When they must go out to follow their bliss, simply let your children fly away…
Yesterday went in a blur. All day Vaani and I were reminiscing the growing up years of our children Aashirwad and Aanchal. The four of us are very close to each other. Yet Aash has been away from home for 9 years now and Aanch too left yesterday.
As parents, we both are experiencing a completely empty nest for the first time. Surely, we are not the first set of parents to feel this way. And undoubtedly we are not the last. Feeling the emptiness at home, however, has been an interesting, learning experience.
Over a drink last evening, I marveled at Lebanese American writer-poet Khalil Gibran’s wisdom and insight. His unputdownable verse – “Your children are not your children, they are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself, they come through you but not from you, and although they are with you, they belong not to you…” – is what is helping us accept our new reality. Besides, as we are realizing, being an empty nester brings a spiritual flavor to one’s role as a parent.
I now recognize that parenting is not just a responsibility. To be a parent is actually a blessing. Because it gives you an opportunity to mold another Life by inculcating values in your child. And then when the child is ready for the world, you give your child wings and let her or him fly away. That’s how you learn to practice detachment in Life.
In Vaani’s and my case, we see another very beautiful dimension playing out. Which is that since children are Life’s longing for itself, Life always steps in to take care of them, even if you as a parent can’t contribute in a given context. As parents, we have not been able to support the college education for either Aash or Aanch. Our enduring bankruptcy leaves us numb each month – we never quite have enough even for our monthly living expenses. Yet, through this past decade that we have been bankrupt, we have had Aash’s under-graduate Program at the University of Chicago funded through remarkably generous people. (Read more here: Fall Like A Rose Petal) And now Aanch’s grad school tenure is being covered by a very benevolent sponsor who is paying her tuition and related costs. What this essentially means is that Life really takes care of and provides for all that it creates. From this experience, Vaani and I have learnt that if as parents we let go and don’t let our insecurities or ego come in the way of our children’s aspirations, Life will always unquestionably, undeniably, give them what they need.
Also, as we are learning from Aashirwad’s experiences over the past two years, when children go away to pursue their dreams and build their Life their way, they are bound to face challenges. Naturally, as parents, we want to protect our children. But what we are understanding is that you can’t do anything to change your children’s Life design. If they have to go through a catharsis or a challenge, they have to. There is no escaping it. But please don’t conclude that a Life challenge is a curse or a punishment. It is Life’s way of coaching someone to be stronger, wiser and happier. The earlier we recognize this truth about Life, the more equanimity we will have as parents.
Bottomline, we only have one key responsibility towards our children – we must guide and inspire them to be good human beings. We must raise them with the right values and let them go wherever their bliss takes them. While we can pray for them, we can’t prevent Life from serving them crises. So, there’s no point in pining for them or worrying about them or wanting to keep them with us so that we can protect them – because, however hard we may try, we can’t ever live their lives for them!
That’s the most prudent investment you can make and it costs nothing!
A friend asked me if Vaani and I have health insurance. I smiled back at the question. Life’s been so tough on the material front, we have never managed to cover living expenses in a long, long time. (Read more here: Fall Like A Rose Petal). When work does come in, there is always a backlog of basics to be met or paid for; so, we have never really been able to commit to any long-term health or retirement-related plans. Besides, we can’t even contemplate investing in ourselves unless we begin to repay and pay off all our debt.
Now, that’s a practical, real-world answer. Let me also share a spiritual perspective here. The last time we held health or Life insurance policies was over 10 years ago. Interestingly, in this past decade, neither of us has ever been pinned down by the insecurity that we are not covered. And the only reason I can think of is that we both have learnt not to worry. We understand the futility of worrying. So, when a worrying thought arises in us, we talk to each other; together we watch the thought arise and subside. We don’t pick it up and so it does not linger on, haunting us.
