“Do you love yourself?" he asked me.

“Yes," I said.

“Do you love yourself openly or secretly?" he asked.

My answer startled me.

It’s a common experience to feel overwhelmed by self-loathing, yet wear a cloak to cover the storm inside. To pretend to be okay, when actually one is not feeling okay at all.

I was new to the therapy group and my guard must have been lowered that day. I must have walked into that room with the desire to unlock closed doors. Or maybe it was the power of the therapist. The loving authority in his manner.

“I love myself secretly," I said. Father Os left me to think about what I had stumbled upon and moved on to another person.

I started writing in my notebook. In the open, I dismiss myself too quickly. I back off from confrontation early and accept that I may have been wrong even when I know that I am not. It must be me, I conclude too soon.

I don’t really believe what I seem to accept, because I feel the dichotomy and it hurts. My sense of judgement isn’t so damaged that I buy the more aggressive person’s version, yet I play along with it.

Eventually, there is anger. And rebellion. There is frustration.

There is something about the way we raise our children that creates this disconnect in them. They make small mistakes but our reactions shame them as if they have been extremely foolish. They get distracted and confused in stressful situations but our impatient anger makes them feel like they have been evil.

It’s not just the messages children get from parents. Be a fly on the wall in any regular, posh school and listen to the words flying around in the nursery and kindergarten classes. Small children constantly being berated for being small children.

“Keep quiet, stand in line. Do you want to go home or not? Don’t make ma’am angry, otherwise you know what will happen."

It is too much effort to capture their imagination, so let’s just yell them down. Punish one to set an example for all. Employ fear because we have misplaced our sense of humour. There are casual threats in the words we speak to them. When did we forget that the threat of violence is in itself an act of violence?

As children, we learn along the way to stop trusting our own ideas and thoughts. We learn that if we like to do something too much, then it must be bad for us. We learn to look at what everyone else is doing and produce a version similar of it. Conformity is rewarded, mediocrity gets accolades, anything new is too threatening for our education and family systems to deal with. So we squash creativity, we ignore and berate passion. Fathers tell their football-loving sons to put away the ball for sustained years of studies, not realizing that letting him be excellent at what he was born to do will make him crave to be good at everything else too.

Adults are so afraid of failure, of being judged badly by others, that they are constantly covering their tracks by piling on the blame on children around them. I tried speaking to an art teacher recently to tell her not to ask my child to participate in inter-school art competitions. My art-loving daughter didn’t want to go to school because she doesn’t like the way in which she is told to “make drawings".

“I don’t know about these children," the teacher said to me. I have told them to see the award-winning drawings on the noticeboard and just copy them. Still they are unable to do what I say."

I was at a loss for words. We start our lives having our self-assurance pummelled out of us and often live our entire adult lives with the damage it has caused.

Our youngest child is not yet 5 and she has learnt that the way to please visiting adults is to act like a fool. Every day we meet people in perfectly relaxed settings and discover that they are terrified of children. They camouflage their fear with disdain. They are so afraid that the child will see right through their mask that they find a way to make the child feel humiliated and fearful of them. Then they dismiss her as too shy or not smart enough.

We pass on the message that spontaneity is something to be ashamed of, that uninhibited expression of the self is not a privilege that everyone deserves. Our desire to mould and change children is an expression of our own lack of self esteem.

The hatred of children is quite simply a profound form of self-hatred. When we begin to love ourselves openly, we will be able to love our children openly.

Natasha Badhwar is a film-maker, media trainer and mother of three. She writes a fortnightly column on family and relationships.

Also Read | Natasha’s previous Lounge columns

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