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Parenting without gender stereotypes

In this excerpt from ‘Raising Stars’, Nandita Das talks about the challenges of raising boys with a sense of equality

Actor Nandita Das with her son. Courtesy fingerprint books
Actor Nandita Das with her son. Courtesy fingerprint books

From the day my son was born, the one book that I have constantly been writing in my head is about parenting. The last eight years have been dramatically different from my entire life before that. I definitely don’t subscribe to the theory that being a mother is essential for women or that we are incomplete without playing this role. That would be too much of a generalization and unfair to the many new lives that women are finally able to lead.

But personally speaking, this experience continues to impact all my big and small decisions about life and work. I am constantly creating and editing my own handbook of what “right” parenting is all about. But there isn’t an easier way out. No wonder they say, “A mother is born on the same day as her child”. I am an older mother and was hoping to therefore be more mature and wiser. I struggle with the same questions, pangs, and dilemmas that most first-time mothers go through.

I remember how, when I was pregnant, I wanted a daughter. Probably the collective guilt of male preference weighed on me and made me want to right the wrong. But over the years I have realized that the challenges of raising a boy to be sensitive and to have a deep sense of equality were no less than the challenges of raising a girl to be confident and free. Unfortunately, social constructs and stereotypes gender children very early. Toy shops have separate sections for girls and boys; clothes and gifts are blue and pink, and comments like “Don’t cry like a girl!” and “Don’t sit like a boy!” plague our environment. How much can one protect a child from such an onslaught? How does one expose a child to a more egalitarian and genderless world without making them too self-conscious about it?

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As my son began to understand the world around him, uncomfortable questions about the inequalities that we live with started popping up. Sadly, we have normalized the harsh reality of people sleeping on pavements under skyscrapers or reading about women reaching the moon right next to a story of female foeticide.

Such paradoxes have become a way of life. Thankfully, some of us are still disturbed by it, even though we are constantly trying to find ways around it. When children look through the window of our car, I am torn between giving money and perpetuating beggary and not giving, thereby being insensitive to their genuine needs. Either way, I make eye contact, make faces to make them laugh, and at least humanize the interaction. My son and I talk about it, and he asks me many questions, as he should. Through all such processes, children remind us of things we must never forget.

Then comes the biggest dilemma: what kind of education do I want for my child, and what options do I have? Education has been an area of deep personal interest. I was a student at a somewhat “alternative” school in Delhi and later taught a term at Rishi Valley as part of my gap year. But today, in a city like Mumbai, the options are very limited. And while I realize the privilege I have in being able to send my son to one of the best schools in the city, it is still not how I see a centre for learning. The pedagogy is modern, and the children do retain what they learn, but it is not without competition, an overload of information, and the inadvertent problems of plenty. I feel a school needs to allow more time for free play and preferably be close to nature. Empathy and sensitivity need to be inculcated just as much as a love of history and science.

In so many schools, the arts are viewed as “extra-curricular” activities and not given the importance they deserve. Art expands imagination, self-expression, and creativity. So, while we all believe that children must follow their dreams, most systems of education do not encourage or expose children to the wide variety of options that exist for them.

I even explored the idea of homeschooling but knowing that I have many interests and concerns that require my time and attention, I knew I would not be able to do justice to it. Moreover, I think it is important for children, both sons, and daughters, to see their mothers at work. It ensures that roles don’t get defined in their minds. Girls derive confidence from their mothers as role models, and boys learn to respect that women work, not only because they need to but also because they like to. Growing up, I was convinced that mothers go to the office while fathers cook, clean, and, for recreation, paint! I am glad I was exposed to such role reversals at an early age.

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We are, after all, a product of our influences and experiences. The wider and more varied they are, the more nuanced our understanding of the human condition and relationships will be. But it’s a double-edged sword, as harmful influences exist too. And those are the ones I try to monitor. Instead of having to say no, I try to look for alternatives to things my child wants—be it unhealthy food, gadgets, or games that teach you to be more competitive and selfish. The fact that they are all so enticingly packaged makes the task even harder. I believe freedom of choice and the ability to discern are important to instil in children, and with the right guidance, a fine balance can be achieved. It makes children more mindful of their actions and their repercussions.

My son is now 8, and we have some of the most interesting conversations about all of these issues and more. It never ceases to surprise me how much children understand and contribute. I remember once when my son wanted something that I didn’t want to give him, and in frustration, I said, “Why don’t I just say yes to everything you want. Then we won’t have to argue about anything at all!” even while tears were rolling down his cheek, he said, “No Mama, don’t do that. I know you say “no” because you care.” I was blown away by his understanding, although he was upset.

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What I have learnt the most from being a mother is that I have to walk my talk. It is not just what I tell my child but also how I am with him and others. I try to be mindful of minimizing the gap between what I tell my son and what I do. I know he emulates me and my actions and often uses the same words and tones. He asks me hard questions and challenges my contradictions. And that is why I call him my best teacher—he is helping me become a better human being.

Excerpted with permission from Raising Stars: The Challenges And Joys Of Being A Bollywood Parent, by Rashmi Uchil, published by Fingerprint Books.

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