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How far is too far? There’s no right answer for parents

india Updated: Dec 05, 2009 23:39 IST
Soumya Bhattacharya

Here is a fable: it is part cautionary tale, part puzzle, part what-if. And it is a true story.

It is the story of Andre Agassi, one of the most famous tennis players of our times. It appears in Open, his just-published autobiography.

The bits of the book that are germane to this column pertain to Andre and his father, Mike, and the troubled, complex, obsessive relationship between them. It has to do with parental ambition and filial rebellion, with the line between encouragement and pushiness, and what might happen if that line is breached.

Mike was an Iranian, a boxer who had participated in two Olympic Games, and who had arrived in America as a young man who wanted to make it big. In Andre, he saw his opportunity.

From when Andre was two years old, Mike was convinced that he would be a world champion. By the time he was six, Mike was making his son hit 2,500 tennis balls a day, spat out with varying pace and spin, from a custom-made machine in the family’s backyard.

That translated into a million balls a year, because Andre had to hit every day, even the day after a surgeon sewed back on his finger after it had been in a skating accident.

By the time Andre is sent to Nick Bolletieri’s academy in Florida at 13, he has had enough. He drinks Jack Daniels, smokes pot, infuriates people, gets into scraps, gets a Mohawk, and has it dyed pink. It is his first act of rebellion against his father.

By the time he is 18, Andre becomes World No 3. But then, he loses at tournament after big tournament; he comes to be known as the Slamless Wonder. He is torn between wanting to and not wanting to become what his father had promised the world that he would.

Things change only when Andre enters the twilight of his career as he pushes 30. He rises to become the oldest man ever to hold the No. 1 ranking. He says he begins to do things for himself, rather than for his father. He somewhat dissociates himself from the tyranny of his lost childhood. He finds — in VS Naipaul’s phrase — the centre.

Now would things have been any different for Andre had his father not been a bully? Would he have got anywhere at all had his father not been a bully?

Professional tennis might throw up its most spectacular examples, but pushy parenting is all around us.

And not everyone sees pushiness to be a bad thing. Someone I know said she wished her father had given her more discipline and focus, rather than allowing her all the freedom of choice she wanted.

So when does the line between encouragement and pushiness get crossed? As with all things to do with parenting, the answers aren’t obvious — or clear.