When I was three months pregnant with my first child, I was 25 years old and living in a city far away from my mother and my mother-in-law. So, I went to a book store and bought, What to Expect When You’re Expecting, and subscribed to babycentre.com’s weekly emails. Back in the day, at my office, there were only two computers connected to the dial-up internet cable, and I would sneakily catch up on online baby advice while I was supposed to be working.
More than the memetic wisdom of aunts and mothers (don’t drink strong tea or your child will be born dark, eat for two, sour pickles tamp down the morning sickness), I relied on the research and theories of the child-bearing and rearing publishing industry. Like many women, I didn’t want to repeat the mistakes of the generation before me.
For one thing, our mothers were raised with clear ideas about their role in life as women, as reproductive machines, as caregivers, as managers of the house. My generation of women is increasingly rejecting these rigid gender roles. We want a life of ideas and activities, a greater engagement with the outside world, and our parenting style reflects this exposure.
The books told me children will potty train when they are ready. Older maternal figures told me you can do it at six months old, look, we did it, why can’t you. The books told me you should let a child cry out a tantrum. Older maternal figures told me, pick up the child as soon as the first whining begins. The books told me a child’s self-esteem can be damaged by relentless criticism, and regulating behaviour is a two-way process that engages a child rather than through one-sided enforcement. Older maternal figures told me behaviour correction should be through scolding, and it should be consistent.
The truth is every child is different, no one method or piece of advice fits just right. If we are smart, we learn to find a balance between instinct, experience — our own and other’s — and the studies. The moment I saw my first child, in my foggy, drug-induced state, instinct told me I wanted to deliver the world to her little pink palm. Years later, I learnt that children need to earn the privilege, that the world gifted whole is too heavy for a small hand.
If there is one thing this generation of children have in abundance — which we didn’t because either our parents couldn’t afford it, or had other spending priorities — is things. Electronic devices, fidget spinners, dolls, and chocolates and eating out are things our children take for granted.
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Pakistan is increasingly a country of consumers. Research has been telling us that the middle class has been growing rapidly in the last fifteen years. How do we know? Because people are spending more on automobiles and deep freezers, sending children to private schools, taking children to malls and fast food outlets, stuffing them with chips and cookies. And yes, buying them fidget spinners. Aspirational lifestyles tend to move from needs to wants.
But imagine if we gave everything a child wants, without waiting for it, without working for it, without valuing it. What kind of adults would they be? Fat, diabetic, impatient, lazy and self-centred.
These two things, women’s sense of self and increasing consumerism throws up another challenge, from the socio-economic to the personal: we navigate our guilt, our self-doubt, our failures, our neuroses, and our childhood deprivations through the uphill mazes of parenthood, the toys and treats we weren’t given, the opportunities we didn’t have. Our children cannot be the road to our redemption. That is also too heavy a burden for kids.
There is, however, one thing common between the generations, the failure to differentiate between discipline and control. When my youngest daughter, Zainab, was seven, I asked her to tidy up her toys. Instead of an outright tantrum, thankfully she had outgrown those, she lay down under her bed in a dark sulk. I chose to ignore it. But that didn’t work. Half an hour later, it was time for her to change and eat lunch but she still refused to surface. I had two choices then — yell or give it up. For some reason, I decided to talk her out of it, and it turned out to be a flashbulb moment. I hunched down and asked her why she was under the bed.
“Because I’m mad at you.”
“Why are you mad at me?”
“Because you want me to put away the toys.”
“They are your toys and your mess. Shouldn’t you tidy them up?”
“I wanted your help, but you were too busy talking to Hira.”
Hira is my elder daughter.
“Does that mean you didn’t like me talking to Hira?”
Eyes averted, Zainab slowly nodded yes.
Hira had been listening to us and yelled from the other room. “She doesn’t like it when you explain her feelings to her.”
I chose to ignore that bit of advice, because I had just learnt something new: even stubborn, seemingly difficult children have their reasons, all we need to do is listen and understand.
In some ways, parenting is a series of questions that we ought to try and answer at least every few days, if not every day, regardless of age. As my children became older, I found a way to ask them. At night, as we cuddled and talked, I asked them what was good about their day, what was bad, what made them laugh, what they were grateful for, and one thing they had learnt. Simple direct questions that would yield enlightening, often entertaining answers.
Every generation of parents have challenges that are different from the previous generations; the only way to overcome them is to communicate with our children, with other parents, and, in a way, even ourselves.