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September 13, 2019 Friday 10:21:11 AM IST

Parenting is Tightrope Walking

3rd Eye

The challenges of parenting are formidable. But they are, mostly, glossed over. The destiny of a nation, it is said, is built in her classroom. But the foundation of that destiny is laid in homes. The role that parents play in this process goes unrecognized; sadly, even by parents.

To carry out any undertaking efficiently, it is essential that it is preceded by an adequate understanding of what it involves, and what its end-result needs to be. If a valued guest comes home, we plan the hospitality to be extended carefully. Very few parents, however, plan parenting with more than a vague sense of the prevailing practices and norms. Surely, we can do better than that. Life is often compared to a jig-saw puzzle. The pieces of the puzzle can be assembled aright only if there is an idea of the form they are meant to constitute. Parenting is not unlike this.

One of the basic realities about life is that it involves a harmony of the opposites. That is because life is dynamic. Everything dynamic involves the harmony of contrasting possibilities. Day involves night to be complete. Practical wisdom involves an awareness of counter-realities even as a particular line is pursued with vigour and earnestness in an undertaking, just like your becoming a better debater by being able to anticipate the arguments of your opponent.

This is likened, in common parlance, to tightrope walking. What, then, is the tightrope walking that involves parenting? This has, arguably, many facets. For our purpose here, we shall limit ourselves, given the limited scope of an essay, to a single aspect of it - discipline. The following observations are meant, therefore, to be illustrative, not exhaustive.

Doubts on discipline

I choose this issue because confusion prevails about it in the dilemma of parenting at the present time. Several parents have asked me with palpable anxiety, “If I discipline my child, will I lose her affection in the future?” The other concern is, “If I check the will of my son, according to my ideas of right and wrong, will I cripple him and suppress his spontaneity?”

Obviously, the second question is raised less frequently.  Readers of this article need not be persuaded that this ambivalence about the desirability and destructiveness of discipline afflicts the interface between schools and society at large. Parents, for want of clarity in this regard, tend to play an unhelpful, at times antagonistic, role in relation to schools. This makes the life of teachers particularly difficult. The teachers are expected to shape the character of the students; for education, sans character formation, is incomplete and soulless. Yet, disciplining children is made a particularly perilous tightrope walking today. They get into serious troubles if they are perceived as going overboard with discipline.   

Immanuel Kant, German Philosopher, divides the formation of children into three stages:

From 0-2 years of age, the ‘infant’ needs mostly physical and emotional nurture.

At three, the infant becomes a ‘child’. From then on, till she is eight years old, her upbringing must be complemented by ‘discipline’.

Disciplining involves checking the will of the child. To check the will of a child is not to resist and break it by might and main. It is to train the child to behave in consonance with principles or ‘maxims’. Truth, for example, is such a principle. It cannot be assumed that every child has a natural inclination to truth-speaking. When a child falls short of this norm, the teacher (as well as the parent) has a duty to correct him.

The third and last phase in the Kantian scheme is from 8-18, during which intellectual development is the paramount goal. This does not mean that the young person outgrows discipline. It only means that she assumes responsibility for being self-disciplined.   

Training in sharing

Let us consider an example in the interest of clarity. It is common knowledge that children tend to be self-centred. Each child wants everything for oneself. Hence, sibling rivalries. The principle, or maxim, relevant to this situation is that of sharing with, and of thinking for, others. A child needs to be trained in caring and sharing. One aspect of this ‘caring’ attitude is respecting the needs and feelings of others. If and when a child behaves in a hurtful or unfair fashion, there is a need to ‘check’ her.  

Consider a more dramatic situation. From the age of three, when will begins to wake up in a child, she begins to assert her will over everyone around her, principally her parents. The ‘war of wills’ this generates can be, at times, quite furious. Children inject their last drop of energy into this trial of strength.  What are parents to do in such situations? It is no good to fight it out to the bitter end. Yet, the child needs to be helped to realize that life is not a one-way street. That one needs to be reasonable in one’s demands. There is no need for parents to lock horns with children in the heat of their obstinacy. It is better to keep one’s wits about one and deal with the situation, focused not on the tantrums of the child, but on the opportunity to ‘discipline’ her reformatively. What parents should not do is to give in each time in order to ‘avoid headache’. The art of parenting, in this regard, involves a purpose mix of gentleness and firmness.

