Special issue with the Sunday Magazine
CHILD: February 07, 1999
The mask of Janus
According to the Upanishads, a bad son may sometimes be born but a bad mother - never. We can add "father" to the mother and make it parents. Parents are always good, always right, always unselfish and always loving. At any rate this is the view we would like to hold and also - particularly - like our children to have.
Is it always true? Honesty must surely compel us to answer in the negative. Parents do not always display all the above virtues but parents are always important. Of the infinite number of people on the face of this planet, the two people who wield the maximum power over our emotions - indeed shape them, make us whole, allow us to have healthy future relationships - are our parents. Parents organise the child's emotional reactions throughout his life. Any conflict between them and the child's world is sent crumbling about his ears, any change in their relationship and the message is subtly conveyed through those minuscule antennae that are always alert to see if all is well.
So parents are important and one of the basic tenets of any religion is honouring the father and mother. Obedience and respect from the children would be rewarded with approval and care from the parents. A generation ago, the Victorian stereotype was not uncommon - autocratic, overbearing and judgmental fathers, and docile, submissive and obedient mothers who set the stage for the children's patterns of behaviour. This has more or less changed in today's urban settings. Increased education followed by gainful paid employment has given birth to a new generation of mothers. Urban mothers are now aware of their influence over their children. Educated and self- possessed, they have clear ideas of what is wanted. The notion of children following parents' commands without question is no longer acceptable. Where both parents are professionals, children are well planned events and - judging by some parents' attitude - even projects, which must take off the ground and have smooth flights, with the remote control in the parents' hands. Where 30 years ago, the father's arrival from work - his presence in the house - was a silent order for discipline and "good behaviour," today's scene is somewhat different. Both parents have an equal say and in some homes, there are conflicting messages given with equal authority, thereby creating some interesting games which children play.
However, today's children have also changed. They, too, are much surer of themselves - indeed it is a compliment to parents - and have the confidence of standing up for themselves, because they are more aware of their options, their capabilities and their needs. Words like gratitude and duty may be becoming defunct and slowly erasing themselves from the vocabulary of most middle-class families. What are these time-honoured concepts being replaced with? Who is changing our value-system and are we treading the path we want in our parenting methodology?
As a teacher, I want to say that parents are still, undoubtedly, the most important single component of society, especially if we are agreed on the point that the family, as the smallest unit of society replicating its demands and needs, prepares us to take our places in the sun. It is parents who right whatever may be wrong in our scheme of things, who constantly worry and support - even if sometimes over-doing it. A society may do away with almost any other institution but not the family. Apart from being the seed-ground of the future, parents provide a marvellous system of links of continuity, passing down traditions, as no one else can. Parenting methods are copied - or avoided - from what we learnt at our own parents' knees. Almost always, we act in ways that we have absorbed from our own parents, which is how families build up traditions of levels of honesty, personal integrity, work ethics. These are all the results of parental effort and the State, which reaps the benefits, has almost nothing to do with these.
Mohandas V. Badagara/Wilderfile
However, today's parents differ from their own in the level of participation they both show and allow their children to exhibit in the child-rearing process. The equality that has everywhere become greater is making itself felt even within the family and emerging from there are even higher levels of democracy as children, emboldened by their first successful brush with authority, are able to look at authority figures outside, as primus inter pares. Children learn, too, how far they can go and what is acceptable within the framework. The only regrettable thing here is that sometimes it backfires and the result is intellectual anarchy.
In rural areas, parenting still retains some of its flavour because children are viewed as helpers in the work force and leadership has to be seen as coming from up front. The most important virtue is obedience and any attempt to stand up for oneself indicates mutiny. As emancipation of women is still regarded in some parts as a fore runner to the breakdown of comfortingly old societal values, new mores of parenting are resisted.
Parenthood begins, for the mother at any rate, the moment conception takes place. Can it be possible that we never lose the deep feeling of commitment and nurture from that moment on till the very end? Our customs point to the all-embracing influence of parents which extends even beyond their death. Education, marriage, the birth of a new generation - the cycle continues endlessly. We guide our children through their first faltering steps, through infancy and childhood to adulthood, wishing away all the evil, trying to enhance the good, sometimes failing, not knowing when to stop. If the emergence from chrysalis to butterfly is supposed to be painful for the child the emergence for parents from being all-knowing and all-powerful to becoming detached yet concerned observers is no less difficult. Unfortunately, parents live in the past, while children inhabit the future. The bridge across this aeonic chasm is the love we feel.
Some things which have changed
Viewing authority as friendship. The very language of parent-child interaction has become different. Since there is increased use of English, there is greater casualness. Even in the vernacular, honorific usage is now obsolete. Some of this sounds fearfully rude but causes genuine surprise when pointed out.
The ability to express what was once considered taboo: Both parents and children have overcome feelings of queasiness and are forthcoming about some of their deepest concerns. Co-education has had a major role to play in this revolution.
The shift from family or family-owned occupations.
Things which have not
Love and concern for each other: Children absolutely adore their parents and will almost never let them down. Parents are not always quite so loyal, but one can see why.
The desire for approval has not gone down one bit: Whatever children may claim ("I don't care..." etc. etc.) is partly bluster and partly self-protection. Parents' need for acceptance is too well known to require amplification.
Quality time: A concept coined by modernists as a sop to their conscience when they realise guiltily that they are not there when they should be. Evidence shows that children need quantity time too, if one can call it that.
The presence of both parents, a united front, a reasonably happy home, and a predictable everyday routine, interspersed with occasional bouts of happy insanity in which everyone takes part.
The presence of grandparents and sundry cousins, aunts and uncles to take away the cloying edge from too much parental concern.
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