By Pankaj Asthaana
Disclosures first – I am not an academic and this essay will not qualify as a scientific document. It is at best the meandering thoughts of a father making a sincere attempt to be a better parent. I hope it serves as a worthwhile dose of rumination with your weekly cup of Masala Chai.
With two young daughters in our lives, time with them is mostly a roller-coaster ride. The first day of every weekend starts with basketball time for our elder one. After a hurried morning, we drive to the school where the classes are held. As we enter, other eager, enthusiastic parents like us line up alongside to wait and watch their kids during an hour of training on the court. As for me, I sometimes watch her, sometimes the coaches, sometimes the adults watching their kids, sometimes I watch myself watching her, and sometimes I start doing other things.
Initially, I was eager to sit through the class to assess her progress, bench-marking her movements against other children of her age and looking out for improvements in her game, while also keeping a keen eye on the instructors for their strategies and instructions. This was how it started. Over weeks of accompanying her, I felt myself change, almost imperceptibly at first. Gradually, the desire to assess her progress morphed into acceptance, followed by a wave of guilt that pushed me towards watching other adults. I began to keenly observe them watching their children in action, making me even more aware of my conduct as a parent. The basketball lessons became for me, a time for serious self-reflection.
Let me start with an analysis of my own positioning. Once I had satisfied myself that the classes were reasonably “good”, safe and fun, I started to do my own thing, catching up with email etc., while keeping only a cursory glance on the game. Occasionally, I would let out a cheer to indicate to her that I was still around and involved. As for other parents, there were some like me, those who always had something to catch up with: calls, messages, mails. There were others who formed small groups and would start chatting. The attention to the game was intermittent, and they usually missed significant achievements in court, also failing to notice the child’s search for affirmation. Children reacted in different ways, some lost interest in the game, and some in the adults around them. I suppose these were moments when a child would decide whether the game was important in and of itself, even when the parents was not looking. I will label this bunch Type 1.
Then there was this other group of parents, let’s call them Type 2. They were completely absorbed with every move their child was making. They responded constantly, urging the child to push harder, run further, jump higher, try harder! As I watched them more closely, I also looked for what consequences this was having on the court. What I saw was not very pleasant. It became evident to me, and I wondered why these parents could not see what was happening to some of the children. This intense engagement and constant supervision seemed to sap the energy and enthusiasm out of the concerned children. The harder the parents tried, the more the child lagged behind, it seemed to me.
There was another cluster of parents (let me call them Type 3) who seemed to be enjoying themselves watching the children, cheering them along, and periodically encouraging them from the sidelines. It felt like this was a special time for them which they treasured, and wanted to be totally involved, in a happy, lighthearted sort of way. Their involvement and enthusiasm was not influenced by HOW the child was playing, but the fact that the child was there, engaged in sport. They appeared satisfied that the activity guaranteed a good time for their children, even though it may not have guaranteed a “good result”, a basketball champion in the making!
As I reflected on the shift in my own position (assessment to acceptance), I thought more deeply about a parent’s place in children’s lives.
For me, the move to acceptance was born out of a realization that all children are different. It was evident that a few of the kids possessed more talent with the game, others had more initiative and yet others were more persevering. It was also apparent that the coaches were doing just fine. They were allowing these different patterns to play out in the game. As a concerned parent, initially, I felt compelled to compare my child with others, but I soon realized that it was important for me to let go. Pushing further would have had negative consequences, and may have resulted in destroying whatever fun we were having with basketball. As I look ed around, I found that there were many concerned parents like me who were happy to let go so as not to pressure their children, to retain the ‘fun’ in games, to let things take their own course. The point at which I made a choice to let go seemed to me like a bifurcation point, where the paths of different parents diverged. Let me return to the three groups.
Type 1s had moved to acceptance. The child may shine, stay or opt out, and the parent chose to accept. One may argue that the role of the parent was not to influence outcomes but to let the child discover her interest in basketball. Once at the venue, they gradually started doing their own thing, chatting, catching up with work, other stuff.
Type 2s stayed with their objective, with a denial of the child’s perspective. Irrespective of the child’s interest or ability, they believed that it was their responsibility to push the child to perform. I could speculate that such an approach may have consequences for children; that they begin to believe that they need to constantly work towards earning an adult’s affection. I am guessing that this may lead to some insecurities in children, depending on the severity of the expectations. It is also quite possible that the parents’ passionate involvement may be reciprocated by intense involvement and exceptional success in the child.
Type 3s chose to let the process precede the product. Their involvement did not begin with the intention to nudge or judge. They seemed to work with the underlying assumption that children ultimately do find their space as they grow, and will eventually find something compelling to pursue. However, my concern here was this: children do need to learn that they require skills to be able to do what is required, and not always what they ‘feel like doing’. Although they will be likely to find happiness, would such an approach leave the child with fewer skills to find success?
