Addressing real and imagined fears we have as parents

A Commentary

Bhavna Negi’s article ‘Shhhhh!’ posted a couple of weeks ago raises a key conundrum of raising children; that despite the fact that children are safer, more secure and better able to survive infancy and early childhood than ever before, why are we so afraid of the risks they face? Why is it that better provisions for survival and safety have not made us feel safe regarding our children? In this post, we make an attempt to unravel some of the mystery around this counter-intuitive shift in social trends regarding childhood and its care.

When our team member Reshu read through the essay, she reflected on her own position regarding protection and fears as a mother of a four-year-old. “I am happy to find someone like me, I always believed I was a paranoid mother because I am so scared when it comes to my daughter’s security. I am unable to let her away from my eyes, perhaps on account of all the news of crimes against children. As if that was not enough, now we have forwarded videos of incidents in our palms. I have tried to avoid watching news on TV because I would cling to her with fear after, and had begun to feel that there everywhere I looked, there was potential danger. I often tell people if they want a life without depression then they should stop accessing the news. And yet it isn’t possible to remain isolated.
I think I have, unfortunately, passed on my fears to my daughter every time I warn her about strangers and public spaces like the street, parks and malls. To add to that there is environmental pollution, adulteration, road rage…….the list is endless. How should we keep our children safe? And even more importantly, how should we teach them to be brave and stand up against misfortune?”

Reflecting on her perspective about safety, Pooja, who lives in Dubai with her two young girls writes thus, “Yesterday we did some recording in Hindi for parents at my children’s school about road safety following an unfortunate incident, an accident in which the life of a young child was lost. This is a rare occurrence in Dubai since road safety standards are excellent, so everyone was shaken and scared. It so happened that as I was preparing my piece for the session when Bhavna’s piece appeared in my mail and made me reflect on my own fears. Later that evening, during the webinar for parents, the focus was on positive resilience and how coping with fear and stress. Schools in Dubai had responded to the incident with prompt action. The main take away from all the discussions for me was that we have to somehow gather our guts and move forward. I doesn’t help to become paralysed with fear. I too (like Reshu) often shut myself from scary news updates, but I also believe that isn’t the answer. Although we have to be cognizant of events, participating proactively in discussions and just talking out these fears with others helps me a lot. When I mentioned this accident to my husband and daughter, they sat down together and talked about it, I was able to see how much the conversation benefitted them both and me. So, my take is that talking helps, especially as the children get older.

From the above comments, we can understand how parents are affected by incidents and make attempts to cope with their worries, by shutting themselves away or opening themselves up. But we need to go into depths about the source of the fears and our reactions. In contrast with Pooja’s take on conversations about misfortune, there is a very powerful force against speaking about fears, and that is the tacit belief that saying it out loud can actually tempt fate, create a jinx. The Shhhh! reflex is powerful, and widespread, as we discovered.

Shhhh! You’ll jinx it

Words are often endowed with magical qualities, but there is no denying their power in social relations and self-determination. We can, in fact, make ourselves up through talk. In ‘Narrative Gravity’, Rukmini Bhaya Nair explores the idea that the stories we tell in fact create and recreate our identity….that we fabricate our selves by through story-telling, making attempts to place ourselves at an advantage in competitive situations (and also, in alliance in co-operative ones). We are, she argues, compulsive and inventive storytellers!

By the same principle, silence about certain matters would also say a lot about us, things we choose not to speak up about, right? When uttering a word or expression is escalated to the level of being endowed with magical qualities, that’s when things become even more interesting. For instance, as Bhavna’s essay suggested, people sometimes assume (perhaps it’s more like a fear than an assumption), that if you talk about something, magically, it will become jinxed. So, if a person is emotionally invested in an outcome, whether that is desired or dreaded, keeping silent about it is the best option. I remember an airline trip I took several years ago where I encountered a jinx most vividly. There was a mounting excitement in our row when the seat next to us remained vacant even until boarding was near completion. I blurted out an excited whoop, to which my co-passenger let out a hiss with an urgent whisper: “Don’t say it! Don’t say it!” much to my amusement……”Don’t say it, or you’ll jinx it!” I don’t remember if the seat was filled, but the whisper has stayed with me!

