There is an old adage that says parents are quick to promise that they will support their child’s every wish but refuse a simple request for an ice-cream cone. Parenting is a primal struggle to maintain a balance between the essential and the superfluous, and the assumption that ‘parents know best’. Perhaps, to the child, the ice-cream is more important than a bigger milestone such as an academic achievement. Small moments create precious memories that sometimes last a lifetime. One of the pervasive struggles is to step back and consider whether parents actually do know best or would do better if they followed a child-led decision-making policy. How much empowerment is acceptable to the parents in our society? It seems most of us want to empower our children but only with some heavy-duty condition attached – we want them to be empowered as long as they aren’t stepping on our toes or going against our wishes.
For most of us, the power struggle and flexibility in decision-making becomes a tight-rope walking experience that lasts a lifetime. The answer may be in exploring when and how to establish boundaries. These are not permanent either – as the child grows, the parent evolves to cater to different needs and offer greater flexibility to support their independence. Respecting children’s boundaries is perhaps as essential as maintaining boundaries with them. Sometimes simple things like asking for permission before entering their room, giving them space with friends, letting them choose whether they wish to accompany you somewhere or not, having a discussion about a raise in pocket money rather than making a unilateral decision, letting children decide the weekly menu are all examples of enabling them to make decisions for life.
Parenting unfortunately doesn’t come with a handbook and many experiences are daunting for both parents and children because of their physical and emotional demands. However, no matter how difficult it gets or how tricky the terrain, it helps to remember that parenting is not a project but an ongoing experience of teamwork. Often children, no matter how young, can come up with easier or more effective ways of doing things so ‘letting go’ is a gift that parents can give themselves, especially in big families where delegating roles and responsibilities can free up the adults’ schedules drastically.
Another slightly harder demand on parenting styles is the need to ‘withhold judgment’. Some of us who have raised teenagers may be familiar with the term ‘you’re being judgey’ as our children dish out that accusation promptly and brutally. Brutal as it sounds, they aren’t too far from the truth. They are growing up in a generation far removed from the ‘people pleasing’ ways we were taught. It took a village to raise a child, there was lots of social policing with extended family giving unwarranted advice, approval and criticism as they pleased.
Our children are no longer accustomed to others’ involvement and relatively liberated from the raised eyebrows of ‘judgey’ aunts. However, this makes it much harder for parents to rein them in as the action and consequence of their child’s behaviour is solely their responsibility. We don’t have a culture of ‘reining in’ children collectively anymore, neither do we hold on to customs and traditions as stringently as we did before so family values and laying down expectations is also the responsibility of the parents rather than extended family. This can be both a benefit and a bane as parents are no longer ‘strong armed’ by family support. However, there is greater room to break away from social norms and expectations, in favour of greater individuality. Relative to other parts of the world, in South Asia, social conformism has traditionally been considered essential for family stability.
Conformism versus individuality continues to plague our parental bonds with our offspring. How far do we wish to enable them to assert their unique selves and how often do we cringe if they blatantly reject our social customs? As social media influences increases its grip on young lives, parents struggle to retain traditional family values from language to acceptable dress codes, from interaction with the family elders to immersion in family festivities. A lot has changed to allow children space to become what they wish to, although this is still an avenue of much conflict in many families where the transition has been slow. An example would be parents giving in to their children’s demands for devices and screen time. Many have lost the battle to societal pressures, having weighed the benefits of digital exposure against the risks; others have given in having chosen to preserve their bond with the child. Perhaps distance and detachment are some of the biggest fears parents now have to face as the digital world takes their children away to a wealth of experiences where the parents’ presence is largely redundant.
Yet, obedience and not independent decision-making is still valued highly in our society. Whilst obedience and compliance to family traditions and social norms is integral to our relationships, it chips away at the cognitive and social skills that twenty-first century children need to develop for growth. Many personal and professional opportunities are lost when children are led by their parents’ archaic decisions and vision of another generation. Many parents quote their experiences as their greatest teacher and use it to validate the decisions that they make for their children, but experience can only inform decision-making – it cannot help us live our children’s lives for them. Most children find it difficult to communicate their vision due to generational barriers in thought and trends, demands of a whole new world and ambitions that didn’t exist in another time.
Perhaps the biggest barrier is the lack of self-expression or communicative ease between parents and children. Ironically, this is also a barrier that is the easiest to overcome but how many of us as parents are ready and able to make that choice?
Neda Mulji is an adult educator, and the author of The Love Connection, a work of research on parental patterns in different cultures across all ages. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
This article was originally published in July 2022 issue of SouthAsia Magazine.