Walking the Parenting Tightrope

Sometimes, if an acquaintance asks me how I spend time with my daughter, I get that weird feeling—that some judgmental lecture on parenting is brewing. Do I talk to her and know what is happening to her? Do I spend one-on-one quality time with her? Does she get physical activity? Does she watch too much TV? How many sweets does she eat? These are a few of the questions people of similar age quiz us on in the name of concern. These interviews invariably leave me exhausted.

Often, people keep saying that the childhood of today does not measure up to childhood in the 80s. The children, of course, seem to be enjoying themselves. I find that if I mention that I routinely use YouTube videos to show her the metamorphosis of butterflies, someone will rant about the evils of YouTube and if I use Google Image Search to show her pictures of Kathakali, someone will want to rant about that too. If she likes a cartoon character, someone else frowns about the evils of merchandising. I wonder if these people enjoy parenting and relish the joys of being a parent at all. They seem to be concentrating on what is wrong with today’s world so much that they completely forget what is right in today’s world. Does the pressure of parenting often eclipse the pleasure of being a parent?

A friend of mine has banned TV, sugar, cheese and noodles from his home. He seems super-proud of himself. But he seems completely unwilling to read or tell stories to his son. A childhood parched of new exciting stories? No chocolate cake? No pizzas? It just seems so sad to me. Though I know that life without TV and sugar and noodles is supposedly great, I would want my daughter to grow up to be a person who does reach out and relish food other than the small bracket of items prepared at home. It is super difficult to travel extensively if you are finicky about what you eat and what you are prepared to eat is determined by what you ate as a child. So the ability to grab a cheese-and-egg sandwich and catch a bus to your next dream is not an unimportant trait. I am not talking about giving my daughter pizzas every weekend or chocolates every day. I am talking about her being a person who does not starve herself if only pizzas are available.

Similarly, I am not talking about letting her watch TV all the time. But the assumption that just because she knows Chotta Bheem’s love interest is Chutki, her childhood is spoilt and relatively worthless as compared to some other child who was riding a bicycle in the meantime or was attending a Hindi class? I don’t think knowing that Popeye’s love interest was Olive Oyl spoilt my childhood and I don’t see why this should be vastly different. I don’t like the Chotta Bheem – Chutki dynamics but that is different. I am talking about sheltering children from the fun parts of today’s world and deeming all of these things evil.

But most of all, there is this attitude that makes people frown upon the parenting styles of everyone other than their own selves. Even I am unwittingly judgmental of someone whose parenting is different from mine. I don’t like to see children being deprived of TV completely when their parents use YouTube in the dead of night to catch a late-night show. I tell myself that I have no right to judge people other than if they use physical violence on the child or do sexually abusive things. Other than that all parenting is good parenting, or so I tell myself. It is the intention that matters. But I admit it is hard. Recently a friend was talking about a competition that he was training his son for. A few minutes into the conversation, I could not stop feeling that the pressure to win the competition was too high. Participation and enjoyment and friendships and goofiness should be more important. That is what my parents taught me. The world is not filled with just one type of parenting. And it is exhausting me.


The Likability Index

Sometimes someone tells me, “I don’t like him. Some people we just don’t like and can’t know the reason, right? Have you felt that?” and I say “Well, I am that to many people. There are those who hate the sight of me and my presence infuriates them no end.”  I don’t say it sounding very bitter; I just say it as a matter of fact, but when I say that the person who I am talking to looks sheepish. For now I have basically shown this person that he/she is a bully.

We associate the term ‘bully’ with a person who is bigger than us and throws his/her weight about in a playground and though some of us did face such bullies, the worst bully of them all is that person who will dislike you when you have not given him/her sufficient reason to dislike you.  It may be that they are against the personality or demographic you seem to represent.  So you may be hated for wearing tight jeans or for looking like a maami (or both at the same time) or looking religious or intellectual or flirtatious or something.  There is no end to this.  Serious-minded people look down on people who seem chatty and those chatty catty people have a thing or two to say about morose-looking people too.

I personally don’t bother with these people who don’t like me. I classify them under “Tasteless idiots” and move on.  But there was one person who I could not ignore.  She was a lecturer.  She hated me. I never knew why.  I wasn’t a ‘good student’ in her subject.  That is because she was not a ‘good teacher’ in my opinion.  She was my Severus Snape*. It was impossible to be a good student when your teacher was out to get you.  She looked sad if I did my work right and her face lit up when I did something wrong. She looked like she wanted to say ‘Gotcha!’  I stopped trying.  I remember actively wanting to fail.  I remember not giving a damn either way.

Fast forward to the present time and I see many people who say they will not watch any movie with a particular hero or heroine because they can’t stand the hero or heroine. I don’t mean people who avoid movies starring a particular actor as they know that he usually stars in movies of a particular genre or has bad taste in his choice of stories.  I mean people who say, ‘I would have loved to watch the movie Neerja but now that they cast Sonam, I can’t watch it.  I hate her nose.’  You hate her nose? That is your reason? People don’t seem to feel any embarrassment when they say this. They sound like they have a perfect right to hate anyone whose nose is sharp.  I deduct about 25 likability points from my estimation of people who say this and a few people I know now have a likability index so low that it is in the negative!

But no one actually starts with a likability index of zero or lower with me. They start with a good 100 points and over time I give or reduce points.  Does appearance not play a part at all?  Sure it does.  A person who is over 30 and seems to have a well-maintained body does get plus points. Tastefulness in clothes gets plus points too.  But the appearance-related plus points are not as high as the behaviour-related or attitude-related plus points that I am lavish about. If I like someone and you walk up to me and ask what I like about them, I can answer you.  I can give you a clear list.  If I dislike someone and you ask me why, there is no way I am going to give an answer as frivolous as “Forehead is too small.”  I will know exactly what made me push that person’s likability index down to zero or lower.

But here is the catch: Some people who go by these instincts do perform better than I do in estimating people at first glance.  They are able to predict temper and attitude and even intelligence levels of people by merely looking at them.  So maybe I should take a cue from them and start trying to judge people based on how they look? I throw my mind back to that dreaded classroom when my lecturer asked me Question No. 1 and Question No. 2 and frowned that she wasn’t able to pin me down.  I remember how she looked like a cat offered a plate of cream when I could not answer Question No. 3.  And then I knew.  It is never acceptable to judge someone based on criteria you can’t even pin down properly. Recognize your prejudices and work on them.  Don’t say everyone does that.  You are not everyone.


* Severus Snape is a character from the Harry Potter series. He was Harry’s teacher.