Most fathers tend to behave alike, and I was no different. Planning was everything and the trick was to follow the plan. All that was required of the children was to do as directed. The plan was simple—get them into good schools, ensure they get great grades, get them to do professional courses, extend these with postgraduate degrees and land plum jobs!
Our children, Sanjana (12) and Abhishek (9), seemed bright. Regular school followed playschool. Stars were replaced with grades and, without my knowing, a change was triggered in my version of what “doing well” meant. Anything short of an excellent report card had me worried. As good parents, my wife and I went beyond academics. Activities were identified and skating it was. The first few months were good, with the kids loving the activity. Then came competitions and competing parents—including us. There was a constant push to make the kids practise longer, and then there would be the comparisons with other children. Practice sessions ended with frayed nerves.
School was no different. A slight slip in grades and the subconscious remark invariably would be, “So, who got the highest?” It was not that they were not doing well—they were winning competitions, but winning seemed to be everything. The pressure to excel had crept in and this had a bearing on the kids. They began to dislike studies and soon had an aversion to skating and, one fine day, they just stopped going. I reasoned with Sanjana and Abhishek; even asked why they wanted to stop what they were good at. Sanjana replied, “Because I don’t like it.” That’s when I knew that I had killed the joy of “just” skating for them. They were doing things because my wife and I were asking them to, not because they wanted to.
I kept quiet and sat up late for several nights reliving my childhood. I had started off well and then the academic slide had begun. But I do not remember my parents ever behaving the way I was. “I” took the decisions on my studies and activities, though my parents were there for support.
I was good at many things, but never really the best. My claim to fame was clearing the entrance test for one of the best design schools. I was unsure of my parent’s reaction, given my “stellar” performances in the past. I finished design school, and did it well, too, possibly because for once I liked what I was doing.
I slowly realized that I wanted my children to do what I missed out on, but in double-quick time. It was all about advice, direction and control. I was forcing my dreams and aspirations on them. Many people reasoned that pushing children is for their own good, but I wondered whether self-motivation would be better. I didn’t have an answer then.
In the meantime, my wife, Sujata, joined a weekly parenting group which discussed parent-child relationships. There were no quick solutions and a lot of it was about trying new things but, after long office hours, “experimentation” and “patience” seemed like alien entities. Sujata, however, began giving this methodology a shot and soon there were two of us trying to work things out.
I began by treating my children as individuals and started speaking to them in a different way. “Please do this” was replaced with “Would you like to try this?” “Yes” and “No” were equally respected. We asked them to make their own timetables/menus for school days. Both the kids only half-believed the thought of so much freedom of choice. The initial efforts started off with lots of TV and even more time on the computer.
I almost blew my top when I saw the first draft of their timetable, but mumbled “okay”. Days stretched into weeks and weeks into months and the status quo remained. Slowly, they began to realize that freedom and responsibility come hand in hand. The timetable began to change and they realized that they could accommodate most of what they wished to do along with regular work. Studies and swimming found their way into the timetable. I knew then that we were ready to move to the next stage.
Morning blues are many, but the bluest of them all is getting kids ready for school in time. Sanjana and Abhishek were to take responsibility for their actions. They were to get ready for school on their own.
Come judgement day and by the time they were ready to leave, the school van had already left. They trooped home thinking that I would drop them to school and were aghast when we told them to change their uniforms, sit at home and follow their timetables. The disbelief on their faces was apparent—how could we even think of such a thing? Abhishek’s chances of winning the ‘attendance award’ went out of the window. They stayed at home that day and have not been late for school since.
My wife often tells me, “Every child intrinsically wants to do well only if we let them be.” If I go over the past few months, I wonder if, by our being less authoritative, things have changed. Have the children’s grades improved? Not really—in fact, they took a dip in the first six months, but are now slowly creeping back. Do they end up going swimming thrice a week, and do they like it? Yes. Does Sanjana enjoy playing her keyboard, and does she want to learn more? I think so, because she plays without being reminded to do it.
So, have things changed? I think so—I seem to have changed my expectations and by “change”, I do not mean “lowered”. I have realized that Sanjana and Abhishek have different strengths and interests and, if pursued, they can unfold well.
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