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parenting role models

Where Are India’s Parenting Role Models?

I was recently watching an episode of Modern Family -– the one in which Claire is at the airport and is trying to reach out to her daughter Haley via technology after they have an argument. The show, which is heading into its eighth season, not only addresses how our modes of communication are changing (making it very topical to a reality which has made parenting complicated, intrusive and often funny), but also gives viewers beautiful parenting examples that are both hilarious and fraught.

It shows parenting as a journey, one in which parents falter, learn, seek and find middle ground during conflicts and in the co-parenting process. Tinged with humour, you may not agree with every choice the fictional parents make, but you can appreciate and relate to their attitudes toward raising young kids as well as the change in the parent-child relationship as kids become adults. It also introduces progressive ideas around what families are, in the context of sexuality, race and remarriage.

In other words, it’s powerful. It’s powerful because it shows us what is, and what could be. In today’s world, when we consume so much media in any given day, the shows about parenting that we watch, the movies about parenting that we see – they influence our ideas and actions. Beyond the purpose of entertainment, I feel stories about parenting have the power to tell us about our own fallacies in a gentle, unthreatening and non-judgemental way that allows us time to reflect; parents in the movies and parents on TV can influence us to be mindful toward our children and ourselves.

But while much of Modern Family is relatable to any parent, it is also very American. I’m left wondering – where are India’s parenting role models? Do we have such powerful stories about parenting in an Indian context? Sadly, after exploring a bit, I found quite the opposite: that Indian media tend to promote regressive parenting ideas, unhealthy family relationships, and sexist, patriarchal family setups and plotlines.

Too few parenting role models in Indian media

Take Kuch Rang Pyaar Ke Aise Bhi, a popular TV show about the protagonist’s too-close relationship with his mother and how it influences even his own marriage and other life choices. In one early episode, the protagonist, Dev, breaks up with his girlfriend because his mom disapproves, not because he has taken the choice thoughtfully for himself.

The show, viewed over time, glorifies enmeshed parenting, that is, when the parent and the adult child’s personalities are so intertwined that the adult child feels unable to make his or her own choices. This might make for entertaining drama, but it also normalizes a huge problem in India; many of my adult clients struggle with taking decisions and asserting their identities independent of their parents when it comes to matters of moving out of a parental house, moving abroad and even choosing their partners.

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Then there are shows like Sasural Simar Ka, Naagin and Kavach… Kaali Shaktiyon Se — all of which promote irrational beliefs and ritualistic behaviour. Again – compelling drama, but ignorant messaging that affects even educated, urbanized clients, who speak about how their relatives’ imposition of superstitions leads to real-life conflict, frustration and helplessness. Often parental belief in black magic or cults is still a factor that prevents a teenager or young adult from reaching out to a psychiatrist/therapist for mental health support.

That said, there are kernels of change. A handful of Indian shows and films that depict healthy, positive parenting – challenges and all – have sprung up. Here are two notable examples.

The handful of positive parenting examples

Sex Chat with Pappu and Papa is a YouTube web series, released last year by Y-Films (the youth wing of YashRaj Films). It focuses on 7-year-old Pappu asking questions about sex and sexuality of his father, while the father mindfully answers these questions with examples from technology and the characters’ environment and subtly conveys the parenting premise that sex education is as important as teaching kids any other life skill. Needless to say, the huge popularity of the show – 10.6 million views on YouTube as of January 2017 — rides on its use of humour, as it puts father and son in relatable family situations that turn into funny, teachable moments.

I spoke recently with Ashish Patil, the director behind Sex Chat, about getting the messaging – which he says has been ratified by gynecologists and other experts and tested with younger children – right. Patil said it’s tricky to find the balance between empathy, simplicity of ideas (that 7-year-old Pappu can understand) and sensitive humour.

But when it comes together, it sings: a positive, healthy example of parenting with a uniquely Indian context. One of my favourite episodes includes the grandfather – a conservative character with reservations about sex education – coming around to accepting and finding meaning in these ‘sex chats’ between his son and grandson. The episode shows how older parents and adult children can disagree peacefully and the emotional journey of such a change of heart.

Daaravtha is a National Award-winning short film that portrays the journey of an adolescent boy, Panku, as he explores his sexuality within a patriarchal community rife with gender stereotypes.

The film’s subtlety in evoking a sense of vulnerability in both the boy and his mother presents an empathetic model of parenting with a focus on attentive, rather than authoritarian, presence. It shows the mother reflecting, and conveys parenting as journey alongside Panku’s. The most beautiful depiction in the film is the mother-son relationship, which allows Panku to navigate his own identity and gives him courage to challenge existing gender expectations.

“When I put pen to paper to write Daaravtha which was going to be an adolescent’s exploration of sexuality, I knew that it was going to be as much about parents as it was about him,” said director Nishant Roy Bombarde, when I discussed the film with him recently. “Parents have an unfathomable impact on the lives of children, and especially gay children in a society like India where everything about sex except procreation is a taboo.”

I think our media needs more of this thinking – that narratives, like family life, are more powerful when they’re about characters and situations than histrionics and plotting. And more input from experts, a la Sex Chat, to make sure what those characters are doing and saying in those situations are accurate and empowering. We need informed, positive narratives that inspire parents to find parenting styles that are an extension of their own inner voices, rather than a reflection of outmoded societal traditions and expectations. Maybe less dramatic, but certainly more enriching – and, in my opinion, entertaining.

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