I’ve often thought back to that incident, did she really believe the connection between my utterance and the outcome? It certainly made me more aware of the rather naive spontaneity with which I was used to blurting out my wishes. I also became acutely conscious of the phenomenon and would keep my ears open for more instances of the same. Perhaps this was the same investment that people make when they pray, or chant verses, or even when they sing songs. There is an attempt at invoking something, a memory, a feeling or an outcome, and a whole new perspective about the place of words in our lives becomes evident. I’ve even encountered instances of greater intrigue, that saying the opposite of what is desired is assumed to turn the jinx game on its head. For instance, if you articulate the opposite of what you desire, you will somehow trick fate into its exact opposite outcome! Confused yet? Well, look closely at the following extract and you will find that these games are widespread. Perhaps what binds us as a people is fear, fear of misfortune. And how sensitive this fear becomes when we consider our own loved ones. (Link below, Emphasis mine):

“I grew up in a half Russian family and I was told from an early age not to talk about how much better grandpa’s health was, or how my test scores seem to be going up lately, because it is a Russian superstition that boasting or openly talking about the good things in life will cause them to spoil (or so I was told). Clearly that’s not just a Russian superstition, because people always say “don’t jinx it” in the USA and Canada where I have lived, and many people also knock on wood after saying something is going well, for the same reason.

Extracts from the responses:

“This seems to be related to the traditions around the evil eye, which is a belief common to the Mediterranean world and beyond. It has varied tremendously across time and space. It’s a very old tradition, very widely spread, and very much alive today. In all honesty, it’s something that’s probably better covered by old-school (pre-critical theory) anthropologists than historians. The basic idea is that certain people saying (or thinking) good things actually translates into bad outcomes in the future. There are two main mechanisms I’ve encountered in various (there may be more): one is the idea of hubris, and such “bragging” of one’s good fortune will only make God/the gods/fortuna reverse your blessings to “put you in your place”, as it were. The other idea is that other people give you the evil eye. In many countries, in my experience with Turkey, one must be careful not to compliment someone too strongly, or else it’s a sign of your jealousy and ill wishes, and these jealous ill wishes of others will be manifested into reality. There are ways to manage this. When deal with good fortune or complimenting someone else–especially someone’s young child–it is very common in Muslim-majority countries to go “Mash’Allah,” because if you credit it to God, you can’t possibly be jealous of the other person and therefore can’t possibly be wishing them ill. Also, in many cultures throughout the world, saying something has a power that just thinking it does not, but in some places the evil eye (especially the jealous evil eye) can be transmitted just by willing it. However, I’ll add that our idea of “jinx” (especially in the hubris sense) can be done without ever saying anything allowed–“Oh man, I jinxed myself by expecting to get the job.”

In some places, to wish evil on someone is better than to wish good on them (as a way of winking past the danger of giving them the evil eye). In the English speaking world, “break a leg” as a well wish started in the theater world where “good luck” was seen as a potential bringer of bad luck, because of the evil eye. Therefore, the logic goes, if good wishes could bring ill, then bad wishes ought to bring good.

The point is also, these things are surprisingly recent. While the logic is old, the actual signs can be quite recent. I think ……while it isn’t for the most part about these sorts of evil eye customs and habits and beliefs, it is still useful to think about how folklore and the larger folkways have continued into our rationalized, secularized, enlightened present. He explains it better than I could.

I just read an article by an old school anthropologist (Woodburn “Egalitarian Societies”) describing how basic hunter-gatherer societies have mechanisms to keep people equal, to avoid accumulations of wealth or power. One example for such a mechanism is that the more successful hunters of a hunting party are not allowed to boast about their success, so the opportunity to gain prestige or to claim a bigger part of the meat is stopped right at the start”.

Fears that bind

We are bound together by our fears, both to other people as well as within ourselves. In fact, if our worries escalate beyond proportion, they can paralyse us into inaction. As for children, despite the fact they see the world quite differently, eventually, a caregiver’s anxiety is transferred to the child, as Reshu acknowledges and we must understand. Regarding subliminal recognition of tension, there is plenty of evidence that children are unexpectedly perceptive, and often failing to see this, we tend to create a smoke-screen for our feelings. The intention may be quite straightforward, but given a child’s sensitivity, such a construction can potentially result in misleading children about emotional expression. The recognition of this capacity makes it even more important for us to reflect on the transfer of fears onto children.

