Trust not just your children to make informed choices, but trust the process of Life itself!
A friend called me saying his adult daughter who is in her final year at college does not speak much to him or his wife. She keeps traveling on some pretext or the other and prefers to be aloof. She does not seek any advice nor does she offer much information. “I am aware that she is making her choices without involving us because she feels we may not approve of her decisions. But in letting her just be, am I failing in my duty as a parent,” he asked.
Good question. Parenting is always a full-time job no matter how old your children are. With adult children there is always a question of having to respect their privacy. This is a conundrum that every parent faces.
So how much involvement must parents show in the lives of their children, especially if the children are young adults?
Let me share from our own experience of parenting. Vaani and I have kept our equation with our children simple. We have let honesty be the primary basis for all conversations. In any situation, we offer our perspective – not necessarily our opinion – and we leave the final choice to Aashirwad (26) and Aanchal (22). By perspective, I clearly mean we share what we have learned from Life in the given situation. We don’t ever say our way is the only way to have dealt with Life. We say: “this is what happened with us, this is how we dealt with it; it is up to you if you want to borrow from our experience.” We have always maintained that there is no right way or wrong way to live Life; there are no “our generation” or “your generation” issues; so we, in a way, have always encouraged experimentation and learning. Yes, on issues relating to values – integrity, compassion, respect for individuals – or non-negotiables – like drugs or drinking and driving – we remain unflinching and ruthlessly discourage any deviations. This approach has worked for us greatly. Aashirwad and Aanchal have always made their (informed) choices in Life, they have always kept an open channel of communication with us and important, they know that irrespective of the choices they make, they are always welcome back home should all that they try ever fail.
I believe that in dealing with adult children we must accord them the dignity as individuals and their privacy must be respected. If an adult child chooses not to discuss something with you it must be seen as one of two things – either the child does not trust you or the child wants time to herself or himself to sort things out. Either choice must be respected. Yes, if the child does not trust you, it is very important to understand why – but it is important also to recognize that the mistrust has crept in over time, over honest conversations not having been had.
Parenting is a blessing. But it is never easy. So, whenever in doubt, I simply lean on the one God of parenting I know – Khalil Gibran – and his wise words. They help me anchor in peace and learn to trust not just my own children better, they help me trust the process of Life itself!
A switch in attitude is crucial to “handling adulting s**t” as you enter your 20s!
The other day, at a café, I overheard two young people in their early 20s talk about how complex adulting is. They shared with each other the challenges of having to manage paying their bills, balance their cash-on-hand situation, their pay slips and tax returns; and also plan their investments in gadgets, vacations and wardrobes. It wasn’t that I was eavesdropping. But they were talking loudly – enough to distract me from checking Facebook on my phone! One of them added that she wasn’t ready for marriage yet because she wasn’t quite sure she could handle all this “adulting s**t”! “I can’t now start raising babies when I myself have not grown up from being a baby,” she remarked.
I found the whole perspective amusing. I met Vaani when I was 19, I proposed to her when I was 20 and we married when I was 21. We had Aashirwad when I was 23 and she was 24 – she is a year older than I am! I don’t want to sound like a boring old man now and say how small our monthly income then was and how we managed and blah! But instead I want to say that adulting is so much fun.
I guess it clearly depends on how you look at it. Having been under the watchful care of parents for almost 20 years (I always feel Indian parents too should embrace the American way of sending away their kids into the big world when they turn 17), our children tend to take for granted a sense of security. This, besides the fact that almost everything – housing, food, out-of-pocket expenses and education – are taken care of. There is always this attitude that most urban Indian children, coming from middle-class and upper middle-class backgrounds, have: they are groomed, raised and tuned to ask, is everything ready for me? When they step into independent adult Life, they are perhaps not even attitudinally ready. They ought to be thinking, feeling and saying, am I ready for everything, in fact, anything? This orientation, this switch, is crucial to be adult-ready!
I believe as parents we have to engineer this switch in attitude. No serious preparation is required. Just honest conversations – not only on how money is earned and bills are paid, but also on relationships, the upheavals of Life, on compassion, love, loving, relationships and the Purpose of Life itself. We did that a lot, and still do that, with our children Aashirwad and Aanchal. When Aash went away to University of Chicago he was barely 18. He wasn’t ready then to absorb perhaps everything that we were sharing with him, but his “adventures through adulting”, I guess, helped him connect the dots. For Aanchal, just her physically being with us as we navigate a tumultuous, cathartic phase in our Life, (read more here: Fall Like A Rose Petal), helped her grow into being adult-ready. She had to often jump in and take charge, which she always did, apart from watching, from close quarters, how real world challenges are faced and dealt with.
The whole process of parenting and grooming adult children is not at all as complex as it appears to be. And I repeat, adult Life is a lot of fun! The simple change in attitude that we must all encourage in our adult children and what they must embrace is this: stop asking is everything ready for me and instead ask, am I ready for everything, anything?
