Editorial: I’ve reached a parenting crisis that I know nothing about. Help?

Yesterday, at my children’s school, we had a meeting of parents and the school board. The issue was that the grade two teacher had quit and, thereby, left the kids at a very important juncture. But let me back up a bit. My children go to a Waldorf-Steiner school, an alternative school that focuses on developing a person and not a worker who can grow up and find a job. Among the many principles of the Steiner philosophy is that a teacher stays with a class for seven years -- from grade 1 to grade 7. Due to unfortunate circumstances, our children’s class teacher had had to resign. This was a blow to the school, the parents as well as the kids. Since it is a community school, with a lot of involvement from parents, we decided to see what we could do about it in order to change the teacher’s mind. I must say here that the teacher is deeply loved by all parties involved: students, parents and her colleagues. Seeing her go is difficult.

On my way back from the three-hour meeting, I was compelled to think, once again, about how we are entirely unprepared for raising our kids. We are not told that children are persons from the moment they are born. A simple example: our natural response to seeing a newborn or a child we haven’t seen in a long while is to identify who the child looks like. All through the child’s life, we are telling it things like, “Oh you look exactly like your mother,” or “His gestures and the way he eats and talks is exactly like his grandfather,” or, worse, in anger, “Don’t behave like your mother,” when a child does something we don’t approve of. Never, in this entire narrative of raising a child, do we see that a child is forming on his or her own. They are absorbing, learning watching - every little thing that they see around them becomes a part of them. Which is why I struggle with keeping a neat house, in the hope that if that is what they grow up seeing, that is what they’ll repeat. Or why I eat healthy, or sleep on time, or read a lot, or do any of the things that I do. Because there are two pairs of eyes watching and learning behaviour.

But I digress. Behavioural genetics will tell you that heredity or genes have a lot to do with the way a child behaves. It might be true. Science will also tell you that your environment is what shapes you. This is true, too. But beyond all of this, having observed my children, I have noticed that there is something inherent that the child brings with her or him. Something that she has not inherited from anyone else. How many times have you caught yourself asking your child, “Arre, where did you get that from?” when you see a behaviour or a talent that neither you nor your spouse have. Every time we say something like this, I believe we are telling that child that he or she is like us, or unlike us. That we are the yardstick of how good they are or how bad. And this becomes their inner voice for the rest of their lives. As I’ve said scores of times before, I have a short temper. While I am not violent, I do tend to talk scoldingly more often than I do lovingly. I tend to shout when I am irritable or not well. In short, I am free with my temper, and since young children are the most forgiving creatures in the world (while they are still young), it’s easy for me to unwittingly take them for granted and be less careful about how I behave around them.

This has come back to hit me in the face. Hard. My daughter, eight-and-a-half, employs the same behaviour when she is annoyed with her brother. When she’s annoyed with me. And there is no way on earth that I can turn around and tell her that that is not the way to talk to an adult. Because honestly, that’s not the way to talk to a child either. Therefore, I have come to a point in my parenting journey where it is imperative that I change myself overnight. And overnight it has to be. Kids are not going to wait for you to get better. Kids don’t have the time adults have. They are growing and forming rapidly and if I, as a mother, don’t keep up and pull my socks up, they’re soon going to be exactly who I don’t want them to be.

For the first time, I have come to a parenting crisis where I am feeling blind panic; thinking wild, hysterical thoughts of how to palm them off to someone who is better qualified to take care of them and be a model parent to them. Or be the kind of parent that Dr John Gottman talks about in his emotional coaching research: the “good” parent (this is a great path to go down, by the way, in case you’re interested in improving yourself as a parent). I am faced with panic every time I leave to pick them up from the bus stop because I know they are going to try my patience and I am going to get angry. Rinse. Repeat. I watch mothers around me behave gentle with their children, I’ve seen children who never shout, who don’t fight and don’t yell, parents who don’t have to raise their voices. And I marvel at them. How do they do it? I know adults who say they’ve  never been scolded, never been beaten by their parents. And today, with panic in my heart, I want to reach out and ask whoever manages to keep their wits about them: how do you be a calm, gentle parent?

And this is where I’ll come back to the idea I touched upon earlier, just to close the loop. I don’t know a single Indian parent who has had kids after preparing themselves mentally. We eat well, exercise, keep our bodies healthy and primed for baby-making. We put money away, we work on our jobs to afford fees, we read books about how babies are born and what we can do to ensure they are healthy. But we never ever prepare for parenthood, for being a couple after becoming parents. It’s sheer arrogance on our part to think that we can raise a whole individual, that we can teach, guide, mould a full person with our imperfect selves. And yet we have babies. And then we become scared, terrified parents whose constant internal dialogue is, “I don’t know what I am doing. I don’t know what I am doing. Whose child is this and why is she behaving this way? What did I do wrong?” There are no answers. So, I am asking you, mothers and fathers and readers, how do you raise your children? Tell me what you do differently so that I can raise mine they way they deserve.

Speaking of raising kids, two mothers wrote on our ZenCorner section this week talking about the impact books have on upbringing. Akshata Ram cautions against the reading of fairy tales, speaking of the gender stereotypes they imbibe in kids. Why tell tales of damsels in distress and Prince Charmings when we are trying to raise empowered girls? Do give it a read. On the other hand, Vidhi Duggal’s passionate piece on why she loves reading to her children is inspiring, to say the least. Are there any parenting experiences like these that you’d like to share? Do write to us here, if there are.

With board exams coming up, the Prime Minister has decided to host a Mann Ki Baat episode on January 29, 2017 (this Sunday) at 11 am. On a stroke of inspiration, he asked students, teachers and parents to share their inputs on how they deal with exams. So we wrote Narendra Modi a letter with our suggestions. If your kids or any of your friends’ kids are sitting this year’s boards, do take a look and see if any of these points will prove useful to them.

Lastly, we all know how deadly postpartum depression has proven to be, but we continue to underestimate it. It can lead us to do things that we’d never expect of ourselves, which friends and relatives mistake as neglect for our newborn. Sometimes, it can get so bad that we need help, perhaps even medication. That’s exactly why Sharanya Karnad’s account of how she walked out of home after she had her baby is so relevant.

Till next week.