A 14-year-old budding table tennis star in Kolkata recently paid for his father's overzealousness with his life. Are we dreaming too big for our children? Veenu Sandhu and Mayank Tewari present 10 parental posers.
1. How far do you go to ensure your child performs well?
When Ravi scored 54 per cent in his Class X exams, his father, a public sector employee, went into depression. When he came out of it, he decided to make his son repeat the class. The boy was kept in solitary confinement at home and made to study 18 hours a day. By the time he reappeared for the exam he had already cleared, Ravi was a nervous wreck. This time round, he scored 48 per cent. His father beat him black and blue. The boy lost his sleep and appetite, remained scared and anxious, and showed symptoms of social withdrawal. Finally, his father took him to the stress management clinic at the Escorts Heart Institute.
"The first ten sessions that we had with the family were dedicated to dealing with the internal insecurities of the father. It turned out that the father's own sense of underachievement was being directed at the son," says Dr Bhavna Barmi, a clinical psychologist at the Escorts clinic.
A study conducted by Swashrit Society, an NGO working with schools in Delhi, proved that cases such as Ravi's are by no means an exception. The study, which psychologically profiled 1,000 students from 100 public and private schools in Delhi and the NCR region in 2004-05, found that nearly 60 per cent of the students who showed signs of pressure had parents suffering from a sense of underachievement.
"Even the most loving parents often do not realise that they are using their child to fulfill their own aspirations and treating him or her as a mere extension of their own selves," says psychoanalyst Dr Madhu Sarin.
This is the reason you find parents pushing even five-year-olds into a flurry of activities. "We have come across tiny-tots who are packed off for tuitions soon after they return from school, and then to tennis and dance lessons," says Meenakshi Singhal, headmistress of The Heritage School, Vasant Kunj. By the end of the day, the child is completely fatigued, even though he may not look it. He ends up losing interest in the activities you want him to enjoy and excel in, she adds.
The parents' argument is that they only want their child to grow up into a well-rounded individual, who has not missed out on anything during his growing-up years like they did. "But just stop and think for a moment. Do you really want your child to grow up as an anxious young person? Or would you rather allow him the time to enjoy his childhood and shape up as a balanced, relaxed and well-adjusted individual?" asks Dr Amit Sen, child and adolescent psychiatrist at Sitaram Bhartia Hospital.
2. Is your child aware of the sacrifices you make?
It happens all too often. And not always intentionally. "The child is not behaving and you lose it. The next thing you know, you are listing out all the sacrifices you are making for him: the time and money you spend on him, the expensive school you send him to and all those toys you have bought him," says Hema Gupta, a psychologist with Rohini-based Realm, an organisation that counsels children and parents. In all likelihood, the child may go on a guilt trip, she cautions. Worse, the child may become resentful, knowing that he is his parents' responsibility and in aspiring to do the best for him, the parents are only fulfilling that responsibility.
Such pressure tactics are more common when the child is actively engaged in some sporting activity, especially tennis or shooting. "Parents feel that they have invested a lot of time, money and energy in the child and want instantaneous results," says a tennis coach. When that does not happen, they can react quite violently. He recalls a particular incident when the mother of a national-level tennis player stepped onto the court and slapped her for not playing well enough. "The audience was shocked and the young player looked as though she had been robbed of all her dignity," he says.
Many parents are not even aware of the damage they are doing to their children, says Dr Rajesh Sagar, associate professor, psychiatry, AIIMS. Even fewer care to consult a professional or another parent on appropriate parenting tips.
3. Over-protection or too much freedom — is it a dilemma?
Last year, when Niharika Sharma's school went on a four-day trip to Jaipur, she was one of the few students who stayed back. Her parents were too concerned about her safety to let her go. No amount of begging or cajoling worked. Niharika, who is 15, wishes her parents would loosen up. She also feels that if they loved her, they would have let her go and have a good time.
How much rope to give is a question which has many parents in knots. Another tricky one is: How do I make them independent without compromising on their safety? "To begin with, it is important not to come across as unreasonable to the child," says Sanskriti School principal Gauri Ishwaran. "Your 'yes' or 'no' has to be judicious, especially with teenagers. Children are logical people and they will always understand if you tell them about your concerns and work out a solution with them," she says.
