Parenting is to the current generation of parents what Chernobyl was to nuclear power—an irreversibly calamitous man-made disaster.
Last month, a teenager in Haryana committed suicide because his mother confiscated his phone to stop him from playing games on it. In the same month, a 14-year-old jumped to his death in Mumbai.
Over the past decade or so such news has been making headlines with an alarming frequency. According to statistics, a student commits suicide every one hour in India.
Psychologists claim that the number of children coming to them seeking help for behavioural issues and mental illness is on a sharp rise. India is facing a massive parenting crisis, which nobody seems to be talking about or addressing seriously.
When India’s Generation X (born between 1965 and 1980) was growing up, parenting wasn’t a topic which was discussed around the dining table much.
There were few books on the subject on bookshelves at home. The default setting of most parents then on dealing with their children had authoritative written all over it.
They laid down some ground rules, which were obeyed because there were consequences to defiance.
The rod was rarely spared, bed-times were fixed, good manners were expected, and good academic results demanded.
The 16th birthdays did not bring greater liberties, teenagers were taught to be grateful for the smallest of privileges and while parents were friendly when the occasion called for it, they weren’t exactly friends. Neither too much fuss was made over natural talents nor too much coaching given to tap the not so natural ones.
If the children felt sad, they were allowed to, if they felt defeated, they were allowed to. And if they lost, they became losers, and had to deal with it. If they got left out, they licked their wounds and carried on. There was nary a parent who came charging in through the school gates to demand why their child hadn’t made it to the football team or been handed a bronze instead of a silver.
This was all in the past though. Generation X is hyper-navigating the choppy waters of parenting armed with hand sanitisers, sunscreen and crash helmets. They are doing it very differently from how their parents, the baby boomers, went about it—which was with a great deal of confidence, common sense, and the requisite bit of nonchalance.
Today, the more parents are educating themselves in the art of child-rearing, the more uncertain they are about it. The more they try to befriend their children, the lesser influence they have over them. They are teaching them more subjects and vocations, but are overlooking the importance of helping them learn important life lessons.
Not only are the contemporary overparenting their children, but they are also snowplowing their way through it, removing all the obstacles that lie in the path of their offspring as they go along. And yet they worry that they are not doing enough.
To make matters worse, GenX parents are constantly being reminded by reposted articles on social media that if their kids grow up to be insecure, underconfident, unambitious, insincere, or underperforming adults, it would have entirely been the fault of mummy or daddy. Even animals know how to raise their kids, it is a primeval instinct; why is it then, that things seem to be going horribly wrong with Generation X?
Clinical psychologist Dr Seema Hingorani blames the generation gap for such a collapse of parenting. “These parents grew up in a very different world and the current environment of their children is entirely new to them. Children have been given much more exposure to a variety of things and are very vocal about their desires and feelings, unlike their parents. As a result, there are a lot of compatibility issues.”
Dr Hingorani’s clinic gets a lot more parents with issues and conflicts with their children on behavioural patterns, obstinacy and rebelliousness than ever before. “Most parents are confused whether they should go by their conditioning or follow the new norms and rules of raising kids,” she says.
Parents are lending a ready ear to all those experts proffering advice on raising children.
Parents born in the 70s and the early 80s are gleaning insights about child psychology which their parents were manifestly unfamiliar or maybe even unconcerned with. Why is it then parents today are unable to raise their children well?
“We find that these days parents have too much knowledge and too little instinct. If anything, I feel parents need more counselling than kids today,” asserts Dr Pervin Dadachanji, a practicing psychiatrist with a special interest in child and adolescent psychiatry.
“Parents are trying so hard to be their children’s friends and get them to like them. This is bad parenting. As I always tell parents, ‘your child will have many friends but only TWO parents. So be a parent’,” she advises.
Neha Kare, founder of India’s largest online community of mothers, UNIMO—Universe of Moms, says parenting as a subject is constantly being discussed in her groups. “I have seen many threads around parents trying hard to become friends with their kids. Their constant refrain is ‘I want to be his friend’ or ‘I want to be her confidante’. But that just does not fit with the functional role of a parent. I feel it is important to keep your communication channels open with your children but as a parent, and not as a friend, or you will lose authority over them.”
Dr Hingorani suggests rather than trying to be their friends we should make sure that we are emotionally attuned to our children and constantly engaging with them without constantly judging them.
Kare, who routinely brings in psychologists to counsel women in her tribe, has also noticed a common fear among mothers that their children, if not yielded to, may cause self-harm.
“We find that mothers do not realise the difference between pleasing their children and loving them. They operate from fear, and they bend over backwards to accommodate their children’s needs, often at the cost of their own,” she says.
According to Dr Hingorani, the uncertainty and anxiety that parents are feeling today also stem from the fact that they were exposed to a less consumerist world while growing up. “They are anxious about overindulging their children, but at the same time they fear that they may be depriving them given that this is an entirely different milieu that they are operating in,” she says.
Not surprising then that children are taking advantage of their parents’ vacillations. Dr Hingorani has counselled many children in her practice who have manipulated their parents to get what they want.
“I’m currently treating a 12-year-old girl in therapy who got into a pattern of giving verbal threats to her parents if she didn’t receive a particular gadget or a dress or an eatable. She then would refuse to go to school. After a month, this extended to her not going for afterschool classes and family outings. As both the parents were working, they would give in to her demands either due to guilt, or being too tired to argue with her.”
So what are the primary markers of bad parenting? “You should know you are going wrong as a parent when your child begins to appear entitled,” says Dr Dadachanji, who defines an entitled kid as someone who probably wants a “good job” for “breathing”, a child who thinks rights and privileges are the same, a child who cannot accept rejection and a child who always needs to win because no one has allowed him to lose.
