In the already complicated world of our children, the best we can do is to resist the urge to protect, influence and shape their lives

Dee has turned 16, leaves home tomorrow to study in a multicultural environment, which, hopefully, will mould her into a global citizen in the years to come. Prima facie, it is no big deal in today’s flat and interconnected world where parents can monitor and participate in their children’s lives even when living thousands of miles away. It is no big deal either for the large tribe of parents who sent their children to boarding schools in the years gone by, waiting anxiously for the weekly letter, their only source of communication. However, for every parent, the experience of letting go of the child is a unique one with entirely different kaleidoscopic emotions. Sharing, they say, lessens the pain of separation, and I am no different.

Leaving home in the olden days was not as difficult and traumatic as it can be today. I left home at the age of 12; my parents packed all essentials as per a clinically laid down list into a large black box; there were tears in my mother’s eyes as I tried hard to hold back mine “Come on, its time to go,” said my father as he firmly guided me into the first class coach of the express train, which was to take us on a 36-hour journey to Dehradun where I was to join a much acclaimed military school.

I clearly remember my father’s matter-of-fact approach, during the long journey through India’s hinterland, as he tried to keep his young boy occupied with anecdotes of his own tough younger years. He told me of the days when he had to sell savouries made by ‘paati’ (grandmother) as a street vendor to make ends meet; or the time he had to study under a streetlight for his M.A exams because he did not want to disturb his large family.

His message was clear — “Life is tough and you have to be a survivor to succeed.” That journey was a defining moment in my life and I took those lessons forward in most of what I did. But was that enough to equip me to be a good father to my two girls, particularly in these changing times?

Dee grew up quite the quintessential “fauji” child — confident, articulate and widely travelled. However, the multiple pressures of modern parenting took their toll on her. My wife and I had divergent views on parenting. I would propose a balanced approach that extolled the virtues of discipline, orderliness, focus and intellectual creativity through reading, writing and listening; she would say ‘let the child be — this is the time for her to enjoy herself — life is anyway so tough — why do you want to channel her energies in the direction that you want?’

I would retort, “Are we not leading a good life and does Dee in want of anything? Why can’t you back me whenever I demand some discipline in terms of sleep time, eating habits, TV watching and the increasing time Dee spends on Facebook and her BlackBerry?”

My pleas were accompanied by a growing sense of frustration — polarising the family between two divergent styles of parenting in what has become a typical malaise of modern Indian families.

Dee has been a tough customer and has borne all this with fortitude and when she was presented with an opportunity to ‘spread her wings’ she grabbed it with both hands.

Dee leaves home in a fully connected world and this makes it that much harder to let go of her. Except for a look at the prospectus and a stray meeting on a plane with an illustrious alumnus, my parents knew nothing about the school I was going to. The whole experience was a leap of faith for us. I trusted my father; albeit with some reservations about a military career for the academically oriented son, my mother trusted him too and stoically bore the pangs of separation.

As modern day parents, we know everything about Dee’s new environs; what kind of a room she is going to stay in; who her roommates are; what food she is going to eat on a daily basis; what her curriculum is going to be and so on. And yet, we are apprehensive about letting her go. We want to rush her to the doctor one last time to investigate a niggling pain in the stomach — is it appendicitis or just indigestion? We want to equip her so well because we want her to feel ‘at home’.

Going into a new environment without knowing what to expect has its own advantages. There are no expectations from anyone for a while and when these expectations emerge, be it from parents or children, they are realistic and achievable. Dee does not enjoy that luxury — she already has the burden of expectations because of the knowledge society we live in. So at this juncture in her already complicated and information laden world, the best we can do as parents is to truly ‘let her spread her wings’. We have to resist the urge to protect, influence and shape her life.

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