Explain to the child that you want him to be independent, but at the same time are concerned about his safety. Ask him about the trip or the party he wants to go to, and if you feel it is not a good idea, explain to him why you think so. But also hear him out when he tells you why he thinks he should be allowed to go, counsellors advise. At the same time, they caution that it is not wise to always let the child go wherever he pleases as he may start feeling that you don't care enough.
"It is natural to be anxious about your child. But as reasonable parents, we have to learn to contain those anxieties and approach the situation rationally, keeping in mind the child's needs," says Dr Achal Bhagat, psychiatrist and director of Saarthak, an organisation that focuses on society's mental health needs.
4. How do you deal with conflict between children?
Peetampura resident Sarika Pansari has a seven-year-old daughter and a five-year-old son. Sarika wants to be a good mother to both of them. But there are days when the children simply drive her up the wall. It is usually when both children begin fighting for the same thing. "I do try to resolve the issue. At times I even ignore it. But after a point, it gets maddening," she says. The only solution before her then is to urge her daughter to give in. "While my daughter is mature and understanding, my son is a hyper and difficult child to control. Only his father manages to discipline him," she says. Sarika says she always apologises and explains the situation to her daughter later. "She understands," says Sarika.
However, Suneel Vatsyan, chairman of Nada India Foundation which works with children and adolescents, cautions that this might not be the best solution. "Both children are learning out of this situation. The daughter is learning to cope with the expectations and meanings attached to her role as the elder child. In the long run, she might start suppressing her emotions," he says. The son, meanwhile, is learning to get away with tantrums. "He will never learn to deal with rejection or his own negative emotions," Vatsyan says. He feels the mother needs to look at her own emotions and feelings so that she is better equipped to tackle the situation.
Another common mistake parents make is to tick their own child off every time he is involved in a spat with another child, simply because they cannot reprimand someone else's child. However, the point to remember is that children have a strong sense of justice and may start thinking that you are biased against them. "The child might start feeling that he is not good enough, even if later you tell him why you scolded him and not the other one. Instead of improving as a person, he might become under-confident," says Dr Sen. "Also, never scold a child in front of his or her friend. Remember, even a two-year-old has self-respect," adds Gupta.
5. Does quality time mean the same to you and your child?
Manjulika Mallik has been teaching four to eight-year-olds for over twenty years now, and it doesn't take her long to guess which child in her class is not his usual self. "You can spot the change in the child's behaviour. For example, he may not eat or enjoy his tiffin or might be too quiet," she says. The problem invariably concerns a parent and the feeling that "Mummy and Papa do not play with me or help me with my homework".
The child needs to know that the parent will play the game he enjoys or watch the show he wants to watch with him, counsellors say. "For a child, quality time is when you get led by his motivation and desire," says Dr Sen.
Instead of insisting on a performance-oriented game in the little time that you have together, try engaging in an activity the child is interested in, Dr Sen suggests. "It could be a pillow-fight, a picnic or a trip to the zoo — any activity in which you will emotionally connect with the child and have fun together," he says. The parent will first have to be informed about the child's interests — possible only through active and healthy communication, he adds.
"We are fortunate that human attachments and emotional bonds are valued in our culture. We, as parents, must teach our children to cherish these values," adds Dr Sarin.
6. Do you know the kind of person your child is?
Pratyaksh Bakshi is a kindergartener. He has always been a quiet child. His teacher, Dr Neena Gulabani, director of Kidzee Anubhav Learning Centre describes him as an introvert — "a child who understands everything you teach him but will not speak." That's the child's personality and Dr Gulabani has no problems with it. But his parents do. They are terrified of what will become of him in this highly competitive world if he does not start expressing himself, like his friends and classmates. "So, they have pushed him into all sorts of extracurricular activities," says Dr Gulabani.
Another worry for the parents is that Pratyaksh is overweight. While they insist on giving him boiled potatoes every day, they also want him to lose weight overnight. So, the child is woken up at 5 am every day, taken for a walk, packed off to school and then sent for tuitions. Besides this, he goes for skating three times a week. Drawing classes are slotted for the rest of the days. "Forced to do things that conflict with his personality, the child is going deeper into his shell," says Dr Gulabani.
Instead of understanding and accepting the kind of person the child is and cherishing his very existence, parents often make the mistake of judging him by his performance, psychologists say. They may even start getting embarrassed about his basic nature and feel inadequate as parents, they add. In extreme situations, the child can go into depression and become a clinical case, cautions Gupta.
