Children trust their adults. They carefully observe what we say and do, and test it against their own experiences and their feelings.

Children are big on feelings. They express themselves by bawling as soon as they are born. They aren’t feeling too good, it has been a rough journey. They are cleaned, nursed and bundled up warm. That calms them down.

Infants feed and burp, they fart and hear familiar voices, and then they nap again. They smile half-smiles that steal our heart.

Then they wake up, make eye contact and express their feelings again.

Sometimes the solution to their problem is not ready at hand. The baby may have pooped in his diaper but his parents are on the road or in a doctor’s waiting room and he cannot be cleaned immediately. The mother may have left the sleeping infant with grandparents and baby wakes up and baby is hungry and he BAAAWWWLLLS!

Baby has a problem and his mother is not here to feed him. It may be a while before she will return. Baby sounds like it is the end of the world.

Grandmother rocks the baby, sings to him, puts his head next to her heartbeat and the rhythm of her body lets the baby know that he is safe. Baby calms down, he may even fall asleep again.

Hunger is not an emotion, but right now, hunger triggers fear in the baby. It is his survival instinct. He must scream for attention so that he can receive sustenance. Adults like the grandmother have learned that she can address the baby’s fear with her tenderness and solve the baby’s problem for a while. If she remains calm and reassuring, the baby will let go of his terror and become able to wait for his food. He will learn to accept delayed gratification.

As our children grow up, they need and demand a lot more than just food and warmth. They want things. They want holidays, gadgets and thrills. We neither can nor want to fulfil all their demands. We want to teach them discipline, we want them to know boundaries. We pride ourselves as practitioners of “tough love". We begin to raise a tough cookie, just like the one our parents raised.

When parents talk about how good they are at saying, “No", I don’t feel so good listening to them.

“I don’t care how mean you think I am," they boast. “I am teaching you to deal with disappointment. I’m tough as nails and so shall you be," the message goes out.

My grandfather is 90 years old and often recounts how strict his father was. My great grandfather didn’t give his son a loan he needed, telling him to fend for himself, like a man. Dadaji left home when he was 20 and never went back. For his sons, Dadaji was the father they hid from as soon as he came home. My father was good at being a disciplinarian too when we were young children.

Sometimes I look at myself from a distance when I am having a moment with one of my children. Raising my voice comes naturally to me.

“No, I am not taking any nonsense from anybody."

Their small-scale crises of lost erasers and runny noses is remarkably easy to take personally with a “I told you to be careful, it’s all your fault. I’m sorry I cannot help you."

I watch my children changing as they grow up. The oldest looks for roundabout ways to get what she needs, making her seem like a conniving child. The middle one seems to have lost her voice. The youngest knows my low threshold for her tantrums, and uses them liberally to express herself.

This isn’t the result I was hoping for.

It is a fine line between not wanting to raise over-entitled children and bringing them up with the message that they don’t deserve any better. We may be good at saying no, but it is quite likely that we have no idea of how to say no.

Sometimes I am angry that I am always the parent who says “No". Sometimes I am guilty because I wish I could say “Yes". Sometimes I say, “No", because it is my default response. I haven’t thought things through, and the children know that.

Faced with disproportional harshness, children are lost to us even before they leave home. They turn on their gadgets and shut themselves down, choosing numbness over confusion. They grow up hating the intangible, irrational fears that haunt them, judging themselves constantly for never quite being good enough.

More and more I remind myself of the grandparent who may not be able to feed the hungry infant, but she knows how to make him feel loved and safe. The more “tender love" the baby receives, the less his abandonment anxiety.

It’s the conclusion every tiger parent must reach, sooner rather than later. The time to be less tiger and more parent comes much earlier, and far more often than we had imagined.

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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