Life is inscrutable – we all know that. So, the best way to meet Life daily is to be ready, and willing, to accept everything that comes your way! This is not specific to adulting at all. This is what Life is all about. But since this lesson is never openly shared in the course of everyday conversations in our homes, our children aren’t oriented to look at Life this way. Just that switch in perspective can make their adulting experience so much richer, so much more enjoyable!
Can you gift your children their best friend today – “You”?
My blogpost yesterday on parenting had some people write in to me. A common thread that linked all the questions and sentiments was this: “How do you draw the line between being a parent and a friend? How do you decide when is the good time to step in and take charge when your child is drifting away?”
I will answer this from our own experience of raising Aashirwad (now 26) and Aanchal (now 21). We resolved early on to treat them both as individuals, allowing them the freedom to make their own choices from when they were toddlers. When they entered their teens, we told them both that we are their best friends, that we will always be available for them. And, we made it clear to them that in certain contexts, we will surely talk from our experience of what is right for them and what is not. To take our advice or draw from our experience, we said, was always left to them. We often summed up any parenting conversation with this line: “We are your best friends. But if you see us behaving like your parents, remember, you are responsible for it.” Let me tell you, this empowering approach with our children has really worked for Vaani and me. Of course, our children have stumbled, fallen, got hurt, cried and made poor choices – but each time they have come back to us, and continue to come back, for our perspectives.
So, I would recommend that if you want your children to grow up to be mature, intelligent, responsible, good, caring, loving human beings, stop being their parent. Start being their best friend.
True friendship is the ability to speak your mind, without being overbearing, and yet being available without being emotional or nasty or preachy with a regrettable “I-told-you-so”. The only way we can enjoy parenting without worrying and being anxious, is by being our kids’ best friends. Remember: they are your children. They are intelligent. They like to be treated with dignity. Sit with them. Have conversations. They will want to go back to Facebook. They will want to be on the phone for hours together talking silly nothings. They will want to run away for a movie than stay back and do the dishes. Don’t lose patience. Friends don’t. Parents do. And sometimes, despite your advice not to do a certain thing__like enter into a relationship or take up an extracurricular activity that will distract from the core academic curriculum__ your child may do it and then will come back home, heartbroken, defeated and want to cry on your shoulder. At that time please don’t say, “I-told-you-so!” Say instead, that you know what it means to feel lost in Life and that you say so, because you too have been there, done that. That’s how friends talk to each other. Tell your child you know what it means to be in her or his shoes. Watch the difference in your child’s attitude. See the learning, the awakening happen.
At the same time, good parenting is also being firm and steadfast on values. Your conversations with your child must be always full of anecdotes and not just preachings. You must lead the values campaign at home by example. If you want your child to know what integrity means, then demonstrate it. Don’t expect your child to practice integrity if you both are going to watch a pirated movie downloaded illegally online or if you are going to bribe a cop on the street (in India) because you parked wrongly! If you want your child to understand dignity and equal opportunity, practice that with your spouse first. If you don’t want your child to smoke, you must quit smoking yourself. If you don’t want your child to drink and drive, you stop doing that first! Of course, children will want to experience sex, sooner than we would want them to. Again your conversations help here. Don’t stop them from doing it. Tell them instead, when is it a better time to do it. And why.
And then take a few positions on what’s a no-no as far as your family is concerned: swearing in public, drugs, being rude, dishonesty, lying, whatever, lay down certain ground rules and make sure no one __ that includes you __ breaks them. Despite this if your child breaks one or more of them, get back into conversation mode.
Our parenting doesn’t make a child rebel. Our being unavailable when they want us is what makes them rabid. Fundamentally understand that children are human too. They have their own independent view of a world they are waiting to explore. Let us allow them that space while we remain available to them. Let us not bring our anxieties, insecurities and experiences into limiting their lives. If you believe you are a good human being, despite all that you have seen and been through in Life, know that your child too will eventually emerge as one.
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Being a parent is a blessing, it is not a birthright!
Someone we know is very, very keyed up that her adolescent son is not focusing on his academics at all. The young chap’s apparently only wanting to play outdoor sports and hang out with his friends. The mother laments that “since he’s in his 12th grade, getting past school and into a reputed college is crucial”. She’s also stressed out because a. she believes her son is a very intelligent and capable child who does get “80+ % without even studying” and b. she herself lost out in academics for the same reasons around when she was his age, so she doesn’t want history to repeat itself! She desperately wants her son to “wake up, smell the coffee and take his Life seriously.”
When she shared her “concerns” about her boy with us, I told her to take a chill pill. In my opinion, the young man is to be celebrated for “waking up, smelling the coffee and for taking his Life seriously”! Simply because he refuses to be boxed into a decadent education system and pinned down by a race for grades that are really worthless in Life.
