Our collaborations move to the Southern part of India, where, at the suggestion of our collaborator Vishwas Raj, we initiated conversations with two mothers, Yashaswini and Nandini. In the first episode, we speak with Yashaswini, a mother of a five-year old girl, about her memories as well as her current beliefs about care and activities with her daughter. After presenting the conversation verbatim, we will follow it up with a brief commentary. The first section of comments is from Vishwas Raj himself and the second by us. We hope that you will find the presentation engaging. We are deeply grateful to both Yashaswini and Vishwas for their generosity in sharing their personal views and pictures with us.
Yashaswini is a Dentist by profession, and a Yoga teacher by choice. Yoga happened accidentally during a long break from work during her daughter’s early years. She is drawn towards any art form – painting, theatre, singing and music, also poetry. Now she is juggling between different roles balancing her work and family life and hoping she is creating the right values for her daughter as parenting becomes more inclusive in the choices she makes.
1. One’s own memories of childhood influence how we bring up our children, tell me what you think about that?
“I remember my childhood was mostly devoted towards education. My mother was a home tutor all her life, she had a skill to make a student identified as “dull” into a capable one who would slowly go to excel in studies. She gave individual attention with so much patience and practice for each child, thereby moulding them towards learning.
Equal importance was given for playtime every evening. There was no differentiation of the standard of the student, age bar, no difference gender-wise. We all mixed and played well. Even house helpers would play along with everyone else. They would even sit to study along with us. In these sessions, once a week snacking would be introduced to lighten up the moments. This is the atmosphere in which my brother and I were raised.
Our father was devoted to his work, but he made sure to make time for us with reference to school work and exams. We always had endless revision with our mother and then one final session with dad. The leeway what I used to take with mom, of skipping certain chapters or some difficult topics were not allowed with my Dad….he made sure that I was thorough with every lesson even if I had to study late into the night.”
My brother was always the intelligent one, he was studious, and teachers used to find him a delight in their classes! He was the one to set the standard at home as well. I had to follow this with a pinch of salt…..I had my own style in certain things since I was playful and he was the serious one. During our childhood, outings or travel was rare unlike these days. That sort of opportunity did not exist. Once in a year, we used to take a short outing to a hotel or restaurant, nothing elaborate, just a snack, since I remember returning home to eat a proper meal after that. This was an indulgence usually on the day of my brother’s results. Regarding going out to see movies, we watched what came on TV and that too was filtered. I only remember watching shows like Shaktiman, Alif Laila and Sunday specials like Jungle Book, Duck Tales and Talespin. Also some interesting episodes around dinner time.
My own daughter, she is growing up in a very different setting, there is much more exposure. Also, she is already fluent in three languages. For us, weekend movies and dinner out has become the norm, maybe we seek weekend breaks more in comparison with what we had as children.
Regarding my daughter’s lessons, I always want both of us (mother and father) to be involved and to give equal attention to her, and that is what we do. Yet, sometimes I feel that as an only child, she really doesn’t want that much attention. I believe that children today have so much exposure that they already know what they want be it a toy, a book or watching a cartoon. For a five-year old, I feel her decisions are very firm.
Although some games are timeless, like role play at being ‘mummy’ or a ‘teacher’, or playing the scene in the kitchen, or a doctor’s clinic……all these I see repeated from what they see in their parents….at those times, I believe that it is important for a mother also to be employed and be seen as an equal, not just as a mother but also as a woman.”
2. What are the ways in which you feel that your background has influenced your views on life experiences regarding the care of children? Give me examples in terms of values and practices?
How have these values influenced your ideas as a parent? Are all your ideas borrowed from how you were brought up? What are some of the differences you feel you have made?
“Values and practices:
With reference to dealing with elders, receiving them when they come home, or when you meet them outside, I feel that a child must be respectful and polite, with a Namaste’ or a hello. This should be an approach to all people who are older, not just those with whom the child is related, it should not matter what background they are from.
When we were growing up, as Hindus, it was important to celebrate festivals of all faiths. For example, Christmas was always a grand celebration with some competitions and small talents shows and prize distributions that my mother would organize with the home-study group as well as children from the neighbourhood. All of December, right up to the New Year would be filled with festivities. This was an opportunity for children to express themselves, their individual talent, whatever it was, singing, dance, mime…and the performances would help them realise their own capabilities.
