Viswanath Gopalakrishnan  This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.


Organisations & Alternatives Consulting Pvt. Ltd.


Parenting – who calls the shots ?


In this article I have tried to bring to the reader some situations to help us understand why Parenting is such a critical aspect of society and yet they seem to deal with it as if it were confined within the 'family'. Don't problems in the family then manifest in society? Or do they somehow magically staying within the four walls called a 'home'?


Visualize this scene in a train. A family consisting of a father, mother and their 3-year-old son are travelling along with the grandmother and the mother's sister.


The family members have all been served a plate of food. The last item is a cup of ice cream and the grandmother, in her fondness for the grandchild, promptly decides to offer this to the child. In a few moments, the little boy is happily digging in to the center of the cup and enjoying the treat but much like any 3 year old, is merrily also dropping some of his dripping ice cream. Immediately, comes the command from the father "Eat properly"!!


Adults gang up – especially when it comes to a child who does something wrong. Promptly, the aunt enters the scene and grabs the cup from the child, hands it over to the father and says "Your father will feed you" - leading to the child now beginning to scream at this unilateral decision and a violation of his freedom. The father duly starts feeding the child (surely the aunt can't be wrong, can she?) but the screaming is not to be stopped easily. The child is, by now, most upset and turns to whom else, but that familiar face of his mother – who seems least interested and retorts with an irritated "What is this drama going on ?" ( in her mother tongue )


And so now we have three irritated adults and a bawling child. Clearly, the child has proved that he is the powerful one because he has managed to get not one, but three adults lose their calm. And adults think they can control children?


Finally, reason seems to prevail with the grandmother saying "Can't he be left alone? He was perfectly fine eating the ice cream".


Well, let's now move from the incident to examining what the 'picture in the mind' of Parenting that seems to have been operating there.


"Surely, I must be in control, shouldn't I ?"

It appears that controlling what the child does is seen as parenting. So, how the child eats has to be 'proper'. And proper here seems to imply 'like an adult'. And, therefore spilling ice cream is neither 'proper' nor acceptable. Since the child's ice cream is dripping the only option seems to be taking away the right to eat the ice cream the way the child wanted: all by himself, whether or not the ice cream spilt.


None of the adults seem to consider the possibility of helping the child eat without spilling. And this seems to come from a mental model "3 year olds are messy". And the action that follows is to feed the child, depriving him of a chance to perfect the act of eating by himself.


I remember my wife telling me of a meal she had with a German family during one of her visits to Europe. The youngest of the 3 children was just 1 ½ years and through the meal, would be served by her mother only what she pointed to (she couldn't even speak yet). The mother never served her something that she felt the child should eat. Contrast this to the actions of the aunt and the father in this case!


Displaced anger?

Let's take a look at the 'irritated' mother. With three other adults around, it is possible that the woman wanted some respite from parenting and her anger was actually being displaced from the adults to the child!! She may have been irritated that the adults were bungling a situation where the child was actually eating calmly (let's not forget for a nano second that the ice cream was 'dripping') until the 'eat properly' diktat! She may have been irritated that again she has to enter the sorting out the problem and this may have been the source of her impatience.


It is equally plausible that she too had high expectations of a 3-year-old child eating his ice cream without spilling. This seems like a case of the mother wanting excellence without at all being aware of the capacity and the development stage of the child and of not knowing that children too work towards mastery as seen in the Montessori environment day after day.


Do we reflect at all?

This brings me to another serious problem with adults in general as well as the present education system that seems to pay scant attention to the process of 'reflection'. Over the past ten years, I have been interacting with students from different institutions and even amongst the best, have found that they don't seem to find reflection palatable. Quickly justifying one's actions within the mind or rushing to new resolutions seem to help avoid any deep reflection.


So, I am not sure if the mother in this case would reflect to see that her comment was just a display of irritation and didn't help the child in the least. If the comment does not help the child, then how is he going to change (which is what the 3 adults want)? And if he doesn't change, the adult's reaction is going to be 'How many times do I have to tell you? You just don't listen'. The reality is precisely the opposite - that the adult is not listening!!


This brings me to an incident when my daughter was about 10 years old. I was on a family holiday (with my in-laws) at a beautiful resort in Coorg. We had decided to spend 3 days and on the 2nd morning my daughter told me she would like to return, as she was feeling uneasy. I was surprised but was willing to drive her back as I felt that there must be something behind her wanting to return to Bangalore when we were on a nice holiday. My in-laws had another car and they could return the next day.


