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December 05, 2019 Thursday 03:26:21 PM IST

BEWARE OF PARENTAL VANITY!

3rd Eye

The nobler and more perfect a thing is, the later and slower it is in arriving at maturity. –Arthur Schopenhauer (Studies in Pessimism).

It is not a crime to desire that one’s children excel. But it is cruel to expect them to win a Nobel, conquer the Everest, or solve the mystery of the universe before they shed their milk teeth. No parent can squeeze out of children what is not in them. Parental ambition, when it becomes overweening, begins to suffocate children. There is a need to temper ambition with realism, patience and a wondering sense of the mystery of individual destiny.

It is understandable if a parent assumes and believes that herchild is a potential genius. But a child, like an adult, must be treated as an end, not as a means. It is unethical for parents to use children for vicarious fulfilment; as the means for realizing their suppressed desires. A child needs ‘to be’. That takes time. A tomato plant yields in a few months, a papaya tree in a year’s time, a coconut tree in a few years. But an oak? Several silent decades. Patience is the linchpin that holds together the story of life. As Jesus Christ said, “He who endures to the end, shall be saved.” 

There are at least three sad and serious outcomes of excessive parental ambition. (a) It attunes children to exaggerated expectations from life, unmindful of the real prospect of such expectations being frustrated. When this happens, they feel wrecked. What wrecks them is not the cussedness of fate, but the unreasonableness of their over-expectations. Parents are indulgent; but life never is. It is contrary to the logic of life to assume one’s earthly sojourn to be a stint of unalloyed happiness. Pleasure, as Lord Buddha taught, is necessarily visited by pain. Or, as Jesus said, life is a field in which wheat and tares grow up together. 


So, it is as important for parents to equip their children to cope courageously and creatively with resistances and failures in life, as it is for them to spur them on. In the conundrum of life, successes and failures exchange roles. Some are defeated by successes; some, strengthened and impelled by defeats. Often suffering turns out to be more profitable than pleasure.  “To desire to get rid of an evil is a definite object,” writes Goethe in Elective Affairs, “but to desire a better fortune than one has is blind folly.” This sober realism is apt to be mistaken for cynicism, except by those who walk the pilgrim-path of life.  

(b) The physical under-development of children for being denied opportunities for healthy outdoor activities and work at home is the second danger. This turns children into clumsy bookworms. Soon enough, the old dictum kicks in: “A sound mind in a sound body.” Children tend to be losers; not in comparison to their peer-group, but in relation to what they could have been through healthy, all-round development.

(c) The third casualty is social sense. Children are kept protected from ‘distractions’. Seen through the eye of ambition, everything, including grandparents, is a distraction. The outcome is predictable. Potentially brilliant children grow up like urban, academic Tarzans; sprinting and swinging in a jungle of information, but alien to the social web of humanity. The rest remain piteous porters of academic loads and get labelled as ‘burdened’.

Parents, thus, find themselves in a quandary. How am I, a parent, to motivate my child to excel –as I must- and, at the same time, ensure that she doesn’t lose her moorings in life? This is a problem more acute now than it was in the past. In the joint-family system, the growing child was exposed to the sombre realities of life – old age, death, pain, physical frailties, sicknesses, struggles, etc. Nuclear homes are more sterile and monochrome. This increases the burden of parenting. What was learned ‘naturally’, or experientially, from a way of life now needs to be ‘taught’ deliberately. The chances are that this is overlooked out of misplaced parental eagerness to spare children of emotional trauma.  Life walks on two legs: optimism and realism. Parenting should not make children assume that it is an advantage for them to hobble through life on one leg alone. 


What makes the burden of parental vanity ominous for children is that both could be unaware of it. Parents are aware only of doing theirbest for their children. So, they assume that the outcomes of such‘sacrificial’ efforts are necessarily beneficial for their children. This assumption wards off reckoning of the danger signs that emerge now and then. I would refer my readers on this point to Battle Hymn of the TigerMother(2011) by Amy Chua. It would make sobering reading;especially ifthe ironic mode of the text is kept in mind.

