A New Generation of Indian Parents
By Rajat Soni
One afternoon I looked down as my daughter puzzled through her homework. Typical of all seven-year-olds, she was scrawling her letters instead of writing them. She came to the point where she mangled the number eight; I quickly and sternly admonished her to “make it neater,” a rush of impatience suddenly hitting me. A short while later, a memory flickered, of the time my own father made me write sheets of eights when I stubbornly wrote them backwards (if that’s even possible to do). Here, in the humble number eight, the cycle of parenting was revealed. Ah, the hypocrisy of it all!
Parenting in an Indian family in the late 1980s was a highly structured, education-first upbringing, for which I remain grateful. We were expected to get into the finest universities, a goal instilled in us a decade before it would be happening. That said, it was not a particularly warm childhood, and at times it could be a stressful experience. Expectations were set and they were to be met without exception because our parents made tremendous sacrifices for us.
As a stay-at-home father today, deeply involved in my daughters’ day-to-day lives, I find myself in a completely different relationship with their Indian heritage. For me, imparting Indian values is not borne of my experience with the difficult and rigorous Indian educational system, which inescapably shaped my parents. Instead, we signed our daughter up for Bollywood dance classes because she really likes the songs. India, in our family, is the culture: food, dance, music, and movies. I have a familiar relationship with my kids – playing games and singing songs with them – that would have mystified my parents. (Of course, as grandparents, they find this all endlessly wonderful.)
And yet here I was, almost literally repeating my father’s own admonition about those cursed, sideways eights. Perhaps something uniquely Indian within persists through the generations, even as I try to carve my own path as a father. What is the motive for this Indian method of parenting to perfection and demanding excellence on routine, even pointless, exercises?
Not that wanting your children to do neat homework is Indian, per se. But I am sensitive about it because I’m supposed to be a different kind of Indian parent, teaching them to be free thinkers, to challenge the stereotype of the Indian upbringing. And a strong stereotype it is. We see this today, when the top spellers at the US’s Scripps-Howard National Spelling Bee are mostly a gaggle of South Asian-origin children. With robust spell-checkers and our computer-oriented culture, there is almost nothing more pointless than memorizing the spelling of words, much less arcane medical and botanical terminology.
But change is afoot for Indians of this generation. When I was growing up, our Indian parents told us we could be anything in the world that we wanted to be as long as it was a doctor. If you had a strong rebellious streak, you became a lawyer. Computer coding and engineering were added to pantheon as well, over time. But the medical profession had some mystical hold on Indian parents of the late 1980s and 1990s.
My brother is a doctor. Ugh. You can guess what I chose (hint: I’ll see you in court). Today, seeing so many Indians succeed in non-traditional jobs has really changed the mentality of being an Indian parent. There have always been enterprising Indians, particularly in business and trade. But today Indians are highly successful politicians, actors, artists, journalists, fashion designers, chefs, and writers, just to name a few occupations. It was probably always the case, but a generation ago, it just wasn’t something you were encouraged to pursue.
Even though the testing day for our daughter’s gifted and talented program looked like the arrival hall at the airport in Delhi, Indian children today have never been freer to explore their culture on its own terms, rather than as a proxy for educational success and achievement. Being Indian means loving India, not getting the highest grade on your test or being perfect. Such was the case when we made her school project explaining our family tradition of Holi, with three years of photos from our celebrations of the holiday in India.
India is now associated with risk, daring, and the youthful future. It is a young nation, belonging far more to my daughters than to me. In that sense, I looked at my stern warning about my daughter’s wobbly eights as a reflection that my Indian upbringing is rooted in a past that’s fading away, an echo of my own experience with my father. The future for children growing up today is one where they can celebrate such idiosyncrasies, where being Indian will be associated with being creative, odd, and willing to go your own way. That’s something my seven-year-old self would have found quite gratifying and something I now, as a parent, find comforting.