by developing countries themselves. The international community must fill the gap of just 15 cents a day per child to ensure every child can go to school by 2030. This is part of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

One cannot also forget the role played by parents and teachers in moulding the future generation. UNICEF has drawn attention to the critical role parents play in a child’s first five years through early care giving, socializing and disciplining practices, which can affect their child’s brain development for their whole lives, and even future generations. Parents play a key role in ensuring children get good nutrition, stimulation and protection, known as ‘eat, play and love’, yet they need more support to ensure their children reach their full potential.


The effects of disease, malnutrition and poverty threaten the future of children and therefore, the future of the societies in which they live. Globalisation, Climate Change, digitalisation, mass migration, shifting employment patterns and a shrinking social welfare net in many countries all have strong impacts on children. The impact of these changes can be particularly devastating in situations of armed conflict and other emergencies. Today’s children do indeed face many more challenges than children did even a generation ago.

As I recall, when I was a child in the 1970s, there were no distractions such as TV to divert attention away from studies and play, though in my case I preferred the latter. Tuition was just becoming a ‘thing’ during this time, although most parents did not send their children to tuition classes. Once we returned home from school around 2-3 p.m., the rest of the day was free for studies and play with the children in the neighbourhood, with lunch and dinner thrown in at the desired times. We usually used to sleep around 9 or 10 p.m., though this could get extended to 11 p.m. or so on Fridays and Saturdays. We loved weekends and Government holidays as they gave us an opportunity to visit nearby friends and relatives and have fun all day long.

Past and present

There was no pressure from the parents to ‘cram’ for any exam (school or Government), though I did have a sort of a time table to manage my time between studies and playing. The parents too had ample time to discuss studies with their children back then. Dinner was a family affair, with plenty of banter and laughter at the table. The same applied to breakfast and lunch on weekends and holidays.

Things have changed drastically over the past few decades, with childhood becoming an unrecognisable blur for most children. The 24/7 rat race to make money has consumed every facet of life and childhood itself has become a victim. Today, most children do not even come home after school – they attend a few tuition classes at various places and come home exhausted around 9 p.m. – still in school uniform – and ready to hit the bed sometimes even without dinner. If taken at all, dinner is a lifeless affair – with everyone gazing at the TV screen or engrossed in the Facebook feed on their smartphones.

This is unfortunately what passes for childhood for most children now. There is little or no time for play and fun even during weekends, as these too are spent attending tuition classes. Parents literally drive their children around the bend as they force them to attend tuition classes and cram non-stop for exams. This trend has increased as children missed nearly two years of in-person schooling due to the Covid-19 pandemic - parents are now forcing their children to make up for lost time and somehow pass the exams with flying colours.

Thus parents and teachers have an onerous responsibility to let their children enjoy their childhood. For starters, parents must strive to cut down on the number of tuition classes attended by children – sometimes they go to more than one class for the same subject. Parents should help their children to draw up a home timetable with ample time for both studies and play plus other breaks such as tea. Children also need ample time for sleep – around eight to nine hours per day. This is essential for their developing brains and bodies.

Parental responsibilities

Parents must also stress that exams are not the end of the world – now there are educational and employment opportunities even for those who do not fare very well at exams. Moreover, parents can restrict access to both the TV and smartphones via parental locks on these devices, though it remains to be seen as to how effective this would be in the case of older children who tend to master such devices in double quick time. Parents who have autistic or differently abled children must take extra care in dealing with them, giving them every opportunity to enjoy their childhood and ensuring that they do not feel isolated. Many such children learn to break free from the shackles imposed by their condition and become useful citizens in adult society.

Family, vital

Above all, family life is vital for the healthy development of a child. Forget TV dinners – at least a few times a week, have dinner around the family table with free-flowing conversation. Parents should discuss studies and any other personal issues with children frankly and with an open mind. Childhood is mostly a journey of the mind and parents should help the children to make the most of it, unfettered by the complexities of modern life. It is only then that they will turn into adults useful to society.