The recent teenager’s death and the imbroglio related to it, in Calcutta, has brought in a lot of discussion around parenting, as schools and parents struggle to understand how not to make any mistakes and how to raise the perfect person. The thing is, there isn’t one. And neither are there perfect parents, so quit being judgmental and/or depressed about what you see lacking in yourself and your child. Of course it is not easy. There is no one-size-fits-all theory of parenting. Your teenager is just another young person who does not know who he/she is, what they can or even want to be. Pretty much the same churn that happens to you as you bumble your way around parenting them. You both are afraid, but not clear exactly about what. Angry, without knowing at whom. Sometimes teenagers are rejected, but don’t know by whom. For you, it’s worse on this one – you know who you are rejected by. Never believe all those grand-aunts who goad you to have kids – those are all words full of half-truths. No one tells you the whole story, no sirree! The amount of venomous anger your child has for you is difficult to fathom. They haunt the edges and corners of your being with a sullenness you never thought possible.
Till you remember your own adolescence. And it is surprising how we remember events and people and things, but by and large forget how we felt. I remember hating my mother with an intensity then which was only a little less than the intensity with which I love her today. And the change came as soon as I left home to be in a hostel and god how I missed her. And today, a mother of a teenager, but even before that, I will go to any lengths to ensure she does not need to worry, is safe and in good health. I crave to give her the peace I know she did not have raising a bunch of teenagers. Heaven knows it’s difficult enough to raise one. She made mistakes. She admits readily if I goad her. There were unnecessary rules. I was not allowed to put pictures of movie stars in my room, although I could those of cricketers. Kapil Dev was allowed, but Amitabh was not. Where pray was the logic of it, and what did it hope to achieve? It was unlikely that I would leave home and run after either lot, although running away from home and becoming Amitabh Bachchan’s maid (I set low expectations for myself, it helped) was something that did cross my mind. The thought of it is scary now – imagine hearing Aishwarya giggle all day!
My mother’s own suburban, non-English-speaking upbringing meant she could not understand the strides our lives had taken. It sounds ridiculous when one thinks of it all in the light of things today, but I got my first watch after I passed out of school. I used to be given her watch during exams and that was that. I am of the sad, sad generation where I can remember drawing a watch on my wrist with felt pens and feeling cool about it. My dad used to hate people who wore watches on their right wrist – it was what ‘upstarts’ did, whatever that meant. Ma could not understand pen-friendships, (there, now you do realize I am nearly 5 decades old) so you did what you needed to circumvent that. You got your father to be on your side.
I was in an elite school but only got Rs. 20 as monthly pocket money, in a hostel. You couldn’t change the minds of your parents, especially if the school Vice-Principal agreed to it so much. So you did the next best thing – at the beginning of the month you hung around with the one girl who got Rs.100 as pocket money. Later on, when we became the closest of friends, I realized that she had as middle-class an upbringing as I did, and the only reason she got Rs.100 was because her father made some mistake while filling the form.
Kids manipulate you around their little fingers and it is so easy to give in to it. They will see through whatever emotional façade you try to have on, and your emotional state is the message they get and manipulate, never mind the content of your thoughts. As parents we have a tendency to overprotect, and while I think it’s OK to be like that, you need to remember that they will leave you at one point, whether you like it or not, and the real world has sharp, biting teeth.
It’s OK to check what our kids are doing, especially online. But be prepared for what you will see and do not blow your top. And don’t sweat the small stuff, really. If they have been checking about sex, as we think our son did, don’t think of it as something evil – think of it as one less work for you to do. The birds, bees and entire animal kingdom was sorted out for you. And don’t believe anyone who calls you a helicopter parent, it is just a term they learnt to impress, in management school and means nothing. To direct them about what to look for online you need to talk offline.
And never believe anyone who says no kid is born bad. They don’t have a clue. The nicest of parents, who get enough sleep and are in full emotional control get the rottenest kids, when they do everything right, work at parenthood much more than you do. There will come a point when the twerp whose bottom you wiped a million times, who managed to do targeted projectile vomiting on you and your most expensive dress, whose snot you have cleared using your own hands will tell you to ‘get a life’. You might want to count till thousand then, and remember teenagers don’t have a full brain yet – the part which controls how to make important judgments like who pays the bills, only kicks in after they have left home to earn money themselves. Remembering violence never solved anything is also helpful at this time.
We only had TV after Indira Gandhi died and there was a transmission centre near our town. So us siblings would go to a neighbour’s place to watch the protracted funeral – me to watch Amitabh (how did he forget the grace of those white kurtas and shawls) and my brothers to watch the then drop-dead gorgeous Priyanka. I can still remember the plaintive notes of that early morning start of All India Radio. My son probably has YouTube accounts I know nothing about. A close friend learnt only after his son shot himself that his son had a YouTube account with hundreds of followers. This was nothing to hide, he talked technology there, but my friend still did not know. My son is unfazed by anything electronic and cackles wickedly when sometimes I talk of taping something to mean recording.
Your angelic daughter with those heavenly curls will start having a bitchy smile. I have thought about it a lot – and used all my resolve to recalibrate my mothering instinct to step away from my son, do my own reshuffling and wait for him to reach out to me. Yes, it does help that he does not need much, is happy to just stay in his room and read. We live in really strange times when a mother goes after a son who does that to say, that serial –killer in that University also only read books in his room. I did. Recently.
We will make mistakes, trying to make up for the experiences in life that were absent in our own childhoods. In doing that we sometimes forget that most teenager’s world is a narcissistic, anarchic paranoid hell – how they look, whether they are popular, how their private parts are growing, you know, the works. As a parent, watching this can be hilarious, poignant and heartbreaking at the same time. But it is also extremely wonderful to watch them change, to see their character transformations.
They crave for privacy. One day they are telling you things and the next they clam up, going into lockdown, their only response a shrug. In the smallest of flats, without actually closing doors, they have built walls, ear-phoned themselves out of hearing. The kid who barged into your room at all times now gets annoyed even if you knock and enter his room, because he has to take out his earphones to listen to you. Everything is apocalyptic about them.
But they are yours, whatever their transformation. They are also struggling to rebel and conform at the same time, maybe in different places. As parents, we have to teach our teenagers they have to survive. They will have all kinds of crap thrown at them and as parents, we have to teach them to continue despite that. They have to strive for what they want the most, even if it seems out of their reach and everything seems to be working against them.
The glory that comes after this is exhilarating to watch. Denying their foibles, in private and public, is only something that will get heartaches later, and they will be permanent. You need to watch them get the scars as they make their decisions and live with them. We need to let them listen to their own thoughts and feelings very carefully, and understand what they hear.
We need them to value their values. If it is an under-age alcohol party they have had without your knowledge and something disastrous became of it, they need to be responsible for that action, standing straight in all that chaos as a well-adjusted person. And we need to acknowledge that even as we support them. Don’t ascribe much logic to their actions. They need to act beyond thoughtless impulse, and if they do, we as parents should not hide them, but hold it up so that their past viewed later on is a kaleidoscope of mistakes made and wrong turns taken. So that the turns they take when adults are the correct ones.