The Challenges of Parenting in Our Times
We live in times characterized by constant mobility and restleness, the values of the contemporary world are in constant flux and so are the generation’s hopes and aspirations. Amidst this chaos parenting is a challenge and raises some fundamental questions. A researcher reflects upon this important question and suggests some creative solutions
By Neeraja Singh
Generation gap is an evergreen phenomenon but never before has it challenged Indian parenting as lethally as it is doing now. Change, it has been said, is the only constant. And it is borne out by the fact that our beliefs, our lifestyles, our aspirations are in a constant state of flux. Every successive generation has questioned and resisted the one before only to grow up eventually and carry forward the baton, so to say.
But no more or so it would seem. In all the sound and fury of global warming, international power shifts, gender rights, medical scares and other issues of civil liberties parenting is one phenomenon that is wreaking an unimaginable emotional toll on humans within the four walls of their homes. What indeed, has happened to parenting? From being an easy, unquestioned, natural phase of life, it has transformed into a complicated, nerve racking, heart breaking phenomenon that everyone is either in denial of or just plainly hypocritical about.
The biggest challenge facing an adult wanting to raise a family today is made up of factors such as: a severe dilution of authority, powerlessness over the child’s environment, unpreparedness to handle extreme guilt and shame and a lack of vocabulary and imagination to go where the children are going today. As a result, parenting has become a constant dance of improvisation. It is an unfamiliar minefield on which the old blueprint does not sit well at all.
Let’s begin with the space used to raise our kids. Home used to be sacrosanct. It was venerated, guarded, and private. Modern parents struggle today with the throwing open of these frontiers by their offspring as they bring the whole wide world right into the bedroom, in both physical and virtual forms. Time was when you could shut the front door and be really alone with your family. It is quite likely that when you are talking to your youngster today in his room, a parallel conversation is going on with friends on the social media. You would be hard put to say how much of his response is purely his, unadulterated by the experiences of the web he is plugged into.
So much has changed. Globalization and the world wide connectivity have brought a cultural tsunami storming into our homes and hearths. There is a new premium on privacy and individuality. Personal space has come to be valued for the truest self-authentication. It is no longer just about making the family happy or proud. The new belief system discounts older values of thrift and struggle and security. There is a deeply felt desire for living life to the fullest with the attendant fear of missing out on anything.
[ Commodities all around: where is the loving touch?]
This new definition of life’s purpose is causing yawning abysses in the average home. The young are taking longer to “settle down”. It is no longer as simple as giving one’s kids a good education, finding them a decent partner and then sitting back to fond fantasies of grandparenthood. New parents better be prepared to standby as their children take knocks on the road to self-discovery. Brought up to cherish security above all, it can be fairly challenging to summon the liver for constant switches of careers and companies. It is entirely in the realm of possibility today to have an engineer daughter declare one day that her true calling in fact, may be in training to be a scuba diver instructor.
Parents are on the firing line like never before and most of all to do with career choices. Even though many modern parents hunker down for the long haul on their child’s subject and work wishes, there is a sneaking suspicion that the Indian environment is not the right soil for this experimentation. And they are queuing up outside therapists’ trying to understand their youngster’s resentment and angst. The fall out of a celebrity culture, entrepreneurial role models, anti-establishment activism, and categorical feminism is being seen in emotionally charged and claustrophobic Indian homes. There is a lot of mincing around on egg shells happening.
A lot of this stress comes from cultural dissonance. The modern generation’s determined celebration of their sexuality, an increasing consumption of alcohol and marijuana, chasing the adrenaline rush, staying out of home until late at night; is there any wonder then that the Indian parents are scared out of their wits. So much so that one has begun to hear a most unusual thought expressed, “Let them have their fun and do their chilling out of our sight. What you don’t know cannot hurt you!” And this in a culture where parents are traditionally ever ready and aching to have their children home. There are practical arrangements that have begun to challenge the family dynamics. The young are either staying longer with their parents or returning from unsatisfactory jobs to discover their passion and life’s purpose from home. Many of them do not sleep at night any more. It is almost as though the species is evolving. Digitally plugged, multi-tasking, possessive of the quality and quantity of their time, prone to satisfy physical needs as soon as they arise, unwilling to maintain a routine, many young today, given a chance, willtest their family’s health and happiness and sanity.
There is a state of utter confusion over parenting styles moreover. Parents no longer seem to know where the pendulum should rest between being child friendly and dispensing with the rod altogether. In an attempt to be their children’s best friends, some end up abdicating their moral responsibility altogether. So great is the fear of alienating their progeny, parents are putting up with abuse at the hands of their young who their surroundings have hardened into being entitlement oriented. It is in the air to demand and blame. “I am their only son and my parents are Indian, of course they are going to do this for me,” statements such as these come under the ambit of street smartness now, no longer frowned upon.
