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I am a child of the Seventies. And growing up in the 70s meant we didn’t have a TV or too many possessions. Our toys were often hand me downs from older kids and our clothes were more likely to be something that all your older cousins had worn and your younger ones were waiting to wear! I remember once this grand-aunt who lived abroad brought me pretty lacy bloomers and I went around showing it off and telling everyone she had given them to me because it didn’t fit her anymore! Anyway that’s neither here nor there. The point I am making is, that we were, by and large, left to our own devices. And I was luckier than many: I had a terrace to play in.
I also had a friend for company: a child my age who lived in the same house and each afternoon after school we would run up to the terrace and be up to some mischief or the other and making a mess. Why, I remember I even gave her a haircut once! We made tea out of mud and water, we made a castle out of the gardening plots we were allotted and we played every game we could think of. We also went through a stage of collecting these fat green worms thinking they were caterpillars in the hope that they would turn into butterflies!I also had a rather authoritarian father. By 6 PM however, I had to be washed and clean and at my desk, studying. Then too, a lot of precious study time was taken up by spooling tape into cassettes, rubbing glue on your fingers till it dried and then peeling it off, making intricate designs on the hands and wrists with a fountain pen (gel pens hadn’t been ‘invented’), rubbing pencil lead on a coin to get the imprint and generally making a mess. I shudder to think now of all the germs and dirt we played with day in and day out.
Only back then, there wasn’t so much awareness about germs and dirt and its ill effects. We were generally told to wash our hands before eating and we generally obeyed. Generally. For as children will, we often looked at our hands, decided it was clean enough and sat down to eat. If anyone asked we’d nod that yes, of course we washed our hands! No one really gave it much thought, to be honest. It was like brushing your teeth, everyone assumed you’ve done it, all a part of general hygiene. However I remember very clearly that whenever we went out, my father would get very irritated if I touched a wall or railing or even the banister of our staircase as we went up or down the stairs. “All kinds of dirt,” he would mutter, “can’t you keep your hands to yourself?” Much later I learnt why and now I tell my girls the same thing. And yes, now I also know it's unavoidable, the dirt, the germs, the dust, yes, even though you cannot see it. So why not just make a habit of washing your child's hands each time she or he comes in from outside? For those tiny hands can also rub the eyes and help cause an infection.
We learnt about personal hygiene much like most other things, without remembering when. Yes, we wash our hands before and after eating, yes, we wash our hands after using the toilet but when did we learn these things? It is only after I became a mother that I realised that these are little things you carefully weave into your child’s life so that it becomes a habit, not an occasional venture that requires prompting. Now I often say that my parents were much better parents than I ever will be, because my girls seem to have not learnt half the things that I did or knew by the time I was their age. Like, for example, washing hands. Even now sometimes I have to stop my girls from wiping their hands on the upholstery or on their own clothes after eating something! Horrors! I feel like a complete failure as a parent despite Dettol Handwash having been placed near every sink in the house, even the kitchen! And it’s not like kids these days do not know these things. Oh, they know too much! About too many things they have no business knowing. But then there’s also another side to it. They also know the importance of eating a balanced diet, just as they know that stagnant water may breed mosquitoes and not washing your hands before eating exposes you to germs that can make you sick.
The other day there was a puja in the house, I saw my girls who otherwise will not bat an eyelid before picking at food with their grubby hands, taking their younger cousins to wash their hands. The children all lined up and the older ones helped the younger ones, even the ones too tiny to reach the sink. And, if you can have a jolly tune like “Dettol Dettol ho” to sing along to, why not?