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Maa to mom: The parenting dilemma


STUMBLING BLOCKS: Apart from parenting gaffes, fears of culture shock and racism in schools is also a legitimate concern among immigrant parents

In a routine on growing up as a "brown kid" in Canada, comic Russell Peters requests white people to beat up their kids. This is because, as a child, Peters had once made the mistake of taking his white friend Ryan's advice on dealing with parents. "If they shout at you, just tell them you'll call children's aid, " Ryan had told him. Naturally, at the next thrashing session, Peters does just that. 

"You'll do what?" his dad screams. "Let me get you the phone, tough guy. " "You'll get into trouble, " Russell mumbles. "I might get into a little bit of trouble, " says the dad, "But I know that it's going to take them 23 minutes to get here and in that time...somebody's gonna get a hurt real bad. "

Not many first-generation migrant parents can boast of going as far as Peter's dad though. For them, kids who threaten to call 911 are just one of many parenting dilemmas. While bringing up their kids, the couples find that they simply cannot copy their own parents. After all, parenting norms in the West discourage habits such as sleeping together, feeding them with their hands, carrying the child or spanking them. Naturally, with the access to cultural precedents being cut off, these couples become an overly cautious, and frequently helpless, lot.

Shikha Sohal, a US-based homemaker who has a three-year-old son, has come across many migrant parents complaining about kids who threaten to call the childline. "Since children here are considered State property too, you can not be too harsh with them, " says Sohal, adding that it isn't permitted to hit or even scold a child in public or at home as it may leave a negative impact that may affect his overall well being.

Earlier this week, in Norway, an Indian software professional and his wife were held guilty of "serious child abuse" and sentenced to jail terms for 18 months and 15 months respectively. The couple, according to the official statement, had deliberately burned their seven-year-old son's leg with a hot spoon or similar object with the result that the child had burn marks. While such disciplinary measures are undoubtedly extreme and condemnable in any country, they also, in a way, re-instate that parenting, for Indian couples living abroad, entails a constant process of unlearning ingrained parenting methods and confronting situations that don't have ethnic precedents.

US-based Samaresh Pal (name changed), cites the instance of his acquaintance, who hired a nanny for his autistic child. "One day, the wife got a little exasperated with something the child had done and shook her, perhaps a tad roughly, " says Pal, in an email interview. "The nanny quietly called 911, " he adds. Suddenly the couple found a big team from the social security office at their doorstep, asking for the child. "They physically examined the child, went through all the rooms, wardrobes and her clothing to check for blood marks. The mother was crying all the while trying to explain that she meant no harm to the child. The social security people then used to make regular visits to their house for the following year and would examine the child each time, " says Pal. 

Another friend of Pal's found herself in a somewhat similar situation when she took her daughter to a new doctor for a regular checkup. The doctor found a black mark near the neck and called up the kid's regular doctor to check if she knew how the parents behaved towards the kid. "Because of these stories, we don't shout at our son outside the house, " says Pal.

Even little things, that may be taken for granted in India, can be perceived with concern. UK-based Archana Sharma, a communications and media adviser with NHS in Berkshire, recalls her Indian friend being upset when the latter was asked if her two-yearold daughter uses her hand to eat. A nursery staffer wanted to know this because the daughter once dug into her yogurt with her fingers one day - something all other children mimicked. "I feel that some cultural sensitivity should have been shown by the nursery staff, " says Sharma.

Fears of culture shock and racism in school, be it overt or covert, is another major concern. "People will make fun of his religion. How do you explain that to the kid?" asks US-based Indian author Arnab Ray. US-based Neha Pant, a preschool teacher for kids with special needs, finds it hard to answer questions like, "Why is my friend's hair yellow and not mine?" and "Why is my skin brown and Brooke's not?" posed by her daughter Shyla. "I read to her and show videos of children around the world and teach her that it's okay to be different, " says Pant.

Such communication that allows the child to express their fears is key, says psychologist Seema Hingorrany. "Out there, child protection rights are part of the syllabus. Teachers and counsellors are tuned in to pick up telltale signs of academic decline, " says Hingorrany, who has counselled Indian couples planning to move abroad.

It is a reasonable fear. After all, as Bangalore-based Ritendra Bhattacharya, who spent 10 years in the US before moving to India last year, attests, kids are taught to be aware of their rights from a very young age in the West. "From the time our daughter was in grade two or three, she would attend regular sessions on topics like proper and improper touch and basic safety, including sexual safety, " says Bhattacharya.

Archana Sharma says she does not usually spoonfeed him unless he is unwell. Also, even though Sharma's parents did think occasional pasting was necessary, "we are absolutely clear that we will never punish him with a spank, " says Sharma. However, she adds in parenthesis that sometimes he does test their patience.


UK-based Archana Sharma, mother of a two-year-old, on how she struggled to juggle western notions of sensible parenting with desiideals

When my child was born, I was scared of 'cot death'. I was also told that if you let them sleep with you, you could end up crushing them. We got a Moses basket before my son was born. He would constantly stir in the basket and I remember not getting any sleep as I felt the need to constantly check on him. When my mom arrived, she just took him with her to sleep. He wouldn't stir as much. He slept with her for three months.

When my health visitor learnt about it, she was very clear that it was not right. She suggested not carrying him too often. "If he is not distressed, why are you? Look at him playing happily in the corner, "she would say. But for us, to allow a three-month-old to lie in a corner while we went about doing our chores, was very guilt ridden.

Soon we got a cot for him. And since he was not used to sleeping on his own, I was recommended a technique called control crying - if the baby cries in bed, you let him for about five minutes, then go and reassure him but then leave the room. You continue this till he eventually goes to sleep, usually exhausted of crying.

I tried it in all earnest but it was like a household meltdown. My husband was grumpy but agreed not to interfere, my mom cried in her room. She thought it was cruel to let a baby cry like that. I was handling a crying baby, a crying mother and a very upset husband.

My son has been sleeping on his own since then. My relatives are shocked when during social gatherings I excuse myself to put him to bed, and return in three minutes. They think a lullaby and comforting cuddle should at least take 45 minutes. But Romir falls asleep in his bed on his own. Since he turned two, I spend a little time with him reading to him. My story always ends with the main character, closing his eyes and doing'ninna' (sleeping). Cue. Romir dives into sleeping position and closes his eyes. I switch off the lights and shut the door.

There have been times when I have wanted to slap Romir on his wrist. Especially when I am changing his nappy and he makes a grab at the wrong place. Nurseries here (they are not like school nursery in India) will never beat or spank a child. They are not even allowed to say a child has been "naughty". The most you can do is to give him 'time out'.

(With inputs from Shrabonti Bagchi and Padmaparna Ghosh)

Reader's opinion (1)

Sucheta DasguptaDec 13th, 2012 at 19:05 PM

Corporal punishment for children especially at home is not wrong (it's responsible parenting and makes the child strong presenting them with impetus for autonomy and thereby fostering growth) but being duplicitous or unfair obviously is and western practices are far better in that crucial aspect.

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