When I told my in-laws that this is what I was thinking, a series of logical explanations about how we were anyway returning after 24 hours etc. etc immediately came gushing. I wasn't convinced – I was keen to go by my daughter's feelings as I felt it might have to do with the fact that I had had a major accident in Coorg (not so far away from where we were), a few years ago and she was there in the jeep with me when this happened. That incident was traumatic for her because I was hurt quite badly while she escaped without even a scratch.


However, my in-laws decided to talk my daughter and my daughter finally accepted to go as per plan. I was upset because I felt that no matter what it appears that the adults' decisions are always the ones that prevail. "So what if we left a day early?" was the thought swirling in my head. "Is that such a disaster?" This was yet another instance of the child not being listened to.


Reverting to the story: the grandmother in her closing comment seems to really be the only one whose wisdom goes far beyond the other three adults. She seems to have realized that children can learn without being told every little thing. They will learn and this does mean allowing them to err from time to time, observing them carefully and being patient. And this seems precisely the opposite of the adult world of multi-tasking, speed and rushing through chores, work, conversations... With FB, Whatsapp and smart phones it is so easy to send a one liner response to a full page note from someone and believe that you have done justice.


So, the question really is "Does the adult really know the child or is the child expected to just conform to all that an adult would do?


How much do we (as parents) give in to our children?


In general as a parent what I have experienced is that children will push boundaries. They will want to stay up late, stay out late, sleep over and so on. Many of us have faced some or all of these situations. Most parents seem to be very hassled about these scenarios. I met a parent who was very paranoid about how many girls and boys there would be in the group that her daughter was going to be in. Parents often get very angry and upset if the child is not ready to leave at the appointed time.


How much do we (as parents) give in to our children seems the question on most parents' minds. But is all this about giving in or about understanding what the child wants and being able to have a decent conversation without constantly 'judging' the child's behavior ("You never return on time", "I have to keep on reminding you" etc.etc.).


Perhaps, we parents can begin finding our own answers to these questions by reflecting on our own childhood. So, let me share some of my own reflections that might trigger some in them.


Adult diktat and rebellion

My own rebellion as a teenager came from the tyranny of the world of either-or. "Either you will study well or you will be good in sports – but there is no future in sports so don't waste your time on it". "Either you practice the flute daily or there is no use going to the class". Either you are a 'good boy' (obedient) or terrible". So, naturally when faced with such polarities, I chose the end I preferred - Sports!! I didn't believe that I could actually do both because of the either-or paradigm. And in retrospect, I believe I could have done reasonably well at both and everyone would have been happy!


Make no mistake - there is only one right answer – the adult's!


Often, the message to me was the only education (meaning marks) mattered. So, one evening when I returned having won a cricket match for my team my aunt commented to her son (a brilliant student): "You should also play some games – see how well he has done". Her admiration for me really made my day because it was so rare that I received any appreciation for my efforts on the field. It was most often seen as 'distraction' from the 'real thing' that was education.


In relating my own experiences, in no way do I doubt my parents' intentions or their affection for me as a son. I credit them with numerous positives but in the context they lived and their circumstances, it seemed that every foray of mine into something new was anxiety provoking for them and they came from that emotion of wanting everything to go well. And which parent doesn't want that for his/her child?


If all parents wish well for their children (strictly a generalization), then it seems that the methods that they employ are somewhat faulty because most adults seem to feel that their parents too didn't understand them. And this is where the reflection fails them – that, perhaps, they too are failing to understand their children.


It appears that the illusion that we suffer from (as adults) is that somehow we are supposed to know the answers to all questions. I have had the privilege and good fortune to work with Montessori students while they go through their Diploma course. In barely a month after joining the course, they are so repentant about their behavior as 'mothers' or adult care givers towards the child. One woman said 'I wish I could cut this hand that beat the child – I feel so terrible for having done so'. Another woman said "I wish I could turn the clock back – I have caused such harm to the child".


In conclusion, I am in not intending to say that the child is doing the right thing at all times but that as parents we need to educate ourselves about the child's stage of development and accept that at times we really don't know what the correct response is and share with the child our own concerns and anxieties. A key indicator of whether this is working well would be to ask the child if he/she feels comfortable speaking the truth without hiding some parts. Children appreciate honesty and as one child on hearing that her grandmother was away said "I don't like it, but I can deal with it".


So, apparently some reflection is possible and therein lies hope that humanity slows down its frenetic pace to pause, smell the roses and move ahead with being positive about the future.



I wish to thank my colleague – Gayatri Sriram – who narrated the story of this little 3 year old and she did so with such strong feelings for the child that I almost felt I was on that train!


I also wish to thank the IMC office bearers for the invitation to write and the freedom to write what came to me.