The most important role of a parent is to enable a child’s bliss.
My friend is stressed out over his 15-year-old son’s “future”. The lad has below average grades in high school and is unsure of what he wants to do in Life.
I believe this is a perfectly normal state for anyone to be in. So, I advised my friend not to be stressed out. “In fact, you must celebrate that your son does not know what he wants to do. If you are cluelessness in Life it is a great state to be in. I was clueless about what Life meant to me till I was 35, and now, I am have no clarity about how long it will take me to fix the material, professional and financial dimensions of my Life,” I told him. (Read more here to understand the context in which I made my statement: Fall Like A Rose Petal).
I am not sure my friend is convinced with my perspective. Even if he isn’t, it is fine. Life doesn’t offer any of us, any more clarity than what we think we have. The best way to move forward in Life is to go one step at a time, one moment at a time, one day at a time. This doesn’t mean you should not have a plan, that you should not have a long-term vision. You must. But if you don’t have a plan or a vision too it is perfectly okay. Over time, you will figure things out. There’s no point though getting keyed up with what’s happening around you and imagining that everyone’s getting “ahead in Life” while you are clueless. More than children, it is the parents who are keyed up over their children’s peers getting “ahead in Life”! And that’s pretty sad.
Let’s look at this from a higher plane. The truth is all of us have to end up dead – sooner or later. We are all speeding towards our deaths, but at different speeds! So, what is the sanctity about wanting to be ahead of the others? This keeda, this avoidable desire-virus, is what makes parents like my friend unnecessarily sweat over their children. The teens actually are a great time to experiment with Life – try out many things, decide which ones give joy, try these ones out more and eventually pick up that one thing that is immersive, blissful. Now, this decision about what to do in Life must not be a decision that’s based only on earning potential, career growth opportunities, reputation in society, marriage prospects and such. You must do only what makes you come alive and what you absolutely love doing – something that makes you lose yourself when you do it. And finding that something takes time – several years, in some instances. How then can parents expect their teens to attain this clarity?
But that’s exactly what parents across are demanding of their wards. Look around you. Every child out there is in line to be slaughtered on the altar of a “stable” career. Just because they have “memorized” syllabi and vomited them in exams to secure “high grades” people think their children are “brilliant”. The truth is their brilliance has been sacrificed in order for them to merely become employable. So, astronauts, musicians, sportspeople, actors, artists, chefs, designers and standup comedians end up becoming engineers, doctors, lawyers, accountants and MBAs. Generations of parents have done this to their children. And children when they become parents perpetrate the same horror, the same injustice. In the name of concern for their children’s “future”, parents are literally crucifying the happiness of their kids. And while doing all this, instead of feeling accountable, they end up being stressed out and anxious?
Vaani and I are offering a Program called Zero-Anxiety Parenting – ZAP – targeted at parents of children and young adults. And through that Program, the one fundamental principle we wish to champion among parents of teens is this: “Please do not get in between your children and their bliss.” We encourage parents to trust their children’s choices, to trust the process of Life and to let go. We are calling for a paradigm shift in parents – we are imploring them to switch from merely wanting to see their children earn-a-living to parenting them in such a manner that they can see them living, thriving and being happy! Only when parents start celebrating their children truly, they stop being anxious.
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?
Comparisons and lack of trust often destroy a parent-child relationship.
A man and his adolescent daughter met us yesterday. The man said his daughter is very angry, very frustrated when at home and doesn’t “connect” with him at all. Initially, the young lady did not have much to say. She simply said she could not relate to her father because she felt he did not trust her. When I asked her why she felt so, she explained. Her older sister had got a laptop with internet access as a gift from their father on her 15th birthday. But when the father discovered that the girl was having an affair with someone in her class, he took away the laptop and disconnected the internet access at home. The older girl has since gone to college and has gotten over her teenage blues. When the younger girl, the one I met, turned 15, the father did not buy her a laptop. His reasoning was that she would go her sister’s way. When the girl assured him that she had no intention to get involved in “random” relationships her father did not trust her. She even tried explaining to him that she had seen the parents agonize over the older girl’s issues and so she had resolved never to let them down. But no. The father did not see value in reviewing the stand he had taken. This, said the girl, caused her deep anguish whenever she interacted with him. She summed it up very bluntly: “I don’t think my dad trusts me. I can understand if I have behaved in a manner in which his stand is justified. But I have done nothing of that kind. Why am I being punished for a perception that he has of who I may be?”
I can totally relate to the young girl’s point of view and experience. I have been, as a child, treated similarly. And I must tell you, it can be very disturbing, very humiliating when you realize that your parents don’t trust you.
Parents must understand that each child is unique. Just because one of them behaves in a certain fashion, it is not necessary that the other(s) will behave the same way too. Just as you cannot generalize in any matter concerning adults, you can’t generalize with children either. I have, through our experience with parenting, always found that when you empower your children with the right set of values and allow them to make their own choices, there is greater harmony in the parent-child relationship. It is not necessary that you must agree with all that your children do or that they must agree with all that you have to say. But as long as you tell them that you trust them to make responsible choices, they feel the need to live up to your trust. Of course they will stumble, they will fall, they will make mistakes and they may well end up hurting themselves. To even wish that you want to protect them from experiencing their Life, their way, is very naïve. Your children are unique individuals. Just as you don’t want your parents to tell you what you ought to be doing, your children too want to be left alone. It is through the process of making decisions, succeeding, failing, falling, getting up and moving on that children learn, unlearn and relearn how to live intelligently. To be sure, isn’t that exactly the way you have learnt to live your Life better? So, just as learning-to-live-intelligently is a never-ending process for you, this will be a never-ending journey for them too.
As Vaani and I are discovering, parenting does not end with your children growing up to be adults. Parenting is a Life-long responsibility. A significant part of being able to execute that responsibility well involves trusting your child. Just as you don’t want to have anything to do with anyone who doesn’t wish to trust you, remember, your child too has an option. And you will do well not to ever let your child exercise that option. Because if she does, as it happened in the case of the man and the girl that met us yesterday, you will end up having avoidable strife at home. Simply, for your child to respect you and look up to you, treat your child the same way as you would like to be treated by anyone.