WHAT IF YOUR CHILD IS (UN) EXCEPTIONAL
Currently I am Reading The Buddha and His Dhamma by Dr. B. R. Ambedkar. I thought I’d turn to Ambedkar, after
having gone through that epic poem on the life and teachings of Lord Buddha by
Sir Edwin Arnold titled The
Light of Asia. My immediate urge in
looking up Arnold’s version was Max Mueller’s India, What Can It Teach us? All of them are of hoary vintage and they need not interest you
as such; except for one thing, which is why I bring them up here.
Siddhartha Gautama — the first was his personal name and the second, indicative of his clan — was the son of Suddhodana, the Sakya king, and Mahamaya, his wife. The Queen died when Siddhartha was only a few months old.
Let us go straight to what concerns us here. King Suddhodana gets greatly perturbed at the prospect of his son becoming the Buddha, rather than the king! He resorts to every trick he knew, every means he could afford, including sensual strategies to entice his son away from the path of spiritual enlightenment, to avert the disaster!
Ambedkar’s version goes into the details, which those who are interested may look up. You miss very little, even if you do. Only focus on this: from the point of view of a father, the son taking a spiritual turn — at the cost of disrupting dynastic succession — is a terrible tragedy. Strange, do you think?
If you think it is, ask yourself. What would you have done, if you were Suddhodana? All right, that is a bit far-fetched. You and I are far, far away from the thorns and travails of royalty. But that does not mean that the pattern does not hold in our case, even if the scale of its operation is not exactly comparable.
During the last several decades that I have been in higher education, I have heard several parents — all of them quite well-meaning — sounding apprehensive that their wards being values-oriented could make them unfit for the cut-throat world that awaits them out there. There was a time when the predictable failure of our sports stars used to be attributed to their lack of, not skills, but the “killer instinct”. Let us leave it at that.
The thing to note is this. Siddhartha’s extraordinary spiritual inclination is not explained by anything we know about Suddhodana or Mahamaya. His spiritual genius was a matter neither of genes nor of DNA. It certainly had nothing to do with their being a royal couple; for, if Immanuel Kant were to be believed, palaces are particularly inhospitable for human greatness. (Idiots and crooks are proportionately more numerous among the children of royalty, by Kant’s reckoning.)
Suddhodana and Mahamaya were parents, like you — good human beings. That was all. It was not because they were spiritually great that their son turned out to be one of the greatest spiritual lights of all times. Spirituality, or human greatness, is not altogether a matter of genetic inheritance.
The problem with Suddhodana is a familiar one. He saw everything, including the personal destiny of his son, through the prism of the role he had in mind for his son. Seen thus, the only thing that mattered was whether or not the young man would live up to the royal mantle he would inherit. In the light of this, Siddhartha’s extraordinary spiritual genius portended a fearful calamity.
CAST IN STONE?
In our times, it is surely not a matter of inheriting a crown. But, surely, we too have hard-set ideas about what our children should do and achieve. Perhaps, we are not unlike Suddhodana in wanting our children to fit into the mould we have in mind for them? But what if your child is cut out for something quite off the beaten track? What if she proves an economic mediocrity and a human gem? A good human being, and not a spinner of wealth? What if your child is meant to be an artist, rather than a doctor, a banker or a business manager? A social activist, rather than the CEO of a multinational corporation?
I know a young man, living not very far from me in Trivandrum, who is a wreck — a sort of human sacrifice to parental ambition. His parents wanted him to be a computer engineer, which did not interest him one bit. He was dreaming of things quite different. He was pressured into doing what he did not want to. He became a drop-out.
This is an extreme case. But the harm that stereotypical parental ambition, without any regard to the signs of promise their children show, inflict on the development of them is a reality. Sometimes, it is not parental pressure, but social pressure sharpened by peer pressure. Barring the exception, human beings are vulnerable to the suggestiveness of the ‘done thing’. One feels insecure about deviating from tried and tested tracks. Children who have a special destiny often tend to be hypersensitive. They need an extra ounce of understanding and support from parents to dare to be different. May they find it!
To that end, it helps to be clear about the pattern in the Suddhodana- Siddhartha tension. Being a king, the father’s vision did not go beyond the confines of the palace. But Siddhartha’s soul was engaged with the universal human predicament. His father wanted him to be the custodian of the welfare of the Sakyas. The son was mindful of the misery of humankind.
Situations such as this cannot be weighed on the scales of short-term profit and loss. Often in life, what seems to be gain proves loss and viceversa. (So, Jesus said: he who gains his life will lose; and he who loses his life for my sake shall find it.) Only time can tell. But what we as parents can be mindful about, in the immediate context, is that parenting should not be obstructive of the divine plan in respect of our children.
This, then, is the heart of the matter. I do not wish to be judgmental; but I cannot resist the thought that most parents do not sense a divine purpose working itself out either in their lives or in the lives of their children. Lacking such an awareness, they tend to be driven by considerations mostly of material returns. What they do not realize is that such dispositions stem from the ambience of acquisitiveness.
The sole purpose of education becomes to gain maximum material benefit and to outstrip as many as possible in the rat race. When, as parents, our hearts rejoice at the outlandish marks our children score in examinations, it may well be that we are more mindful, even if unconsciously, of the gains this promises, than the enhancement of the personality of our children through knowledge-addition.
Our idea of education has little reference to who we want our children to be. It is all about what we want our children to earn and to have.
One of the things, I believe, every parent needs to do is to believe, and believe ardently, that one’s child is unique; for that is the irreducible truth. No two children, even in the same household, are identical. Wise parenting prioritises the uniqueness
of the child. I have found the Biblical definition of faith very helpful in this respect. Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, and the evidence of things not seen.
Hope, as Soren Kierkegaard said long ago, has the power to call into existence what is not. Hopelessness has the contrary effect; it blights promises before they can blossom. The education system in vogue today is, on account of the weight of numbers, insensitive to individual uniqueness. Home is the only means children have to make up for this lack of person-specific nurture.
Never mind, if your son, your daughter is not going to be a world beater. Let him, let her, be what she is happy at being. What matters is the fullest development of your child as only she can be. Such nurture, and such education alone is conducive to individual happiness and human welfare. If your child is meant to be a rare genius, like Albert Einstein for example, do not get worried if he is not topping his class in every test.
Life is a long haul, as Einstein would tell you. Give your child the elbow room he needs; you will never come to regret it.