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October 11, 2019 Friday 09:27:51 AM IST

Parent, Help Thyself

3rd Eye

I come across parents who attribute the outcomes of parenting to fate. An outlook of victimhood often attends it. They feel that they have been dealt a raw deal by life, despite their having done their very best by parenting. The idea of fate puts a domain of activity or service outside the reach of individual choice. Fate is, by definition, what happens to you; not what you can do anything about.

It is ironic that parents who attach immense value to their children move progressively into a state in which their value in the eyes of their children begins to diminish. This, notwithstanding the fact that our society is, for the most part, still tradition-bound. Tradition operates through duties and don’ts. Given that, most children continue to discharge filial duties into their adult life, even if their heart may not be in it. What is done under obligation is, however, hardly expressive of individual character or a volitional sense of duty.

Since this is already a human sorrow of massive proportions, and it seems ominously poised to aggravate, it makes sense to address it upfront, and consider if anything prophylactic may be attempted.

Having and being

The distinction that Erich Fromm, among others, makes between ‘having’ and ‘being’ offers a useful starting point for our inquiry. In parenting, most individuals tend to bank almost entirely on what they ‘have’ and neglect what they are, or need to be. Yet, it is the latter that, especially in the long run, proves decisive.

At this point, we reckon a general rule. Without exception, everything significant that a human being does - parenting being a case in point - is to be understood as a medium of personal growth. Regrettably, parents, in their obsession with ensuring the maximum development of their children, forget that the same principle applies to them as well. Development, if it is good for one’s children, is good for oneself too. The imbalance between the two loci of development sows the seed of parental tragedy. As a result, a gulf opens up gradually and poignantly between parents and children. This reality is stereotyped as ‘generation gap’ and assumed to be the given, about which little there is that one can do. As a result, the question whether something may be done about this affliction does not occur to most parents; or, if at all it does, begins to be pressing only when it is already too late.

Let us assume that generation gap is real in itself. How does it come about? Surely, there is a principle, a process, a logic to it. Generation gap does not strike anyone like dengue fever or swine flu. So, it must be something in which one plays a role. If so, it is surely avoidable. Even infectious diseases are preventable. Strategy for prevention involves understanding and tackling causative factors.

Decisive factor

The decisive factor as regards generation gap is the worth of parents in the eyes of their children. This worth determines and sustains the attitude to, and quality of, relationships. Generation gap, in practice, results from a priority: peer-pressure superseding parental authority. Under normal circumstances, adventitious pressure cannot, at least should not, overthrow nurture-based authority. Authority and pressure exist, in respect of peer pressure, in a relationship of inverse proportion. The greater wholesome parental authority is, the more fortified children are against peer-pressure. 

Worth is the essence of authority. Authority of the authoritarian kind only serves ‘to keep the lid on’ for a while; it is unstable and fails to resist pressures of diverse kind that await children in the world beyond domestic walls. The stable element in authority is respect, which is sustained by the worth perceived. In the early years of the life of a child, parents have immense worth in his/her eyes. Slowly this worth comes to be shared and, to the extent that parental worth stagnates, diminishes through the exposure of children to extra-domestic influences, beginning with the authority of teachers.

Parents need not compete with external influences, nor need they to purchase the affection and loyalty of their children. But they certainly need to preserve the balance between the growing worth of their children and their own worth, if relational imbalance is to be averted. The good thing is that this can be done, provided the basics are understood and worked at. The crucial principle is this: “Love your children like yourself.” In this respect most parents err; and err seriously. The crude and sub-human idea of ‘sacrificial’ love prevalent in our midst is largely responsible for this; resting as it does on a misunderstanding of the idea of sacrifice itself.


From ancient of days, it has been a universally accepted principle that only the best and the blemishless is offered in sacrifice. Offering what is worthless - like a pair of worn out footwear - is not sacrifice but the riddance of rubbish. It has no value whatsoever. This mistake arises out of supplanting worth with suffering; as though parental suffering, by itself, is a boon to the children. It is not. It has only a negative impact, so long as it is separated from personal worth.

If this logic holds, then it is compellingly clear that parents cannot love their children ‘sacrificially’ without continually increasing their personal worth. In practice, though, the very opposite happens. Parents, in the process of idolizing their children, neglect and devalue themselves. They assume they are sacrificing themselves for their children; no, they are only disappointing and exasperating their children. This is a crippling disservice. Nothing is more important for growing children than sensing the worth of their parents, and thereby being able to think of them with love and respect; which, in turn, enables them to value themselves. It is tragic to burden one’s children with a sense of low self-worth.

