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Discipline, but how?

A 14-year-old girl in a Mumbai suburb killed herself because she had been asked to switch off the music she had been listening to. Soumya Bhattacharya reports.

india Updated: Dec 07, 2008 01:18 IST
Soumya Bhattacharya

A 14-year-old girl in a Mumbai suburb killed herself because she had been asked to switch off the music she had been listening to. When her 70-year-old grandmother objected, she locked herself into her room, drenched herself in kerosene and set herself alight.

This bit of news prompted a not particularly jolly conversation between my wife and me late in the evening. It’s a familiar topic between us, how to treat children — or, in our case, our seven-year-old daughter: how much to yield to her whims; how to discipline her; how to make her understand; to explain to her that we don’t want her to do certain things because we think we know what’s good for her; and, imperfect as the suggestions might be, it’s because we really care.

We tend to have these conversations in hissed undertones. Oishi, as she never tires of telling us, has very sharp ears. (She also has, I keep saying, a writer’s memory and observation — things, I suppose, she will squander when she probably turns out to be a marketing wizard who does staggeringly convoluted power point presentations and reads one book a year. Yeah, a self-help one, perhaps. But I digress…)

It’s hard to keep stuff out of a sharp-eared child’s earshot when your living room is the size of an office desk, but we try.

“You’re too soft with her,” my wife said. (I knew by heart the rest of what was coming.) “You let her…”

“No, that’s not true. She takes me seriously,” I hissed. (My wife knew by heart the rest of what was coming.)

“Baba, are you talking about me?” Oishi, her face wreathed in a smile of contented self-importance, popped her head round the door, and then walked into the room, a book in her hands, index finger marking the page she must have been staring at, ears strained, without reading.

She didn’t exactly say “Gotcha”, but if a look could say that, she had it.

Well, the way it goes in our family is this. My wife is the bad cop; I am the good one. So while my wife handles the daily reproaches (and there are many of them, and more than many occasions for them), I tend to smile indulgently at the flimsiness of these recriminations and get involved, like a one-man special task force, only on serious occasions. (Nice job I have, don’t you think?)

On most of those occasions, I need not even use my intimidating glare and my (hopelessly) icy simulation of Al Pacino-as-Godfather voice. Usually, the fact that the special task force is getting involved does the trick.

Oishi is extremely attentive to tone and nuance and finds lecturing, hectoring and pomposity of any kind utterly repugnant. (My flawed X chromosome, alas.) Understatement and suggestion are the ways to go with her.

“Are you angry?” she always asks in a very small voice. “No, no, I just thought I’d explain something to you,” I reply. “Shall we talk?”

And we do. And that sorts it. Or at least it has so far.

It’s really hard, this striving for a balance, of not being either too harsh or too lenient with our children. It’s hard to tell how they will respond to what, and how they will interpret things. And the dangers, when we go wrong, are immense.

Perhaps we make too much of these things. Perhaps we worry too much about stuff that needs not that much worrying about. But who can tell? The evidence out there about how these things go wrong when they go wrong is not particularly encouraging.

How do you do it? How does it work for you?