Parenting ‘young adults’: Know when to let go!

The much-publicized showdown (this has been covered extensively by the media in Chennai) between celebrated Tamil film director Cheran and his daughter Damini, over Damini’s choice of a Life partner, leaves us with very significant questions that, I am sure, are on the mind of every parent who has a young adult at home waiting to make Life choices. The questions are:
  •     How much parental control is right and necessary in helping “young adult” children make Life choices, especially with regard to their companions?
  •      What does a parent do when the young adult child is, at least in the eyes of the parent, committing a mistake, virtually hara-kiri?
  •      What must be done when parents and young adult children can’t understand each other anymore?

The New Indian Express: Aug 4 2013
But first, let’s quickly review the Cheran-Damini context. Damini says she wants to marry and live with her boyfriend Chandru, who was an apprentice in Cheran’s office. She has complained to the Chennai Police Commissioner that her father used goons to harass Chandru and even had him roughed up on a few occasions. Cheran, on the other hand, has clarified that he is not against his daughter choosing her Life companion but is against her relationship with Chandru, whose character, says Cheran, is “not very good”.

Prima facie, both father and daughter appear to be right in looking at things the way they are, from where each of them is seeing it! Damini believes in Chandru implicitly. And Cheran refuses to. Possibly Cheran has his own valid reasons – because he’s looking at Chandru as a parent and not as a lover. So, he’s seeing something that Damini, at this time, given her age and her limited exposure, is not seeing. Now, the best way forward for both parties is to let go. First for Cheran to let go and accept that his daughter is now a young adult, who cannot and must not be controlled. And, next, for Damini to appreciate that her father is no villain and only wants her not to be hurt in the future, if her choice of being with Chandru, does not work out for whatever reason.

Fundamentally, we parents must accept and appreciate that our children have very different and unique Life paths from our own. Just because something happened to us, it is not necessary that the same will happen to our children. So, let go of that anxiety or expectation – whichever way you are looking at things. Especially when dealing with young adults__irrespective of the legal definition, any child over 16 years of age, per me, qualifies for this classification__employ a simple process (that will address, among other things, the three questions that were raised above) in all matters where conflicting viewpoints emerge:
  •      Advise – First attempt advise. Share your Life experience with regard to the context on hand. Place both pros and cons. Transparently. Calmly. Enable informed and intelligent choice-making by your child.
  •      Champion – When you notice that your child persists with a choice that you don’t agree with, invite the child for another round of conversations. Don’t reprimand. Remember: each individual is adventurous in her or his own way. Your child perhaps loves experimenting. Don’t restrain that spirit. Instead, champion your school of thought, calmly, with compassion. Outline where the child’s choice will end up, according to you, should the child insist on walking down that path. Always remind the child that if she or he fails, she or he is “welcome” back home anytime.
  •      Let Go! – When you still don’t see your child picking up your sage counsel, simply let go! Keep an open mind. Wish your child well. Be open to you being wrong with your assumptions. Because ultimately, it is your child’s happiness that you want. And not wanting to prove your correctness or yourself right!
  •      Never say ‘I told you so!’ – Should the child’s gambit fail, and she or he has to come back to you, simply receive her or him unconditionally. Don’t rub it in. Don’t say “I told you so!”. This is not an ego battle that you have won. Your child is back with you only because she or he realizes the mistake. Celebrate that learning, so that the mistake is not repeated, with care and compassion.

This process works fine in any context. Whether your child has a problem with academics or alcohol or tobacco or relationships or values. This process, above all, ensures peace and harmony while dealing with different approaches to Life and wherever conflicting views, between parent and child, emerge on Life choices being made.

I have learned from Life that there is no right way or wrong way to live Life. Each of us has our own journeys, peppered with our own unique experiences that lead us to our own personal learnings. The most important aspect of parenting is to know when to advise and when to let go. To be sure, by letting go, you are not being irresponsible. In fact, you are being mature – because you are preserving decorum and harmony in the relationship with your “young adult” child. The world is already ridden with enough strife and misunderstandings. Surely, you don’t want your small world too to be torn asunder by the same factors. Each of us learns to live Life more from experience than from being told how to live it! So, this Friendship Day, choose to be your “young adult” child’s best friend! Simply enable her or his learning too by letting go and, if required, getting out of the way!


