Parenting Principles

This article is about parenting. It talks about 10 common myths that are common in many cultures across the world. It also argues why Parenting is perhaps one of the most important roles in our lives that we need to talk about. I believe that even if we are not biological, foster or adopted parents, we do end up playing parental roles and influences to children around us, in our extended families, communities and if our work involves direct work with children. In that sense, the article may be of interest to everyone whether they are direct parents or not. It should also be of interest to young people today, who may be parents tomorrow.

The role of parenting

In life, we take on many roles. When we are born, we learn to take on the role of being children to our parents, sons or daughters. As we grow up a little, we start going to school - and we learn to become a student, learning the rules and what is expected of us. We make friends - and that too,  a ‘friend’, is also a role. If we have siblings and cousins, we take on roles of being a brother or sister. So, in life, take on many, many roles - in our personal life of a lover, a spouse, a parent, in our professional life - as an employee, a manager or an organisational leader, an entrepreneur or businessman, an artist or performer and so on. In our communities too, we take on roles - as a neighbour, as a society resident, as a community member and a citizen of a city or the country. Roles are social and psychological constructs - they are partly defined by society, our families, our culture and its norms. For example - what a role of a brother may have some differences with a Maharashtrian community may be different from a Khasi or Malayalee community. Or how we understand parenting in India may be different from what norms may be in England. They are also psychological constructs because how each one of us will shape the role will also depend on our own values, beliefs, fears, wants and desires, self image, worldview etc.

Roles are given to us, sometimes we choose, and often we can shape:

As a child, we are told what to do, how to be, what the idea of a good child is in that family, the values, the norms, etc. Even in a school, the rules and norms that we must subscribe to, the freedoms we can enjoy are given to us. However, as we grow up, we gain power to choose, to reject or negotiate on the rules of the role. For example - we may decide that we don’t like to be the kind of friend who will not do things only for peer approval. Or we may decide that we do not wish to play a wife who will take on the primary responsibility of running the house and depend on the husband to earn even if it may be the norms or tradition of that family or community. As adults, we have the option of shaping the roles we play, by our own values, convictions and beliefs, and we may not completely subscribe to what other people’s expectations are entirely. And we negotiate. We accept some and we reject some.

Parenting is perhaps the most critical and powerful role of all:

All roles are important. Because how we choose to define our roles not only impacts us, helps us grow, but it also affects other people, it shapes the families we live in, the organisations we work in, it impacts our relationships, our friends and so on. Of all these roles, perhaps, the role of the parent is the most powerful - because it has a tremendous impact on another human being, your child, who you bring into this world, who is most vulnerable, who depends, relies and trusts on you with all their vulnerability. And this is the relationship that often affects us the most - with pride and honour, or pain and hurt, with satisfaction and fulfilment or guilt and shame.

How do we learn to become a parent?

In three ways:

a. From what we may have experienced as a child, learning from what our parents did with us, the ways they did it and how it may have worked for us. For example - someone may say that in my childhood, we always have had strong discipline, routines and timetables as children and that worked for me and I want to do the same with my child. Or someone may say - as a child, my parents gave me complete freedom, and left a lot of unplanned open time and space and that made me learn to play, to read, to draw and become creative. So, that is what I want to do with my child.

b. From others around us, observing how they may do things, our peers and friends. We often feel that times that we had grown up in were different. The times were different. Parenting too, today, is different from what it used to be. So, things must be done differently. So, childcare may not have been a problem in our childhood where, even if both parents were working professionals, families were larger and therefore, there would be caregivers in the family - grandparents, aunts/ uncles or even older cousins. However, now, the structure may be different, our own needs, aspirations and compulsions may be different. And therefore, one feels that solutions have to be different and contemporary, where one finds options from one’s peers or others in similar situations.

c. Sometimes, we decide to do things differently, from what we may have experienced in our childhood. It is not uncommon for a person to feel ‘I will never let my child go through some of the negative experiences that I went through in my life’. And these may be small things. For example - a person says, as a child, we used to have very strict rules of having breakfast and dinner together as a family, to strengthen family bonds. But it did not really work - because my siblings and I grew up to become intensely competitive, mistrustful and unforgiving with each other, because of other reasons. These rules mean nothing, and I don’t want to repeat such pointless rules with my children’.  Often, we end up going from one extreme to another, only to ensure that our children don’t go through what we have been through.

And in these days, we often seek help from online content, from self help books, some of which are prescriptive, which give solutions to problems. We may learn from researches on child development which have been tried in another culture and community. 

