In India, most of us grow up with pop-culture glorifying a specific family dynamic, where it seems normal to put parents on a pedestal next only to God.
The proof lies in the success of Bollywood blockbusters like Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham and Baghban that were widely accepted by the masses for their relatable content. Both the films conveyed a common message–that going against parent figures is almost criminal. This holds true in a society like ours, where every word of theirs is set in stone.
While there’s nothing wrong in having a hierarchy in a family setup, the problem arises when this idea hinges on parents always being right. “It is important to differentiate between this hierarchy and the idea of being perfect. Unfortunately, Indian families have these two concepts enmeshed into one,” says Tanya Percy Vasunia, a published researcher, author and psychologist,
“This brings up a whole lot of concerns including ingraining a sense of compliance in children, which isn’t helpful in the long run.”
The family script in India is almost always painted in a hue of obedience, of how our parents never ‘dared’ to go against theirs, or how these elderly figures always knew the best for them. They want history to be repeated, with their children following a similar journey as theirs. That’s where the problem lies.
“Exhibiting behaviour like this creates an inauthentic relationship with a child, which eventually results in them refraining from any conversation with parents in order to avoid conflict. Most importantly, it creates unhealthy boundaries and dynamics that can cause trauma and great distress,” adds Vasunia.
Serial entrepreneur Shilpa Sharma, who is behind the likes of successful ventures like Jaypore, Breakaway and Mustard grew up in a conservative household. Often admonished for being too focused on her academic pursuits and later advocating personal growth, Sharma chose to carve her own path despite resistance from her family members.
“I believe there’s a fine line between obedience and disagreement. We might agree to disagree but none of that means I don’t respect my parents. Obedience is nothing but subservience. I chose to be my own person,” she says.
As much as teaching respect and kindness to children is paramount, not having the autonomy to say no to parents makes kids idolisers. This is a common scenario in Indian society, where expressing individual opinions is looked down upon as a sign of rebellion and disrespect towards elders.
“Since parents also like to portray their emotional detachment with each other and the children, they are viewed as unapproachable figures that one only knows mythically rather than as humans who are flawed and can emote and express,” reveals Delhi-based counselling psychologist, Ruchi Ruuh.
The seed of fear with regard to challenging authority is planted early on in childhood but carries well into adulthood. In such cases, either the children continue to idolise their parents or other authorities or completely rebel against them. In a nutshell, these relationships aren’t rooted in respect.
“Children in this system don’t develop a healthy self-esteem and autonomy, which later has an impact on their relationships, work, and decision making skills,” reiterates Ruuh.
In some cases, it causes enmeshment that results in children and parents believing they are an extension of each other. Unfortunately, children in such families struggle to live their adult lives freely, shares Vasunia.
As children grow up, they may come to recognise that their parents aren’t perfect. If they continue to view them as righteous and god-like, it can sometimes give rise to confusing feelings about the negative emotions they may feel, says Gurugram-based counselling psychologist, Shevantika Nanda.
“Sometimes, it can also lead to the tendency of viewing parents as super adults who are always available to make things easier for us,” she says.
This can lead to feelings of disappointment, if expectations are unmet. Idolising parents can also reinforce negative patterns of behaviour, including seeking constant approval from others. This can cause feelings of resentment or experiencing a lack of control over one’s life, which in turn, may lead to anger toward parents.
Children may even blame them in adulthood for not giving them enough autonomy, points out Nanda.
To teach a child that parents are flawed and have their individual journeys is only possible when this behaviour is modelled by elders. Unfortunately, this rarely happens in India–most children grow up with unrealistic expectations.
“If there’s no basic respect for autonomy, the child will find it difficult to respect the fact that their parents also have their own lives,” says Ruuh.
In line with this thought, Vasunia believes it’s important for parents to be honest with children (within limits). This honesty includes something as simple as apologising, because most parents are incapable of doing so.
“Children see and understand most things. When they are young and vulnerable, they largely rely on their primary attachment figures for a sense of security. Displaying empathy, compassion and effective communication skills help children intellectually understand their parent’s journey and not just witness it, without quite knowing what they are observing,” she adds.
Sharma, who is a parent herself, realised over the years that the reality of her parents was starkly different from hers, which in turn, led to forgiveness. Learning from experiences with her parents and peers, she is more self aware about how she conducts herself with her son.
“It is important to understand a child’s perspective and be mindful of not becoming an authoritative person. I have chosen to treat my child as an adult with a mind of his own, who is capable of looking after his own interests and well-being. If he needs a counter opinion, he always has the option to come back to me,” she says.
Ruuh believes it is important for parents to be accessible emotionally or physically to their children. If not, the child will feel disconnected from them, idolise them or learn tricks to get their attention. It is equally essential for parents to sit down and hear their child, giving them complete attention without being distracted.
There is another pertinent piece of advice that Ruhh has:“Teach your children the importance of choices and decision-making. It will make them feel their thoughts matter, which in turn, will help boost their self-esteem and self-worth.”
Perfectionism and power go hand in hand. Unfortunately, this power is temporary because as humans, none of us are perfect. That’s what happens with parents–as they grow older, they are unable to hold that power, making them more resentful when they can’t control their child. They may struggle to adapt to changes within the parent-child dynamic.
“The true power lies in being authentic with your child that will create the foundation for a longer, healthier relationship,” concludes Vasunia.
Geetika Sachdev is a writer and journalist