The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Principles of parenting

It’s exam time and children need a lot of domestic support and firm comforting. The formula is a mix of love and common sense, says Brendan MacCarthaigh

It is, of course, true that our education system is a huge and disgusting farce. Proof of that has been displayed in a hundred articles in various newspapers, acknowledged even by the education authorities, albeit in somewhat muted terms. Schools without teachers, teachers without schools, students without either, and the mayhem that passes for education in all sorts of ways — that is sickeningly familiar territory to any observer of the scene. Chapter and verse supplied on request, no problem.

We have dwelt upon the sufferings of our children — seen and experienced on a day-to-day basis by all you parents out there — now in the numb limbo of pre-results or the worse relief of having to repeat a class. A friend of mine told me the other day that her child would have to repeat Class VII. Since this is a world I am wearily familiar with, my sympathy was somewhat perfunctory, until she added, “That sets us back by Rs 25,000.” Suddenly, the whole thing took on a different hue. Frightening, in fact.

Being in SERVE, my focus is of course on the suffering student. Guess what I saw in a city-centre school this week, for example: the names of the youngsters for each class were pasted on the classroom doors, like you have on the trains — but, horror of horrors, the last few names bore in brackets after them (F) (F) (F)… Shame, shame. Not only has the kid the embarrassment of failing, but the whole school and the parents are now informed in writing.

But I want to widen the perception this time to walk a while with parents. On the world stage, two sorts of parents, especially mothers, are famous/notorious for the coddling they give their children — Jews and Italians. I think we can include ourselves with them, here in Bengal. We build padded walls round our kids from Go, and especially in the context of their education we make as sure as we can afford that they have it all. We monitor their study time and their recreation time, their friends and their hobbies, their clothes and their language, their viewing and their homework. So far so good, more or less. But it seems to me we err a bit on not giving them enough hard wood to chew upon. Which is why they tend to collapse in the face of just about any upset. Worse: so do we, the adults, all too often.

Parents phone us up for “counseling” for their daughters and sons around exam time. Why' “Doctor, they don’t seem to be able to concentrate, and we are doing everything we can for them.” “Hmm, how old is the child'” And commonly the child is not yet even a teenager. Common too is parents phoning us to make an appointment for their daughter or son aged 18, 22, even 30. When we ask in the latter context, whether the daughter or son actually wants counseling, and then whether we can talk to this youngster, only then do we get an acknowledgement from the sufferer that things are not so good. On analysis, we observe that the young person felt obliged (or was forced) to have the parents set up the contact for help.

We feel counselling for a pre-teen child who, with exams approaching, cannot concentrate is mistimed. Clearly, exam stress militates against concentration, and the closer the exam the heavier the stress. What the child needs now is simply a lot of domestic support and firm comforting. (Firmness but clear love is the formula)

Many parents tell us that they reassure their child that “all we want you to do is pass.” Nevertheless, it sets a condition for the parents’ love, almost like saying, we will love you if you get through. That imposes a huge burden on the youngster, who as yet has not the maturity to identify that this is manipulative and self-protective, however understandable in monetary terms. One Class X boy, a delicate poetic Bengali child, came to my office in tears to tell me that “My father says he won’t love me any more if I fail my Boards”.

What I am getting round to, then, is that parenthood demands adulthood. The two don’t always go together, unfortunately. And I venture to suggest that much parenting is ad-hoc, emotion-based, society-based and unhelpful. Blame' Not at all — where in Calcutta is there any centre for training in any part of parenthood' Each parent brings to the experience only that much ability as is (a) inbuilt, (b) learned from one’s own parents, (c) culled perhaps from books or magazines, and (d) permitted by society.

By the time we discover that the formula is really a mixture of love and common sense, the child is already pretty formed. Nevertheless, these two items are always, always, helpful. If they don’t get used more often it is because parents themselves lack confidence in their intuitions and subscribe to other influences. And so we now, for example, have kids being schooled at an age when they should not, and told in spite of their tears and anger and frustrations and loose motions and nightmares that everything is for their good.

It must be acknowledged that the latter half of the teen years, no matter how good the parenting, can be very, very hard on mum and dad. It is the phase of “I never asked to be born!”; “You are the worst parents any youngster could have!” “I shall commit suicide!” and of course the quality of friends they are now associating with. All you can do in these years is hold on, keep to that firmness mentioned earlier, and leave the rest to your constant love, however rejected.

We, who are adults, need to review our understanding of our role with regard to our kids, and not get swept up with the clichés about their entire career depending upon passing exams, about their love being best expressed in scoring high marks, about everything being for their good when in fact there is a great deal of our own shaky egos involved in the decisions made, about the need or wisdom of coddling them during exam times as a sort of concealed bribe to do better than their best, and about the genuineness of our love for them, whatever their eventual percentage. On the other hand we need to speak up as a body for our children when our schools are hurting them in one way or another. No school has the right to hurt our kids. We must be heard in this context. All this is very hard work. It doesn’t just happen. Truly, parenting is for adults only.

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