Parents can think and act only according to the assumptions they entertain, which are mostly derived from stereotypes and hearsay. Parental ambition is driven by the ideas and hierarchies of achievement in vogue. They are an inventory of what others have done, or are chasing: the run-of-the-mill stuff. You as a parent believe that your child is unique, even exceptional. So she is; for every child is unique! If you know her to be unique, and you value that uniqueness, should you pressure-squeeze her into a common mold? Wouldn’t you do her a disservice?

Oliver Goldsmith, the author of Vicar of Wakefield, besides other celebrated works, was so unpromising in his early years that his parents left him in the care of a ‘private tutor’ whose main qualification was that he was a wanderer. He ‘taught’ Oliver by entertaining him with accounts of his adventures. This nourished Oliver’s imagination to an extent, perhaps, that formal education might not have! We know nothing about Oliver’s smarter brother on whom their parents pinned their hopes!

 


It is not necessary that every child givesearly proofs of precocious genius. Some are late bloomers. In point of fact, a majority of those who have etched their names on the history of human progress are of this kind. Anthropologists remind us that, compared to other animals, human beings are late bloomers! For us, the period of growth from parents-dependence to self-reliance is long. This prolonged period of dependence, as John Fiske argues in The Idea of God as Affected by Modern Knowledge (1886), holds the secret of civilization. It is because the formation of animals is completed in a short span of time that they never develop unique personal skills and aptitudes. A cub, a calf, a puppy is born with all its life-skills nearly formed. In a few days’ time it is on its feet. A child takes months. If the features of a species are fixed early, they stay general. There may be subtle gradations, say, of speed between two cheetahs, but there are no special geniuses of speed among cheetahs. Champion cheetahs exist only in fables!  Parents could learn from nature that a species is as inferior as it is quicker in attaining fixed characteristics.

Maria Montessori cites an apt illustration. Imagine advancing floods threatening the life of animals. Consider, then, two animals fleeing along a road from the menacingly advancing wall of water. The first of the two animals sees a tree, climbs to its top and feels safe for the time being. The other animal continues its flight towards a distant mountain. It chooses the peak for its place of safety. As the water level rises, the first animal, now perched on the tree –the one that seemed cleverer in the beginning- begins to be in danger. As the water level mounts dangerously, it is proved to be inferior in comparison.  Great things in life are not achieved in a hurry or through short bursts of efforts, but by long and patient pursuits, a capacity for which is the hallmark of character.

Genius is the steadfast capacity for taking inordinate pains. Even a born genius, say, in music does not become a maestro by dabbling in it for a few weeks. A musical talent takes years and years of patient training to become a concert pianist. One may be a child prodigy, but is still not except from the duty to cultivate skills assiduously over a period of time.The assured path to greatness is the passionate keenness to pursue perfection till the end. Life is an ever-enduring journey to an ever-receding destination called perfection.

In comparison, the first of the two animals in Maria Montessori’s illustration is a lazy creature. One respect in which parents ought to help children, with reference to their long-term welfare, is to break the shackles of laziness. It is fairly well-known that the vulnerability of a child to immediacy is self-defeating in the long-run. The habit of embracing immediate gains and advantages at the expense of greater attainments in the futureis infantile. It is detrimental to the future at whose expense the present is lived. It is easier and faster, for example, to be a typist than to be a physician. But, the typist reaches his professional limits almost at the beginning. His beginning is his end. A physician continues his winding ascent to the mountain-top.


Nature will not be forced. Consider a farmer. He works. He waits. His waiting is as important as his working. Rather, his waiting is basic to his working. A farmer who worries the seeds he sows relentlessly will never live to gather a harvest. It’s likewisein parenting too. Let your child be. Let her breathe free and blossom. Sure, she will. But –and this is important- in her way, at her own time. Unseasonal fruits are found only in deep-freezers, not in nature. Freezers are akin to mortuary. Sunlight is the abode of life. So, let it be. As the aphorism has it: Live; let live. 


Dr. Valson Thampu

Former Principal of St. Stephen's College, New Delhi

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Let Children Breathe Free and Blossom