Let ‘em children be free

Kate, William and the Royal Baby
The arrival of a British Prince on the planet, as Kate and William’s first born, has whipped up such a frenzy. I read in one of the papers this morning an astrologer predicting how the child would fare as a man. There is speculation on what impact his birth, and new merchandize that is likely to be launched, will have on the British retail economy. And another point of view speculates that unless this Prince goes on to be 87, in 2100, chances of him being King are slim. One headline said “Royal Baby misses being Suriya (the Tamizh movie star) by a day!” – meaning, absurdly, that the baby was born a day ahead of Suriya’s 38thbirthday!
And then there’s this picture of the day-old baby on the front page of a newspaper – serene, unmindlful of all the attention, secure in the arms of its mother Kate.
                                                                                                                                                                                
That led to wonder why is it that we don’t leave our children alone? Bad enough we have been brought up without much choice. And now we are perpetrating the same abysmal conditioning on the next generation?
First let us understand what Khalil Gibran (1883~1931), the venerable Lebanese-American thinker and author, said so emphatically – that our children are born through us, not for us! We are only instruments that delivered them here. So, let’s stop being possessive about them. Children are not things to be possessed. We must recognize them as individual human beings __ like you and me. You don’t control human beings. If you do, you are a slave driver, a dictator. Not a parent.
Second, look at how choice-less birth is – yours, mine, even your child’s! A child cannot choose its sex or its parents or its home or its place of birth or even its name. Everything is given. In fact, everything’s forced. I am sure if each of us sat and thought about it, we perhaps may not really have wanted to have the name that we have been given. We may have preferred some other name. But since there was no choice possible, we endure our given names. So, obviously, we must give our children the opportunity to choose what they love – in all matters where it is still possible to exercise a choice! Looking after and raising children, with good values, does not give us the license to force them to do anything and everything we want done. But invariably we force a lot – what to eat, what to wear, when to sleep, what religion to practice and so on. Or as in the case of the Royal Baby, even his destiny is forced on him already. For all we know, when he grows up, he may not want to be King. He may just want to be a wanderer, traveling the world – and not want to be confined to the monotony and rigor of monarchy!
Third, we often confuse our parent-status with ownership. “My child” does not ever mean to us parents – “child in my care”. It has always meant “I own this child!”. So, where’s the child free? Isn’t the child enslaved right at birth? We mask this injustice in the garb of “protection and security”. Demanding obedience to a code of conduct laid down by us has become a universal basis for bringing up children. A child has to adhere to a parent’s “yes” or “no”. The child has no voice and even if it has, it is often bull-dozed into submission. I am not saying that we let children do whatever they want. But how about replacing obedience with intelligence? How about telling the child, through several conversations, what is right and what is wrong. How about empowering the child, over time, to take informed decisions? How about teaching children to learn from their mistakes – borne from indecision to poor decision to plain recklessness?
Fourth and finally, let’s not try to make our children like us. Let them be different. Just because you are a doctor, does not mean your child should be one too. Help the child understand her or his calling by allowing experimentation. By trying and failing. Maybe even a hundred times. Our current education system, in India at least, is very restrictive and taxing on children. It measures talent only in set parameters _ science, history, geography, a few languages and math. But what if the child wants to be an artist? Or an entrepreneur? Or an inventor? Or a writer? Or a politician? Or a photographer? A musician? Or an actor? Unless you have given ample choice to a child, and seen for yourself the level of proficiency and passion the child has in a field, do not force that study on that child. Grades and marks are not the only markers. Joy (how much joy a child derives doing something) and effortlessness (how easily is a child able to accomplish something) are key indicators too. Look for them always.
So, whether the new born is a King-in-waiting or a Princess of your family, allow any child choice, freedom and the opportunity to live his or her Life. Remember: as a parent, you are simply an instrument that brought your child to this world. Don’t ever mistake your being a parent for being an owner. Be a great friend and a compassionate mentor instead!

Inspire your children to come alive

Give your children the power of choice. Allow them to experiment, fall, fail, learn and decide what they want to do. Don’t let your experiences and your insecurities dictate your children’s career or Life choices.
This morning’s Times of India reports that 769 seats are still vacant in the famed Indian Institutes of Technology (IIT) for the current 2013~ academic season. This is unprecedented in the glorious history of the IITs in India. This can mean two things: that the IITs have lost their sheen or that engineering as a field of study is no longer a (forced) preferred option. I would like to assume and believe that the latter is true and that the vacant seats reflect a very teeny-weeny shift in the conventional Indian parental mind-set which has primarily been, for generations, oriented towards driving their children to pursue careers in either engineering or medicine. The Aamir Khan-starrer, Hindi blockbuster, 3 Idiots (2009, Rajkumar Hirani) held a mirror to Indian parents when it showcased Farhan’s (Madhavan) plight: of a brilliant wildlife photographer-to-be who was caught in the rat race to become a mediocre engineer just because his father (Parikshit Sahani) always dreamt of Farhan becoming an engineer! I am not sure if the response to admissions to IITs this year is any reflection of the central, core message of 3 Idiotsbeginning to percolate and causing parents, and their children, to focus on what makes the children come alive than what makes the parents feel secure!

