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Lock up the parents when it is exam time

Over-parenting and excessive handholding robs children of self-efficacy.

Photo: Natasha Badhwar
Photo: Natasha Badhwar

I have forgotten once again what exams my children have tomorrow. Every alternate day they get preparatory leave to stay at home and study for the exam they have the next day. It is past 9am and they are still in bed, their bodies arranged in tangram-like postures, sheets entangled around their limbs.

It is that time of the year in the north Indian school rhythm, when most middle- and high-school students sit for their final examinations. It is that time of the year in the rhythm of our household when I give myself some time off and keep me away from our children.

Our youngest child, who goes to an exam-free Waldorf school, is pottering about doing her own thing, playing some role in the wonderland of her imagination. My mother, who is visiting, is wondering when and how to intervene.

My cluelessness about the exam schedule of my older children reminds me of conversations with my parents when my brothers and I were school-going children. They would often remind us about how privileged we were to have parents who were so involved with our studies. We had parents who could teach us.

“Mataji and Pitaji rarely knew which class each of their children was studying in," my mother would often tell us. “Someone from the family would enrol us in school and after that we were pretty much on our own, mostly just following an older sibling around, till we found our feet in the system. When it was time for higher studies, we chose what we could with almost no guidance from anyone in the family."

One generation later, I’m working to be more like my grandparents than my parents, in terms of my immersion in my children’s life as students. I know which class each of them is in, but I couldn’t tell you their sections. I don’t keep track of their complicated sports and extracurricular activity schedule. I don’t know very much about what is in their textbooks and I have no clue what the syllabus for their final exams is. I don’t know what time they slept yesterday and I will only wake them up now because my mother is getting anxious and we must not mess with her blood-pressure chart.

As for me, I am in a kind of self-styled parent-rehab programme. Complete abstinence is my only chance at recovery.

When our firstborn crossed over from pre-primary classes to primary school, we discovered that I had a strange parenting affliction. Whenever I tried to help her complete her homework or a school project, I would turn into an ogre—angry, impatient and restless. I would grow extra-large in size and loom over the child, somewhat like a newer version of my own father as a young man teaching his children to come first in everything, whether it was studies, sports or the oddly-named SUPW (socially useful productive work) activities.

For the sake of everyone’s sanity, we had to remove me from the room altogether.

A few years later, when I look at the books, question papers or exam results of my adolescent daughters, I still get too excited. I get over-involved. I begin to spill over with ideas on how they can perform better. I get shocked and anxious when I find differences in how their textbooks are organized in comparison to how ours were. I can’t believe their lack of interest in their Khan Academy online accounts. I begin to quiz them about the Bronze Age civilizations and types of ocean currents. I launch into speeches on discipline, passion and self-motivation.

And then I have to be plucked out of the scene again.

At exam time, sometimes, I go away on a work trip to a place where the phone signal is so bad that I can’t hear a thing after I have asked my daughter how she did in the exam she took that day. The phone reception always picks up when she tells me about stopping for ice cream on the way back from school with their father and who all have dropped in at home to distract them from studying anything extra before their next exam.

“I love you, beta," I say.

“I love you too, Mamma," says the little woman.

I must acknowledge the extreme privilege that makes it possible and imperative for me to be such a hands-off parent. Unlike the experience of our own parents, it has been a breeze for my husband and me to choose the best schools we know for our children. We change schools with confidence when we feel that we must move on. Schools choose our children and us. Our children have been born into a home full of books, music, films and art. They have access to more of the same all the time. Every generation that came before my husband and me has worked hard to bring us to the threshold of this privilege.

It would be a pity if we were foolish enough to repeat outdated, anxiety-ridden parenting practices that don’t allow our children to flourish independently in the environment that is already so nourishing for them. They live in a world that offers them far more possibilities than we were aware of. They can make connections that are invisible to us.

Over-parenting and excessive handholding robs children of self-efficacy—the confidence that they can choose goals and plan a path which makes them achieve those. We know from our own life stories that before we acquired the skills and wisdom that make us successful, we experienced rejection and discomfort. We battled with indecision in the face of opportunities. We crashed once in a while and we rose again, recovering and stronger.

The greatest gift we can give our children, to whom we have already given everything else, is the gift of failure. When we leave them to their own devices, they may make mistakes and those setbacks will teach them lessons that last forever. They will dabble in new ideas instead of rebelling against, or swallowing, the ones that we spoon-feed them. Their creativity will get more robust with time, particularly the time that we spend away from them, instead of hovering over them like drones.

Just before my daughters left for school yesterday, I asked the 13-year-old what her exam subject was.

“French," she answered and I made a really bad joke about French kissing that I won’t repeat here.

“What did she say?" exclaimed the 11-year-old.

“Don’t even ask," her sister rolled her eyes. And just like that I sent off two shocked, giggling girls to their school exams.

Natasha Badhwar is a film-maker, media trainer and mother of three.

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