Parenting with a difference

Chintan Girish Modi

Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.

You may give them your love but not your thoughts,
For they have their own thoughts.
You may house their bodies but not their souls,
For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow,
which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.
– Kahlil Gibran, ‘On Children’, The Prophet

I remembered these lines while reading Manisha Pathak-Shelat and Kiran Vinod Bhatia’s book Raising a Humanist: Conscious Parenting in an Increasingly Fragmented World (2021). Though I am not a parent, I enjoyed engaging with the ideas the authors have presented. The former is a professor at the Mudra Institute of Communications in Ahmedabad. The latter is a doctoral candidate at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Published by SAGE, this book hopes not to be “a ‘how to’ guide or a ‘parenting advice book’ where we preach ideals”, but it ends up being one. Frankly, I do not have a bone to pick with this approach. When people are passionate about a certain way of living, they do end up promoting it with enthusiasm because they want others to experience its benefits.

The authors write, “The world can be made a better place for our children when all differences are not seen as a threat, when violence is diffused through dialogue, and critical thinking is encouraged rather than punished.” This worldview informs their vision of what raising a humanist looks like. The book fleshes out the details with sincerity and depth.

Here is a word of caution from the authors, so that readers know what they are venturing into. They state, “We have drawn from our lived realities…to design this book. We acknowledge that it may create some sense of discomfort in our readers. It may raise more questions than it can answer. If that happens, we will believe that our work has been a success.”

What kind of discomfort are they talking about? The book holds parents accountable for the biases that children internalize, the hatred they practice, and the violence they inflict on people who challenge their beliefs. The authors maintain that children learn such behaviours by observing adults, and that parents are reluctant to take responsibility for their influence.

In order to facilitate self-awareness, parents are presented with a number of questions to reflect on. Some of those are reproduced below:

  1. Why do we say things like, ‘He is from a lower caste, but you wouldn’t believe it if you visit his home! He looks and lives just like us…’?
  2. Why do we let children believe that those who aren’t doing well in life are lazy?
  3. Why do we believe that when women marry and have children, they naturally cannot/shouldn’t have career ambitions?
  4. Why don’t we think of Dalit deaths in police custody in India when we protest George Floyd’s murder and police brutality in the USA?
  5. Why do we limit the focus of our conversations about women in positions of leadership to their saris, appearance, relations and kids?
  6. As soon as we hear of a mass shooting or a terrorist attack anywhere in the world, why do we assume that the accused is a Muslim?

These questions compel readers to examine their own behaviour patterns, and think about how they participate in creating the big bad world they want to protect children from. It can be hard because one likes to think along these lines: “I am a good person.” “I do not discriminate.” “I respect people of all faiths.” “How can I be casteist or sexist?”

The book shows parents how self-awareness can guide them to be more intentional about the process of socialization. They can model language they would like children to use with family, guests,domestic workers and peers. However, the authors warn parents against having double standards as children are “keen observers” and can see through lip service.

This is sound advice. It is based on the ‘practise what you preach’ principle that is difficult for most adults to follow. One always finds an excuse to not live by one’s most cherished values. “I am only human” is perhaps the most common justification. It is easier to direct the critical gaze towards others, and unsettling to recognize one’s own mistakes and fix them.

The book also makes a sensible appeal to parents to modify the terms on which they communicate with their children. The authors ask parents to think of children “as independent thinkers who can speak for themselves.” They write, “We should take a step back from representing them, speaking on their behalf and assuming that ‘we know what is best for them’.” They also invite parents to consider being “better listeners” when children speak.

I appreciate the emphasis on autonomy here because many children are too afraid to speak their mind, given the consequences that might follow. Becoming better listeners can also relieve parents of the need to know it all and to be right. They can learn something new for a change – whether it is about their children’s feelings, or a topic they are unfamiliar with.

The authors recommend researching if they do not know enough, instead of simply dismissing their children’s concerns. According to them, it is perfectly fine for a parent to say, “I don’t know, or I haven’t given this enough thought. Let us find out more.” This admission of ignorance requires humility, which is sorely lacking in homes where parents demand obedience and cannot bring themselves to apologize when they are at fault.

This book urges parents to ask more questions when they are worried about their children’s media consumption instead of banning a show just because it seems inappropriate. The aim is to open up a dialogue, and talk about difficult things, instead of laying down rules that make no sense to the child and only spark off resentment and perhaps even rebellion in some cases.

