Expectations that kill: A case for parenting in India

I grew up in a home where girls were not really expected to soar to heights in their career, and were expected to be demure little things stirring the porridge in the kitchen. While that came with baggage of its own, I believe I narrowly escaped the catastrophe of what intense academic pressure could do to you.

My masters thesis was about the perception of school in children, and even in my current work, I come across children and teenagers facing academic and career issues.

The problem is not the stress they face, because each  situation in life will have stress, but it is the peculiar way that patentable expectations have become so set in stone that question their rationality is never a question.

‘Make my parents proud’ was written by almost each 9th std kid who answered my Masters thesis survey. This meant that he or she wanted to keep scoring impossibly high and end up in an IIT or an IIM or be an MD. Anything else was unimaginable.

The parent is a child’s first reference point of the world. We take our parents very seriously. In this country, all the more so because of the culture of obedience. It becomes very difficult for us to fathom that our parents have unrealistic expectations from us.

The result: We start to feel that the problem is within me. I must be dumb or stupid. Or else, why can’t I score like my elder brother or my neighbor’s kid?
Pretty soon, I start to doubt my self image and become a bundle of nerves. Extreme anxiety can make me kill myself. But I will not dare question my parents.

An important part of childhood is to explore and understand yourself. While we like sending our kids to expensive classes and buying world class toys for them, we do not let them be free and think. The result being that a 15 year old cannot answer a question as simple as ‘what are some things you have been good at since childhood?’

How can he, when all he was told is how bad he was, how he was letting everyone down, and how he must do better still.

India is facing a parenting crisis. Right from setting realistic expectations to handling failure to managing the sexuality of the child, we are not at all up to the task. While many parents, especially parents of children with special needs are in fact learning these things, the masses seem to still be following the age old rigmarole.

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Here’s some facts to wrap your head around if you are a parent: each child is not going to be an engineer or a doctor or an IAS officer. If money or a good career could buy happiness, 36% of India would not be depressed. 30% of young people have mental health issues.

The question before you is this, can you accept a child for his unique strengths and capacities or would you want your child to be a self-hating bundle of anxiety? Or worse, dead?

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The Suffocating Effect of Guests That Makes You Question Your Existence

Guests are an obligation much like a loan, except it is not as voluntary a decision.

When guests come to my house, it is like other-imposed Hotel California-ness. Once they come, it’s like something supernatural prevents them from leaving.

The problem is not so much of shared space, because be it our trains, buses or Marine Drive, sharing space has never been a problem for Mumbaikars.

Then, the problem with guests come down to two aspects: The ownership they show around things that they do not belong to them (they often belong to me), and the judgment with which they view me and my choices.

They often voice vile and judgmental opinions, but the world is an exhausting space and all I want to do is find the nearest blanket to cuddle. But then, while I am trying my best to ignore what is being said, they then go out of their way to question MY judgement and opinions.. I mean, the nerve!

8-29-08BadGuestsRGB

And I do not really need to elaborate on the sense of ownership part, do I? They simply pick up and use stuff that is not theirs because they took ‘apna hi ghar samjho’ quite literally – whereas we, or at least I, never said it.

While I grow weary defending my belongings and my opinions, there have been moments of doubt – not that I thought I was wrong, no, but I did think whether I should have gone with the easier choice of just agreeing with them on their face, to make life easy for everyone.

But the answer has been a loud and resounding NO. How can I agree when they say Hell will be filled with women because they deserve it? While they condemn us before we can commit sins or good acts? How can I sit by and let them be unjust to each and every marginalized group imaginable? How can I sit while they pretend to be nice and abuse our hospitality? How can I pretend to agree while they perpetuate unjust stereotypes and systems?

While the tenure of guests is definitely overrun in this country, I think my doubts have helped me to not only sharpen my arguments but also to develop a thick skin when needed. Sometimes, even I am surprised at how, what doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger.

The solution to fundamentalism, wastage and mediocrity is the same.

Why are we wasting water despite the draught in Maharashtra?

Why do we continue to live in outdated ways that are eating up our environment?

Why do we keep becoming fundamentalists, and keep funding fundamentalism?

The answer is that because we are using our mind, our thinking capacities all wrong. Those aspects of us, like belief and the ability to ignore when needed, as well as to conform to social rules to help avoid crimes and chaos – we are using all of these qualities to turn a blind eye to prevalent problems, and to not change our ways. We grew up this way – don’t question, just cover your own interests, you are too small to matter in any way.