Violence, corruption, caste politics, power struggles, hedonism at its worst, shabby role models; the toxic and generic cacophony affects the young far more than we imagine. Some may feel so driven to despair that they have been known to question their parents, “I did not ask to be born. Why did you have to bring me into this world for your few seconds of pleasure?” There is a life altering difference between gratitude for being given a life and a sense of betrayal for having been wronged into a futile existence. It is a most challenging gap for the parents to bridge.
Never before have parents been so desperately out of ideas. What adds to the already volatile situation is the socially sanctioned silence over these new challenges facing every parent today. Parenting is culturally such a magnum opus that most Indians would rather pretend it is not happening to them, their fear being, “What will society or family or people think?” There is also the uneasy thought that their child can shame them with one stroke on the social media. The negotiating table is loaded against the adults. Threats of cutting off financial aid or giving the young marching orders from home have become irrelevant deterrents today. There is a whole world waiting out there to validate their parent peeve. It used to be bad form to lay one’s misfortunes at the parental door but more and more, that peg is finding use during psychological analysis of unhealthy youth behaviour.
Then again, most progressive parents are bringing up their daughters to believe they are equal to men. It is not unusual to find them buying their girls motorcycles in complete contrast to families with sons who are busier sounding alarm bells over the dangers of speeding and unruly traffic. This trend works well until the young women begin to question patriarchy, “I don’t understand my parents. They first give me the best education they can afford and then expect me not to use all I learnt there. Come on, I am going to question everything and speak up, “shared an articulate young woman once.
“Kids these days are very smart, they know what they want,” is an oft quoted and omnipotent mantra one hears in our social spaces these days. This half-baked belief has been extended to mean that parents are free therefore to just be their children’s friend, Facebook included. But if everyone is going to be a bum chum who is going to be their Mum? This new found friendliness leads to confusion confounded when parents begin to dump their marriage woes onto their ‘friend’. There is so much role conflict in marriages these days that partners invariably end up engaging in some kind of a popularity contest with their children. The challenge is in not adding to their already intense insecurity and anxiety.
And there is stress, a lot of it engineered by the prevalent air waves, cultural cues and peer pressure. Many kids no longer talk to parents. Their emotional anchors are other young people as inexperienced as themselves and to top it all, in relationships with them. This external influence distances kids from their parents and threatens the only support structure they possess to drawupon perhaps.
It is in our culture for parents to put their children first. Their needs, their education, their health are a priority over and above the parental comfort. It is disconcerting therefore to be told all of a sudden, “Mom and Dad please don’t live for us. Why don’t you go out and get yourselves a life?!” Quora forums are full of discussions on why Indians make the worst parents in the world. There are heartfelt notes from the young on the repressive nature of many Indian homes, on the nosiness of Indian fathers and mothers, on their habit of hovering around their kids, their inhuman pressure to take up professional courses, their hypocrisy and tendency to spell doom all the time. There is quite clearly a yawning gap between the spot modern parents stand upon and the bungee rope their kids dangle from today.
Many of the young gripes are justified. Indian families do not raise their young to take risks. They are also extremely intolerant of failure and growth is impossible without these two experiences, however negative. To be fair, Indian society has not yet reached the prosperity levels where they can afford the luxury of risk and failure. Children live in isolated bubbles, barely meeting their extended families, their elite education bringing them up with nil skills other than that of logical analysis and dissent with the status quo. So great is the parenting challenge therefore that anyone venturing down that path would be well advised to keep along with the visiting cards of a good school, a good doctor and a good nutritionist, that of a good healer in town too!
A parent’s greatest challenge today is in continuing to love and support their child, come what may. “When you go down rocky paths that end at painful points, I will be there with you. It won’t make me happy but I will not leave you alone to suffer. I will be there with you, not hurting for you but hurting with you!” a mother told me that she always reassured her children in this manner. The thing is that you may have raised kids that seem like complete strangers at the end of it all but the world is going to hold you accountable for them, anyway.
Indians have made a success of fusion in clothes, food even music but parenting has become the greatest confusion facing us today. Many of the traditions and customs our young reject today are in fact designed to keep them safe and sane and healthy. The tough part is in communicating the goodness inherent in tough love to them. Parenting today is like negotiating a digital super highway sitting in a bullock cart.
Parents need to come together and compare notes. After all, it takes a village to raise a child!
Neerja Singh is a regular contributor to the ‘Teacher Plus’ magazine; Student Edition of the Times of India;http://unboxedwriters.com/author/neerja-singh/ and a blogger with a keen interest in the evolving social dynamics and their influence on young people, she maintains a blog at http://confessionsofanambitiousmother.blogspot.in/ and has published an anthology of micro-fiction entitled “Googly Gaathas”
This article is published in The New Leam, February Issue( Vol.2 No.9) and available in print version.