Another thing, throughout our childhood, we always had a pet dog at home, and the dog was a member of the family. Even before my daughter was born, I had also decided to keep a dog at home who was like our first child. My daughter has imbibed the same love for dogs and fearlessly plays with other dogs, even those who live on the street.
I tend to apply all my lessons from childhood on my daughter…..sometimes I think I overdo it, and then I try to allow her to explore the way she wants, and that would be better than always bringing my ideas in.
Especially regarding electronic media, I feel that she is brimming with ideas, and sometimes we don’t even understand what she is trying to convey and give away.
I am interested in art….so, instead of teaching her or asking her to try something, I just do my work and then I find that she too shows interest in the same. I have also noticed that if I ask her to do something, she won’t. She rebels. When I do it myself, she carefully observes me and starts to show interest.
Also, although I have a career as a dentist, I am also a yoga teacher, and she seems enthusiastic about yoga. I believe that children can pick up asanas very quickly through observation.
Now, slowly, after a long break, I have got back into my dental practice, and I see a whole new change in her behaviour with me. Initially, she was not ready to accept me staying out for long and her mother not being readily available to her all the time. Slowly, she seems to be adjusting to the changes, and cheerfully sends me off to clinic. My husband has been a great support in taking my place too when I am out at clinic since he is presently working from home, thanks to the Coronavirus! I am not sure how this will pan out in the future, but somewhere, I am certain that she has now understood and also comprehends our emotions.
Some values and practices with my child, I have completely borrowed from parents, it’s like it is inbuilt……almost without my knowledge, we tend to continue with these with our own children. Yet, there are also many situations in which I just allow her to bloom the way she wants to.
I also feel that we are not as strict as our parents used to be with us, almost giving into her every whim. Perhaps this is because she is just 5…. We tend not to force her towards anything. Even with food, I don’t ever force feed her, and allow her to eat by herself, rather than always being fed.
Also, she has her own choice regarding what clothes or shoes she wears, what toys she plays with. What she likes and what we have in mind are different, so we let her choose”.
4. Do you think these practices with your daughter will influence her identity, personality? What are you working towards?
“I’m not really sure. Adopting whatever we have learnt and giving her more leeway to explore, and not restricting her in many ways. Sometimes I feel that since everything is so readily available to them, they don’t value things as much, even if it is a simple toy. For instance, I still have the Barbie doll I got as a child in Class 4…or around that time. My daughter already has, like, 4 dolls and she throws them around here or there…… I still have books from my childhood and have very fond memories of reading them…….maybe she is too young to understand……I feel we are hurrying with her age and our goals for her. At times when I realise that, I slow down……“
5. How do you think your child is different from other children you meet?
“Firstly, since she is growing in a different State where there are many languages, she has already picked up three. When I see children struggling with speaking English, I find her pretty fluent in her speech and grammar as well. She is also fluent in her mother tongue.
I find that she tends to look towards children older than her for companionship, and has hardly played with anyone younger than her.
Also, I find that she really talks very comfortably with all the older aunties and is like a favourite for all of them. She mingles very well with older people. I sometimes feel that she may be a little arrogant because she gets so much attention from so many older people.
Since she is a single child, and we don’t plan to have another, there are times when she asks why she doesn’t have a sibling and then starts pestering us for a pet. She wants someone to give her attention all the time. I want her to get bored sometimes. So that she starts thinking. This I have been working on.“
6. What are your expectations from a school and for the future of your daughter?
“These are the things that come to mind:
- A free mind to grow and explore, with no prejudices.
- A good over-all development, giving equal importance to academics, sports and other activities. This brings out the best in them.
- Teachers who inspire and bring out the best in each child.
- To have a good circle of friends with whom they find mutual support and grow up together.
- Love and respect for all.
- Yoga and meditation should be an important part of the curriculum, as well as for her life.”
When Vishwas Raj, brother of Yashaswini, was invited to comment on the conversation, he writes: “I don’t want to add too much as this is my sister’s perspective. But I guess she gets our childhood pretty much all right although she goes a little hyperbole on me being the bright one.”