When you socialize the child in this way, and beat out all sorts of divergent thinking patterns in schools and other institutions as he or she grows, are you surprised that so many people take to fundamentalism, because it finally allows them to feel passion again? Or many become mediocre products of society just buying the mass products created by it’s markets? Or has such a hard time imagining anything without a video in front of it, that it can’t imagine the shambles that the world is coming to?

To save the pitfalls of the mind, which were twisted for various reasons to shut out voices of dissent, we have to develop two basic skills, and we totally have to cultivate in our children with urgen fervour – these are two skills more important than teaching language, math or science.

These two skills are: Critical Thinking and Empathy.

Recently, there was a mention of ‘a case against empathy’ because it marrs clear thinking. That’s more than a little stupid because humans are complex and so they can surely think critcally, and be empathetic, both together. We are not so droll as to be able to do only one at a time.

Critical thinking would help us question the logic of strange statements thrown at us, so that belief does not get the better of us and perpetuate a faulty decision. And empathy is required for basic human connection, which would be the motivating factor for any good change, for a person going out of the way to change a convenient habit, because it harms someone.

For example, if I child was taught critical thinking and empathy right from birth and it was just more enhanced in school, he would not buy it if someone told him, that his religion asks him to kill people of another religion. His empathy would help him understand the plight of those who are facing a draught, so he would change his ways to save whatever water he can. These two qualities would ensure that he makes people accountable for environmental damage. Imagination, an offshoot of empathy, would help him visualise an uninhabiltable world, socially and environmentally, and that would help him take all the steps needed to address these situations, without feeling robbed of ‘comforts’.

While some of us do manage to see things a different way, and develop these skills, even our efforts at convincing others will fizzle out if we socially reinforce all the wrong traits. We just need to correct what we are teaching and okaying. The real things need to matter now.

Entitled gaze

The bus comes to a screeching halt,
Restless,
I look at my watch,
And then outside.

My eyes meet his gaze.
I don’t know who he is.
Or from where.
But I feel scared.

My Rational mind tells me,
You are inside a bus,
Glass is shatter-proof,
He can’t harm you.

His gaze still makes me fidget.
I feel like I’m encouraging his malice
By returning his gaze.
I should not be party to this.

I really want to rebel,
But fear takes over,
Add I look elsewhere,
At my startled reflection.

The bus starts moving again,

Whispering ‘entitlement’.

If Americans are trigger-happy, then so would we be.

There is a lot of debate on gun control. Recently, there was this ironic bit of news where a poster girl against the gun control laws, was accidentally shot in the back by her son.

As much as I agree that seeing what’s happening to our weapons is important, that’s simply not all. India does not have such a strong debate on gun control. We cannot afford one most times, be it legally or financially. We still manage to do a lot of killing though, don’t we? Be it as mobs or because of our silence on what’s happening.

Everyone has the ability to be violent, and the means of doing so are but a small story. The bigger issue is what our minds allow and what our environments promote.

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Violence is a very primal solution to aggression and problems. While it was useful in the jungles, there is reason we grew an entire part of the brain called a prefrontal cortex, in order to have higher order thinking, problem solving and negotiating skills.

If our children are raised with the dual weapon (pun intended) of empathy and strategic thinking, I am pretty sure, they would not resort to physical violence for every little thing.

Then there’s our environment. Right from the food we eat or the medication (especially psychiatric) we take and how it may make us hot headed, to the cues in environment that make violence ‘okay’, all matter when it comes to our ultimate social violent behaviour.

Allowing little violations give a subliminal cue, that larger crimes are also okay. Something as simple or small scale as graffiti vandalism or jumping ticket cues can matter. Malcolm Gladwell points out that in the 90s in New York, the police was able to bring down the crime rate by addressing these two small but very visible signs of disobedience. It gave a signal to the antisocial elements in the city that if such small things are being eliminated, bigger ones definitely will be.

Therefore, Gun control is important, but will not work unless we change the way violence is allowed through our upbringing and environment.

Brown Skin: The role of abuse of power in Law Enforcement

The case of 14-year old school-boy Ahmed is all over the social media recently. He constructed an alarm clock at home and bought it to school, but instead of getting recognition, he was arrested. It was suspected that having brown skin and being a Muslim made it more likely that he would have constructed a bomb and not an alarm clock. If this racial profiling it itself was not provoking enough, there were parallel and subsequent news reports which added fuel to fire.

