The other day at the local park, I overheard a woman speaking to her child. Even as I type this sentence, I am feeling semi-embarrassed because judging other people’s parenting in some fleeting interaction is a no-no. What do you really know, after all? But here I am, writing about it and only semi-embarrassed.
The parent of this eight- or nine-year-old had pitched her voice, unconsciously I thought, at a volume that is only suitable for an audience of the imaginary video about to go up on YouTube. She was scolding her slightly awkward child for not being able to race up the curved ladder of the jungle gym in the park. He was climbing it, albeit a little gingerly, and pausing every now and then to adjust his glasses. Meanwhile, the parent was saying the following: Move three limbs at a time, go faster, why are you behaving as if I am asking you to climb a mountain? I winced many times, puzzled at three things. One, was this the first time in years that this child had been in the playground? Two, was she prepping him for some entrance exam? Because most parents use the playground as a place to switch off their brains a little. And three, was she an off-duty reality show host?
Then when the child was roughly two rungs away from the top, she said, at the same volume and broadcast quality pitch but in English: “You are disappointing me. You are disappointing me.” I turned around and stared at her with my mouth open. She looked mildly sheepish. Her child, presumably familiar with this behaviour, was still climbing. I contemplated explaining the phrase “villain origin story” to her but desisted. Someone had to do some desisting.
The place where I am more familiar with reality show judge-like parents is, strangely enough, the swimming pool. The pool parent is often but not always a man. They are there to coach their child into Michael Phelps in 10 days or less. Often but not always, the child is screaming because the parent has misinterpreted the metaphor of jumping in at the deep end for an instruction manual. They often employ a trained swimming coach but mid-session will resort to yelling “keep your head down”, “kick harder” and so on. They believe that the coach knows how to swim but not how to shout. A striking characteristic of this variety of pool parent is that very often they do not know how to swim.
At pools all over India, I have popped my head out of the water in panicked response to what I thought was the sound of tectonic plates clashing but then discovered was just a mother or father who thinks their child is a lazy loser who complains too much about the water being too cold. Usually, I put my head back in the water and then think of villain origin stories with aquatic themes.
I have very little interest in psychoanalysing cruel parents or parental figures because please, they are old enough to know better. But I am willing to bet reasonably large sums of money that these parents (barring some actual sociopath) sincerely believe that shouting, combined with ignoring what your child/student says, is pedagogy. Yelling “No, you cannot stop” is what they think breaking the sound barrier is.
In fact, in the swimming lessons department, a national survey of millennials is bound to reveal that most were dropped in at the deep end without warning as their very first swimming lesson. After which, an actual coach in the pool who teaches you to breathe or a totally dry parent who yells at you from the side of the pool must seem like an incredible luxury. If only your child knew how easy they have it, you are likely to think. They are much like that friend of yours who tells you that “a little hitting doesn’t ever hurt you. My father hit me all the time. I turned out okay, didn’t I?” This is a moment when you wish you were in a pool so you could put your head in the water and not make eye contact. If there is anything that discourages parents from giving in to their desire to give their child one tight slap, it is likely to be intimate knowledge of the personalities of those who were slapped regularly as children.
Parental anxiety and parental status anxiety come in so many colours and flavours. And of course, where there is anxiety there is a revenue model. There are those who twist the ancient art of adults being disgruntled or worried about their children into “science”. These are less interested in the swimming pool and more in the gene pool.
They run the gamut. At one end, you have right-wing folks who promise to create designer babies by making mothers listen to chanting, more suitable for god-loving and nation-building. At the other end, there are folks who con parents into believing their autistic children should be “fixed” with stem cell therapy. In March, the Navi Mumbai municipal corporation pulled the licence of the NeuroGen Brain and Spine Institute for providing unproven and harmful stem cell therapy to “cure” thousands of children with autism. NeuroGen is not the only one promising this kind of “magic” pill, though.
Stem cell therapy for autistic spectrum disorder, Ayurvedic gold therapy for speech delay, you can hear about all kinds of “fixes” being discussed by worried parents if you hang around where parents of young children hang out. So often, parents feel they just can’t do enough or push their children hard enough. And that they are alone in their task of preparing their children for the cruel world. Not quite registering that cruelty in childhood doesn’t help you ward off cruelty in adulthood. You are just unsurprised. You just walk around with the mantra in your ears: You are disappointing me, you are disappointing me.
Nisha Susan is the editor of the webzine The Ladies Finger and author of The Women Who Forgot To Invent Facebook And Other Stories.