How much is too much? Where do you draw the line? Kids, and parents, are navigating their way to new normals when it comes to privacy, consumption, and even how the family evolves after divorce.
Sean*, a 17-year-old school student, recently gave his building watchman an MP3 player worth Rs 10,000. It’s a bribe to keep the man from showing Sean’s parents photos he took of the teen kissing his girlfriend in the staircase.
“I was horrified when I heard this story,” says Hemali Chhaya*, a Mumbai businesswoman whose son Dhruv* is in Sean’s class. “I am just glad my husband and I decided to be accepting of Dhruv’s relationships. I’d rather have my son date in the safe environment of home than have him blackmailed or extorted by strangers.”
Dhruv started dating at 15. His ex-girlfriend, a classmate, often came over for lunch or dinner with the family, and accompanied them on family excursions. The parents say they respected their privacy when they were together in the house.
“Both sets of parents agree that theirs was a healthy relationship,” Hemali says. “Of course we repeatedly told them that they can’t get too carried away when it comes to being physically intimate. But the dividends we have got have been immense. My son now seems to understand that we will only deny him something when it’s not good for him.”
Counsellors say they are seeing more of this liberal attitude among parents than even 10 years ago, when it comes to dating and relationships.
“It marks a sea change in the Indian parenting style,” says clinical psychologist Raheen Jummani. “Parents have realised that if they’re friendly rather than strict and authoritarian, at least they’ll know what their teens are up to.”
Another factor driving the change is a new generation of parents that have sown their own wild oats in their youth and either appreciate the merit of allowing youngsters to make their own choices, or remember vividly how counterproductive it can be to try and rule with an iron hand.
“This kind of acceptance is more pronounced in the upper and upper-middle classes influenced by Western styles of parenting,” says counsellor Simi Vij.
“I would say about 45% of the parents I interact with are comfortable with teenagers dating while still in school. About five years ago, that number was about 20%,” adds Jummani.
As long as my son respects the girl and doesn’t get physically intimate, we are okay with him dating, says Delhi-based Rita Chhabra*, 42, a fashion designer. “My father always gave me the freedom to make my choices. So my parenting funda is, you trust them and they will in turn trust you,” she adds.
Her 17-year-old son Ranav* started dating two years ago and has had two girlfriends so far. “My girlfriend and I chill at home and don’t have to pretend we’re just friends,” says Ranav. “My parents have told me to take it easy for now and to not do anything stupid. I get that. I think it helps that many of my friends are dating too, and their parents know about it.”
Social networking, parents admit, makes navigating young relationships trickier.
“I suspect that my 16-year-old daughter and her boyfriend are only hanging out together because it’s cool to do so,” says Meena Ratna*, a nutritionist from Mumbai. “But I haven’t asked her to break it off because she might start doing things behind my back. Instead, we talk about sex and consent. I’ve told her that there should be none of those kissing and cuddling poses her friends post online.”
Still, Ratna is wondering how long her daughter will follow their mutually-agreed-upon rules.
“The more intimate the photos, the more likes you get,” she says, sighing. “That’s just how it is. And we have to find that fine balance between being accepting and losing all control.”
(* Names changed on request)