The article on Chinese mothers being superior, raised a lot of eyebrows, and that is putting it mildly. It was soon followed up by one on how American mothers are superior. And finally, this piece by Vivek Wadhwa, on why the American schooling system is better.
I found the whole argument as much fun and as ridiculous as the working mom-SAHM argument. It’s always fun to be on the sidelines and watch people squawk in indignation. Particularly this sort of baiting (race baiting in this case) – I’ve fallen for it before, but I’m not getting sucked into it again.
I’ll dive head first into my opinion. To begin with, it is really hard for Indians to point fingers at the Chinese and write scathing pieces, because while we’re fighting over the border, we’re buying their goods and in all the ways that matter, we’re just like them. Population of more than a billion, fighting for limited resources. Is it any wonder that our children have to struggle and we have to work hard with them?
At this point at least 50% of the readers are going to say, “Oh I would never pressurise my child.” Well, that is great and good for you and your child. But there are 50% who will stay silent for fear of censure. And there is a world out there tightening the screws which is why every year around the board exams you will hear of school children committing suicide. In my very own complex in Gurgaon I have met at least 5-6 mothers who asked me why I didn’t try for X or Y school, well known for their excellent board results. I try to explain to them that it doesn’t matter to me because I feel the pressure is too much for our kids. And they look at me uncomprehendingly because they can’t understand what sort of mother wouldn’t want her kid to score 90+. And these people are our peers, our social equals, people who have the same educational qualifications as us and are earning what we earn. They’ve pulled themselves up by their bootstraps and they want their kids to continue that ascent.
During my grandfather’s time, jobs were hard to come by and he held on to his for 30 years. Today at a certain socio-economic level, jobs are easy to come by. For the clerk at the bottom of the food chain, not so much. It’s why I sit back peacefully on a slow track, knowing that the day I want a job I’ll have more options than I will need. It’s why the OA has changed four jobs and today has a cabin and someone carrying his laptop bag in (much to his embarrassment!) and setting it up on his table.
We’re not really well off but I think in a pinch we could send the kids abroad for further studies if they wanted it. We’re also the parents who pulled their son out of one of those regular mass schools where he got beaten and broke down under the pressure of it. A Chinese or even a regular desi mother would have sent her kid back in and said – ‘Don’t come crying if you get beaten.’ My family runs a school in our hometown and I’ve lost count of the number of parents I encountered, saying “Sir, agar yeh baat na sune to khoob peetiyega” – If he doesn’t obey you, beat him. These parents don’t have the luxury of being gentle with their kids. If their kids don’t get caned in school and take it in their stride, they won’t make it in the harsh world out there.
And it’s amusing to see this collective gasp of horror and outrage as though its unheard of for a parent to be strict with their child. Was the West not there just yesterday? Were schoolboys not caned? Did they not come up with the saying, You have to be cruel to be kind? Have they not heard of Spare the rod and spoil the child? So they have moved on since, but why behave as though this is some crazy Oriental shit?
The OA got caned in school, as did my brother. They’ve turned out not just fine, but brilliant. We were made to run around the school playground in the blazing heat if we came late, until some of us fainted. I’d not let my daughter go to a school that did that. It’s true, we’re going the American school way and our kids are weaklings compared to the kids who go to my brother’s and my old schools.
But we’re not the norm. We’re the new age ‘cool’ parents. We want to go easy on our kids and teach them to compete with themselves, not others – and a lot of other valid but rather pretentious-sounding stuff. Across this country, parents are sitting up late night making coffee for their kids right now – kids preparing for their board exams. In Calcutta there are mothers who drop their kids off at school, hire a room near the school and sit and play cards, chat or whatever and then walk in at lunch time to feed their kids well and then go back and wait in that hired room until it is time to take their kids home. The truth is, it takes a lot of effort to be that obsessive parent. Most of us don’t have the commitment to do it. Admit it. Do you have it in you to DO that? Forget about wanting to do it – could you do it if it was demanded of you? Ferrying from class to class, sitting for hours and overseeing practice, staying up nights and making endless cups of hot milk? I’m afraid, along with our kids, we’re weaklings too. A Chinese mother and that mother in a small B town in Bihar think that I’m a failure as a mother.
