As a parent, there’s just one thing I’m totally certain of: no matter what you do, you’re wrong. You’re either too strict, or too lenient, or too nice or too nasty, too loving or too emotionally reserved.There’s more good news: you’ll only realise the complete error of your ways about 15 years from now, when you look back with hindsight, and see all the things you did that you shouldn’t have. Don’t ask me to prove this — I just know it the way a flower knows when to bloom, or the way we know that every year, come monsoon, Mumbai’s roads will feel like the surface of the moon.
You always start off with the hope of becoming your ideal of the best-ever parent — the best-pal parent, the pushiest parent, the most-free-spirited parent, etc. I aspired to be a combination of the parents I had plus the sort of parents I wished I had. After seven years of trying, I can freely admit to absolute, humbling failure. I had a wonderful role model in my mother, but turns out I’ve all her few faults and none of her virtues.
One of the things I know I’d love to give my child is the sense of freedom that my mum instinctively gave me. The feeling of total acceptance was the best thing about growing up in my family. I don’t remember mum ever laying down the rules or yelling at us (though her mother — my grandmum — more than made up for that).
But growing up with very few rules unfortunately leaves you unequipped for the harsher realities of life and work. So my totally inspired and unique plan was to raise my child with all the love and freedom my mum gave, plus a sense of discipline.
It didn’t quite work out. Turns out that I have my grandmother’s hissy tongue and temper, and her need for discipline, plus my own inherent laziness and indiscipline. And while I refuse to push my kid hard to succeed, I don’t have my mum’s true sense of laissez-faire either. I do however have her high levels of maternal anxiety. As Himesh Reshammiya once said: It’s Complicated.
As parents are we very different from our own? I think we spoil our kids more — we are wealthier, busier, and it’s easier to buy toys than to give kids time. In 15 or 20 years this will come back and bite us on our butts for sure. Unlike us, our parents were also a lot more secure about their methods. Whether they were beating us up or spoiling us silly, they did it with the firm conviction that they knew what was best for us. Or maybe it just seems that way now.Perhaps each generation of parents has to re-learn the skills of passing on the rules of living.
Sometimes parents succeed and raise happy, well-adjusted people, and others, well, don’t. I remember reading Philip Larkin’s (1922-1985) poem This Be the Verse, and going saucer-eyed at the eff word in it. I didn’t get it then, but now, with more perspective on what it is like to be both a parent and a child, I do.
In three very tight stanzas, Larkin spells out his bitterness:
They **** you up, your mum and dad.
They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra, just for you.
The poem becomes kinder towards parents in the second stanza — after all, he writes, they were screwed up by their parents too. The solution? Stop having kids and deepening the ‘coastal shelf’ of misery. Larkin’s advice doesn’t work because nature’s urge to multiply is — thankfully — stronger than good poetry.
Sometimes I think the greatest lesson we can teach our children is how to be kind - so that when they grow up, they can look back at our mistakes with a large measure of forgiveness!
(This article appeared in the DNA of Sunday, Oct 2, 2011, in my column called 'Small Blunders'.)