The authors have created a list of questions that parents can ask to monitor their children’s media choices and interpretative skills. These are as follows:

  1. Tell me what happened in the show.
  2. What did the characters do?
  3. Do you agree with what the characters did? Why or why not?
  4. What did the characters talk about?
  5. How did you feel watching the show? Why?
  6. What was your favourite part? Why?
  7. What part did you not like? Why?
  8. What questions do you have? (e.g., meaning of words and actions of characters)

While this could be an effective way of building trust in some families, I am not sure how many children would welcome this kind of questioning. When I put myself in their shoes, I imagine being completely put off by a debriefing exercise. If the show is an entertaining one, I would simply want to sit back and enjoy it; not have an adult waiting to quiz me on it.

Parents want to instill critical thinking when it comes to books, media, and technology. However, can they accept criticism from their own children? This is a messy conversation, and the authors want to have it. The book includes a thought-provoking cartoon showing a parent telling a child, “Honey, when you grow up, I want you to be assertive, independent and strong-willed. But while you’re a kid, I want you to be passive, pliable and obedient.”

It would not be fair to characterize all parents as tyrants. Many are afraid that something unpleasant might happen to their children, so they try to make things easy or instruct their children to make safe choices. The authors write, “When children continuously receive instructions from their parents on what to do, they find it difficult to develop their own sense of discretion about right and wrong, good and bad.” Do you agree with them? I do.

It is common to find parents and children squabbling over social media use. Parents worry that their children might watch content that is not appropriate for their age, or fall prey to perpetrators of sexual abuse. Children get annoyed when parents supervise them too much.

The authors ask, “Should we allow our children to connect with communities and people we do not know in the offline world, or we insist that they use the Internet and social media to connect only with people we are familiar with?” I think that there is no universal answer.

The book motivates parents to think about all the advantages of the Internet, and assess how their children can make use of its full potential. It reminds them that the act of sharing information, commenting on social media posts and participating in discussion groups can build “critical conversational skills” and also help children develop a “public voice”.

It emphasizes that virtual communities can be “nurturing spaces for those children who do not find adequate support in their local communities.” The example used is of a gay child in India who may find it difficult to access support groups and networks. This is a big concern, especially during the Covid-19 pandemic, as children are unable to meet close friends.

The authors write, “Virtual support groups, friendships and mentorship over social media platforms and the Internet can prove to be very effective in helping children make sense of their feelings, emotions, mental conflicts and other issues. Similarly, many young people resort to the Internet to read, study and understand practices of ‘safe sex’ because their family members do not feel comfortable talking about sexual health with them.”

It seems that the word ‘children’ is being used here in a way that includes teenagers. Parents who had a childhood without cellphones can find it disorienting to see their own children glued to devices. However, the authors assure parents that many children use the Internet to build global connections around similar interests, and are collaborating with their peers to think about ways to change the world. They deserve to be trusted and encouraged.

This book is a useful resource but it is also limited by the social location of its authors. In the preface, they refer to their “privileges as upper class, upper caste, well-educated, Indian urban women.” These privileges are particularly evident in their discussion of reservation policies.

The authors write, “Well, we cannot deny that there are some issues, such as some wealthy members from the lower castes appropriating these benefits, or some genuinely bright students from poor upper caste families losing opportunities, or no visible long-term change in the relations between castes.” Let us unpack this statement.

Reservation is meant to correct historical injustices against oppressed communities. It does not mean snatching away opportunities from people who deserve them, and making those available to people who are not bright enough. This book shows how deeply entrenched the caste system is, and how challenging it is for people to shake off received ideas about merit.

Apart from caste, gender is another topic that could have been addressed with greater sensitivity and more rigorous research. The authors describe ‘transgender’ and ‘agender’ identities as mid-spectrum identities lying on a “continuum stretching from men to women, masculine to feminine and boys to girls.” This understanding of gender identity, expression and presentation is out of touch with current research and articulation of lived experiences.

It is incorrect to assume that all transgender people identify as non-binary. Many of them identify as ‘trans men’ or as ‘trans women’. The term ‘third gender’ has been adopted by some transgender communities but it does not reflect the experience of all transgender people. In fact, saying that trans men are not men or trans women are not women – but people who lie between the normative categories of ‘man’ and ‘woman’ is exclusionary.

The authors recommend several books and films to unlearn misconceptions; what they miss out on is emphasizing how important it is to read and watch material that is produced by members of marginalized groups. Their creations reflect not only the hurdles and hardships they face but also shine a light on their joys, strengths and acts of resistance.

The reviewer is a writer, educator and researcher based in Mumbai who tweets @chintan_connect and can be reached at [email protected].

Leave a Reply