It has been nearly a month since our daughter joined college. She lives in another town now, in a college hostel within her campus and we, her parents are slowly coming to terms with her absence from our day to day lives. We (or maybe I) mostly spend our (my) time wondering how she is coping at her end . We do realize that at seventeen she is not a child but a semi adult ! I sometimes feel, that in itself might be something that I should worry about….
One of the things that we parents in India tend to do, is to treat our children like kids all the time. While we do train them in managing their academics and their daily routine, what we probably do not do is to help them take decisions.
Decisions…. you ask? What great decisions does a teenager have to make? And anyway, what does a teenager know about life to make decisions? Aren’t we here as “experienced” adults to “help” them take decisions or make choices about their lives. But what we do not realize is that there is a difference between guiding / talking to a teen about decisions and making those decisions for them.
We tell our children what subjects to choose for study, what extra curricular activities to take part in , which college to join and later what career to opt for! The more conservative parents do this in an authoritarian manner while the “democratic” ones subtly influence the child to do their bidding.
While the major decisions that any teenager might make, is usually presumed to be around their academics, what we fail to realize is that decision making also includes a number of other spheres- a major one being their ability to manage relationships outside of their immediate family. These relationships might be friendships or may be something beyond that.
Teenage friendships tend to be a bit complicated. One cannot always monitor them by asking our children to “bring your friend home”. There are some parents who take this “monitoring” to a completely new level where they decide for their child who they should interact with- who is suitable and who isn’t. However, these are not decisions that we can impose on our child. The child has to understand who is a good friend and who isn’t by experiencing both loyalties and betrayals. It is heart wrenching to see them deal with a betrayal but that is not the time to tell them “ I told you so” It is a lesson that they will never forget . Give them a couple of such experiences and we will have an adult who would be a fairly good judge of people. They would also learn how to deal with such people in their lives.
But friends and their betrayals are probably easier to deal with, when compared to a “romantic” relationship- the worst nightmare of an Indian parent!!! What would happen to their academics? What if the relationship becomes physical? What if they elope and get married? Yes, these are fears that all of us have as parents where romantic relationships are concerned.
We usually try to preempt it by denying them opportunities for interaction with the opposite sex! There are some Colleges of Engineering around Chennai that are experts on these “preventive aspects”. Despite the fact that as parents some of us talk about wanting to be our child’s friend, this is one area that we are distinctly uncomfortable, talking to our child.
Let me make this clear, this is not about sex education alone. Managing a relationship with the opposite sex is something else altogether. .! And God forbid if our child is undergoing some confusion regarding their sexual orientation … I doubt how many of us would be able to handle that.. !
While hormones might be a key player in attraction, there are also other factors to be considered. Our children are on their way to becoming men/ women and they are trying to experience their masculinity / femininity by getting into a relationship. Having a boyfriend/ girl friend also helps them develop a positive self image especially if they are in a peer group where being attractive to the opposite sex is an important criteria for membership.
However, what I think a teenager or a young adult might find difficult to handle is the extent to which they are going to let another person of the opposite sex determine their self image. A girl who is “popular” with boys generally develops confidence that is way above another who might not be. So, how does this girl who lacks in confidence deal with it? And the “popular” girl – how is she going to deal with competition in the popularity charts? I suppose the same might be true of boys too.
These are issues that our children face but do not know how to articulate. Despite being parents who are “open” with our children, they might not know whether or how to talk to us about it. The reason being, we have never discussed these issues with them. We have told our daughters to be “careful” of boys and our sons to stay focused on their studies and not get “distracted” by girls.
So teens try to understand about love and relationship with the opposite sex through books and cinema. And this is where all the problems that we read about stem from…!!
If we watch any Indian movie, what passes for “wooing” of a girl is actually harassment. It is usually understood as “girls say no because they are too coy to say yes”!! Is it therefore any wonder that there are so many cases of boys stalking girls, sending them messages or trying to physically assault them? To most of them, it might be an exercise in “courtship”!
And then there are girls who are also taken in by all the attention that comes their way thanks to the stalking ( both physical and cyber). It makes them feel like a star.
But it is not right to blame the movies alone for perpetuating such behavior. I think we as parents have also failed in telling our children what a relationship is all about. Instead of denying them opportunities to interact with the opposite sex, we can talk to them about romance and love, telling them what a healthy relationship is all about, how respect should form an integral part of such relationships and how to accept disappointment if feelings are not reciprocated by the person they are interested in. Our teenagers also need to know how to handle a “break up”. If we can get them to talk about what they are going through should such a thing happen to them, it would prevent a lot of suicides and acid throwing incidents.
While talking is one aspect of the exercise in parenting a teen, there is also the observation part of it that we should keep in mind. Children learn a lot about relationships by watching how the people ( especially parents) around them deal with it. A son who watches his father speak to his mother without respect will find it difficult to learn to respect women. A girl who sees her mother treated with respect by her father will usually not get into a relationship with a controlling or manipulative boy.
Our children are facing way more complicated situations around their lives than we did when we were younger. In a society that is slowly moving out of the traditional arranged marriage situation, children have to learn to identify a person who would help them build a strong and happy relationship. While there is always the distracting influence of looks and charm, our children should be able to identify what makes a person outside of that. This is a challenge that they have to deal with, because it comes only through trial and error.
As parents I think one of the things we need to learn ( and it is difficult) is to get our teenagers to talk us about things without getting judgmental or shocked. And then there are “helicopter moms” like me who need to stop hovering around their child, watching them deal with a situation and holding themselves back from wanting to butt in and solve it for them. The physical distance with my child has been helpful in that sense. I am learning to render assistance only when requested.
It is not always the child who is growing up with each birthday. It is also we parents who are growing and (hopefully) learning. As a parent I am only seventeen years old though as an adult I am much older. Each stage in our child’s life brings in new parenting requirements. The crux of good parenting I suppose is to try and understand it well and provide the support required.