We’d rather go to work, or watch TV, or meet up with friends or get some ‘me time’ or whatever, instead of sitting there hawk-eyed, watching our kids carefully form alphabets. If I had a rupee for every parent who said, I need my job and my social life for my own sanity, I’d be a millionaire by now. And when things don’t work out, we take it up with the teacher instead of working harder with our kids. Yes, at some level it is wanting the child to grow into himself. At another, we’re just lazy. We’re complacent. It’s okay for our kids to turn into musicians and artists because we’re making enough money to leave them a house.
And before you all jump on me and eat me alive, let me say, I meant that in the nicest way possible. *koff koff* There is no glory in us ‘letting’ our kids choose their own path. It would be a big deal for the office peon to tell his son – ‘It’s okay if after this expensive education that I sold my soul for, you pick art and don’t make it big.’
Did you watch 3 idiots? There is this scene where Madhavan’s father calls Aamir in and shows him that there is only one AC in the house and its been put there for him to study for his engineering exams in comfort while the rest of the family sweats it out. And like it or not, that is what 80% of our country is about. When I hired a driver in Gurgaon and we were negotiating a salary, he said something that made me give in – “I’ve put my children in good schools and I need to pay the fees. I don’t want them to be like me – I want them to be a doctor-engineer like you.” I didn’t think it was right to disillusion and tell him that neither the OA nor I are doctors or engineers. I paid him what he asked for.
The driver slogs at work and his wife works hard at home. Their lives revolve around their children. For a lot of us, we’re in a position to have lives that don’t revolve around our children. So while they are in daycare or being raised by domestic help or minded by our extended family, we go to a job that we enjoy, we go to dinner at fancy restaurants, we go for wine tasting sessions and subtitled films. But that’s just us.
The average middle/lower middle class parent in this country doesn’t do that. I have family friends whose only outing was church for the entire year that their son was in Class 10 – they just stayed in and focussed on making him study, making him comfortable and ensuring that he wasn’t distracted. They’ve invested too much in him to let him be anything less than a success. And that is why anything less than a 90 will break them. Because they live in a small rented home in the suburbs and drive a second hand car bought from a family member and want him to live a better life than the one they’ve been able to give him.
My parents on the contrary, kept calling me on the intercom while I was studying, saying, “Lets go for ice cream.” Some might say its because both my parents are successful businesspeople who knew that should all else fail, they’d be able to leave their children a business each. I’d say its because my parents had been in business and knew that should all else fail, we’d have the drive and the skills we needed to set up our own enterprises. My brother and I, both have at various times worked in our parents’ offices and like most business class kids knew what needed to be done. It’s a different matter that neither of us got into the family business. Anyhow, I digress.
Heck, most kids in our country do no household chores either because all the parents ask of them is to study, study, study. In the recent past parents have begun to realise that cricket and tennis might have a future so kids who are good at either, might get a shot at that. But God help any child who wants to swim or play hockey. There is no future they will be told, will firmly be guided away from it. And oh, what other way is there to excel at anything, be it sports or music, but practice, practice, practice? Did you read Outliers and the bit on the Beatles and practice in Hamburg? And how many kids do you know who will on their own put in the effort to take a God given talent and make something of it?
This is a country where 40% of the country is still below the poverty line. There is no government assistance, dole, social security, nothing. Those people at the bottom, have to fight to get somewhere. They have to be the best to be noticed. If my son is even vaguely good at music I have enough musician friends to notice and help him out. If the Bean can write well, I’ve been in media long enough for her to get a lead into writing or theatre. Not because I will ask anyone, but because she will know how to go about it. The rest of the country depends on their wits and reality shows.
