(Version published in www.rvasia.org)
Train up a child the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it. -Proverbs 22:6
It was a Saturday afternoon like any other. The table was being laid out for lunch. Nora, the older child inspected the meal with satisfaction, but her brother Alex screwed up his face when he discovered some not-so-favorite items on the menu. He immediately threw a tantrum— he didn’t want curd rice, he wanted a pizza. In no time, the doting parent had punched the right buttons on the phone, and the pizza was at their doorstep! This scene, albeit with a few variations, is one that is often witnessed among the young families of today, and gives us a sense of how differently children are being raised in the present era.
Several factors have come together to destroy the basic foundations of parenting as we understood it a few decades ago. The breakdown of the extended family and the progress from single to double-income family units have resulted in a severe deficit in the time and attention children receive from parents and elders. This is inversely proportional to the increase in disposable income in the household. Now, parenting is less about spending quality time with one’s children, and more about what money can buy for them, in terms of fulfilling all their immediate desires.
There is no denying that one has to live within the circumstances of one’s own generation, but it is important to have a long term vision on what our responsibilities as parents are, and how we should go about bringing up children who are resilient, well adjusted to society and to each other, and who have strong values that will guide them through life and help them to make right decisions.
To achieve this, parents must structure this important responsibility around three central pillars:
The first of these is discipline, and by this, I am not alluding to the worn-out adage of ‘spare the rod and spoil the child’. Discipline can be part and parcel of daily living, something that would go a long way to enhance the physical and mental capabilities of children. The habit of getting up early in the morning is outdated now, unless one’s work demands it. However, a responsible parent can ensure that their children adopt this healthy routine. Once this is in place, it becomes easy to introduce physical and spiritual pursuits before their school day begins. This one aspect of self discipline will help them to be a step ahead in deploying their varied capabilities in required fields.
Another form of discipline is self denial, which, in small doses is a great long-term tonic in building resilience among children. In India, the concept of fasting and abstinence was deeply embedded in communities, and was indelibly tied to the religious practices of the people. While Christians preferred to remain vegetarian on Fridays, Hindus took on different forms of abstinence during special days of the year, and Muslims had long periods of fasting governed by stringent religious laws. Children inculcated these practices at an early age and they served to strengthen their mind control, which undeniably boosts their capability to perform at higher professional levels. Of course, these religious practices have been watered down a great deal over the last few decades, but parents could adapt these healthy practices of self denial within the family routine, and help their children develop their innate capabilities of self-control . One does not always have to feel obliged to satisfy the smallest desires of one’s offspring. The short-term tantrums that children raise at the slightest sign of parental refusal can well be ignored without any fear of future harm.
The second foundational pillar is the setting of expectations. Children must understand that expectation is a two-way street. Just as they have a 360 degree level of expectation from you as parents, you could also make known your expectations to them. If you are giving them the best education, you expect them to perform to the best of their ability. During my tenure as Professor in a Business School, parents used to come to discuss the prospects of their wards during placement season on campus. What continually surprised me was that, even among the most economically vulnerable group, neither parent or ward was particularly anxious for a ‘job’. If they did not find what they precisely had in mind, they were prepared to go jobless for an indefinite period of time. All this was with the blessings of the parents who bore the burden of the educational loan they had to start repaying once the course was over. I often wondered why they willingly set themselves up as sacrificial offerings at the altar of their ward’s dreams. Why did the child not feel that he was responsible to help out with the debt that was taken for his education? Had the parents set expectations properly, students would be anxious for their first job. Dream careers and entrepreneurial startups could wait until they had found for themselves a financially robust perch, even if that meant they had to wait a few years down the line.
Setting expectations is not reserved for the economically marginalized alone. Each child must be made conscious of expectations in the different roles they take up early in life. Acceptable social and behavioral expectations require parents to train them on an everyday basis. Table manners have to be taught during mealtimes; respectfulness to others starts from how children are trained to respond to parents, neighbors and elders, as well as to the maid and the watchman—to those who regularly serve them.
When it comes to studies and sports, expectations must be very carefully imposed to develop the right focus in the child’s mind. It must be directed towards an effort-filled achievement rather than a competitive prize-winning one. Johan, the eight-year-old boy next door was keenly practicing for the State sponsored Under-Nine swimming competition for weeks together. He did very well on the day of the competition, but finished in the sixth place in a closely contested final. Disappointment was writ large in his eyes as he had hoped for the prize-winning cup. However, to his surprise, he found a volley of WhatsApp messages from relatives and friends congratulating him on his timing and his skill. The little boy’s confidence was soon restored. This time he had lost the cup, but he had won the priceless gift of resilience, as he returned to his practice sessions with even greater enthusiasm.
The aspects of discipline and setting expectations are fundamental to good upbringing, and help to develop the mental, social and emotional stability of children. However, the proof of the pudding often depends on the third pillar—the development of what is termed as spiritual intelligence, as a child grows into adulthood. This is usually facilitated when both parents belong to one religion. The religious practices they follow as a family help children develop their spirituality from an early age. However, there are some subtle obstacles on this path. Very often, parents themselves are spiritually weak and are incapable of passing on anything of value to their offspring. Problems could also arise when both parents come from different religious backgrounds, and prefer to ignore this area entirely.
It would be a great loss to children if they have not been introduced to the truth and wisdom contained in religious books. To take a Christian example, familiarity with the Bible, the Word of God, will pave the way for individuals to encounter Christ at some point in their lives. When they are faced with the dilemma of taking a right decision, they will be guided by divine wisdom rather than worldly advice. Much after they have left the security of home and hearth, the spirituality we have imparted to them will carry them through the rough and tumble of daily living, and will make them masters in crisis management, whenever they are faced with life’s critical situations.
Parents are always deeply conscious of their responsibility to provide for their children, and they never fail to give them the best that life can offer in terms of education, food and entertainment. While all these are important, they have a limited capacity to strengthen the capacities of mind and soul. The three pillars of discipline, expectation setting and spiritual development together form the bedrock on which the child develops internal strength. They create within individuals the capability to encounter challenges of any dimension, and work through seemingly hopeless situations with resilience and endurance. Parenting strategies need to be reworked to focus on the long term development of their wards rather than on short term gratification.