As much as Life is unpredictable, Life is also often times a long journey. Many of our experiences and learnings, often from misadventures, direct us towards our destiny. I for one, after being a salesman, a journalist, a strategist, a CEO, a project manager, an executive assistant to a tycoon and a consultant, (in that order), over 17 years, discovered what I wanted to reallydo in Life only when I turned 35. Obviously, I was doing many things after college. I was working my butt off and earning good money. But while each experience I had was exciting, I was still searching for something. There was an incompleteness that I could not describe. It was only when I was faced with a Life-changing crisis that I found out what really gave me joy. That’s when I felt completely at ease and peace with myself and was able to say with certainty and conviction that “this” is what I want to do for and with the rest of my Life. So, the import here is that people, especially children, need to be allowed to make their choices. They must be allowed to experience Life and choose what makes them come alive. The world needs people who are alive, not nerds who have got the grades but whose souls are dead long, long ago. A great musician can heal the world many times over than a mediocre doctor ever can. A fashion designer may pack more precision and creativity into a piece of work than a bad engineer can ever even conceive.

An interview in the same edition of Times of India is worth referring to here. It was with actor Prakash Raj, who lost his 5-year-old son to a freak accident, 9 years ago. Raj, one of India’s most accomplished and famous character actors, had this to say about memories of his son and Life: I can’t forget him, even though I have removed all photographs of his. I am a non-believer and wanted to bury him in my farm. I just go, sit there many times. He is the one who made me realize how helpless I am and how unpredictable Life is and how small it is and how weak you are in front of nature. I love my daughters, but just miss my child, even though it’s been nine years since he died. He was just five when, while flying a kite from a one-feet-high table, he fell on the ground. For a few months after that, he would have fits, after which he died. Nobody could understand what was the reason. His death was more than any other sorrow for me. I don’t take Life for granted anymore and live in the moment.
As it is that crucial time of the year for admissions to colleges, perhaps you are a parent who’s grappling with just the same issue I am sharing here. My unsolicited advice is this: enjoy your children as long as this lifetime lasts. Inspire them to come alive. Ask them what makes them come alive. And give them the freedom to pursue it. Support them in whatever manner you can. More than your money, they need your conviction in them. More than making yourself feel secure about your children’s future, strive to make them more happy by allowing them to do what fills them with joy! Life’s too short. You might as well watch your child being truly happy than watch her or him be unhappy while being financially and professionally, and given the inscrutable nature of Life, vainly, secure!

Make a sound investment today – give your child your time!

Create quality time to spend with your children before they grow up and don’t have any time for you! Caught up with our own busy careers, we often tend to postpone family time and sometimes see our kids’ activities as unimportant in the face of several more pressing tasks. Our children are very forgiving and won’t really grudge it if we miss an annual day at school or a pantomime they are participating in. But soon, sooner than you can even imagine, they would have grown up and flown away into the big world – to build their own careers and raise their families. You may have all the time in the world for them then but they will have none to offer you! 
On my evening walks, I often see a father-son duo that we know of. They don’t know us. But we know of them and their family. The son is a strapping teenager. Tall and handsome. Must be close to 18 or 19. He can’t see though. And he is autistic (we know of his condition through a common family friend). Most evenings, the father will bring him along on a motorbike. The neighborhood we walk in does not have any traffic to speak of. So, the father will ride the motorbike a few times through it. The boy will be delirious with delight as the breeze pampers his face. He will raise his hands and at times yell in glee. After a few rounds on the motorbike, the father-son duo will walk through the neighborhood. The father will hold his son’s hand and tell him all that’s going on around them. The boy will ask several questions and seek graphic details__which, given his autism, I find, very remarkable. The father will patiently answer his son and provide each detail that he seeks. I find their camaraderie inspiring.  
In fact, it sometimes makes me feel guilty. In the years that my son was in his teens, I made little time for him. I rue the fact that I missed several of my kids’ special days in school because I was always having, as I vainly reasoned to myself,  ‘more important and urgent things to do with the business’. So when my son went away to study in Chicago some years ago, I felt the void in our half-empty nest the most. I couldn’t reconcile to the reality that our child had flown away even when I had not been around much during his growing up years! I am glad though that one summer, when he was 17,  we, just me and him, went on a vacation to Rajasthan. That will be a precious memory for me, forever, of spending quality time with him. Mercifully, we have a good friendship between us though. However, I made amends with my daughter. Apart from Life, and business, slowing down and offering me a lot of time to watch her do the things she loves doing, I also made it a point, with my wife, to be at each of our daughter’s special moments. Yesterday, for instance, we spent two beautiful hours watching her perform at an ‘Acapella’ concert with her very talented college band.
I have realized that we don’t need a handicap or a natural process of growing up to remind us that there are far more important things to do in Life than build a career or a business. Nothing can compensate for the joy of witnessing your child express herself or himself. Making time for being with your children is perhaps the best investment decision you will ever make. And here’s a simple tip to create that time in your packed calendar – just allot all the time you spend worrying about the lack of a work-Life balance to your children! And voila! Not only will you feel enriched, your work-Life balance will be instantaneously restored too!