Interestingly, while most parents may agree with this perspective, they will refuse to allow their children to break-free. And the reason is that all parental influence on their wards comes from them viewing Life through the ‘earn-a-living’ prism alone. Why should your child slog to top exams and get the highest GPA? So that she or he can get a top-draw salary in a “growth sector” industry. Sadly, few parents encourage their children to look away from the compulsion of ‘earning-a-living’; fewer still champion happiness and ‘following your bliss’.
Apart from the insecurity that their children may end up not being ‘economically viable and performing’ assets, what drives parents to be conservative and wary is that they want to possess, to control their children. We imagine we can possess our children just because we gave birth to them; that’s why we always justify our ‘rightfully’ worrying for them. The very idea of possession is so vulgar. It reduces the child to a thing. You possess a thing. You don’t possess your child. You have children in your Life only because you are blessed!
Carefully consider this question – why are you worried for your adolescent child’s career and future? And the possible answer – you are finding that your child, who until now was listening to you, does not want to be told ‘anything’. You are beginning to wonder if your child is losing focus on academics. You worry, therefore, for your child’s grades and job prospects. If this is happening in your home, let me tell you that you are losing it! Your worry is unfounded. And if you are acting from that worry, from what you fear about your child’s future, it is totally unacceptable. Instead why can’t you act from faith in your child’s aspirations and ability to make intelligent, independent choices about her or his Life? And why can’t you have faith in your ability to guide, counsel and support your child’s vision for herself or himself? Your children want to live their lives, not yours. Get this straight. If you have raised them well, taught them good values and share a good bond with them, then, surely you have raised them well! You have got an ‘A+’. Beyond this, please, let us not come in their way.
If a child wants to take up badminton or tennis or cricket as a career or teach or join the defense forces or act in movies or ride a cycle rickshaw or be a rag-picker, what, pray, is the harm? How many more doctors and engineers and lawyers and software programmers do we want to produce in this world? And if children don’t take those decisions how will we have the next Kailash Satyarthi or Abdul Kalam or Dr.Shantha or P.V.Sindhu or Roger Federer or Virat Kohli or A.R.Rahman or Amitabh Bachchan or Zohra Seghal or Gandhi? How can we make our world any better if we keep championing predictable, ‘secure’ careers, accepting mediocrity in thinking and limiting the aspirations and creativity of our children?
Here’s a simple test that you may want to take in your private time. Do it with just yourself. If you are a parent, ask yourself:
- Am I doing what I enjoy doing and love doing or am I just ‘earning-a-living’?
- Given a choice wouldn’t I want to be doing something totally different from what I do to earn a pay check just now?
- Do I want to see my child as a well-qualified but incomplete and unhappy professional or do I wish for her or him to be a well-rounded, happy human being?
- Will I feel proud my child owned a villa and four cars or will I be happier if she or he touched the lives of people, made a difference to this world and inspired millions?
You know what you answered. You know what needs to be done. You are not dumb-headed because you are the parent of such a beautiful, intelligent child! So, please, for heaven’s sake, get out of the way of your child’s future. Your child needs your love, your understanding, your support; not your ‘help’, not your advice and certainly not your decisions that are born from your insecurities, fears and worries!
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Allow your children the freedom of choice: don’t insist that they see Life from your point of view alone.
When visiting a friend’s place for Golu last evening, I was asked if we were looking out for a marriage alliance for our son. Well, our son is 26 and therefore, given our culture and prevalent norms, I was not surprised with the question at all. In fact, our daughter is 21 and it is only a matter of time before people are curious enough to suggest matches for her too. In reply to the question last evening, I said that both Vaani and I had left the choice of finding their companions to our two children. But our friend went on to say that we “must definitely influence our children to get married”. He elaborated that we must show them the “right direction” and help them make “informed decisions”.
I disagreed politely and so the conversation went on to graze on other topics.
But this morning, as I sat down to write this blogpost, the question I was asked, and my answer, were uppermost in my mind. I often 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, sometimes 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! Children cannot choose their sex or their parents or their homes or their places of birth or even their names. Everything is given. In fact, everything’s forced. So, obviously, we must at least give our children the opportunity to choose – in matters where it is still possible to exercise a choice – what, or who, they love! 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, to marry, whom to marry, when to marry, to have children, when to have them and so on and on. One area where parental force does not work is in deciding the sex of their grandchildren – and, at least in India, that is the cause of a condemnable and despicable social practice!
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 he or she has, they are 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 has worked for you and what has not? How about empowering the child, over time, to take her or his own informed decisions? How about teaching children to learn from their mistakes – irrespective of whether the mistakes happened because of indecision or poor decision or even 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 influence the child to study a said field. 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.
And, of course, coming back to the question of last evening, of a marriage-related conversation with an adult child, for all the perspectives cited above, Vaani and I have left it to our children to make their own decisions. In fact, we have told them that marriage is only an unnecessary social label – totally avoidable when you can relate to your companion and believe in the companionship! That’s the way Vaani and I live our lives. Why would we influence our children to live any differently?