In order to cope with our own fears, we usually take action to protect our loved ones, especially children in our care. As Devdutt Pattanaik asks: “In love, we want to protect our children from the real world. We don’t want them to be exposed to nature’s realities: conflict, domination, violence, hunger, anxiety. We want to give them everything they need. In love, we create an artificial bubble and inadvertently prime children from disappointment, for the world does not care for our bubble. Is this good parenting?”

But what is good parenting we can ask? Is there even such a thing? On Masala Chai, we’ve repeatedly returned to this topic because of its rather unique history. Parenting is a recent and culturally subscribed notion, emerging around the ’70’s in the West. Alison Gopnik argues that several changes in society led to the focus specifically on mothers and fathers, and the fear for children’s safety is also a likely outcome of the same trends: shrinking family size, lack of experience with others’ children, absence of support from grandparents and the larger community, isolated urban living, the availability of ‘experts’, and the rise of cable news networks. A discussion on an episode of Hidden Brain makes the point quite succinctly (Link below). It is possible to see a direct link between sibling care, large families, distributed and multiple caregiving and parental anxiety, in the reverse of course.

So, although we have been parents for as long as we’ve lived on earth, the notion of parenting and subsequently, training for parenting arose out of a vacuum created by modern lifestyles. When a generation of young people became isolated from the task of raising children, they assumed that their experiences with education in other fields would also work for the task of becoming parents. As a consequence, parenting became an industry and the commercial world was quick to step in to make money on our insecurities. Yet, we need to recognise that many of these ‘older ways’ of family life still sustain in the far regions of the world, and it is important for us to learn from them in order to place our own tasks of raising children in perspective. We believe that curiosity, openness and humility rather than hubris, isolation and are essential features of being a favourable parent.

Manufactured antagonism

Recent trends in communication about and evaluations of other people tend to be displayed through what could be called ‘manufactured antagonism’. I tried to search for the expression I heard on some podcast, but an online search takes me to obscure sites related to drug use and pharmacology! Basically, the stance of separating other people’s opinions or activity within a binary imagination in a bane of recent trends in social media. Particularly on twitter, this becomes even more evident since it is tough to sustain complexity with limited characters. Declarations are made and few,if any, go into the trail of messages and sources that are provided by caring individuals. There is an important need to resist this trend and to be open and willing to see things between and among societies differently, as more complex and dynamic.

Let us take the instance of the phenomenon of Free-range parenting (Links to several sources below), a label for allowing children to do their own thing, a trend that has been explained as a reaction to ‘helicopter parenting’. This style of caring for children treats the social and physical environment as favourable and friendly, that a child can navigate on her own. Again, I will add that without the formal labelling, that’s how mothers in remote regions of Nepal (among many others) raise their kids! Yet, international NGO’s would legitimately intervene in these communities to “improve child care practices” and instruct parents to talk to and listen to children! Furthermore, even within the West (as the podcasts below argue), being an affluent American ‘allowing’ your child to ride alone in subway is quite another matter to an African-American mother who sends her child alone to the local market. Free-range parenting of a poor or immigrant parent can land you in jail and have your child taken away from you. Policing parents is not a solution that has worked, except under sever conditions. Please listen to the podcast on SYSK for details. I cannot help thinking how this applies to so many recent trends to ‘go green’, ‘recycle’, ‘go natural’, ‘avoid eating’, or even the socialisation for ‘autonomy and independence’ when many of these practices, when present spontaneously in synchrony with the local habitat, were targeted by colonisers as being barbaric. In another example, the care of children by siblings became positioned as abusive since it was interpreted as preventing children from participating in school. Isn’t that a problem of the school and not family life? Furthermore, whereas ‘forest-bathing’ is favourable and fashionable, ‘living in forests’ is savagery. Similarly, free-range parenting, as the hosts in the podcast suggest, is an expression emerging from affluent indulgence and experimentation. Yet another example of what we can call the boomerang effect! When a practice (yoga, vegetarianism, fasting, forest-bathing, free-range parenting, independence) receives blessings from elite Westerners, we rush to re-adopt it. Perhaps we need to be more vigilant about looking within to search for ways of being that are favourable towards each other and the natural world that emerged from local cultures rather than waiting for something to travel back to us. Let us also be more secure in the places we live, especially for our children’s sake. The caveat here is that no one person and no one community tradition has all the answers, we have to look around and make sense of our world ourselves. Statistics will tell us that most crime against children is perpetuated by people who are known to the child and some of the most hideous crimes can be committed within the confines of an internet connection. Let us build strength and resilience in whichever way we believe is effective and trust ourselves more as parents and family members.