Celebrate the diversity in people

Learn to accept people for who they are. Don’t try to get them to fit into your idea of who you want them to be. Expecting people to be any different from what they are is a sure way of making yourself miserable. This particularly applies in a family context where people despite all the closeness still have some very different ways of thinking and living. Maturity demands that in such situations you simply let people be.
Yesterday a friend of mine said he was having serious challenges in “controlling” his 18-year-old son. The boy apparently had little interest in academics. And his parents’ paranoia was only making him more rebellious. I told my friend that the problem lay in him trying to “control” his son. I have found that as children grow up to be young adults, parents too must grow up. We have to recognize that our ‘kids’, when they are young adults, don’t need us to support or protect them. What they expect from us is that we respect their integrity, their intellect and their privacy. Being available to them is what they will value more than being there all the time all over, and around, them!
I have another friend who has a pretty interesting way of dealing with diversity in his immediate circle. Within his family, he has told everyone that they are free to do whatever they want as long as they don’t interfere with whatever he is doing. Everyone meets every quarter and reviews this arrangement in a mature manner and if there are new agreements to be arrived at, they do draw them up. Result: there’s complete peace and harmony even as people do their own stuff. For instance, my friend is either out trekking or racing in car rallies, while his wife undertakes pilgrimages even as she runs a business, and his children are busy building their own careers having chosen their companions without having to toe a ‘family’ line. The family does converge on common vacation times annually or simply gets together some weekends to goof off. But they do it more as friends than as people having to live under the influence or shadow of each other.
People, including children, don’t need to, and can’t, be controlled. They can only be conversed with. You can share a point of view. Either there can be agreement or disagreement. If you disagree, fine, agree to do so. Recognize that it is perfectly fine to disagree.  Just don’t grieve over the disagreement.
Let’s celebrate the diversity in people around us. This celebration is what will make living a pleasant experience!

Lessons from a girl who fell


Living in the moment is darn simple if you look up to children as role models. They epitomize the spirit to let go, have fun and simply be. They therefore are happy despite their circumstances.

Last evening we were sitting in a doctor’s clinic, waiting for our turn to be called in. A child, about 5 years old, who was playing around the waiting room, suddenly fell off a chair and hurt her head. She wailed for a few minutes. But as soon as her mother consoled her, she stopped crying. It was a bad fall. Because we could hear the impact of the child’s fall – of her head banging on the floor. It was more than an ordinary “thud”. In fact, I had expected the child to continue to wail. But she stopped. And immersed herself in flipping through a magazine which was lying around. Obviously she could not read. She was too young. Besides she was a child that came from a less privileged background. Looking at her mother I even wondered if she would get a decent schooling at all. Also, the magazine she held in her hand was in English. But what was interesting was that instead of focusing on the pain that she had been inflicted, owing to the fall, the child made herself busy reading aloud a make-believe story to herself from the magazine – just stringing her thoughts around the pictures she saw. Her spirit and her narrative were both engaging. Although, from where I was sitting, I couldn’t see the magazine, I really liked her story. And in some time, I even lost myself to the moment – forgetting that I was at the doctor’s in the first place because I had a nagging physical condition that needed review.  

Back home later in the evening, I reflected on the little girl’s attitude. It was both infectious and inspiring. I wondered:

  • Why is it that we adults are unable to get up and get going when we fall – either physically or figuratively or emotionally in Life?
  • Why is it difficult for us to let go and immerse ourselves in the moment – finding both enthusiasm and joy in what is?