7. Will you allow your child to fall in love?
Nalini Dhond says it came as a shock when she inadvertently found that her 13-year-old daughter had a boyfriend. "I read his email to her by mistake," says Dhond. "I didn't know what to do. I wanted to shout at her and even lock her up in her room," she says.
Today, Dhond is thankful she did none of those things. Instead, she decided to delicately broach the subject and pray that her daughter would take her into confidence. She did. "The ice broken, I was able to advise her on the relationship," says Dhond.
"We have to accept it. Children are getting into romantic relationships at a young age," says Ishwaran. "Parents who communicate with their children openly will know when this happens. The best thing to do then is to tell them the right and wrong of the relationship. Give them the right inputs and pray that they will make the right choices," she adds. Do not make them feel like criminals or they will retaliate and not tell you anything in future. "They might even start viewing you as a stranger with unreasonable expectations," says the principal.
Dr Bhagat's advise is: "Help the children take decisions regarding their life, but do not dictate their decisions. Find a way of talking about difficult issues like sex and drugs. Try not to panic when the child explores his or her sexuality through relationships. And most importantly, respect the child's privacy and dignity."
8. Do you and your child have reasonable negotiations?
Calls from 10 to 13-year-olds complaining that their parents are not giving in to their demands for a cellphone or a personal television set are common at Childline (1098), the child helpline. The staff attending to these calls invariably succeeds in explaining to the child why the demand cannot be met with. "We help the child understand that his demand is not reasonable, that he is too small to be using a cellphone which, if misused by someone, could land him in trouble," says a Childline counsellor. However, parents do not always take the time to explain why they are not giving in to the demand, he adds.
The key lies in working on the child’s power to reason, which is immense, therapists say. Children’s negotiation skills are also immense, Vatsyan adds. "They understand the family’s power dynamics. They know which parent calls the shots and which one will give in easily," he adds. A healthy coordination between the parents prevents conflicts and makes it easier to deal with the child’s demands, reasonable or otherwise, he adds.
The problem occurs when parents don’t refuse the child anything for the first 10-12 years and then overnight, expect him to accept a 'no', says Ishwaran. Such situations can be avoided if parents start involving the child in decisions regarding the appropriate use of the resources available to the family, says Dr Bhagat.
9. How patient are you while disciplining your child?
At five, Eeshani Kaushal already has a problem communicating with her parents. "Whenever I make a mistake, my parents shout at me. I want to tell them why I made that mistake, but they look so angry that I get scared and say nothing," she says.
It’s true. A number of parents seem angry when they are disciplining their child. Peetampura’s Sarika admits that she loses her temper in such a situation, even though she knows that "children of people who are patient are better equipped to cope with stress and other problems". Says Dr Sen, "We forget that the idea is not to teach the children a lesson, but to make them realise that what they did was wrong." However, the disciplining exercise often ends up becoming a power struggle, with parents responding to their own anger and frustration, he says.
"So, when a child breaks a rule, the parent might take it personally and come across as hostile," says Dr Bhatia. As a result, instead of offering a solution, parents themselves end up becoming the problem.
Another question to ask oneself is: should you expect your child to agree with you on all issues, given that the child is also a person with his or her own mind? And should you accept and respect him even if you disagree with him?
10. Do you use your child to get back at your spouse?
Eleven-year-old Nikhil Mehra might be too small to join his father’s business, but he is smart enough to know that when his mother says 'no', his father is bound to say 'yes' — no matter how unreasonable his demand. Nikhil is already cashing in on the war for one-upmanship between his mother and father.
"When spouses play games with children to get back at each other, they do immense damage to their child," says child counsellor Dr TP Jindal. The child learns that no matter which party he connives with, he will always gain. It's a dangerous thing to teach a child, he says. "Keep the child out of your spats," he advises. Competing with the child for the spouse's attention is equally damaging, says Dr Bhagat.
An ideal situation is one in which the spouses agree with each other on the way the child has to be brought up. As Vatsyan puts it — "Being in a family is like playing in an orchestra; the spouses ought to be in sync."
With inputs from Ajai Masand and Saji Chacko
(Names of some parents and children have been changed to protect identity)