- “Being strict Vs being tactful: Our parents were pretty strict especially our father during school days. Our Mom was more chill. Regarding parenting, I feel a lot of patience is necessary while dealing with young children and a small serious episode can, perhaps, be scarring. So, a delicate balance needs to be maintained between showering love and being strict. Maybe we need to use tact with children and more communication to cajole them in certain directions. I am sure it’s a big challenge for parents and they are sure to lose their patience at some point. But they need to be cognizant that it leaves a lasting impression on children’s minds.
- Outdoors: With the advent of technology and mobile phones and rampant construction, it is difficult to find free, safe places in the outdoors. This is one stark difference I see from our days to now. We had so many more open and safe places to explore. Grounds, traffics free roads, empty plots, were easily accessible to play in. Our games were not so structured. We improvised from what we knew on the go. I see a big absence of such open spaces in the cities these days. Children are restricted to smaller spaces or just inside their homes. I see this as a big loss for the present generation.
- The feeling of longing and accomplishment: With improved economic status and readily available goods, children these days are missing out on the feeling of longing, waiting for a prized possession and then treasuring something when it finally arrives like in our days. We experienced that a lot while growing up. The children these days have it easy, which also leads to instant gratification, short attention spans, lesser gratitude and constant boredom. They are always looking for the next excitement!
- Time spent with cousins and grand parents and other relatives: I think our generation got to spend much more time with our larger family including cousins, and older relatives. Nowadays, it is very different and bonding happens on WhatsApp forwards only. My niece hardly knows most of her cousins or their parents. My parents hardly get much time to spend with their grandchild. That also means that she loses out on a lot of extra love that can complement parents care. My sister and I, on the other hand, were not so lucky to see much of our grandparents. Just our maternal grandmother for a few years. This is another thing that has changed for them, the opportunity to have grandparents around. In my niece’s case the absence is caused by distance and think that is a loss when there is so much love waiting to be showered on her. But the thought that they are around and periodic visits are precious for everyone.
The conversation with Yashaswini and comments by Vishwas have raised several critical issues about care of children and comparisons between generations. We will focus on two main points in this commentary. The first issue concerns assumptions about the balance between nature and nurture; between controlling, influencing or guiding the child towards what parents believe to be the right thing to do, and alternatively, allowing children the freedom to ‘be themselves’, as ‘natural’ as possible. This is a long-standing conundrum for families as they raise children, especially as we have become increasingly ‘aware’ of the potential impact we have on our offspring. This was not always the case, and even today, numerous children live in communities quite untouched by pressures of modern parenting. Yet, like the ‘ratchet effect‘ that Michael Tomasello wrote about, once you are touched by this thought, there’s no going back to older ways. The change is permanent. Dr. Anandalakshmy once remarked that in earlier times, children used to “grow up, now they are being brought up”.
Parenting is not even a recognised word in Indian languages, the term commonly used is “care”. This distinction reflects an orientation in meaning that is culturally relevant. Whereas the former (parenting) implies a direct, active and conscious control over one’s actions as a parent/adult caring for children that are believed to have specific outcomes, the latter (care or paalan-poshan in Hindi) focusses on the idea of relatively unstructured supervision and guidance, of having a favourable family environment with the tacit assumption that children will grow, learn and advance at their own pace. This does not imply that adults are not concerned, but that the focus is on care and not the person who is fulfilling the role. In such settings, roles and responsibilities of nurturing are likely to be ‘fungible’ or mutually interchangeable among a group of people with mothers at the centre; as important but not singular. Our earlier post on Mamta covered some of the nuances of such an approach to care. It is a significant difference in orientation. We also suggest that in the latter scheme (caring rather than parenting), adults could be perceived as stricter (and maybe even less involved), perhaps because of the imposition of general rules rather than constant negotiation. Concurrently, with stricter rules, one finds in these conversations, that when Vishwas and Yashaswini remember their childhood, they also mention having a lot more freedom to explore away from parental supervision. This seems somewhat paradoxical to the debate about strict versus tact that Vishwas raises. In fact, in this example, strict parents actually provided greater flexibility and freedom for children to be themselves and also to be by themselves, provided certain conditions were fulfilled. A clear mention is made of formal learning tasks in the quoted narratives. Once you completed that responsibility, you were rewarded and generally left to yourself. In current times, Yashaswini sees herself as more flexible, but constantly present in her daughter’s life.