Perhaps, a simple reason why we get affected by any form of pain, as in a physical fall or an emotional situation, is that we don’t treat events that happen to us as just events. The child was able to get over the fall and its painful impact because she subconsciously treated it as a simple event. She moved on to the next one. Which was about story-creating and story-telling! We would have clung on to the pain, analyzed its causes, its consequences and found a zillion ways to opinionate why the incident causing the pain must never have happened. And so on and on. Resultantly, we don’t even recognize the opportunity in each moment. We may be physically present in a moment but are mentally stuck in the past, in the pain. In the present, only reality, only the moment exists. The mind does not exist in the moment. The difference between children and us is, they are forever engaged with the present, with what is. They simply refuse to remain enslaved to their minds!

Perhaps that’s a lesson worth thinking about and possibly imbibing?


Pause and celebrate the miracle of your family


An intrinsic aspect of intelligent living is to not just earn a living but to learn to spend quality time with your family. In such a connected world, where there are so many options for children to learn and display their talent, I do agree that Life for us parents, especially in an urban or metro context, can at times be harrowing. Ferrying the children to and from events, activities, hobby classes and school, in the midst of our ever-demanding work schedules and corporate careers, can often appear thankless. And then there is the time that you need with your companion, just to chill out, doing nothing! Phew! Where’s the time for yourself?

Sometimes family Life can get very demanding and complicated. With so many schedules to coordinate, with so many things to do, with so many aspirations to fulfill. Even so, there’s great value in learning to pause, and celebrating the miracle of your family.

Some years ago, when I was based in Singapore, I had a friend Steve, who was the general manager of the hotel I stayed in as a long-term guest. He was a big-hearted man from Vancouver, Canada. He must have been in his late 40s then and I was in my late 20s. He and his wife loved Singapore and he was doing a great job leading the hotel he was employed at. Then suddenly he told me over dinner, one night, that he was going back to live in Canada. His three daughters, it appeared, were in various years of finishing undergrad and grad schools. And he said, “We want to be with them, for them.” I remember wondering, as a career-obsessed youngster, what a crazy idea it was to give up such a great job and go back to take care of three ‘grown up young adult daughters’. Steve perhaps read my mind. He said rather prophetically, “When you grow up to be my age, all you will want is happiness for your children. Your success and happiness will lie in their own.”

I certainly did not take Steve’s words to heart. So, even as I continued my quest to build a career, flying around the world, at the cost of not being able to spend time with my family, I did not quite realize what I was missing. Those were very early days of the internet. Hotmail was not even around as a free-for-all service. Phone calls were mighty expensive. So, we had a fax machine installed at home for my wife and I to be in touch. One day, as I was lounging in my hotel room in Rome, after a long day’s work, the bell desk slipped a fax message under the door. It was from my son. He must have been hardly six then but he knew how to operate the old Compaq 486 (!!!) we had at home. He had managed to pull out a computer clipart picture of a globe, pasted it on a document, printed it and faxed it to me. Below the clipart, in his scrawly handwriting, he had written, ‘Where in the world are you? Come soon!”  My eyes welled up, and I remembered Steve, as I read that message. I was not sure I did it consciously, but over the next several months I worked hard and eventually managed to relocate back to India.

Even after I came back and set up a business here in India, it took me a long, long time to discover the magic of my own family. I often ended up getting trapped in the rat race, letting clients, business and my team take over my time, all the time! I am glad, am grateful to Life and am humbled, that I finally did manage to yank myself out of that rut!!! When my daughter was born, 18 years ago, I was that ambitious, globe-trotting CEO. I often used to ask my wife, when I called from airports half-way across the world, half in jest, half in trepidation, if our daughter would even recognize me! Today my daughter (and of course, my son) and I are the best of friends. As they say, every cloud has a silver lining. The upside of a business slowdown, I have come to believe, is this amazing friendship I have struck with my children. Today Steve’s words ring so very true to me.

Unmistakably, living fully is a full-time job!  Living fully surely involves experiencing the family we create and raise than just providing for them. There’s nothing more valuable in Life, you will realize, sooner than later, than the friendship of your children and the companionship of your spouse. A family is where you learn to live. You learn compassion, you learn to teach, you learn to lead, to serve, to give, you learn to understand the value in constructive confrontation, in forgiveness and in simply having a lot of fun, laughing, and goofing off! You may not realize it but your family not just complements you, but completes you! As someone has said so wisely, “Family is not just important. It is everything!”

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