I am surrounded by parents. Not by my parents, but by the progenitors of others. Most of the people in this category are products of the same mail-ordered era where I come from and have children who have just entered or are entering their school lives.
What deeply distresses me as the son and heir of a man who legally peddles anti-depressants is to see most of these couples stricken by a strange, life-denying epidemic: admissionitis. Perfectly healthy, sober, socially affable folks suddenly turn into hyper-ventilating, quivering, mouths-gone-dry specimens of humanity when confronting the prospect of not having their munchkins being admitted into schools of their choice.
I vaguely remember taking a school entrance exam in which I left my answer sheet pretty much blank. My fast-developing talent in guile and deception was on show when I told my tutor later (yes, I had a tutor who coached me in the fine art of getting into school) that a lady in the exam room had told me to “leave the questions that I didn’t know and just try to finish the paper in time”. When an under-6-year-old with bulging cattle eyes and a crew cut narrates it like that, chances are the story will pan out along these lines: an unfeeling dominatrix snatched the answer sheets of a sweet little boy. My tutor protested to the school authorities — my parents or my grandmom weren’t too worked up — and I got in. It was that simple.
My mother (my father wasn’t in the vicinity at the time) met the headmaster once and that was that. No, gruelling questions for my mum. No back-check on her or her husband’s lifestyle preferences, bank balance, substance abuse history etc. Barring basic queries about what they did and why they wanted me to be enrolled in that particular school, my parents were spared the Inquisition.
Not like things are today. I hear that there are ‘negative points’ if both parents are working, if one of them smokes, if they aren’t members of any golf club. It’s not so much the kids who are tested but their quivering parents. I recall that some of these adults when they were young had their mothers waiting outside with tiffin boxes, passnotes with dried Saraswati puja flowers pressed inside, coconuts with straws and other Oedipal cheerleading tools right up to their offsprings’ college and IIT entrance exam years. But surely not all of these direly distressed parents of pre-school kids today were twisted by such generational support systems (read: pressure groups)?
But even if there were always deranged parents roaming about the world, the school enrolment system itself now seems to have turned into a recruiting ground for a version of Freemasons and jihadis. A reader of this column and a parent of a child hoping to get into a nursery school, Manoj Goel, mailed me with his — and that of many other parents — concern: “I need some help from you in cracking the answer (sic) of certain questions asked by the schools in their forms. It wd be a great favor if u give me answer for underwritten qs: 1. How do u define parenting? 2. How do u expect the school to contribute in your child's life? 3. How do u deal with discipline issues with your child?
Well, Mr Goel, I’m not exactly what you would call a good father. Going by the definition of the word, I’m not even a father. But here’s my keenly-thought-out answers to the queries that you have been staring at for some time now. Hope they help.
1. Parenting is basically ensuring that your kids lay off you and you lay off your kids unless absolutely necessary. In case where intervention is necessary, like when you are choking on a peanut, good parenting should have trained your tot to conduct the Heimlich manoeuvre so that you don’t die of asphyxiation and leave him or her with almost nothing.
2. The school’s contribution in your child’s life is to ensure that he meets other people of his age and doesn’t become one of those foetid specimens who try to have grown-up conversations with grown-ups. School also helps to take care of your kid while you’re working or having a good time.
3. To discipline your child, a smack now and then isn’t a bad idea. It prepares him or her for the world outside as well as making these developing souls banish any thought of harming themselves if they fail in exams, TV talent contests or in life in general. But then, what do I know about parenting in this ‘Who’s your daddy?’ world.