The point here is (and this should be reassuring for many parents) that children are, in fact, inherently resilient and adaptable, and can thrive in a wide range of environments. We just have to look around at different societies to realise how amazingly adaptive children are. The rather controversial hypothesis of ‘poverty of stimulus’ that attempts to explain language learning in children, states that the amount of input that children receive is just not rich enough to explain the pace and expertise that children express with language. They seem to pick up so much, so quickly from so little, and this input can also range from poor to high quality. Perhaps something similar may also be said about caregiving, although this is just speculation on our side. In fact, despite years of investigation in the human sciences, we still don’t fully understand how much and what it takes to bring up children, how much is enough, what is too little, and can there be too much? There have been some references to the over-doing parenting tasks, over-stimulating children as in helicopter parenting, but that boundary is hard to determine. Since experimental investigations which would require assigning babies to different conditions is an ethical violation, beyond a point, we can only speculate. About inadequate stimulation, the limited information we have is gathered from isolated studies on children in institutional care in the past.
Care without the notion of conscious intervention for every action is likely to be transacted with lower pressure to perform and it is important to remember this when we look back at our own experiences as children. Constant doubt about imagined outcomes can be frightening especially when one is compelled to reflect on one’s roles and responsibilities as a parent. This is not to say that families did not worry in the past, but their concerns may have been about larger issues, whether these were livelihood, survival, education, career, life-course, or health. Oftentimes, in hindsight, we can find our own parents wanting on some dimensions of care that was provided to us. Perhaps we need to be less critical in our evaluation of our parents’ generation.
Thus, there is a burden of the belief that what we do today could change the course of children’s lives, and we can be plagued by doubt and uncertainty. What if this step is harmful? What if I give in? What will happen to my child? Perhaps knowing that we matter, but not too much, will provide some release. Given the fulfilment of a basic range of needs for security, safety, love, warmth, and opportunity to learn, they are likely to grow up well. Within the range of favourable practices, each family has and should have the freedom to choose what works best for them. This is their right.
The second important theme that emerges is the intense need for continuity accompanied with a desire to change. From the above conversation, both the mother and uncle of the five-year-old express nostalgia and longing for the old ways; at the same time an eagerness for novelty is discernible. There is also the issue of needing to adapt to new circumstances that are not always seen as favourable. Yet, these changes are inevitable, a consequence of humanity’s constant struggle to push the limits of reality from which it is hard to step aside. We participate in this struggle for novelty, but there are costs.
The play between persistence and transcendence is a key feature of cultural processes. As proposed within the theory of cultural psychology, culture is re-imagined and recreated by every individual. The past can be adopted, ignored or resisted. The present goes through the same scrutiny as new ways are encountered. As Pooja points out, our autobiographical memories are rife with stories about picking and choosing from what we know and what we imagine to create a unique aggregation of values, beliefs and practices. A similar tension appears in an essay we featured from Neha titled “I love my mother but I don’t want to be like her”. Our personal history of experiences assists in our journey through life, but we are not bound by them. Our capacity to transcend the known provides us with new perspectives on the past and present, as well as an imagined future towards which we work. Who we are and what we become is a result of the unique journey between our biology and environment, not as isolated, independent forces that one can place percentages on (80-20 or 60-30), but a journey of nature via nurture as Matt Ridley remarked in his volume on the subject. For a more advanced reading on the subject, you could pick up Siddhartha Mukherjee’s Gene.
Our emotional investments in past experiences compel us to look back with feelings and motivate us to create memories for our own offspring. This constant dynamics between continuity and change is a fascinating game in the cycle of life, and one that faces every generation. This is a universal theme. If nothing changed, culture would implode, and if too much changed, we would feel lost. Since the pandemic, for instance, too much changed too soon for us to deal with, unleashing feelings of fear and uncertainty. This is how cultures survive through its people, maintained a balance between novelty and familiarity. This principle is acutely evident in these conversations.