Associated Management of Primary and Secondary Schools in Karnataka (KAMS) issued an advisory for thousands of its member private, English-medium schools on Monday regarding Valentine’s Day. KAMS asked schools to keep an eye on students looking to ‘celebrate’ the day by checking their bags and their person for things like greeting cards, gifts, chocolates and the colour red.
The idea of the note and the advisories to parents and schools seems to be simple – romantic feelings and relationships are unsuitable for children in school and so, they must be prohibited from furthering those on Valentine’s Day. And although the note argues that this is to maintain the safety of the children, it’s quite apparent that it’s nothing short of moral policing.
“Students in the school of unsuitable ages are indulging in love activities and this is the reason for physical and mental stress. The bad effects will lead to quarrels, lies, dangerous situations, hitting each other, groupism and murder - and these [incidents] are increasing. These kinds of activities are given extra push during Valentine’s Day. This is [observed] not only among students of proper age but also in younger students in recent years. Due to this unhealthy development and its effect on young minds, the following warnings have been given,” the note says, in Kannada.
Apart from instructing schools to take ‘precautions’, the note, a copy of which is with TNM, also gives instructions for parents. It asks them to be vigilant of their child lying, stealing or borrowing money for the day, carrying “coloured clothes” in their bags to change later, going to malls of movies after lying or without informing.
It is likely that such instructions would enjoy the support of most Indian parents who think similarly about children, especially adolescents and romantic relationships between them. Experts, however, say that such advisories miss out on the fantastic opportunity that something like a Valentine’s Day would provide to actually have open conversations with children about sexuality and healthy relationships.
A restrictive approach to natural teenage feelings
Dr Sangeeta Sanksena, a gynaecologist and co-founder of Enfold Proactive Health Trust, points out that directives such as these come from a disciplinary, strict, and to an extent patriarchal mindset. “Could we look at creating an open environment for discussion on sexuality, mental and emotional developments in teenagers, and romantic feelings that are normal at that time and age?" she questions.
One of the areas that Enfold Trust works on is building safe and inclusive communities for children and adults through life skills-based sexuality and personal safety education.
“Valentine’s Day would actually have been a great opportunity for having a conversation about adolescence… things like how it is normal for children to have romantic crushes at this time, but that they shouldn’t get carried away. Also, take only those actions that we can take responsibility for, and handle possible consequences of. This could have been an apt time to talk to them about healthy relationships and behaviour,” Dr Sangeeta adds.
Swagata Raha, a legal researcher who has worked extensively in the area of child rights, says that advisories like these reflect a very inadequate understanding of children’s sexuality. “Adolescence is a period of tremendous changes, of which attraction and sexual feelings are also a part. A healthier way of doing this would have been to encourage schools and parents to have open conversations with their kids about safe ways of expressing these feelings,” she says.
Dangers of compelling children to conceal their feelings
The KAMS advisory gets one thing right though – teens do resort to lying about and hiding their relationships and feelings of attraction from their parents and other adults in their life. But that is not their fault.
Most Indian films still have a love story at their core, Dr Sangeeta says. And when families go to watch such films, everyone enjoys them. “Romance makes up most of the narrative, and if the protagonists get married, that is usually the conclusion. So, if you enjoy a Dil To Pagal Hai or Kuch Kuch Hota Hai, but you reprimand the child when they start having these feelings. That sends a wrong message to the child – that he or she must hide their feelings, or what they are doing is wrong,” she states.
And because it is normal for adolescents to feel attraction and become more aware of their sexuality, they may form relationships – even if it is in secret. However, without the right guidance, or knowledge of safe sexual behaviour, they may end up in dangerous situations. “Making it seem that having feelings for another person is an unhealthy and myopic way of handling such situations. But when you make a child believe that, you make it difficult for them to reach out to an adult if he or she needs advice, or is in trouble,” Swagata says.
In an ideal world, a teen would not have to have to lie about meeting their girlfriend or boyfriend. “In fact, the safest place to meet them would be at home, when a parent is present!” Dr Sangeeta says.
Further, the influence of media cannot be discounted on how teens perceive romance and relationships. For instance, stalking is shown in film industries across India as a legitimate way to pursue a love interest. However, a child is told otherwise, they may continue to have this wrong notion, even until they are adults.
“Instead, we could be telling children, how they can safely express feelings of attraction. We could be talking to them about exercising caution when it comes to getting physically involved at a young age due to health risks, and also the emotional ramifications of the same. And while normalising their yearning for romance and expressing sexuality, we explain to them how relationships at this age may not be everlasting, though they may seem that way – thus reducing the risk of them taking extreme steps if a romance fails. These are some issues that need open conversation,” Dr Sangeeta asserts.