Parenting travails

Print edition : October 06, 2006

In earlier days, controlling what children read was a carefully developed and administered element of nurture. - PARTH SANYAL

Parenting today faces numerous challenges. Failure to meet these could prove disastrous for society.

PERHAPS one can be forgiven for assuming that because one has had a part in raising a child - now a comely young woman with a family of her own - one can reflect on the problems one had encountered; what one certainly cannot be forgiven for is the assumption that one can therefore pronounce on the travails of a parent in these very stressful times.

Some 50 or 60 years ago, parenting was, in hindsight, an easier task. The only perils - if they were perils - were the child's possible weakness for pulp fiction, or for games, which a parent would have wanted to limit in the overall interest of the child's "education". A sinister danger did lurk at that time: that was the cinema, and it meant greater vigilance to ensure the child did not sneak off for that great joy too often.

At any rate, discipline was enforced, by and large. In a majority of homes, motherhood was a full-time occupation, the woman combining in herself the roles of mother and wife, and very often daughter-in-law. A child was raised with a proper awe of the father and a respect for both parents, which was the foundation for much of the world-view the child developed in later years.

Parents in that age were, in middle class homes, usually educated; the fathers were, certainly, and a large proportion of the mothers were too. But neither allowed their education to subvert what one can only term, for lack of a better term, family values, that is, the importance given to relationships that were defined and set on a scale that had persisted through the years. On that scale, fathers, mothers, uncles and siblings all had a specific position that was functional and accepted.

As the years passed, the children of those times became adults and received an education as comprehensive and probably more subversive than that of their parents. That education led many of them to question assumptions in their social and personal world that included their relationship to, and responsibilities for, their children. Discipline, for example, was no longer a simple proposition: it was an interactive process with the child, and this new attitude was buoyed up, and sheltered, by the dissemination of what were said to be more valid perceptions.

The child's awareness could not be dulled or confined by a discipline that was too rigid or strict; for example, reproof had to be carefully thought out and enunciated. The assumption was that the child's potential was thereby being enhanced. Controlling what children read, the kind of children they met and spent time with, what films they could see in the cinema, how much time they had for themselves and how much had to be set aside for study or other activities considered desirable such as games or the arts in one form or the other - all these became carefully developed and administered elements of nurture.

There were other kinds of families, certainly: there were abusive and violent fathers, drunken parents, parents who were more concerned with leading exciting lives than with bringing up their children or spending time with them. But one needs to confine oneself here only to the majority of families, and they were certainly not of that kind.

The intentions of this majority - the silent majority, if you like - were laudable. They wanted their children to grow into adulthood without inhibitions or without being confined in their assumptions so that notions of parents as friends, of discussions rather than a one-sided determination of an issue were more valued. Parents eagerly exchanged experiences, usually tinged with an element of triumph, when they met socially. Someone's Rahul was so unusual, he noticed so much, and was so committed, he was so perceptive, he had such creative ideas, and so on and so forth.

Then, of course, the Rahuls grew up and became parents in turn, and this is where a major change occurred. The challenges of the outside world to one's private world, to Rahul's world, became more importunate. The traditional challenges - pulp fiction, the cinema, playing or watching games of some kind - faded away or moved back to make way for the intense challenge of television, and then of the Internet, and of computer games.

Notions of parenting, developed and received, could only be imparted bywords, example and the rare and selective physical means that the Rahuls employed. They could not be imparted through television, Internet or games. Conventional communication could not, and cannot, compete with electronic means. The latter are far too intense and have a wide array of aids - images, sounds, graphics, and so on - whereas the parent only has his or her voice, hands and facial expressions.

The challenge before parents now is clearly not only the fresh set of perceptions on parenting they have been fed and in which they believe to a greater or lesser extent, but these other external challenges that present the child with another world and the freedom to choose. And there is yet another formidable challenge: lifestyle.

Today's Rahul and his wife usually work; they party a good deal and spend a fairly large amount of time with friends. Often this is linked to work, but even if it is not, it is of little consequence. It all adds up to less time spent with their children, and that is when the other challenges have a field day, the computer games, television serials, the Internet.

Inevitably, this finds a reflection in the relationship between parents and their offspring. It tends, in more and more cases, to be casual, a purely functional relationship, and with the advancement of the children into early adulthood, it means living apart.

This may not necessarily be undesirable; but one has seen what it can entail for present-day parents. It means loneliness, a realisation of the distance between them and the person who was once their child. On the child's part it means a continuous looking outwards for companionship, a search that can be disastrous in some cases. And often it is not easy to say whether it is or it is not; there is a reluctance to share that problem with parents who have never really been close.

It may well be a playing out of the incomprehensible opposition of the U.S. administration to the terrible effects of global warming, beginning with President Bush's rejection of the Kyoto Protocol, and the warnings that scientists the world over have been giving to the world of the increasingly rapid slide to environmental disaster. One such warning has come, ironically from the U.S.' own National Aeronautics and Space Administration. It has found that the rate at which the Arctic icecap is melting has increased by 30 per cent in the last five years, and that in the last two years, a part of the icecap, the size of Turkey, has melted. True, it is the "summer melt", but it has never happened before on such a scale.

What has this to do with parenting? Everything. There are the warnings, the specific instances, a real-life Rahul taken to hospital after an overdose of cocaine and champagne; a Delhi businessman's son, clearly a young lout, who crashes his father's car after running over a milkman - these instances are there for all parents to see, and there is still, among many of them, a supreme indifference. Perhaps, the final disaster both environmental and social will come together, hopefully after one has been gathered to one's fathers.

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