Vijay Nagaswami

The Shrinking Universe: The wonder years

Enjoy the ride... Photo: Parth Sanyal  

The most abiding memory, for me certainly, of the recently-concluded Jaipur Literature Festival, a truly remarkable annual event on the national calendar, was not of the imbroglio surrounding Salman Rushdie or the hearty cheers that followed Richard Dawkins like a shadow or the frenzy surrounding Oprah Winfrey or even the sight of the 18,000-odd people every day occupying every available square inch on the grounds of Diggi Palace, the charming venue of the event. For me, it was the sight of droves of school children, shepherded by excitable teachers and minders, all smartly turned out in their school uniforms and blazers, who thronged the festival tents and open spaces, engaging with the proceedings with enthusiasm, not bemusement. I was truly happy that the organisers had made their participation possible and was grateful that their schools considered such an event an important enough occasion to warrant their presence in such large numbers. And some part of me was hoping that their parents had also been instrumental in persuading their children to attend an event which was centred neither around Bollywood nor cricket.

I don't intend this to be a rant or lament about the ‘lost art of parenting' or any such thing, for, I do appreciate that the modern Indian parent does have a very hard time, for modern Indian life itself has become much more difficult than it ever used to be. Surrounded by a plethora of potential threats and fears, many contemporary parents end up either over-parenting or under-parenting their children. Usually the teenage years are the most difficult, for, parents feel they have to negotiate not just hormonal minefields, but keep their children on track for those dreaded twin events — board exams and entrance exams. As a result, they generally have less time or energy to consider their role in expanding their children's horizons, which are often left to untrammelled interventions from teachers, television and the Internet.

New frameworks

One of the principal difficulties experienced by children during their wonder years — the period of their childhood and adolescence when they explore and try and make sense of the world around them — is the dearth of adequate reference points or frameworks with which to engage with the world. If all of their free time is taken up with tuitions and coaching classes for entrance exams, they are obviously compelled to channelise all their emotional energies as well as their neural circuitry in only one direction — the pursuit of academic achievements. However, by failing to realise that the brain, a truly extraordinary organ though a sadly underutilised one, requires a much wider range of activities to develop and strengthen it's millions of neural pathways, this approach inadvertently results in one-dimensional thought processes and early burn-outs since their brains have been trained to memorise but not necessarily think. However much you increase the RAM, you can't expect your 80486 processor to function as effectively as its Xeon counterpart.

Avoiding anxiety

It's been stated ad nauseam that as a nation we are obsessed with marriage. And once our children are married, we are obsessed with their having children of their own. And more often than one realises, children arrive before the parents have got their acts together. As a result, parents' life anxieties rub off on their children as well, and it's not uncommon to see parents burn a lot of their precious energies playing ‘catch up’. It's not that they don't try. They do try very hard, but when you start off a process, any process, anxiously, chances are the initial anxiety sustains over the years. As a resultant, parenting comes to be seen as onerous, even burdensome. I have no doubt that parenting is a very responsible undertaking. However, the choice that's open to us is whether we let the mantle of responsibility weigh us down or whether we choose to wear it lightly and enjoy the process, learning as we go. For, let's get one thing clear. There're no such things as good parents or bad parents. There are only ‘happy' parents and ‘anxious' parents. By happy parents I don't mean those that are blasé and laissez faire, but those that are mindful of, engaged with and well-connected to their children, but don't feel worn down by parenting. They may not always get it right. In fact, they often get it blatantly wrong. But the joy they bring to the process more than compensates for whatever slip-ups take place and children find it easier to forgive them their lapses. But when anxious parents do something injudicious, their children seem to remember this for much longer and with much greater emotional pain, for, each time they get it wrong, such parents become more anxious, feel more burdened and drive their children just that tad harder.

The way I see it, the biological risk of delaying having a child by two or three years, is far outweighed by the psychological risk of feeling burdened by having one when one is not quite ready. When both partners are slightly more mature and the marriage slightly more stable, both parents are much more likely to enjoy being parents. Then, their children's childhoods can truly be wonder years. Like they are meant to be.

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Printable version | Jan 28, 2022 10:55:36 PM |

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