A ruining force

Even worse than succumbing each time to the whims and fancies of children is putting down this ‘domestic mutiny’ - as Charles Dickens calls it - with an iron hand. Use of force ruins, not strengthens, parental authority. Degenerating into emotional and physical violence signals weakness, a failure in authority.  Parental violence tends to suppress the spontaneity of children. It is a terrible thing to do. A child with bruised spontaneity is a ruined masterpiece.

What makes this all the more pathological is how parents display the sense of guilt that their relapses into corporeal violence breeds. They give in to sentimentality and cut a sorry figure in the eyes of their children.  

This has pathological outcomes, not just for oneself but for the nation as well.  Study after study has established that children, who have been victims of parental insensitivity and sentimentality crave to be dominated by others in their adult life. They dodge the responsibility to be self-reliant, autonomous individuals. In the larger context, they prefer tyrannical forms of authority, including dictatorships in the political domain. While the future of a country is crafted in classrooms, future tyrants are nurtured in homes. Parents could well be the unwitting midwives of would-be tyrants.

It is instructive to reckon the current idolisation of ‘strong leaders’ with its underlying assumption that only a ‘benign dictator’ can deliver in democracy. This is a dangerous assumption insofar as it deems human freedom and spontaneity to be liabilities. This is an unhealthy outlook. A society that can nurture innovativeness, on which depends its developmental vitality, is necessarily one that allows free play to human freedom and spontaneity. Regimentation and innovation cannot coexist. To homogenize the present is to murder the future. The short-term gains of authoritarianism will be undone by its long-term devastation.

At the same time, spoiled brats are no assets to any society. They are incapable of developing a robust work culture; even of assuming responsibility for themselves. The health of parenting lies somewhere in between: between tyranny and indulgence on the part of parents. There is no hard and fast rule, no set lines and boundaries, in this regard, which makes parental tightrope-walking all the more onerous.  

Importance of will

Overdoing parental discipline to the extent of suppressing the spontaneity of a child is a terrible disservice. As parents we must have an understanding of the importance of the will of an individual. We all have good desires and intentions; but it is our will that gives effect to them. If a person is crippled in will, his potentials will remain suppressed. But, from respecting the importance of the will of a growing child, we should not swing to the mistake of spoiling him. An untrained and undisciplined will is ineffectual.  

It is an awesome responsibility in parenting to steer clear of indulgence, on the one hand, and parental tyranny, on the other; and to maintain a wholesome mix of affection and discipline, firmness and gentleness, in raising children.

The best resource in this sensitive and difficult undertaking is one’s own life. It is in this sense that the dictum ‘values are caught, not taught’ holds true. Discipline too, like values, must be caught; but, for children to catch it, parents have to exemplify the discipline they want their children to catch. How do parents relate to each other? Are there contradictions and hypocrisies in the domestic ambience? What is the mettle of the discipline that undergirds relationships at home?

Nurturing sons is an issue of special importance in this context. Customarily we tend to indulge sons. To this must be traced the growing merit-gulf between sons and daughters which could, if left unaddressed, undermine the health of our society. By virtue of custom and family nurture, girls grow up more disciplined and better focused.  They excel. Boys tend to be, in comparison, privileged and ordinary. This contrived gender imbalance - which has its roots in parenting- is ominous especially for relationships.

From a bird’s eye view of the current scenario, it is obvious that, for all the individualism that is in the air, the stature of individuals is dwindling. Wise parenting is the crucial need of the hour. The wisdom required may not be wholly got from cultural-secular resources. The spiritual aspects of nurturing children need to be utilized. The essence of spirituality is balance: balance between individual and society, between freedom and restraint, between love for oneself and love for others, which is the counterpart in individual discipline to the tightrope walking that parenting involves.  

Dr. Valson Thampu

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

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