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Opinion: Dr. Shelja Sen, co-founder of Children First

It Takes a Child to Raise a Village



“Our children are active changemakers who can help us grow up and become a more conscious, aware and mindful society.”

The original African proverb might have been “It takes a village to raise a child” but the reverse is equally true. Why do we think that children are just the passive recipients of our goodwill and effort?

If you think about it, children feel much more strongly about their world. It could be about protecting their environment, becoming sustainable, preserving our wildlife or tackling problems such as poverty, corruption, communalism and terrorism – issues that we are struggling with as a human race. They question, they challenge, they shake us out of our lethargic stupor that we have let ourselves slip into. Their inborn sense of justice, fairness and forthrightness makes them right and natural agents for change.

An essential part of our children’s learning in schools needs to be on co-creating leadership skills in every child that can equip them to be changemakers for a better world.

Nurturing Mindful and Ethical Leaders

“One thread that I have seen in all flourishing classrooms is building strong ethical leaders. Leaders that hold on to a culture of character, courage, compassion, critical thinking and collaboration. This is what I would call the “hidden curriculum” of every classroom.” 

This is what builds life skills and not the subjects that we teach. I believe and dream of the day when it becomes the central part of what our education stands for at the whole school, whole state, whole nation level. However, till then, we have to limit this revolution to smaller spaces of our classrooms.



I believe compassion and empathy are central to who we are as a human race and these qualities are therefore our only chance of survival. Children who grow up in an environment where kindness and compassion are valued, recognised and celebrated end up internalising these qualities naturally. They are empathetic, connect to others easily and build stronger relationships. We all know about how EQ-emotional quotient (concept pioneered by Daniel Goleman) is a higher indicator of a strong and successful life than the obsolete concept of IQ (intelligence quotient). Then why is it that despite all the evidence against the misplaced concept of “survival of the fittest”, we still promote it in our schools?

After their education is over and they start working, children realise that they have to do some major unlearning and relearning as more and more successful organisations across the world are about teamwork, collaboration, empathic leadership and building stronger relationships.



According to the cultural historian, Warren Susman, as a culture we have made a shift to Culture of Personality from Culture of Character. When I say personality, I do not mean in the way psychologists use it but more as a focus on the outer gloss than inner core. We admire shine over substance, gloss and glitter over depth. We want our children to be “cool”, popular, polished, smart, charming, charismatic, eloquent, sassy and socially impressive. Qualities such as being kind, compassionate, honest, empathetic, fair, respecting human dignity and having integrity are not seen as being ‘cool enough’. Everywhere we look, there are magazine articles, blogs and books on “personality development”. That is the reason there is mushrooming of so many personality development, self improvement or even worse personality transformation classes for children, which promise how they will make your child shine, impress, communicate effectively and have a successful life.

Personality development is about working on the outer sheen whereas developing character is about digging deep and building the core ethics.

Personality focus is about “what do others think about me?” and making a social impression whereas character is about developing a stronger inner wisdom and listening to it in the most difficult situations.

“Personality is who we are and what we do when everybody is watching. Character is who we are and what we do when nobody is watching.”



Leaders and changemakers tend to take the path “less trodden”. They question, they challenge the norms, the givens, the shoulds, the taken for granted, the musts, the established, the so called common sense and typically prescribed ways of life. They have the courage to think differently. They have the courage to stand up against bullying, patriarchy, abusive and ineffective practices. Changemakers stand up for what they believe in. They get knocked down, they face defeat and failure but they have the audacity to become strong and start again.

As parents and teachers we need to recognise and nurture these qualities in our children. Of course it is much easier to have children who toe the line, are obedient and compliant and it is inconvenient to have children who are ready to challenge our authority. But then we are not really building changemakers, we are just replicating clones who might not leave much of a mark.

“Creating learning classrooms and encouraging changemakers is a disruptive process. It questions the taken-for-granted knowledge and the givens.”

Critical Thinking

In the present world of congested information, we need to focus on developing children’s critical thinking. Children come into this world full of wonder. They question everything as they are wired to do so. They make sense of their world through questions. However, as adults, we do not like questions much as they tax our thinking. I remember when my kids were young, their questions would have me crawling up the wall. “Why do we go to schools?”, “Why do I need to eat vegetables?”, “How do we have babies?”

Curiosity is the necessary spark for learning. Every child carries that light but somehow it gets overlooked, pushed aside or dimmed out.

Opinion-5_Small-1Curiosity is the necessary spark for learning. Every child carries that light but somehow it gets overlooked, pushed aside or dimmed out. . . The brain lights up when it is curious – it starts humming, buzzing and looking for answers. It is rarely satisfied till it has found answers

I love the way John Dewey, one of the most influential minds in the area of education talks about teachers and churning curiosity: “His task is rather to keep alive the sacred spark of wonder and to fan the flame that already glows. His problem is to protect the spirit of inquiry, to keep it from becoming blasé from overexcitement, wooden from routine, fossilised through dogmatic instruction, or dissipated by random exercise upon trivial things.”

The brain lights up when it is curious – its starts humming, buzzing and looking for answers. It is rarely satisfied till it has found answers. We also know another thing about the brain – the more it lights up, makes synaptic connections and builds pathway, the more complex and stronger it grows. Especially the pre-frontal cortex or the conductor of the whole neural orchestra, which seats what we call the executive skills – ability to think clearly, self regulate, manage time, organise self, be goal directed. In short – the key ingredients for optimal living.


One aspect common in all successful and healthy organisations across the world, which believe in the well known concept pioneered by Jim Collins (authored the book by the same name) is “Good to Great” which emphasises the spirit of collaboration. There is enough evidence to indicate that teamwork, working in partnership and cooperatively makes any organisation “good to great”. All strong leaders recognise and work tirelessly towards collaboration. In fact, the mark of a good leader is how much of resonance they are able to create in their teams.

Therefore, it stands to reason that we should build these skills in children from
an early age. However, education becomes a lot about putting one against the other. A child starts measuring his or her worth in terms of how much better or worse he or she is doing compared to others.

Collaboration is a mindset, an approach and a spirit. Where each child’s assets, affinities and temperament are understood individually but the focus is on team spirit, building synergy and bringing out the best in each other. Far cry from Hunger Games practices in our school.

Opinion-5_Small-2Collaboration is a mindset, an approach and a spirit. . .where the focus is on team spirit, building synergy and bringing out the best in each other.

Dr. Shelja Sen has over 25 years of experience in the field of child & adolescent mental health. Dr. Sen has co-founded Children First, an institute for child & adolescent mental health that aims at providing clinical and developmental services, school mental health programmes, community outreach and research work.

Her work includes family therapy, neurodevelopmental and psycho-educational assessments and trainings. This has led her to work extensively in the area of building richer narratives for children in schools through teacher trainings, parenting workshops and interactive work with children. She is also a trainer in Solution Focused Brief Therapy (SFBT), Narrative Therapy and ADHD and has trained in different socio-cultural contexts across India and UK. She is the author of the bestselling book, All You Need is Love, The Art of Mindful Parenting (Harper Collins). Her second book, Imagine, No Child Left Invisible (Harper Collins), will be launched in September 2017.


Cover Story
Youth Voices

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