There is nothing called a perfect parent, every parent is unique, every parent-child relationship is unique:

There are a lot of myths around parenting. Ten such common myths are:

1. Every parent must aim to become the perfect parent: every parent strives to be the best parent. And yet, one may have never paused to consider what is the idea one holds of who or what that best parent is. For someone, the best parent may be the parent who provides a child all resources and impetus for the child to do the best in academic and professional life. For someone else, the best parent may be one who teaches him the path of righteousness and never to give into greed or lust. Surveys conducted that ask parents about their ‘ideal role’ show that there is nothing called perfect parenting that we commonly hold. The same applies to children. Children across the spectrum also have different ideas of who an ideal parent is, or could be. Every parent and child’s context is unique, and their aspirations, desires, wants and ambitions will also vary. When things go wrong or in times of stress, the guilt of having failed to become the perfect parent may provoke us to blame ourselves and often our spouses, or other family members.

2. The marker of being a successful parent lies in the academic and professional success of a child: often, a parent takes pride in academic and professional achievements of their children. Or social recognition for their craft or excellence in their social and professional roles. The happiest moments for parents, however, lies in when they feel understood by their children, when grown up children are compassionate to their parents’ contextual realities and their limitations, when children validate their efforts and their intents and forgive their slip ups and mistakes. The most hurtful moments for parents, perhaps, is when they are ignored, taken for granted or accused for their faults. While different parents may have different indicators of success or achievement, we often tend ignore the psycho-social aspects of parenting and what would its success mean in terms of their relationships with their children.

3. A good parent will never suffer hurt and humiliation because of her/his child: In every society, the biggest failure a parent considers for herself or himself is when children grow up and hurt them directly, intentionally, vindictively, or indirectly - by doing things which bring upon shame to them (may not always be illegal). In India, for example, in many communities - children are taught to be obedient, never argue with their parents, and the marker of the ideal son or daughter is one who will bear grave injustice on behest of the parents. Parents, who are hurt by their children are often heard to lament - ‘is this why I gave you birth, brought you up, to bring me such tears, hurt and pain?’ The underlying assumption is that good parenting will bring joy at all times, and the hurt is undesirable. Reality is that there can never be a parent who has never been hurt due to actions of their children, never a parent who has never experienced moments of doubt, even sometimes shame and humiliation. Often when children do not conform to our own values or the social values of our communities, we end up saying ‘what will people say/ think?’ Just like ‘the perfect parent’ is a myth, so is ‘the perfect child’ - also a myth. The hurt one experiences as a parent, either from direct betrayal or benign neglect is life’s offering to us to learn how to deal with the strongest of disappointments and hurts in the most primal and intimate relationships. For example - a son/ daughter rebels against the parents and chooses a life which is antithetical to the parents value system - daughter of traditional parents gets into a live-in relationship with another person. The parents can either live in lament and sorrow over the issue for the rest of their lives, stuck in shame, guilt and anger. Or they can also explore their own value systems and why their daughter does not conform to the value and rejects in - and get to resolve how to deal with conflicting values between yourself and your children.

4. If you teach your child the right values, they will never go wrong: Often, as parents, we may feel betrayed when we find that our children may have done something that is exactly the opposite of what we have always taught them. For example - a parent may have taught their child to be honest at all times, and never to resort to expediency (or short cuts) for quicker gain. And then they find out that that child has done ‘something stupid’ - like making cog-notes for an examinations - because they were influenced by their friends and peers. Children will often challenge the values that have been taught to them and this is a developmental process for them, which happens in greater or smaller measure for everyone. Children who have been in strict control all their lives and live by their parents value all of their adolescence and youth may also experience lack of individuation and suppression of one’s own desires.  

5. Parents must be the same and equal for all children: Where parents have more than one child, managing sibling rivalry by claiming to love all children equally and exactly same is a myth. When a child says that s/he feels that daddy/mummy loves my brother/sister more than me, it makes parents feel guilty and they defend themselves and deny it. The reality is that every parent-child relationship is unique and no two relationships can be exactly the same, even amongst twins. Nor can love be quantified and put in hierarchy. How their relationships and love are distinct and unique or in what ways is it common, is a more pertinent question to explore. In doing so, a parent may feel more identification and pull towards one child over another or may also carry more ambivalence towards one child over another - and that is okay. Acknowledging that does not amount to discrimination or injustice. For example - Sudha’s mother Shanta feels closer to her older brother Sahas because she finds Sahas more sensitive and empathetic as a person and also to her. She loves Sudha too, and that Sudha is outgoing, adventurous and a great problem fixer. However, in times of melancholy when she needs someone to hold her emotionally, she turns to Sahas because he has that ability to understand her emotionally without judging her. The more Shanta tries to deny her pull towards Sahas, the more she feels guilty and the more Sudha feels cheated because when she sees her mother’s pull towards her brother and feels a little sad and even jealous, and she tells her mother - sometimes accusingly, her mother’s denial makes it worse.

