Andy Grove, CEO, Intel, probably doesn’t have the faintest idea that parents the world over take his famous business maxim — “Only the paranoid survive” — very seriously. It may be a credo for business success in a hi-tech environment, but it’s also a constant reminder to parents of the perils their children have to face every day. Today, in Mumbai, it is common to hear moms debating whether they should allow their seven-year-olds to take the lift alone (what happens if a touchy feely stranger gets in?). In Delhi, parents shudder at the thought of their kids using the infamous Blueline buses.
Footloose: Encourage your child to travel by a public bus instead of a school bus. Photograph: Madhu Kapparath / Mint
Carpools, drivers on “babalog” duty, cellphones for nine-year-olds and a maid in attendance seem to be the norm. However, ask these “paranoid parents” about their own childhood and chances are that as teenagers (and even when they were younger), they argued with autowallas, dealt with dodgy characters on DTC buses and local trains in Mumbai or hopped and skipped down the road to visit a friend — without a driver, maid or parent in tow. But now, not many are willing to let go of their little ones.
Is it because, as the now-notorious Lenore Skenazy alleges, we have become a generation of wimps? Skenazy, a columnist for The New York Sun, wrote about letting her nine-year-old son ride the subway in New York City alone (and without a cellphone), and has since been inundated with hate mail. Closer home, Anil Ambani recounted on a television talk show how, when he was a teenager, dad Dhirubhai had dropped him off at a petrol pump in the US, minus any money, for him to find his way back.
Is this something that parents should do — slowly let go of their children as they make solo trips across the street, take a bus to a friend’s house and haggle with autowallas? Or, have our cities become too dangerous for children to navigate?
While I am not suggesting that you let your child do it, there are valuable lessons she can learn if she makes her way about alone. And it could be safer than you think. “The BEST service is nice — the buses are good, the ticket collector comes to you, it’s very comfortable and very safe,” says Mala Doshi, whose son Jaideep has been travelling on his own in Mumbai buses since he was 12.
Necessity has always been the mother of invention, and kids such as Jaideep — who takes a bus from Colaba to Tardeo every day — generally tend to be more confident and resourceful than their chauffeured counterparts. “Such children are more bold and communicative,” says psychiatrist Harish Shetty. “These cumulative confidences help them handle big issues in the future. Apart from learning how to be independent, they also learn how to manage money.”
Not all parents are willing to take risks just for the sake of inculcating independence.
“Times are harsh. People prey on adolescents,” says Shabina Welde, whose twin boys Anish and Ishan, 9, are not allowed out alone, ever. For such parents, accompanying their children everywhere is the norm, never mind the effort or the expense or the fact that they themselves grew up learning to do things on their own. “It’s really not worth the risk to expose kids till they are able to take care of themselves,” says Aditi Sayed, associate director, programming, at Synergy Adlabs. Sayed’s five-year-old son Suhail and nine-year-old daughter Raisa take Taekwondo classes — to learn how to defend themselves. Independence and strength, she argues, come from mental attitude and not from sojourning solo on the metro or in buses.
But there are others who believe that children benefit from such exposure. Like Shanoli Gupta, mother of 12-year-old Shreya. Every morning at 7, for the last few years, Shreya and her two friends take an auto to their basketball practice at Jamnabai Narsee School in Juhu, Mumbai, 15 minutes away from their home in Lokhandwala. The girls cannot carry cellphones as the school has a strict “no-cellphone” policy. “They are at an age where they are capable of travelling short distances on their own,” says Gupta, adding that she believes parents have to learn to let go.
It started because Shreya’s parents had no choice — 7am was too early for the bus, or car and driver. Now Gupta feels that it has been positive for her daughter. “I think she has gained a lot of confidence and learnt to handle money on her own,” she says.
The first time Barnali Choudhury’s 10-year-old son, Anirvan, travelled alone in an auto was when she dropped him off for a class and he found that the class was cancelled. “He had to take an auto home since I was late for work,” she explains. Since then, Anirvan has made many trips on his own for tuitions and various other classes in the area. “And it has done him a lot of good. He feels very proud of himself, very independent and can even run errands for me. Now, he helps me out if I suddenly need him to run some errands,” says Choudhury, an Abacus class co-coordinator.
I listen to all of this, and wonder whether I should, for the sake of my three girls, reassess my risk management measures. Switch loyalties, perhaps from Intel’s Grove to Virgin’s Richard Branson (whose mom sent him on a solo cycling road trip when he wasn’t quite 12 years old). Maybe allow my 10-year-old to do the 20-minute walk to school alone? And my eight-year-old to travel across two traffic-filled streets to singing class? I will, I will, I tell myself. But not today…maybe tomorrow.
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