Ahmed Mohammed

Ahmed Mohammed

( http://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2015/sep/22/ahmed-mohamed-withdraws-from-texas-school-that-suspended-him-over-clock)

In an alternative case scenario, a Caucasian school boy of thirteen years of age was applauded for building a nuclear fission reactor with the help of his school. More and more people are asking how this is justified considering a nuclear reactor is much more lethal than an alarm clock. Reports also stated that Ahmed or the alarm clock were not isolated which would be the case if he were really with a bomb. None of the usual bomb safety protocol was followed. It is being suggested that it is very likely that everyone knew this was not a bomb. It seemed like an avenue for harassment.

Which raises a puzzling question: why does law enforcement fall prey to confirming and acting by societal stereotypes? Is it the fact that there isn’t enough training to sensitize them to the effects of their unchecked beliefs and social biases that they may not only be carrying but also reinforcing? That is true, but there is more to the story. According to Feminist Theory, Law, Marriage, Religion and Police are some of the many institutions that work to maintain the status quo. Their language, hierarchy and functioning in structured in such a way that they are given power to replicate what they grew up learning, and use policing and justice systems to reinforce it.

Further, the role of power itself may add to the whole problem. In the iconic Stanford Prison Experiment, a team of researchers found that when everyday people were arbitrarily put in the role of prisoner and guard, those in the role of the guards enforced authoritarian measures and ultimately subjected some of the prisoners to psychological torture. Many of the prisoners passively accepted psychological abuse and, at the request of the guards, readily harassed other prisoners who attempted to prevent it. The experiment even affected head of the study Dr, Zimbardo himself, who, in his role as the superintendent, permitted the abuse to continue.

Stanford Prison Experiment

(http://www.prisonexp.org/)

In the highlights of these findings, we really have to question the incomplete training of our law enforcement officials as well as the absolute power we invest in them. Cases of misuse of power are rampant in India too, with high rates of communal crime, non-minority criminals, celebrities getting softer sentences and less punishment, crimes on women and corruption.

Two measures that must take place are intensive training to sensitize officers to the biases they carry and the effect it can have, and the other is that there should be stringent punishment if an officer uses his post for satisfying bias-led harassment and torture.

Law_Enforcement

(http://www.crunchwear.com/law-enforcement-tech-top-5/)

The Overrun Tenure of Hierarchy

If you are in a collectivistic culture, like Asia (India) lines of command are a way of life, even if you are not part of the military and armed services. In India, hierarchy is multifold – caste hierarchy, class hierarchy, age hierarchy, gender hierarchy, seniority hierarchy and even piousness hierarchy.

I am sure that there was a time when hierarchies were important to establish order and get work done. However, these hierarchies are oppressive now, from the school to the workplace, from the police station to the hospital, and from the family to the religious institution.

For example, under the District and National Mental Health Programs in India, the psychiatrist is to lead the team, and is also paid better. Why? There could be stringent qualifications for all the professionals and all of them could be paid well. Surely, knowing what medication to give is not enough and mental health requires holistic treatment. But it is driven with the assumption that the psychiatrist is some holy figure – male (no surprises) and with sound knowledge of medicine which no one understands anyway. But medicine has an 80 % relapse rate. Is it wise to trust just that? And it is proven now that much of mental illness is psycho-social and popping pills won’t help.

Another example, take any school or traditional corporate office. The feedback system is so flawed that anyone at the lowest wrung of the chain will always be crushed – in these cases, students and fresh employees. Much of the motivation to climb the career ladder comes from wanting to move to the position of the crusher from the crushed : the only way to make your situation better is to stamp the others and make theirs worse. Ditto for bullying.

Are we then surprised that we are growing herd of people and children who are spewing toxic hatred wherever they go, who themselves feel alone, and the whole point of human connection is lost. We have become mindless chewers of technology and materialism.

the cruel climb

Work is important. Order is important.

But what is more important is to realize that humans have evolved, and our systems from before may simply be redundant. We don’t need to stand over our employees with a stick in our hands to get work done. People have work motivation and achievement needs of their own. Appreciation and reinforcement are concepts that actually work.

Sounds too fuzzy?

Check out this organization that is taking these brilliant concepts to heart, and also making money!

http://www.theatlantic.com/video/index/396527/case-32-hour-workweek/

This really is a dream organization: adequate offs, good pay, no hierarchy, and mutual respect. And works get done all the time – and people enjoy doing it!

As Ryan Carson says, ‘We should be thankful that we live in a time where we don’t need to work so much’. And we should be using that to achieve a balanced and holistic life.

Meanwhile, in India we continue to slog in 6 and 7 day weeks.

The tenure of hierarchy has really overrun – from the pot to the parliament.