Have no worries if your actions have always been louder than your words.

“They come through you but not from you,

And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.”

(Kahlil Gibran, 1923)

The pleasantly unexpected volume of mail generated by my last piece on “midnight’s grandchildren” set me thinking about how much of a challenge parenting has become in 21 century India. This was the precise subject of the 23 Tara Ali Baig Memorial Lecture that SOS Villages India recently honoured me by inviting to deliver. I had touched upon several aspects of the subject in the talk, but the one that I’d like to excerpt and expand upon here is the whole bemusing issue of ownership of children, which, I believe, is one of the central challenges to parenting today.

In the past, most children in our country grew up in an environment of multiple parenting. Every “elder” in the joint family owned the child and had an important say in major decisions impacting upon the child’s future. But by the end of the last century and certainly in contemporary life, the nuclear family has emerged as a distinctive entity in its own right and therefore the parents have jointly staked complete claim to the ownership of the child.

Child custody

However, since divorce is no more anathema in metropolitan India, ownership of the child is usually claimed by the parent who is granted legal custody of the child.

As I see it, in the interests of effective parenting, the first thing that we need to understand is that collectively or singly, none of us owns our children. We have, at best, been bestowed the honour of being their guardians for as long as they need us to be.

As early as 1923, that remarkable Lebanese writer, poet and mystic, Kahlil Gibran, with extraordinary prescience, gave us, in his best known work, The Prophet, a 20-line poetic essay on children, which I think of as a perceptive manual on parenting, that we would all do well to read and re-read.

I do believe that it is only when we relinquish ownership of our children, can we truly begin to help them in their journey towards mature independence, for otherwise we may, inadvertently come in the way of their recognising themselves as distinctive individuals. That said, nothing should take away from the fact that for as long as we are their custodians or guardians or whatever other term we may choose to use, we still have certain responsibilities to discharge, until they are in a position to do these themselves, for children are extremely vulnerable and need our love, support and understanding to grow and flourish.

The first of these is to help provide them the tools with which they can counter the two major threats they face in contemporary life — sexual abuse and drugs. As important is the attention we pay to their education. When I use the term “education” I do so in the larger context of providing them the best opportunities we can to maximise their innate potential and skills, by encouraging them to dream big and hone whatever inherent talent they believe are worth pursuing. More likely than not, if they are good at something, they will do it well, and earn a lot of money in the process, even if their choice of career leaves us cold.

Telling the difference

Arguably, the most important role that parents play in their children’s lives is in teaching them good from bad, right from wrong, ethical from unethical. Of course, there can never be universal agreement on what these morals or values are or should be. But, we need to remember that our belief systems as well as our prejudices will be imbibed by our children, who usually learn more from what we do than from what we say. Often, parents fear, particularly when their children hit teenage and enter a phase of hormone-driven rebellion and oppositional behaviour, that the values they had taken the trouble to imbue in the children, will be forgotten or set aside. I don’t believe this to be the case at all. I have always found that, unless the child suffers from a diagnosable psychiatric disorder, when push comes to shove, whatever they’ve been taught by their parents, does kick in almost instinctively, for what you teach your children when they are young does get embedded in their minds.

Effective parenting in 21 century India must move from an “ownership” model to a “mindful” model, where the child is not seen as mouldable raw material but as a unique individual that the parent can help blossom, but only as a gardener would tend to a plant, not as a sculptor would approach a slab of marble. Parents do need to recognise that if they approach parenting as a symbiotic experience, wherein even as they give the child the benefits of their wisdom and experience, they also have the opportunity to become more mindful and better integrated human beings in the process, then the parent-child relationship moves itself on to a more equal footing where both sides give as well take.

Only mutually beneficial relationships can be engaging and joyous ones. Parenting gives us the opportunity to experience this provided we understand that we can only own the parenting process, not our children.

vijay.nagaswami@gmail.com

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