About a month ago, a small tenant appeared alongside a healthy plant I was nurturing in my apartment. The mysterious sprout was evidently emerging from a handful of soil I had recently added.
Gradually, the diaphanous spine of a creeper began to display its third and identifiable leaf, and I realized it was a karela (bitter gourd) plant. With mounting excitement, I watched the steady progress of its delicate tendrils circle their ends around the surrounding plants, a bunch of flowering bougainvillea, a rubber plant and a palm, all healthy and happy. In a few days, smiling yellow flowers appeared at the ends of hair-like stems, so fragile that it seemed that the pre-monsoon winds would tear into them. The tendrils reached out further and further as the flowers began to develop small swellings at the base. I watched the baby bump grow into a fruit that would soon be ready to pluck.
As these events were unfolding, I noticed something rather unforeseen. Gradually, the slender stems of the accidental creeper had wrapped the other plants into a tight noose, and abducted their space quite successfully. The proud, erect rubber plant was soon bent double in the stranglehold of this delicate, complex network. In a few days, a plump karela was resting confidently on a thick oily platform provided by one leaf belonging to the misshapen host. But this story is not about the karela sabzi I made yesterday! The unexpected twist of fate reminded me of something I’d read about strength and vulnerability. Without implying that we’re exactly like karelas and rubber plants, I want to push the boundaries of this story.
It may not be wrong to assume that all parents desire their children to be strong in the face of adversity, to be able to survive without us. However, do we fully understand how resilience develops and what makes children vulnerable? These are very difficult questions and there are no easy answers, and we certainly do not claim to have them.
The work of a dear friend has been very insightful in this regard. Suniya Luthar began her path-breaking work on vulnerability and resilience among youth decades ago. From reading her publications, I realized that strength and vulnerability in life were not as simple as they seemed, in fact there may even be a deep underlying paradox. On account of biology and circumstance as well as the interactions between, some people are more vulnerable than others, and some just seem stronger, even in the face of difficulty. In fact, she argues that strong and apparently resilient mothers can be hurt too, and having a network of caring relationships (other women especially) can be a huge source of support. But more about this in a later post. Let’s stay with young children for now.
In her most recent work on affluent youth, Suniya argues that one should not assume that an economically comfortable life automatically implies the absence of vulnerability. (And if I may add, that difficult circumstances automatically imply the opposite, that everyone who has difficulties in life is forever vulnerable). Although her research is based in the US, I feel there are some important lessons that we can learn from her recent and earlier work. Among them:
- As adults, we can bend and even break strong children by pushing them too hard. Strength and weakness are complex, dynamic and context-sensitive processes and not like stable, internal traits;
- Never assume strength and fragility on the basis of long-standing assumptions about people and their circumstances. Life will always surprise us!
- Parents, especially mothers, need a strong network of supporters in the journey of bringing up children (We will take this up in a later post, but it bears mentioning here)
As I watched the bent branch of the outwardly invincible plant, I realized that we often fail to see the shadows around our well-lit ideas and assume that we understand everything based on what we believe we see. Is that also true about responses to adversity? Since I was quite sure nothing would happen to the rubber plant (it was strong, I assumed), I let the initial shoot of the karela grow (after all it was fragile, what harm could it do to the healthy host?). As the days progressed, the fragile karela tendrils that seemed too thin to even hold up against the wind, prospered and the robust host was under unexpected stress from the criss-crossing stems. Not only did the weak-looking plant survive, it was able to bend the bigger one and rest its heavy fruit on its shoulders!
Are there any insights we can draw from this observation? Is it true that when a child appears to be strong and unshakable and everything seems fine, we usually land up saying: “Oh, she? She will manage on her own, she’s strong” in moments where the child may need help? Do we entertain any idea that this child may need assistance, support, or attention? On the other hand a child who appears vulnerable, sensitive to every change in circumstances, could be seen as needing assistance always, assistance that we quickly reach out to provide. Is it possible that on account of these dynamics, the strong person actually becomes more vulnerable, and the one who is believed to be otherwise, may be more resilient since the people around her work with the assumption of the need for support, and rush to fulfill that perceived need? Is it also possible that we sometimes place far too much pressure that can bend and even break a strong child? Perhaps we can see the tragic outcomes of the last scenario in recent news stories. It seems that living with children is like a balancing act; like acrobats we go about our daily lives, sometimes fearing, often falling, and sometimes flying!
Perhaps it is useful to reflect on individual differences among children and be more available and alert to their proclivities. Let us stop for a moment and look once more at the strong, resilient people around us: that happy kid, that amazing mum, that great guy, that IIT graduate who seems so joyful in her pictures; and try to ensure that they’re in a secure place. In our responsibility towards the next generation in its formative years, we owe it to them to assist in their survival without our support and beyond. One of the earliest things we can do in this regard is to recognize that children (like us) are complex beings. We can do this not by constant surveillance, (because this is likely to interfere with the development of self-sufficiency and building relationships with others), but by recognizing, acknowledging and addressing children’s characteristics so that they develop the capacity to lead productive lives away from us, without us, among others with whom they will develop close, supportive relationships. This is our responsibility.