Child's Play

In June, dinner party conversation naturally and frequently turns to school. So on one such occasion, one of my friends, whose two year old who has just started playschool, tells us half-laughing, half-anxious that the school has sent a note home. “Please send your child dressed as a cow on Monday and a horse on Wednesday.”

Illustration/ Amit Bandre

Mixed responses follow the laughter. Those of us, either sadly lacking in the art and crafts department start infecting the mother with our totally unjustified panic, the costumes are not our responsibility. “Where am I going to get a cow and horse costume from?” she wonders now. Another friend wishes her kid’s school had such requirements because she loves doing these things. “Make him wear a head band with horns, then let him wear a white pant and shirt.” she suggests.

The idea elicits immediate skepticism. What if the other hyper-estrogenated moms have purchased American costumes like this or worse, stitched some up that looked just like the real thing with their own hands? How will the kid feel then? Won’t he go through life scarred by the memory of being a
slipshod cow?

At this point, we also learn that the playschool does not have a uniform, but it does have a recommended dress code — we prefer that the child wear black shoes and we recommend Reeboks. But if you really want your child to wear sandals then we are ok with Crocs. I learn of another playschool where it’s compulsory to buy a sun hat from the school for Rs 1,000 (imported hoga).

What are these places? Playschools or corporate offices for two-year olds? This vaguely reminds me of a feudal practice where certain designs or colours of traditional fabrics — like say, ajrakh — can only be worn by particular castes or communities or conversely — certain communities could only wear certain designs. Not that I’m saying Crocs and Reeboks indicate casteism.  Or am I?

Somewhere underneath this homework about Old MacDonald, the Scottish farmer’s animals and dress codes, lie assumptions about parents. There’s an assumption of (usually) moms who don’t work and are very good at art and crafts, as nice ladies should be, so they have time to make or source these costumes. Or the assumption that the family income is enough that you can buy the “right” brands and the right Halloween style costumes.

You can always take the position that you won’t give in to this stupid, classist, gendered nonsense and let you child be different. But parents feel understandably nervous that their child will be mocked, or somehow discriminated against in a sea of conformity. Except your child wouldn’t be ‘different’ if all the children were allowed to be different. Playschool is supposed to help children transition from the familiarities of home to the unexpected variegatedness of society. So why this emphasis on uniformity?

If school increasingly becomes a place where you meet people seemingly of one kind, then what hope do children have of comprehending difference — their own or others? Of coping with the world with some compassion and intelligence? Won’t they forever fit in but be misfits in terms of their humanity?

Schools and parents complain about the unevenness that will result from bringing poorer kids into schoolrooms under the RTE. No doubt some private schools will deploy the backdoor discrimination of ‘suggested’ dress codes etc. to become inhospitable for poorer kids so they stay away voluntarily. But parents should question the wisdom of a schooling that domesticates your child into sameness, duly branded, like animals at a farm.

Paromita Vohra is an award-winning Mumbai-based filmmaker, writer and curator working with fiction and non-fiction. Reach her at

The views expressed in this column are the individual’s and don’t represent those of the paper. 

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