Kamal Somani remembers receiving his first watch as a reward for good marks in college. His daughter Sonal got hers in the fourth or fifth standard when she topped the class. Her son Avi got his last year—at age 2.
For these three generations of Somanis, the gift of time has become an apt metaphor for changing times.
“It was a luxury, so I had to wait,” Sonal Somani Gupta, 28, who works in finance, recalls of her first watch. “Things that were once luxuries have become a necessity.”
Granted, children since the time of the Vedas have likely been hearing their parents’ stories of hardship and sacrifice, endurance and struggle. But given the explosion in wealth among the middle class, and the redefinition of comfort and prosperity, Indians rearing children now might find themselves in a tough quandary.
We weren’t explicitly taught values like thrift—they simply washed over and seeped into us, bucket baths to sweaty bus rides. Nobody ever talked about food pyramids or nutritional content—eating home was simply cheaper, healthier and just the way things were done.
But then isn’t so much of parenthood supposed to be about wanting, no, giving, a better life for your children? Isn’t there some hypocrisy in asking children to turn on the ceiling fans at home even as we parents sit in the air-conditioned confines of offices? And is two days on a train really the best use of a college-aged son’s time when we never see him anyway and a week’s salary pays plane fare?
More than 15 years after liberalization, it seems some Indians are finally getting over keeping up with the Joneses, Shahs and Reddys (still using children as our status symbols is another column). There’s a new balancing act of humble roots and wealthy tastes.
“You convey your values to your children by how they see you live, how you spend your time and how you treat other people,” said Barbara Hauser, author of the book Mommy, Are We Rich? “They will not ‘learn’ values that they are not seeing around them.”
In the case of the Somanis, the elder sisters say they remember money being tight, very few birthday parties and no gifts without occasion. By the time their younger brother, now 20, was born, the family—Kamal Somani currently serves as chief executive of a vegetable feeds company—grew more comfortable and able to fulfil requests such as sneakers or skateboards. The varying degrees of wealth affected the children’s upbringing and outlooks.
“I was around eight or nine years when my father showed us a salary slip, so that we knew whether our demands were justified or not,” the middle daughter, Komal Somani, 25, says. “Me and my sister took DTC buses everywhere and my brother drives around a car. As he was growing up, my dad didn’t have that much time. He said, ‘Just let them have it.’”
Indeed, guilt can fuel modern-day consumption, as many working parents have learned. After observing mothers around her succumb, Sonal Somani Gupta says she stops herself.
“I am not giving him any extra games,” she says of Avi, now three and a half years old. “But if there is anything I feel is a necessity for mental development, that is different.”
By this, she refers to books and puzzles—items she and her sister used to long for.
But, she says, the comparisons between her own childhood and her son’s are just not fair or even possible any more. He attends an elite playschool and there’s a maid on the air-conditioned van in the morning.
“You have to have a proper school, a proper van, a place where people are responsible,” she says. “All these facilities, it definitely costs money. …I would like my son to go through the hardship and struggles of life. The only point is that some of the definitions have changed.”
In Mumbai, Suchismita Bhaumik worries that her three-year-old son assumes every household has two cars. “He has not yet travelled by public transport,” she says. “I have fretted over the fact that the school has an Indian toilet, no commode.”
Child psychologist Lee Hausner, who has visited and lectured in India several times, says how values are absorbed may change over time, but the actual values—that money, luxury, comfort result from hard work—don’t.
“When you say the ‘old days’, people have to ask what were those values that we wanted,” she says. “The value of thrift—then you better demonstrate what it’s like to be thrifty. ...We don’t want our children to work as hard as we have. I say ‘Why? Look at what you have earned. Why would we take that away from our children?’”
The link between hard work and success might prove key to Indian children’s own survival—and ensure the good times last.
Because based on other countries’ experience, Hausner has a caution: “One generation makes the money. The next generation spends the money. By the third generation, we’re back to the drawing board.”
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