Judicious neglect

In the introduction to Raising Children by David Lancy (you can understand that it’s a personal favourite), the publisher preempts the reader towards looking more widely in order to find one’s own place in the scheme of things. “Why in some parts of the world do parents rarely play with babies and never with toddlers? Why in some cultures are children not fully recognized as individuals until they are older? How are routine habits taught – or not – in other societies? …… Intriguing and sometimes shocking, his [Lancy’s] discoveries demonstrate that our ideas about children are recent, untested and often in stark contrast with those in other parts of the world…….We are, by historical standards, guilty of overparenting, of micro-managing our children’s lives.” This book challenges our notions and encourages us to think differently about childhood. Lancy himself writes (p. 3), with some important notes of caution, that “there is a very practical, down-to-earth message throughout this book: There is no such thing as a perfect child and parents should absolve themselves of any sense of failure if their children don’t reach perfection…….Children are raised in all sorts of ways and they all turn out just fine.” I also noticed in the promotion of the book there is a quote by Lenore Skanazy who I intended to mention in any case.

Lenore Skanazy and free-range parenting

The idea of leaving kids to grow up by themselves, relatively speaking, has gathered momentum as a movement in the US, despite strong dissenters. The movement recognizes the s the following statement argues: “It calls for parents to take a more hands-off approach to child rearing, and it demands not only faith in one’s kids, but also a lot of faith in humanity as a whole that some monster won’t emerge from the underbelly snuff out that young life or debilitate it forever.” Yet, without it being a conscious movement, this is how families raise children in a large number of societies, by letting them figure out for themselves. We will be addressing these examples in forthcoming posts by providing illustrations of exactly how children grow in some remote regions of the Himalayan trails. There is an exciting new project that we have undertaken to find evidence of childhood and family life, especially for young children, in areas that are tucked away from city life. In the second podcast posted below, the hosts debate that although “they realize that the idea of free-range parenting comes from a position of extreme privilege”, it is also noteworthy that this is also the way in which parents who don’t have a choice also bring up their children, that is, under relatively low supervision. But as a choice, it comes from a position of affluence.

Let me end with a quote from my mentor (whom I deeply miss, precisely for our conversations). I was joking about starting a movement towards protection of child care practices under the heritage tag when she said, quite seriously, “When I look around at families today, I believe that children will be much better off with some amount of judicious neglect!” (June 29, 2017).

Links:

The jinx story: https://www.reddit.com/r/AskHistorians/comments/2tmzyt/where_did_the_concept_of_jinxing_the_good_things/

Hidden Brain: https://www.npr.org/2018/05/28/614054515/the-carpenter-vs-the-gardener-two-models-of-modern-parenting

Free-range parenting:

https://www.stuffyoushouldknow.com/blogs/the-age-of-raising-a-child-dangerously.htm

https://www.stuffyoushouldknow.com/podcasts/how-free-range-parenting-works.htm

https://freerangekids.wordpress.com/

4 Comments

  1. Thank you for this roller-coaster of reflections, that ended up making the strange phenomenon of over-anxious parenting in an epoch of relative safety seem familiar as a manifestation of the oh-so-prevalent tendency of “modern” elites to crave for greater control than is warranted !
    Robert

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    1. Robert! Many thanks for your comment. I forgot to add a piece about the conversation you sent over email. That would be relevant too. The question on Quora was “How would you respond to your teen if she/he threatened to call Child Protection Services (CPS) because you punished them?” How can we find balance in providing assistance where it’s needed without creating another monster?

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  2. Very relevant post. I completely second Reshu’s thoughts. There is so much insecurity in the air that letting go my daughter alone to play in the park becomes a challange. Often I worry that in order to keep our children safe we are also distancing them from expressing love and care. Once her school headmistress told me that now a days I think three times before hugging these little children who come to distribute birthday sweets..bcz parents object! I think we evolve as a parent as our children grow and but this evolution shouldn’t be out of their world

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