Difficult conversations: We need to give the child the tools, the agencies to be able to make mistakes, own them and them move on. The idea of holding on to them as we did when they were a few days old, their soft hand wrapped around our finger is endearing but it prevents us from letting go, from letting them grow.
By Tanu Shree Singh
I just got a call from the older one complete with 10-on-richter-scale panic. ‘Mumma the paper starts in an hour and I have forgotten everything. I will flunk!’ The next five minutes were spent talking him through breathing exercises, worst case scenarios and the futility of failures and successes in the bigger picture. I called my mum up after I hung up. And both of us spent the next few minutes trying to remember if I had called her in panic ever. Neither of us could recall. So did that make her a less involved parent or me a more independent teenager?
I think the latter. We solved most of our problems, took calculated risks where the calculations were grossly optimistic, we regrouped, and we marched on. Heartbreaks were dealt with by listening to the mixed-tapes that friends would happily put together. A call from the school to the parent over low marks was avoided by giving personal assurances to the teachers and the principal. All this while the parent would limit their worries to meal time, returning home before dark and random sentences like ‘exams are getting close. Study!’ Once we were out of the house our parents could do nothing but wait for us to get back in one piece. Now we have tracking apps that I am also guilty of using.
In our bid to protect the child we are systematically taking risk, pain, fear and stress out of their lives. Although as a society there is very less that we can do, but as a parent we could steel ourselves up and give the following a bit of a thought:
Books are fine
‘Can you recommend a book that instills good values, truthfulness, honesty (insert 20 other values) for a three-year-old?’
Such messages constantly pop up in the online reading group that I manage. Books are neither superheroes nor their nemesis. They are regular folks like us with extraordinary stories. Yet we either squirm if we see anyone disrespect books since they are the vessel of Goddess Saraswati or turn a blind eye to them. As parents, when we monitor what the child is reading, we are taking their power of choice in one situation where it is the safest for them to exercise that freedom. All books have something to offer, sometimes a deep life lesson and sometimes pure unadulterated fun. Everything is essential, but there can absolutely not be a compromise on the sheer joy that a book offers.
Rough housing is okay, scrapped knees even better
‘What kind of scissors would you be using?’ A parent had once asked me before a reading and craft workshop I was conducting. I had no idea there were kinds! I proudly showed the regular rounded craft ones. She was fairly disappointed. Apparently there are scissors with safety covers. I remember sharpening my pencil with a kitchen knife one childhood ago. Yes, I would not hand a kitchen knife to a toddler, but I would not be childproofing a house forever! Age appropriate risks are essential. And there is hardly any risk in the playground or the regular things that children indulge in. I was judged relentlessly for allowing the younger one to come back as a sand monster. It would take a thorough washing to get the sand out of one happy preschooler. As a generation we have become obsessed with keeping our children in germ-free, injury-free environments. As a result, when real life happens, they are poorly equipped to deal with it.
Let them face the consequences
‘Have you finished the holidays homework?’ The panic in the Mommy WhatsApp group of middle schoolers was palpable. That was followed by a string of horrified emojis. Now, I understand the stress of the child not finishing the homework since at the end during the PTA meet in most schools, the parents will be judged. But I do not understand the owning of the work. It is not ‘my’ homework. It is the child’s. So what is the worse that could happen? The child gets penalised for not finishing the work? Detention, perhaps? Hopefully, they will learn their lesson. By letting them face the consequences, we raise their chances of making amends. However, by doing it for them, all we do is cripple them further. And believe me getting judged at the PTA meet quickly toughens the skin.
Be tuned to their age
This one is a brand new life lesson! The boys tower over me but somewhere in my head they were no bigger than a pudgy toddler running across the hall with laddoos in both hands. And when the older one moved to college, the panic set in. This was my baby! When the younger one started asserting himself, it was again a jolt of sorts. My baby! Well, the baby was what came out of the womb. They grow into a brand new person from then on. And somehow despite knowing this we turn a blind eye. Most of us go a step further and not only imagine them as toddlers but attach innocence to them too. So any talk of birds, bees or love interests and the graver matters like terrorism, hate crimes and discrimination find no space in the ‘innocent’ child’s life. This needs to change. We need to equip them. And then, we need to step back, take a good look at the growing individual, acknowledge their age and back off when needed. Which obviously doesn’t mean that I won’t tell the college-goer that I can be there in a blink if he needs me! It just means, I start accepting them as people with a distinct sense of identity. And that needs to start fairly early. Unless you want to be jolted into it.
And ultimately, memorise this
In times of parental conflict, hurt or sheer despair, read these words by Khalil Gibran and hold on to your heart:
Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.
You may give them your love but not your thoughts,
For they have their own thoughts.
You may house their bodies but not their souls,
For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow,
which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.
You may strive to be like them,
but seek not to make them like you.
For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.
You are the bows from which your children
as living arrows are sent forth.
The archer sees the mark upon the path of the infinite,
and He bends you with His might
that His arrows may go swift and far.
Let your bending in the archer’s hand be for gladness;
For even as He loves the arrow that flies,
so He loves also the bow that is stable.
Difficult Conversations: Teenagers and the art of letting go
It is not an easy place to be in. It can be absolutely exhausting to fight against your instinct of being a plush carpet that can cushion the child’s fall each time they stumble. But we have to be enablers rather than the doers. We need to give the child the tools, the agencies to be able to make mistakes, own them and them move on. The idea of holding on to them as we did when they were a few days old, their soft hand wrapped around our finger is endearing but it prevents us from letting go, from letting them grow. For they do grow. And like a plant they do need their own space to do so. And they need that out in the wild, not in an aseptic pretty garden pot where bonsais grow. It is our job to let the wildlings be free.
(The writer has a PhD in Positive Psychology and is a lecturer in psychology. She is also the author of ‘Keep Calm and Mommy On’ and ‘Darkless’. Listen to Season 1 and 2 of Tanu Shree Singh’s podcast Difficult Conversations With Your Kids.)
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