The cult of the critical father
We live in an age where it is taboo to correct children who paint the sun purple but the critical parent teaches us invaluable lessons
Part of the reason that I’ve always been a good student and good employee is that for as long as I can remember, I have lived by my father’s grading system. There was a “B minus” for a still-life drawing of a salt and pepper shaker when I was nine-years-old that still stings. I was berated on the grounds of proportion and perspective, and he gave a neighbour’s daughter who had participated in the Sunday afternoon activity with me the same grade. I wasn’t better and “there was no point in being second best or as good” in whatever one chose to do.
Part of the reason that I failed to ace my father’s grading system despite substantial effort is that I have always failed to dazzle at the two things that appear to matter to him most—punctuality and mathematics. I had fairly good report cards growing up but he thought my 98/100 in ICSE history was a joke and went straight to maths, where I scored in the pitiable 80s. Not satisfactory. But he still insisted I take the science stream after school “because everybody should have a foundation in science”.
Do whatever the hell you want later, he said—also a direction I took seriously.
My father was keen I participate in Miss India (it was cool in the 1990s). If it were today, it might have been the Commonwealth Games instead. But when I showed no enthusiasm for that idea either, I suppose I became the teenager who was bringing the family’s punctuality average down while also failing to become a Maths Olympiad and IIT-JEE star like my older brother. No Miss Congeniality sash on national television either.
He was as Tiger Dad as they got. The cakes I baked, the clothes I wore, and the stories I wrote were all under scrutiny. Growing up, I did art, music and dance classes—the last one I didn’t enjoy at all, and got off the hook by just telling my mother I didn’t want to go to Kathak class any more. If only it was as easy with the father.
The Nagging Wife/Tiger Mom trope paired with the Indulgent Dad is a relatively new phenomenon. I can’t explain how we got there but more young fathers than mothers today are the “fun ones” with “no rules”.
We live in an age where it is taboo to correct children who paint the sun purple and accept it as okay when a young adult with means doesn’t fly back home when their parent is having heart surgery. Teachers are instructed to withhold critical feedback.
But rather than deep self-doubt, the lesson one can inculcate from a critical parent is self-assessment. If you have a parent—or teacher or boss—who is consistent and untiring in their appraisal, you internalize it over time. You self-appraise. Part of the reason I grew to have a tremendous fondness for a former boss, I suspect, is that she reminded me of my father, with her repertoire of “K”, “Okay” and “Too Good”. Oh, the precious “Too Good” made for two-bars-of-chocolate days. Neither of them bothered commenting on the mediocre. They pitched the goal-point high in the sky and quietly waited to shine a torchlight if you needed it along the way. They never changed the goal-point. It was always in a galaxy beyond.
The critical father was funny when it came to boyfriends. He had this move that he would unleash on the poor boys who had to wear their shoes standing up as they were leaving “because it is a sign of fitness in a young man”. I do not see it as an act of rebellion that I married a man as different from my father as could possibly be. My husband is the type who would genuinely encourage children to pursue F1 racing and comics as a career. He is marginally more mathematically adept than me; definitely poorer in the punctuality department.
I remember watching a TV interview with Sushmita Sen after she had won Miss Universe—since it was a topic of discussion in the household.
Even as a child, I was put off by her self-congratulatory tone.
“Baba, she is boasting,” I had said. “No, she just knows she did well,” he said.
I think I have done reasonably well, Baba. And I couldn’t have without you.
We are similar in so many ways: Our birthdays are a day apart, I have inherited your temper and your passions and dependence on antacids. But I do not want to become you. Waiting in the wings with a torchlight seems like a lot of hard work.
Anindita Ghose tweets at @aninditaghose