The parent trap

Last Updated: Fri, Dec 14, 2012 19:34 hrs

Parents today are torn between disciplining, and possibly alienating, their children or indulging them.

The idea of her 16-year-old partying at a club with Breezers and boys made Delhi-based Seema Sharma uncomfortable. After all, mixing freely with the opposite sex and that too at a party where alcohol was being served is something Sharma couldn’t even dream of doing in her teenage years. “I was uneasy about letting my daughter go, but at the same time I didn’t want her to feel left out in her peer group. All her classmates were going for this party,” she says. So, like many other parents in similar situations, Sharma gave in to her daughter’s demand.

There’s no formula for good parenting, especially when the rules with which you were brought up don’t apply any more. Today, parenting has come to mean a landmine and every step the parent takes is supposedly fraught with repercussions. But is that really true? Think about it. Ask your parents how they were brought up, and they will reveal they were not permanently-damaged “victims” of some of the ills that are considered positively dastardly today — such as being slapped or denied pocket money, or being told that a “no means no”. Why do today’s parents, then, tiptoe around their children’s wishes?

Partly this has to do with changing times. Kids today operate in an environment where they are surrounded by a plethora of stimuli. They have access to information and media like never before, and the Internet has opened up the world to them. Even as every generation wants to experiment and explore, children these days are in a great hurry to grow up and try out things at 12 that you probably did at 20. Rebellion is no more about sneaking a first smoke in a neighbourhood gully. While this means early burnout for children, for parents it implies treading a difficult tightrope in wanting to discipline children without alienating them.

There’s a problem when your children:
  • Can’t accept “no” for an answer
  • Show excessively stubborn and aggressive behaviour
  • Throw tantrums in public to get their way
  • Show disdain towards rewards and punishments

“Parents give out conflicting signals to their children because they want to be friends’ with them while being figures of authority, and that is where the problem begins,” says Suneel Vatsyayan, relationship counsellor at New Delhi’s Nada India Foundation. Vatsyayan says that while it’s important to have a “friendly” atmosphere at home and leave all channels of communication open, parents cannot and should not aspire to be friends. “You can create a democratic and participatory environment at home for your children without giving in to their every whim and fancy,” he adds. The most important step is for parents to first figure out their own value system and how it has changed with times, and then verbalise it for their children.

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Most parents, however, fear they may end up shutting their children out if they are too strict or don’t give in. Richa Joshi admits it is difficult to handle an opinionated adolescent who wants to make her own decisions, but she’d rather let her have her way than have her hide things. Joshi, who also teaches in a school in Chandigarh, says she bought her daughter an iPhone even though she didn’t see why a 12-year-old would want one. “I feel that it’s me who has to adjust my worldview to my child’s rather than the other way around. Kids these days carry expensive mobile phones and I don’t want my daughter to feel deprived,” she says. The recurring theme seems to be the fear of isolating the child from his or her peer group and, so, rearing has come to mean providing adequate facilities and the latest gadgets rather than care and attention.

Heema Gupta, a psychologist and counsellor in Delhi, says working parents try and tackle their own guilt about not being able to devote enough time to their children by giving in to unrealistic demands. “Families are shrinking and parents, especially ones with a single child, are too focussed on getting it right. But this should not be mistaken with saying yes all the time. Children need to learn to deal with a no,” she says. Besides equating self-worth with material possessions can, in the long term, lead to feelings of inadequacy and low self-esteem in adulthood. If a child wants an iPhone at 12, what will keep him happy at 17? And what if he can’t afford the things his parents can buy later in life?

So how does one get kids to understand the crucial difference between the price of a thing and its value? Reema Shukla, mother to two teenage girls, plays it by the ear. “When my older daughter asked me to buy her an iPad, I told her I will give it to her in three months’ time if she did well in her exams. She moped for a bit, but then came around,” she says.

Not always is it that simple. Priya Chugh, mother to a seven-year-old, heard her child use the F-word while watching TV when his favourite WWE player lost. On probing, she found that her son didn’t understand the word and used it merely to express disappointment. Caught between explaining it to him and exposing him to concepts much beyond his age versus letting it go, she chose the former without going into details. “It’s a bad word and I don’t want you to use it,” she told him.

* * *

A lot of parents believe explaining the pros and cons of an action and letting the child decide is better than saying an outright no or succumbing to the child’s demands. For example, when Veena Siddhu’s 10-year-old told her she wanted to make a profile on Facebook because all her classmates were on the social networking site, she sat down to have a discussion with her daughter. “I opened Facebook from my account and showed her the rules that clearly stated one had to be above 13 to create a profile. Then, I showed her the profiles of her classmates who had lied about their ages, where they stay and so on,” she says. Siddhu asked her daughter if she would prefer lying or wait for some time to make a “real” profile. The 10-year-old chose the latter.

Sahib Mann, a 30-year-old expecting mother, says she, too, would prefer talking and reasoning with her children rather than disciplining them. This, she feels, will make them discerning adults in the future. “Yes our parents didn’t turn out bad with all the strict disciplining, but is their generation as critical as it should be?” she asks.

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