Barring refreshing exceptions, youths in higher secondary schools, colleges and universities feel embarrassed about acknowledging their parents before their peers. But they feel no awkwardness about subsisting on parental support and even flaunting expensive gadgets bought with parental money. Surprisingly, it is deemed ‘natural’ by many, including teachers in higher education. I cannot help finding this unnatural. Those who have no worth for their parents cannot have any self-worth; for parents are the earthly source of one’s life. To feel awkward about one’s parents is to feel awkward about oneself too.

In most cases, parents are largely responsible for creating this unhealthy state of affairs. That being the case, only they can help themselves in this respect. How can they?

Idea of stature

The answer lies in the idea of stature. Human stature has some clear, identifiable ingredients: character, wisdom and moral consistency. Character is the measure by which individuals rise above instinctual conditioning. Animals are conditioned by instincts. They are confined to the realm of nature, which is devoid of moral freedom. In a male-dominated culture, such as ours still is, women are more likely to acquire strength of character. It is for this reason that mothers continue to have, in most cases, greater worth in the lives of their adult children. Ingredients of male entitlements - instant gratifications of needs with its accompaniment of short temperedness in case of frustrations of expectation and instances of hypocrisy and inconsistency that attend power-play deemed as a male preserve - are inimical to character formation.

Children form an impression of the character of parents from routine life, via a series of, often, small events which are presumed to be trivial. Small compromises accepted here and there in the interest of expediency, discrepancies between what is said and what is done, external appearances being belied by domestic realities, the dearth of warmth between parents and the intrusion of elements of injustice in parental relationships, the erosion of a sense of reverence about life due to the ascendancy of the utilitarian and materialistic attitude to life, all of these undermine the stature of parents in the eyes of their children.  

Wisdom over intellect

Character, unlike intellect, is what all parents can try and take care of in relation to themselves. So also, wisdom. I commend ‘wisdom’ over intellect in this context. Intellect may sound elitist and out of reach for most people, but wisdom is within reach of those who value it. Wisdom has more to do with the logic of life than with brilliance of wit. It rests on faith, hope and godliness; which constitute ‘love, reverence and joy of life’. Trivialization of life aggravating shallowness of personality erodes wisdom. Not surprisingly, almost all spiritual traditions assume that wisdom is divine.

Even moderate attainments of intellect need not be beyond the reach of ordinary folks like us. The passion to learn is its pre-requisite. It is not from classrooms or books alone that we learn. Life is the greatest of all learning zones, provided we maintain a keen and seeking outlook on experiences. A seeking mind, which all parents can maintain, no matter how ‘busy’, is the enduring beauty of a human being. In contrast, a vegetating, wooden and stagnant mind is an object of growing disappointment, if not aversion, to those around. To slip into such a state of mind is, in effect, to drop out of life; and such ‘stature drop-outs’ outnumber school drop-outs.

Parental guidance

There was a time, and that not long ago, that young parents used to turn to their parents for guidance in parenting young ones. Now, increasingly, they turn to Dr. Benjamin Spock. Or to doctors and counselors. Should this really be so? Parents (who are now grandparents) have, after all, plenty of invaluable practical experience. But this resource goes untapped in many instances because they are assumed to be outdated. It is not unlikely that they too endorse this baseless and eminently avoidable prejudice.

In the end, the value that you have for your children - indeed for all around you - depends entirely on who you are, and not on acquired material accessories. No matter how far culture progresses and how deeply forces of modernity penetrate your life, there will never be a state in which a good human being - one who has done, and is doing, justice to oneself - becomes superfluous. Rather, even as cultures become more and more shallow and superficial and the bankruptcy of the human escalates, the relevance of authentic human beings - as against gilded items of mortality - will increase.

This is the good news that parents need to hold fast. The best they can do for their children is to take the best care of themselves. In this sense, life is not unlike air travel. At takeoff comes the announcement: “In the even of a sudden drop in cabin pressure, oxygen masks will drop automatically. First help yourself, and then your child.”

The same holds good for parenting too.

The final thing I want to say is, however, different still. Parents need to train their children to respect them, not because they are accomplished or dignified; but for the simple and sufficient reason that they are parents.

Dr. Valson Thampu

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

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