A boy of eight sits small on a large red, velvet sofa, his dark blue shirt, smart black galas and bowtie look like they were carefully selected for Sidra Iqbal’s morning show. His slightly older cousin sits a few feet away from him, their tiny frames, making the sofa look even bigger than its three-seat capacity.
The boys Zohaib and Imaad sit politely, their hands clasped, their faces sober, almost adultlike.
They are Aaj ka Pakistan guests, along with their mother and aunt Ambreen Ali. The mother is a simple woman, with no makeup and the greys of her hair visible from under her loosely tied dupatta. The three own a small business together; Ambreen makes chicken spaghetti, and the eight-year-old and 10-year-old sell it at a stall in Karachi’s Nazimabad.
The business is in its infancy: it has only been 22 days since they started. Its success cannot be denied, though. Children in the neighbourhood love the wholesome bowls of spaghetti which even at the lowest price of Rs10 has ample amounts of chicken.
The small stall shot to fame after one of Ambreen’s relatives, impressed by the taste of the dish as well as Zohaib and Imaad’s hard work, recorded a video and posted it online.
The video reached bloggers and vloggers, who flocked to the small stall in Nazimabad to witness Zohaib hard at work to supplement his family’s income.
Zohaib carefully pours the noodles into a bowl and tops them with ketchup, mayonnaise and spices.
“At the tender age of eight, he is his mother’s biggest support,” Sidra says, praising his resilience after his father died three years ago.
“He takes after his father, he was very mature and Zohaib is also very mature for his age,” his mother adds. “I do not even go downstairs to check on the stall. Ibaad and Zohaib run it entirely.”
The words ‘mature for his age’ stand out.
“In some families, (early death of a parent) means increased pressures for the grieving child to take on responsibilities of the dead parent and to isolate from friends,” child psychologist Harris ES has said.
It is commendable that Zohaib has stepped up to help his mother but it is important to recognise that it may come at a psychological price. The scientific literature on how the loss of a parent affects children is not very vast but all studies seem to agree that children need time to grieve.
They need to talk about their dead parent and they need some form of continuity, whether in terms of friends, family or even responsibility.
If responsibility is good, then why is resilience a bad thing? Sometimes adults can lean on their children and thrust them into roles that may not be age appropriate. Parents, more often than not do so unintentionally. This is called parentification.
In simple words, parentification is a child providing support to parents, being expected to give advice or deal with problems that require an adult.
There are two kinds of parentification, instrumental and emotional. Instrumental parentification is when the child participates in the physical maintenance of the family.
Emotional parentification is when the child feels responsible for the emotional well-being of others in the family.
Throughout the course of the interview, Ambreen talks about her son advising her on the business, while Sidra asks how he stops people from stealing things from the stall.
“I say, bhai what are you doing, please don’t do it,” little Zohaib responds.
He is also actively involved in telling his mum what to buy for the stall while being hyper-aware of the limitation of his resources as well as what they need if the stall needs to expand.
He had no choice though. He was flung into the deep end of life and had to scramble to stay afloat.
The story of Zohaib’s resilience is thus heartwarming, yet heart-wrenching when looked through the lens of what a child needs and how the loss of a parent can affect them.
One can only hope that we teach Pakistani children to regulate their emotions successfully so they can also do the same as adults. Children need to be taken care of by adults and not the other way around.