As a father who wants to do my best for the children, I am frequently in doubt about whether to push harder (will it make my child prone to anxiety), or not to push at all (will it make her compliant?); whether to reward her actions (will it make her constantly expect rewards when she succeeds), or not (will that make her lose enthusiasm)?
I don’t know the answer to any of these questions, but I do believe that our children will live in far more competitive worlds than we did. Just as we have in comparison with the worlds our parent generation lived in. In this future world that I can imagine, perhaps, the tolerance to failure may also increase. In such an environment, maybe they will be able to choose ordinary lives and get by. How do we position ourselves with our children so that we provide them with a favourable environment within which to develop their own interests and occupations, with the capacity to deal with consequences, whether it is failure or success as defined by the outside world? How do we facilitate the development of the abilities to face failure as well as deal with success? When do we push and when do we let go? Sometimes these thoughts frighten me when I am sitting by the basketball court, watching myself watching my daughter.
What is it about sport that can drive some of us parents to become like that person we hate?  These are issues we have all struggled with at some point or other. The blog-post raises questions that confronted Pankaj when he watched himself closely. The three types of parents that emerge from this discussion need not be seen only as isolated categories. We ourselves can swing between one or other type depending upon situation, our own disposition, the task at hand and other factors; sometimes pushing a bit, sometimes a little more, and sometimes letting go. For their part, children too can take on tough challenges, often going beyond what they think they can accomplish, while others are unable or unwilling to budge. How do we work through these complicated dynamics and know what it is that we should do as responsible and concerned adults?
In 2011, Amy Chua published her views on parenting in a hugely critiqued “Battle Hymn of a Tiger Mother”. Chua argued that her account of traditional, strict Chinese upbringing was not intended as a parenting manual, but was written with irony and self-deprecating humour as a memoir. Nevertheless, the publication raised a lot of debates about the use of strict disciplining in training children to be the best they can be. Is it our responsibility to push children? When do we let go? Do we ever let go? Are we failing in our duty if we do not push?
The phenomenon of CCP, or Covert Competitive Parenting is imminent, and we have our share of unhealthy comparisons and over competitiveness related to children’s performance. Indian parents abroad, seem to have internalized a deep sense of commitment to performance in the public sphere as is evident in the spelling bee competitions for instance. Back at home, we find other complications. For instance, in her doctoral thesis, Indu Kaura discovered that children found their parents’ expectations of being selectively competitive (with classmates, for instance) and cooperative (in family relationships) to be highly confusing until such time that they were old enough to negotiate with both sides, the families as well as their peers.
Do we end this commentary by saying that anything goes? That would be an inadequate and inappropriate conclusion. However, it is true that children grow up in diverse contexts and manage (mostly) to grow up into functional adults within familiar surroundings, with potential capacity for surviving and living successfully even in unfamiliar circumstances. It is perhaps reassuring for parents to realize that there is no single solution to this conundrum, and challenges will remain, for which we will be compelled to find solutions. For millennia, children have handled challenges without instruction from adults. Even today, children in many cultures develop skills under the rather unsupervised company of other children while adults may be around, doing other things. Perhaps we need to understand that children have many capacities that will express themselves even without being pushed. Yet, sitting back and doing nothing is also neither possible nor recommended given the way our modern lives are structured. Guiding children is our responsibility. Each parent has to learn his or her own balance with their child, and we need to be acutely aware that children will also handle things differently and being conscious of pushing too hard in a given situation for a particular child, is essential. Let us continue to watch ourselves as we watch our kids, as Pankaj recommends.
Having read the above essay and commentary, we now want to take you to a recent encounter at a poolside, after which we will ask you a question.
On a recent vacation, we were witness to the frenzied actions of a parent. Large and imposing, he was unrelenting in pushing his shuddering son to complete a rope-climbing mission at a height across a pool. With protective gear all in place, and the secure arms of a trained lifeguard, there was no reason for the child to be frightened, of course, but fears are not always rational. A group of sympathetic bystanders gathered to watch what was happening. The father and son appeared completely oblivious of our presence, one on account of his fear, and the other for his impassioned, seemingly exaggerated commitment. As inconsequential spectators, we watched the progress of the child mutely, despite the fact that some of us wanted to do something. Somehow, with a final push to himself, the young boy managed to take that one lunge and successfully started on his small journey. The rush of excitement and loud cheer from the audience gave him some added impetus, perhaps, and he completed the feat, to the immense relief of everyone around. As the child alighted from his perch, the proud Dad enveloped him in a warm embrace and patted his back. The child seemed more relieved that it was over to find any reason to smile at his accomplishment.
Our question for you today is as follows: Which of the following would you be most likely to do in this situation?:
- Watch your child, but also leave him unsupervised with the lifeguards after a while?
- Push your child till he completed the task?
- Instantly remove the child from the rope-climbing when you saw he was uncomfortable in trying it?
Post your answers as comments. And remember, this is not an assessment for your child’s school, but as a task in self-reflection. Thank you for visiting Masala Chai.