A few days ago my friend, let us call them A, called me to tell me in a rush how her son D had ordered a few accessories (a bracelet and a pendant in a chain) with the symbol of the holy cross online. And how as responsible parents they had promptly issued the return of the accessories. Apparently, D had ordered a few accessories without anybody’s knowledge and that had led him into some kind of trouble. My friend’s husband (not a follower of the Christian faith) had objected to this fondness for accessories with the symbol of the holy cross. His simple logic was “Why would we want to adopt symbols of Christianity when they do not adopt symbols of Hinduism?” With cutting edge-precision, he had divided the world between “us” and “them” in yet another way for his 13 year-old son.
My friend’s point had been somewhat different. Why had her son ordered the accessories without her knowledge? Subsequently, she had had a conversation with D about how seemingly harmless lies would gradually turn into big lies and how one small act of concealment would then lead to bigger acts of concealment. She had given him examples of perfectly innocent boys gone astray and become estranged because they somehow began to hide things from their parents.
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A told me how she was already at the receiving end at her in-laws’ place since D was left-handed and would invariably and unwittingly extend his left-hand even while taking the prasadam and the number of times she had had to face rebuke for him. She was however quick to add that she had told her in-laws categorically that it was scientifically incorrect to correct the leftness. And then she confided her deepest, darkest fears in me, which are very genuine for her. What if D, by accident, would have worn the paraphernalia he had ordered in front of her in-laws? How would they have reacted?
All this made me curious and I wanted to know if A had asked her son what had made him hide the fact that he had ordered the accessories? Well, said A, in all likelihood D would have replied that it was because he knew his mother wouldn’t have allowed him to order them. I wanted to know if A had asked D why he thought she wouldn’t allow him to order the accessories. At this, for the first time in twenty minutes, A. fell silent.
What is it as parents that we miss out on? How many times have we actually, sitting in our living rooms with our friends, stated and heard these phrases:
I have told my children very clearly that…
My children know that I draw the line at…
My child would never do this because s/he knows that the family will not accept it.
Sometimes as parents, we are so busy creating a narrative of our own, explaining our point of view, justifying our stand and engaging in what is definitely a one-sided interaction that we often forget to get to the bottom of the crisis or the problem. The issue at hand ought not to have been so much about how A. necessarily felt or what she believed in but perhaps reflecting on the reason why D. felt the compulsion to hide his action from her and the inclusion of the possibility that perhaps he didn’t share or hadn’t yet developed his parents’ filters and also on the need to have these filters at all.
It made me also think how this episode had conveyed to him as to what would make him acceptable or unacceptable, worthy or unworthy in the family, in the eyes of his parents, aunts, uncles and grandparents. And that which was already unacceptable about him which the family was already coping with, like his left-handedness, (I particularly know because I have been there. I am a south paw.) which is considered an aberration and even some kind of a disability in some Indian families.
Let us consider in what ways this may impact a boy in his adolescence who is developing a sense of identity and independent selfhood. He has to deal with and accept as normal his father’s anxiety and latent loathing for another religion or community. He has to deal with and accept as normal his mother’s expectations of him always, unconditionally confiding in her. The narrative that he is given is that if he fails to comply with either, he can lose his position in the family; he has been handed down a manual of compliance, failing which, he is under the threat of not barely losing his position in the family but also the possibility of being disowned.
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Now this can lead to two possible outcomes: a) he fears the loss so much that he unconditionally internalises the belief systems values, biases, prejudices and even the authoritarian and disciplinarian parenting style of his parents; b) he resists them and develops an anti-establishment attitude and becomes a compulsive rebel. Especially adolescence is the time when children are negotiating complexities to establish themselves as separate individuals and yet remain a part of the family.
Hearing your adolescent child out is critical. Dismissing their choices is symbolic of infantilising them. Giving them a chance to justify their acts will make way for an environment of mutual trust and respect. ‘You must have a good reason to do what you are doing’ is a far more inclusive way of speaking to an adolescent than telling them “what to DO” in capital and bold letters. According to Ron Dahl, a neuroscientist and professor of human health and development at the University of California, Berkeley, “9- to 14-year-old range, kids become more interested in being admired and respected. We don’t know exactly what it is that kids become sensitive to, but it’s something about status, being accepted, belonging, being admired, and being valued that becomes more salient.” At this stage when they are struggling with issues of self-identity and coping with social pressure, we might want to consider assuring them that we have their back instead of conveying that we can pull the rug from under their feet if they are not careful.
Situations such as these open up opportunities for discussion and self-reflection. A feminist parenting take on the situation will naturally be radically different. For one, feminism values diversity and envisions a pluralistic, egalitarian and inclusive world. Feminist parents would engage in a dialogue with the child. They would
a. firstly validate the choice of the child to create a safe space.
b. reflect on and acknowledge the child’s desire for accessories.
b. identify if it is just a desire, a distraction or an obsession.
c. desist from attributing religious markers to objects in a negative manner.
d. not create a threatening environment for the child.
e. allow the child to reflect on where and when he can wear the accessories. For example, discuss how ‘It may not be a good idea to wear these to school.’
f. use inclusive and non-violent language while discussing, instead of conditionals which have a veiled warning or a threat: ‘if you do this, you will face this…’ this kind of language implies that the child is developmentally and socially incompetent to understand what is appropriate or inappropriate. Question/expressions like: Do you think it is a good idea to wear this to school? You might want to share where and when you would want to wear these accessories?
g. And certainly not convey to the child the fragility of the familial ties which can be easily broken by cultural and social forces and permanently inducing anxiety and paranoia in the child which can have very undesirable manifestations.
As mothers and primary care-givers in most cases, we seek validation in return for the care labour we put in which is evident in A.’s demand to have a say and know everything that is going on in her son’s life. What we need to realise however is that the mother or the immediate biological family or even the extended family is not the only influence in the life of a child. A child is a project in the making, resulting out of a daily assimilation of values, norms, worldviews and social constructs. A better idea therefore would be to elicit instead of explain, have a dialogue instead of imposing our likes, dislikes and preferences on our children and introspect instead of explicitly expressing our dread, distaste and fear of their choices and thrusting a manual of dos and don’ts in the child’s hands. Let them undertake the journey themselves. It reminds me so much of Christie Mellor, the author of The Three-Martini Playdate: A Practical Guide to Happy Parenting (2004) advising parents on children: “Exert a little autonomy and encourage some in your child.”
Feminism believes in different ways of being and validates and celebrates intersectional and non-hegemonic identities. Introducing your child to the multiplicity of religions and ethnicities without negative stereotyping or the anxiety of “the other” is important. Letting your child negotiate their identity without feeling threatened is equally important. An air of reassurance and supportiveness can go a long way instead of an authoritarian and disciplinarian approach. Demanding the child to confide in you on a foundation of threat and punishment will amount to paranoia and anxiety on both sides. Creating a safe environment, having an accepting and engaging attitude with your child, valuing and complimenting their decision-making and their ability to be rational, giving them respect and space to blossom as independent reflective beings, engaging through a dialogue with their likes, preferences and views through questions reflecting curiosity rather than negating their views with blanket statements are some ways of laying a feminist foundation of parenting.
Featured image source: Washington Post