6. Common solutions to common problems: In moments of stress and anxiety, parents look for solutions. And there are always may sources of advise - from friends, relatives, peers, books, online articles like this one :-). And the one sure thing that every parent knows is that no one size shoe fits all. While peer sharing and learning can be a great learning method, borrowing and adopting solutions without engaging with the uniqueness of a situation, context or personalities of the child or parents, can be fatal.

7. If you have become a parent, that is if you have given birth to a child, you must know what being a good parent is all about: This is true perhaps for all roles - where we are expected to auto-learn those roles instinctively. Training for our professional roles is common. Yet, we seldom are prepared or trained on roles such as spouses or parents. And when we are in distress, we may feel compelled to go to therapists, to solve problems. Our decision to become parents may come from our own desire, intent, will and even commitment. But parenting is also about skills, practice and a philosophy - questions such as ‘how would I wish to parent my child? In what ways is my relationship with my child unique? What of my own propensities shapes the kind of parent I become? Engaging with these questions in the course of our parenting helps us learn and grow with and from our experiences and helps us grow emotionally and psychologically.

8. A willingness to sacrifice and goodwill is all what you need to become a good parent:  Perhaps, many of us hold a nostalgic picture of a mother who sacrifices all of herself for her children and for the family. We may often remember the father who spent in life in gruelling, meaningless labour to earn for his family, and make many compromises to fulfil the desires of her/his children. Often the modern idiom of parents who are consumed with their own professional and social lives, who outsource parenting to hired help and institutions, is painted as ‘selfish parenting’. While there is no doubt that the decision to become parents involves accepting imperatives of bringing up a child, that requires changes in one’s lifestyle, every parent must also engage with the question of balance between parental duties, responsibilities and one’s own needs and aspirations, desires and space. Parents who subsume their own lives for their children later feel betrayed when children who grow up and start leading their lives and then may not be available or even need their parents 24 hours in a day. It then becomes the parents’ demand on the children that they cannot individuate and must ‘repay’ their debt which is a pathway to a relationship of extraction and resentment.

9. Discipline is the key to bringing up children well: A routine, order, structure and predictability is what a child needs most to feel safe, secure and realise one’s potential with hard work and regularity. Building a structure in a child’s life is critical for perseverance in any way. All too often, we see that children get inspired by something, to learn a sport or a musical instrument and then after a few lessons give it up. Because they feel ‘bored’. And parents may not want to force their children because they feel that force is counter-productive. We find even professionals in organisations, leaders - who are great starters, but find maintenance difficult. Therefore building anything substantive suffers. Having said that, if this gains too much primacy, then most conversations between parents and children are instructional, based on tasks and responsibilities and functional. Any dissonance between task and desire, responsibility and resistance gets quashed because the former is the rule in that house. Repression of desire and resistance leads to rebellion and passive aggression, and even self sabotage. We often hear of brilliant students, achievers suddenly getting lost in reckless and damning behaviours and getting wasted, don’t we? 

10. Giving your child the freedom to choose everything is the success of good parenting: This is the counterpoint to the structure heavy parenting. Parents who may have felt oppressed by too much discipline and structure and critical parents, may often swing the pendulum to the other side saying - ‘my child will never go through what I have been through’. And therefore, what they end up committing themselves to is - ensuring that the child’s desires are never suppressed, and they are never oppressed by discipline and structure. This is actually their own way of reacting to the hurts of their own childhood. The reality they, unconsciously, end up creating for the child is a belief that (a) life will always offer me choices (b) I must have the option and power to choose what I want and reject what I don’t want (c) systems (organisations) or its rules must never oppress me, etc. The critical challenge for every parent is to create a balance between space for spontaneity and for discipline, between structure and flow. If children grow up not learning how to cope or deal with discipline and structure, they will find it very difficult to deal with challenges where life may not present options or choices, or volition. For example - the same child will have to comply with rules and regulations of society, or institutions, or law. And if the parenting principles are completely opposite to social situations, that person grows up struggling with the ambivalence towards authority in any systems.     

ChangeMantras has initiated a Learning and Development programme for parents of children and adolescents in India, and for the Indian diaspora called ChildWise. There is currently a real need for labs in which parents can learn as a community, and join a collective journey. We have launched our first offering Parenting in Pandemic which is based on a research on ‘how parents of adolescents and adolescents themselves have been experiencing the imperatives of COVID 19, that is lockdown, mobility restrictions, online education and parents and children spending much more time together than before’. The research shows that the lockdown and social distancing, and increased online communication has triggered tensions and stress for parents as well as adolescents, leading to added stress. It also offers a diagnosis on the patterns of stress between adolescents and parents.  The issues that have emerged are not necessarily temporary, and if - as all predictions indicate, working from home and online education is going to be the future realities for parents and children, then this transition will be stressful and, if worked with, may be productive and meaningful. The article above is a learning document based on some of the findings of the analysis.

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