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Parents say the darnedest things

Peek into any parents' school WhatsApp group and you are likely to see a cabal of very agitated adults

How adults talk to each other, possibly about the welfare of their children. Illustration: Naseem Beg
How adults talk to each other, possibly about the welfare of their children. Illustration: Naseem Beg

First of all, I must clarify that I am on the side of the parents who ask the darnedest questions. I am also on the side of the innocent children who are the cause of these desperate queries, so long as they keep a safe distance from me. And of course I sympathize with the experts (real or imagined) at whom these missives are directed, because of late I often find myself masquerading as one of them.

“My wife and I worked really hard to get our children admitted to one of the finest schools in the city," a father shared with me after I had been part of an onstage discussion on parenting in the digital age at the Times LitFest in Delhi. “We are very happy with the school. We even moved out of our family home to live closer to the school and now I commute for hours daily to get to my own workplace. My parents think we are overdoing this parenting thing."

I nodded reassuringly and waited for him to move on to the part that was bothering him. And he did.

“But I look at the world and see that (M.S.) Dhoni and (Sachin) Tendulkar did not go to the best schools in metro cities. The bulk of students who study in the IITs come from smaller cities. They have a fire to become someone, to rise above their circumstances. How will my children become high achievers if their childhood is so privileged?"

I looked into my coffee mug and wished it had been a stronger drink. Thankfully, I was exhausted and sometimes that loosens my tongue in the same way.

“Your children will become artists," I said to him.

“What?" he said.

“They will be artists," I repeated. “It’s often a pattern in families, as we become more and more affluent and better educated from one generation to the next. Look at the difference that is already there between your father and you."

“You are right," he said. A bulb seemed to light up in his head. “I am the first person in my family to spend a Sunday at a literature festival. No one in the previous generation reads books at all. They would still rather go out and eat chaat together."

Right behind him, there was a fresh chaat counter in the authors’ lounge, but I didn’t want to distract him. He had received my words well and I was satisfied. Most of the time, the answers don’t fit so well, even when the questions sound quite precise.

“All this discussion is okay," a parent will ask after a session on the complex intersection of technology, media exposure and child-rearing, “but tell me in numbers—how much screen-time is okay for my nine-year-old?"

“How can I find out every day what happened with my child in school? He doesn’t tell me anything and I feel so anxious!"

“How do I talk to my children about good touch and bad touch when everyone else in the family judges me for speaking about it?"

“I am away at work for long hours. How can I trust my child to stick to the rules we made for her?"

“My one child is obedient but the other is bad from the beginning. What did I do wrong?"

“There is no reverse gear in parenting," one parent shared ominously with me. “What if my decisions prove to be wrong in the long run?"

“It’s okay to say that we must allow students to follow their passion," said a father at a counselling session for choices in higher education and careers, “but how do we know what our children’s interests are?"

A teenager stood up and answered with the calm confidence of a subject matter expert. “You just ask your children. Observe them. They will tell you."

Some answers seem like they lie in the realm of common sense. Some questions are clearly misguided and misplaced. Most of them, though, demand patience, time and new skills within the family. There is no right answer. Only a process to follow—sometimes intuitive, often blind. Mistakes to be learnt from. Tears to be wiped. Trust to be built. Hurts forgiven.

There is no checklist that can be ticked. No standard results that can be achieved by following a set of predetermined steps.

Peek into any parents’ school WhatsApp group and you are likely to see a cabal of very agitated adults. It’s easy to judge them and be dismissive. See them from a distance and they seem like they have too much time and too little clarity.

To be fair, when most of today’s parents were children two-three decades ago, there was no such thing as “parenting". Children were trained and disciplined and scolded and moulded as per family norms. They tagged along with their parents when they went out. Or they stayed back and watched TV, shirked homework and played rough games in the neighbourhood park. We chose what we got.

As parents, on the other hand, we are striving to raise every child as a unique individual. We want to heap privileges and entitlements on them that we are ourselves unfamiliar with. Yet we haven’t lost our own unease about standing out in the crowd. We continue to feel the pressure to conform. Our inherited insecurities make us nervous.

“Stay with that question," my own teacher would often say to me, instead of offering the help I was asking for. I learnt over time that it meant that the quest in my mind was valid, and the solution was lingering somewhere close by. When we dare to hold on to a question long enough, it helps us beat a path to its own answer.

Natasha Badhwar is a film-maker, media trainer and author of the book My Daughters’ Mum.

She tweets @natashabadhwar

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