A country like America is in a different phase altogether. Even the housekeeper or gardener will earn more than the average school teacher in our country. There is no fight for limited resources and letting a child ‘be himself’ will have very different consequences. Some of us, have the good fortune of being in that place and it’s easy to turn up a nose at the ‘pushy’ parents while we put our feet up and relax over a cup of coffee. Let us not criticise, unthinkingly the system that brought us to the position where we can choose to do the things we like to do, and enjoy them.
While we’re on the topic, it’s easy to diss Indian mothers who pressure their kids to study and say the Americans have it right. But it is our Indian mothers who will leave their husbands and homes and visit us for 6-12 months after delivery and cook and feed us and our children. It is our Indian parents who will change their retirement plans and come live in the city of our choice so that we don’t worry about childcare while we pursue our careers. So it cuts both ways. I don’t know if American mothers would give up their lives for their children and then go on giving it up for their grandchildren after that. You may not appreciate the way the East does things, but it works for them and it works brilliantly. When they parent – they parent in a way that encompasses every aspect and they take their last breath, still doing something for their precious children.
None of this is in any way to diss the American schooling system or the so-called alternative schools we hunted for, for our kids. Yes, these do nurture creativity and they do give the children a lot of freedom to learn, think, and create. But shift me back twenty years and move me 2 notches down on the socio-economic scale and I’d be that mother whacking my kid at midnight for falling asleep at his desk. I’d be scared shitless that he’d never get anywhere in life and would be hungry and homeless after I passed on. Just because we no longer have those fears doesn’t mean we don’t understand those who still have to function by those standards and on those compulsions. Why do we cease to understand that perspective? Can we assure those kids a livelihood and a job? All of them? And a roof over their heads, a car in the garage and a foreign holiday? No. In that case, we have to trust their parents to do what they think will be best for their kids in their particular situation. This is their only path to it.
Two years ago my cook and driver in Delhi spent an hour fighting with me for not throwing the Brat’s birthday party at our local rather Tony club, with tattoo artists and magicians and the usual Delhi birthday party tamasha. I told them that I’d rather have a simple party at home. They looked disgusted at what they thought was my stinginess and said that they were earning precisely so that their kids could have those very things. How do you argue that?
I read Amy Chua’s piece and I believe that while every child needs to encouraged and pushed to achieve their best – you need to do what is suitable in your environment. The OA and I, and before us our parents, worked hard to bring us up to a certain standard. Up here it’s a gentler world, a rarified atmosphere. And we can afford to look down and go all snooty on those struggling to get their kids up here and using any method that is handy and works.
I have often said I’d be happy if my son is happy, even if he is not successful. But for the driver who works for me, his child would need to earn atleast a bare minimum and have the basics in life to be happy and for that he’ d have to be successful.
Next up is the bit on self-esteem. I am a bit on the fence on this one myself. I see fat kids around me and no one is willing to tell them that they need to lose weight. If you’re fat, you’re fat and it’s better that we face facts and do something about it rather than you turning 16 and anorexic or bulimic. If I as a parent don’t tell you the facts straight, I don’t know who will. No, I needn’t insult you – but hell, if being told that you’re fat sounds like an insult, then maybe its time you did something about it. It also seems like I’m turning away from my responsibilities by not helping you do something about it.
I see badly behaved children and I see parents afraid to discipline them. Discipline has become a bad word. I am not really the ‘Drop down and give me 20’ kind of mother, but I really can’t sit by and watch my kids misbehave. They might have an off day when they won’t say more than a shy hello, but they know I’d skin them alive if they dared to act rude or kick or not share toys.
I see kids around us all the time, pushing the boundaries and going into areas that I find more than grey. Being rude to guests, refusing to share their toys with kids who have come to play, and more. And all the parents do is say, “No beta, you must share… ” and then they trail off and shrug apologetically and say “He’s a little posessive.” Yes, I see that – but what are you doing about it? They can’t figure out how to make their child share his toys, his food, his playroom, and as a result my kids, the visitors, end up sitting glumly and quietly. Why should I take them over to play with kids who won’t let them play, in that case?
