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Every little thing that shapes you

Research has shown that all kinds of factors shape our politics. For instance, your family’s political affiliation and where you live play an important role

Photo: Hindustan Times
Photo: Hindustan Times

Every time I read a Harvard Business School study that emphasizes that daughters of working moms are more likely to be employed, hold leadership roles and earn higher wages than the children of mothers who stay at home, I panic. Retiring early has meant that Babyjaan, our seven-year-old, isn’t growing up with a traditional “working" mom.

Sure she sees me sit at my computer and write laboriously, but my work-from-home persona is a shadow of my former 9-7 self. In that past life, I drove journalists crazy with my demands in assorted busy newsrooms. For most of my life, my professional ethic was shaped by my father’s “work is worship" philosophy. It was only in my 40s that I was drawn to my husband’s idea of balance: “There’s more to life than work."

My work life might change again, but opting out of the rat race these past few years has meant that my daughter doesn’t remember the part of my life that defined me for so long. I console myself by thinking that my mother stayed at home, and yet my work life was more robust than many women who had working mother models. The future of work is flexible and remote, anyway. Besides, who knows what shapes us?

How do our political views form? It’s a mystery that researchers have tried hard to solve, and one that is increasingly relevant in a sharply divided world.

Like many teenagers who will come of voting age in the run-up to 2019, the first time 18-year-old student Arushi started thinking of politics was when Anna Hazare went on a fast in 2011 to strengthen an anti-graft law. “I saw people with jobs and people with so much to do in life, leaving all that and protesting with Anna. And I thought this is the power we yield as citizens," she says.

When the Aam Aadmi Party was formed, fiery discussions became routine at home. “Dad was pretty involved and so were some other friends and I was old enough to understand some of the things they said," she adds. She was upset when the Bharatiya Janata Party swept to power in 2014; in recent months she’s been influenced by the fear of her Muslim friends. “I don’t claim all this prejudice is the government’s fault. A lot of factors could help shape it but what I can’t ignore is how they help normalize such feelings, how they are making the majority religion feel invincible. That is something that makes me furious," she says.

Research has shown that all kinds of factors shape our politics. Authoritarian parenting can result in children with more conservative political beliefs. Your family’s political affiliation and where you live play an important role. The newspapers and books I read growing up, my teachers in college, the PhD thesis a friend wrote on the demolition of the Babri Masjid and the upsurge of Hindu nationalism in the 1990s, my travels abroad and the liberal man I married, all moulded my political thought.

If you believe studies, how we turn out is all decided before we hit puberty. Will we get along with peers? Succeed in love? Be socially anxious teenagers? Have an eating disorder? Have high SAT scores? Be forgetful? Studies have linked all these and more to our childhood and our relationship with our parents. If your parents weren’t your role models, it’s likely you were influenced by grandparents or another adult caregiver to whom you felt close. Teachers and celebrities can often fill in too.

Women are increasingly opting for the same career path as their fathers, studies show. The fewer gender stereotypes a man holds, the less likelihood there is of his daughter being trapped in a narrow feminine identity. Fathers influence their children’s decisions of college, careers and future romantic relationships. Mothers influence all the above plus food habits, body image, how healthy we are, our empathy and stress levels, how easily we trust, how neat we are, how effectively we communicate and even how much linen we stock (although I haven’t seen a study on this last one yet).

Our attitudes towards money are, often, courtesy our parents. Everyone has a story about why they save or why they spend. My father’s saving habits were influenced by Partition and by the fact that he had to repay his father’s debts when he died. Warren Buffett was my dad’s role model (don’t borrow, don’t live from pay cheque to pay cheque, invest for the long term, understand money, have good money habits, start saving early). Many of these ideas have rubbed off on me too.

My friends have always exerted an influence on my life. He’s not the right man for you. Colour your hair, save the hippie chic for later (so after a lifetime of living with silver, I started colouring my hair two years ago). Apologize, it’s not worth getting upset. Watch this. Wear this. One girlfriend knows I hold her responsible for making me go through life convinced I have a big butt. Friday date nights were instituted sometime last year on another girlfriend’s advice.

How sporty your child is depends entirely on how much you value the active life and how much time you invest in ensuring she has outdoor time. Are Sunday mornings spent at the park? Does she watch live sport? Did you teach her to cycle and swim? These days Babyjaan dreams of spangly leotards, watches only gymnastics during her limited screen time and makes up her own floor routines. So we enrolled her in a neighbourhood gymnastics class run by a fierce Hungarian who is a former professional gymnast. Other parents may prefer to emphasize painting, reading, watching the Harry Potter or Lord Of The Rings films or playing chess. And that will all determine how the next generation turns out.

When Babyjaan was asked to compose a bio poem in school recently, it provided insights into what has already influenced her. She wrote that she hates fights, loves to swim, wants to learn how to dance, is really good at singing, would rather run, has the good habit of smiling and would never be afraid. That, for me, was a better indicator than a Harvard Business School study that we were doing something right.

Priya Ramani shares what’s making her feel angsty/agreeable.

She tweets at @priyaramani

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