Opinion

Indian schools are using WhatsApp to enslave mothers and crush children’s independence

My child’s school WhatsApp group registers up to 40 messages an hour. If this were a national security warning system, we’d always be on Red

The internet came into my drawing room when I was 17 and it set me free. Once online, I let it all hang out. I typed questions into askjeeves.com that I wouldn’t dare ask out loud to the family doctor. I had no curfew and went where the feeling took me. I chatted up strangers with foreign names and forgot about them just as easily the next morning. The experiences I had online felt like an adventure not a community-wide scandal-in-the-making.

Outside roamed nosy neighbours, vigilant uncles and aunties. Outside, I was a demure superhero cursed with protecting, through sheer, visible blamelessness the never-sleeping beacon of the family name. On the internet, though, I could roam wild and free of scrutiny in a way that I had outgrown with pig tails and bloomers. I could be anonymous, independent, alone.

The internet was an infinite grassland of possibilities, limited only by my own limitations. I published my first set of poems in an online journal, befriended editors of a print magazine through email. I was on my way to being heard, and to sharing my voice.

Then, almost before I knew it, the smartphone was here, and the long form of communication had an alternative which was new and exciting. Unlikely relationships bloomed and ebbed in privacy and over once-insurmountable distances. Instant messaging changed boardroom into bedroom and flipped it the other way around too. Everyone was accessible and everything was within reach.

Two decades and two children later, everything is different, because my smartphone has been taken over in a way that makes me feel not so smart.

Always on call

There’s such a thing as too much communication, conversations I can’t simply put a polite end to and leave. My WhatsApp, for instance, stays on silent, because each of my children’s school chat groups registers up to 40 messages an hour – and that’s on a good day. One could argue that the tool is only as sophisticated as the user. By that measure, my gripe ought to be redirected to that peculiar form of obsessive compulsive disorder that many mothers operate with. What are we doing, 30 women between the ages of 25 and 45, discussing how to paint a paper cup black? (Thirty-five messages, seven pictures exchanged.) Why aren’t our children – future fund managers, teachers, doctors, artists, and lawyers (or so we hope) – figuring it out for themselves? Why request a picture of today’s grammar assessment, after it’s already been administered? Why ask questions about what the portion for tomorrow’s biology test is, when at 1am, our kids are in bed, and we should, potentially, be thinking of other things?

Why has being a school mom turned into a relentless, 24/7 activity? The “mom chats” are the first set of messages I see in the morning. The last thing I see before I switch the phone off for the night. If this were a national security warning system, I’d say we were always on Red, perpetually on High Alert.

I know why. Or at least I can make a good guess, and like with all blame games, I’ll pin this on a conspiracy theory. It’s because schools have exceeded their boundaries, and think nothing of seeding hysteria in parents, on the grounds that constant, heightened vigilance improves the child’s performance at school. Schools are no longer places to park your children, for half a day, while you work at home or in an office.

Schools expect your participation, rather than your child’s. The logic is simple: you are far easier to discipline and far easier to shame or scare. What’s more, there has been such little protest from mothers, that schools have come to expect all our attention and all our time. Again, arguably, it has much to do with our inability to just say no.

Right to privacy

How do schools maintain control over mothers? They use the internet to keep us permanently connected to the mainframe. School apps know how to put you in your place – after all, this is a partnership, as the school authorities keep reminding us. I sign in to an app, because, well, my 10- and seven-year-olds don’t own smartphones (yet). And then the fun begins – I start monitoring and checking everything that’s up there, like a good mother must.

Passport photographs of the children in school uniform required, at an evening’s notice? No problem. Can do. Size two, four, eight, and fourteen paint brushes in both round and flat bristles? Sure, I can find them. Science assessment tomorrow? Got it. No need for the English prose notebook, but carry English grammar next Monday? All right, I’ll pack my child’s bag accordingly. Four lines about the monuments of India? Okay, done. Five potatoes with a black marker to be brought in? Sure. Hindi poem recitation tomorrow? On it.

We are on it. We are so on it that we put home-schoolers to shame. We give our children no real space in which to mature, no real sense of responsibility, no real shot at failing, and learning from failure – because, as mothers, we seem to have internalised that their business is our business. We are raising sons who are used to throwing up their hands, sons with moms who sort out every detail of their lives. We are raising daughters who learn a woman’s domestic role is being the scheduler of other people’s lives.

We put our lives on hold for theirs. Schools encourage this by shrugging off their responsibility, their part in the “partnership”.

Attend a parent-teacher meeting, and chances are, you will be told to go through and sign your child’s books every day, checking to see if the day’s work is complete. In my case, that is roughly seven books a day, every day, for two children each. If I have a query, there’s always a WhatsApp group with 30 mothers. They’re always on call, like me. Who wants to be a mom in a WhatsApp group of supermoms?

I dared, at the last PTA meet, to raise my hand and ask politely about my child’s right to privacy. Shouldn’t he have a right to manage his own affairs, and learn from his errors?

I confess I didn’t dare to ask about my own right to some space and time.

Have schools used technology to target mothers specifically? In principle, either parent can download the app, or check on the website. Yet, curiously, in a decade of parenting, I have yet to see a father post a query on the WhatsApp chat group.

The internet which once set me free is now a leash that keeps me eternally tethered to my duty as a child-raiser. There are days I look at my phone with such loathing that I think its monitor heats up in embarrassment. But then, I give in. After all, how can my daughter go to school tomorrow without carrying two pink foolscap sheets, which it was never her responsibility to remember? What else am I doing with my time that’s so important, anyway?

Karishma Attari is the author of I See You and Don’t Look Down. She runs a workshop series called Shakespeare for Dummies and is currently writing a novel titled The Want Diaries. Her Twitter handle is @KarishmaWrites.

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