And how often did our parents let us get away with such behaviour? Aren’t we raising monsters with a strong sense of entitlement – with no manners and no sense of responsibility to the world around them? Shrugging it all off as modern parenting and new methods. What is this new method? Being lazy and indulgent while your child runs wild? Undoing all the work that the rest of us are putting in to trying to raise decent human beings? Because it is hard for me to explain to my child that he must share toys in our house where he is the host, and yet have every toy snatched away when he goes to another house to play and is the guest. Add to this our desi system of house help and having no household chores to do and my God, we’re heading for disaster.
I don’t care if you believe in raising your hand or just your voice. Choose your method and make sure it is effective. Don’t tell me “We don’t scold our kids in public… ” and then let your child behave absolutely badly. I have seen friends who with one gentle word can make their child behave. I sometimes have to raise my voice but on the whole I can’t remember the last time I had to scold one of my kids into behaving in public. The OA and I rarely back away from a public dressing down and we’ve had to do it a mere once or twice for it to ensure that they’ve never again tried a public tantrum. Will they sulk quietly in a corner? Sure. Will they grab something away from another child and go kicking and screaming hysterically? Not if they want to be grounded until they’re 80.
I know a lot of parents disagree on public censure, but I believe kids get away with murder knowing that their parents won’t say anything till they get home, so why not make hay while the sun shines? My kids know that I’ll stop the car and take them off on the sidewalk if they misbehave and don’t apologise to the person concerned immediately. When we were kids if a neighbour came home to complain about us, our parents took us to task before even hearing our side of the story. It made us pretty darn well behaved. Today, you go to complain to a parent about something their kid did and they’re likely to rip you a new one.
And I don’t mean we need to go Hitler on our kids, but I believe a lot of us need to be a lot firmer with our kids – if that means disciplning them only in private, sure – but lets see the results of that in their public behaviour. And no, I don’t believe in kids always needing to be reasoned with. There is a reason why they are the children and we’re the parents. If I say ‘Wear two sweaters because it’s cold’ and they disagree or the sweater is bulky, too bad. As long as I am stuck with the unenviable task of wiping your snotty nose, you will wear as many sweaters I tell you to and like it or lump it. I will tell them once, not to touch a plug point. I will tell them twice. And the third time they’ll get a sharp whack on the hand. Because I believe that sharp whack will hurt less than the electric shock that might near kill a two year old. And it will sting enough to ensure that they never again touch that plug point. There is a lot of reasoning you can do with your child and a lot you can’t explain – how do you explain the agony of a shock or a near death experience to a curious two year old? I can live with my 2 year old growing to be 6, associating a whack with that plug point. I don’t know anyone who went to college thinking that a plug point will slap you. There is time enough to learn physics later on. Lets keep you alive and me sane, until then.
I remember the 18 month old Brat kept trying to touch my mother’s hot cup of tea and she finally let him. A howl of pain later, he learnt his lesson and never even ventured near the gas stove or the kitchen for good measure. And it didn’t really leave him scarred for life because today at 5 and a half he willingly helps me carry warm casseroles or a mug of hot chocolate.
There is a fine line between disciplining a child and allowing yourself to be manipulated – most often I see parents crossing that line. This is not to say my kids won’t misbehave or won’t spit at each other in a fight or poke someone in the eye. They will. But when they do, they will get it from me. And be it words or a smack on the butt, it will sting for a while and they’re unlikely to commit that particular crime again.
Some might say that I’m taking away from them the right to think things through and make their own decisions. Darling, I live on the 14th floor. If I let my son climb up there with his batman cape and jump off, he won’t live to make many more decisions. Which is why I’ll tell him once, not to go there. I’ll tell him twice, to stay away. Thereafter I will put a cactus plant near the railing and give him a tight smack on the bum. At least he’ll live to be old enough appreciate self esteem.
Disclaimer: My parents never whacked me. A glare worked. So if you say you never whack your kid or scold him – you better have a glare that works!