Responsible Parenting Is More Than Love
It doesn’t make sense. You meet parents, still-warm home-pregnancy tests in hand, bolting to the most sought-after daycares to secure a spot. The children, anointed with names full of portent and/or aspiration, are celebrated and cosseted. Across most of the Indian socio-economic spectrum, they’re spoken of as a ‘right,’ a ‘gift,’ a ‘purpose.’ Throw our native intelligence and traditional family values into the mix, and we could be raising a new pantheon of Gods.
Except, mostly, we’re not.
Early in April, a young man died because a father ignored not just the law but at least three past incidents of his underage son’s over-speeding and reckless driving. What is truly disheartening, though, is that the father obviously lacked or ignored a very basic instinct of responsible parenthood: to protect one’s child from the harm a child can inflict on himself (and other people).
Before we resort to the cliché ‘rich, spoilt brats’ retort, let’s admit inadequate parenting shows up all over the socio-economic shop. For the umpteenth time in the last few years, Mumbai railway police implored parents to rein in their young boys performing stunts on the train, endangering themselves and their fellow travelers. The parents’ responses were a dangerous mix of being defensive of their own neglect and watery justifications.
This permissiveness is an expression of love, I’m sure. Only love could trump such other considerations as safety and legality. Why else would you see small children, their soft, delicate heads, bobbing wildly out of the sunroofs of cars? Or a parent yelling at the waiter for spilling food on the child who tripped him as she ran screaming like a dervish around the restaurant? Or the mother who makes it a game to feed her kid a snack at the park in full view of the ‘No Eating’ sign? And of course, there’s the whole jugaad leg-up the ladder in lieu of a sound upbringing.
But love alone doesn’t fulfill our parental responsibilites, which simply and precisely indicate (to me) that parents enter into a basic contract with society and are obliged to provide children with basic rights – education, safety, shelter – and also the chance to develop into a socially responsible citizen.
Unfortunately, that’s exactly what it is: chance. Child rights activist and social worker, Manna Biswas, who consults with UNICEF, acknowledges that while several national laws define what the primary responsibilities of the state are towards a child, a first level of parental protection is only assumed.
“We know every right has a corresponding responsibility. The right to speak, the responsibility to ensure privacy, the right to protection, the duty not to incite violence…,” he explained. “As primary guardians and responsible citizens, it is our duty to help our children understand the coexistence of rights and responsibilities. That is imperative in order to preserve a civilized culture and society they will enter when they grow up.”
A friend used to say, “when you see the problem child, look for the problem parent.” She may have been on to something. When it comes to our kids, I’m not sure most Indian parents would pass the Marshmallow Test. We’re expressing parental love by giving our children the keys to the car or a fatty liver. We take umbrage at the slightest criticism of ourselves or our children. We are losing our gravitas and presenting as immature adults in charge.
Wherever you look — whether to a thoughtful reply on Quora or an experienced teacher imparting the human qualities that make a good society, the consensus seems to be that there will be no ‘tell’ without show. Self-discipline and personal responsibility are best taught through example.
A few years ago, this was best paired with ‘benign neglect,’ a talisman term against the tiger mums and other analyzed-to-idiocy parenting strategies. In India, however we are grappling with the ideological opposite, indolent indulgence, the effects of which manifest in many ways, including poor health.
And that’s the problem with thinking kids are rights, gifts, purposes. Rather than seeing them as living, breathing evidence of a contract made with society, as shape-able shapers of their future environment, we see them as finished products. It makes it easier on us parents; it absolves us of the responsibility to be role models as well as nurturers. But it makes it harder on society, and our kids, who both bear the brunt when we break faith.
Of course, it also makes it all the more special when we deliver.
Recently, a teenage boy rescued an old homeless man from a set of bullies at some personal risk. By the time I arrived on the scene, the bullies were taunting and threatening the boy as he walked away. I chased after him.
“They were harassing that old man, Aunty.” He looked upset. “They shouldn’t do that!”
I tried not to break into tears as I told him, “You are brave and good. You go home and you tell your mother and father they’ve raised an excellent boy! Will you do that for me?” He nodded, slightly nonplussed.
Look at this child, at your children. If you’re overwhelmed with both love and the burden of responsibility, congratulations – you’re doing it right.