Even so, worrying about one’s health is a very natural response as you age. At 50-something, both of us have all the niggling issues that comes with an aging body. For instance, I have been advised a surgery and we don’t have the means for it. A visit to our ophthalmologist is long overdue for the same reason. A diabetic condition and a few unattended dental repairs make things no easier. But we understand that such is Life. As you age, your body will report wear and tear. If we had the means, we could have fixed them. But we don’t have the means. Then why worry about them? When my friend heard this point of view, he paused for a moment and then popped the next, inevitable, question: “What will you do when you are laid up in hospital and require an immediate, Life-saving, surgery?” I smiled at him again. My response is simple: why worry about what has not happened yet? Again, if we had had the means, we too would have invested in a plan that could have covered our age-related medical needs. But we don’t have the means. So, again, why worry about the yet-to-arrive, unborn, future? We trust Life implicitly. Let Life take care of us – after all, to quote Khalil Gibran, we are Life’s longing for itself!
This phase in our Life has taught me and Vaani that the most relevant, important, insurance we must all have is to insure ourselves against worry. And that insurance does not require a material premium at all. It costs nothing. It only requires that you trust the process of Life, understand the futility of worrying and stay prepared, ever-ready, to die. When you live this way, whether you have niggling problems or excruciating circumstances, you can only be living fully, happily!
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!
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!
4-min read PS: If you liked this blogpost, please share it to help spread the learning it carries!
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?
Worrying about your children is pointless.
Vaani and I host a quarterly Event Series called Heart of Matter – Happiness Conversations along with the InKo Centre here in Chennai. At last weekend’s edition, we were in conversation with parents of special children. We talked about how parents coped with their new realities, and how they demonstrated grit and acceptance, to help their children pave inspirational paths. One of the parents, M.S.Ramesh, who is the father of entrepreneurs Sriram and Sunder Ram (both of whom were struck by cerebral palsy in their childhood) of Twin Twigs, had this to say: “When the doctors gave me this diagnosis about my children, my first reaction was ‘what next’….I didn’t ask ‘why’ or ‘why us’…I just moved on practically, to consider the next course of action.”
I find phenomenal value in embracing Ramesh’s approach and philosophy to parenting. Although we all know that worrying itself is futile, we still worry. Worse, we worry more about our children, than about ourselves, only because we feel protective towards and possessive about them.
As parents, all of us want our children to live comfortable and happily. We don’t wish that pain, in any form, touch them. Now, the truth is, what we wish for as parents is never going to happen. Our children are going to encounter pain, they are going to suffer if they don’t learn to be accepting of the Life that they get, they are going to be unhappy until they learn how to live in this world and yet be above it. Important, our children are possibly going to end up making the same mistakes that we made and what we don’t want them to make. They are more likely to reject our sage counsel than accept them. They are sure to stumble, fall down, grope in the dark, fight, resist, kick-about and then come around to discovering that their parents (aka us) were, after all, right. A young lady, in her late 20s now, we met last week said how much she could relate to what her parents had told her during her adolescent years and through young adulthood. “I feel they were sincere and profound with their perspectives. Every word rings true now,” she confessed.
So between two points of view – of the parent in Ramesh and the child in the young lady – I guess we have a pragmatic approach that’s worth considering. Keeping my focus on parenting and on parents’ tendency to get keyed up about their children, I would just say this: take a chill pill.
No amount of worrying about your children is going to make their Life journey simpler or easier. If you have children who are not taking your advice, please tell them what you have to say, and then let them go do what they want. If you have children who are dealing with a crisis that they can’t resolve or you can’t help them solve, pray for them if you believe in the power of prayer; if you don’t believe in prayer, just let them be and trust the process of Life. After all, you too have waged so many battles in and with Life to be where you are today. So simply trust that your children too will get past their crisis phases.
No matter how hard you try, you can’t live your children’s lives. No matter how much you wish, you can’t make their lives any more comfortable. No matter how much you want to, you can’t prevent them from going through their share of pain, unhappiness, suffering and catharsis. So, stop worrying about your children. As Khalil Gibran (1883~1931) has said, “…They are not your children…They are sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.”