Bestselling British author and teenage expert Nicola Morgan doesn’t endorse the widely held view that we are in the midst of a parenting crisis as such.
“I think parents of every generation have had different challenges and have done things in different ways, getting some things wrong and some things right. For example, there was a time when parents didn’t spend enough time with their children and thought that too much contact or displays of love were bad things,” she says.
What Morgan does emphasise though is the importance of setting boundaries for our children. “Boundaries formed by love,” she suggests. “There is a need to have red lines—a few things that are non-negotiable—but also some things that the child can start to test and discuss and explore and which could be negotiable, with mutual respect.”
An alarming characteristic that sets today’s parents apart from their parents is that they work hard to earn their child’s approval instead of it being the other way around.
“We don’t want our kids to think badly of us. It is a lovely feeling to want to give our children the world, but not too much too soon,” warns Dr Dadachanji.
She strongly believes that a parent’s inability to say a firm no can have far-reaching repercussions that include depression and suicide. “There is a total lack of resilience among children because they have never been said a no to. These kids have never been given any negative feedback and when they go out of the protective cocoon of their families, they cannot handle the rejection, negativity, anxiety they are
Morgan holds the view that it is extraordinarily important to say no when the situation demands. “If children grow up with their parents never saying no, several problems occur: they think they can have everything, and one day they’ll find they can’t.
They won’t learn self-discipline (which is saying no to oneself) and all sorts of possible problems come from that, for example the risk of overspending, overeating, and overindulging in some way. They won’t learn how to manage the ‘I want that, but I need to work out whether I should or shouldn’t have it’ scenario, which forms the basis of a good, healthy life.”
And finally, we come to the problem of wanting to create ‘wunderkids’.
So keen are we to tap prodigies out of our children that we have signed them up for back-to-back classes after school.
We believe that there is no such thing as too much talent. A child can be an artist, a pianist, an orator, a robotics expert, a mythologist, a ballerina and also squeeze in the time to be a swimming champion along with all of that.
The destination at the end of the road is often admission to top colleges, which will be as good for the parents as for the child because somewhere the lines between the child’s achievements and ours are getting blurred.
“I see a lot of parents who want their children to excel in everything and hence they don’t draw boundaries between them and their children. They constantly do their children’s homework and projects, which leads to them not learning to take responsibility of their actions and not having a judgement about things. It also indirectly stunts developmental growth,” says Dr Hingorani.
According to Meneka Verma (name changed), mother of a 14-year-old, parents helping out children in graded class projects put other kids in the class at a disadvantage.
“And just because you want to raise an independent child, if you refuse to work on their project unlike other parents in the peer group, your child is likely to accuse you of being thoughtless and unconcerned,” she says.
Releasing books written by your child genius is another new phenomenon according to Verma. “We would write sterling essays and all we got was an éclair as a reward from our mothers. Nobody thought of turning our work into a book. But in my child’s school, every other day some kid is being congratulated on the publication of their new book. We are either raising really gifted writers or we are all just using a formula to secure our child a seat in Princeton and Yale in the future,” says Meneka.
Morgan believes that parents must not be vilified for confused parenting because parents today have immense challenges, for many reasons, including the various pressures created by the internet. “I also think each generation has had different pressures compared to the one before,” she says.
As gargantuan as the task may seem, we can still try to course-correct by changing our own attitudes. “If a parent is able to internalise his role in propagating this myth to the child that you are so special, you’re the best, we will always take care of you—only then can he make the changes in his parenting,” says Dr Dadachanji.
The solution, it seems, lies in finding the middle path. As Dr Dadachanji says, “This can be done by avoiding extreme parenting: too many rules/ too little rules; too much involvement/too little involvement. Cliched though it is, balance is the key!”
Shunali Khullar Shroff is the author of Love in the Time of Affluenza and Battle Hymn of a Bewildered Mother
- •Prioritise children
- •Appreciate and approve more frequently
- •Concentrate more on efforts than on results
- •Express your love, make them feel wanted
- •When the child falters, present the facts rather than accuse
- •Reframe communication to make the child more responsible
- •Discuss the pros and cons of problems and solutions
- •Maintain a balance between right of knowing and overindulgence
- •Lead by example
- •Teach social etiquette and value of relationships
- •Encourage social interactions
- •Focus on all-round development
- •Give them age-appropriate responsibilities
- •Involve them in household running finances
- •Inculcate habit of giving and sharing
- •Regularly do some activities together
- •Inculcate habit of device-free dinner daily
- •Adolescence is the time of change. Give them patient hearing.
- •Get rid of physical or verbal hostility
- •Silent treatment should be a complete no-no
- •Don’t get obsessed with perfection
- •Don’t threaten, tease and distrust them
- •Don’t compare and criticise
- •Don’t end up replacing love with toys or gifts
- •Don’t over-pamper or show over-concern
- •Don’t snap or mock
An over-controlling behaviour of parents, which can negatively affect children’s ability to manage their emotions and deal with the challenging demands of growing up
You are a helicopter
- You dissuade your child from talking to others kids.
- You dictate to him regularly.
- You make him participate in activities that you enjoyed during your childhood.
- You take decisions for your child all the time, including what to eat and wear.
- You regularly complete his homework.
- You speak for your child in situations when you know he won’t be able to speak up for himself.
- You get angry when a relative or a friend steps in to correct the behaviour of your child.
- You write long emails or notes to his teachers every week, asking for timely feedback on the performance of your child.
- You keep a tab on the progress and performance of his friends at school.
- You spend sleepless nights worrying about your child.