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Why I’m working towards hands-off parenting

In a hyper-aware super connected world where paranoia is becoming the main strategy by which we live our lives, parenting has become a complex job with immense responsibility. As parents, we are constantly aware of the grave consequences of wrong decisions. We obsess over every choice we make with regards to our kids, from choosing a school to monitoring the company they keep, from the toys we  buy to the places we take our kids to.

As a mother of two reasonably intelligent and talented kids, I am constantly stuck between two distinct models of parenting. The very structured and demanding ‘Tiger’ mode that Amy Chua eloquently bats for in her book[Ref: Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother by Amy Chua (2011)] and a more relaxed instinctive style that allows children to experiment and set their own pace. I’ve tried both and I’ll say this: Tiger mode is seductive for parents who are ambitious for their children and need to feel in control but relaxed mode is more fun, more gratifying, more humane. I’ll also tell you why I’ve come to this conclusion.

Children are individuals, parents do not ‘own’ them

Someone recently asked me this: “Aap apne bacche ko kya banaana chahte ho?”- What will you make your child? It’s a common enough question in Indian society. “Why would I make him anything?”, was my incredulous retort. Mine wasn’t a naive statement. Questions like these imply that parents own their children or at least own rights over their future, and I do not buy that.

Children, right from the moment they are born, are individuals. They have ideas, a sense of themselves and their place in the world. These ideas are shaped in the early years by their parents and guardians, teachers, friends, caregivers, by what they see and hear. In this, a parent plays a defining role. But to extend that role to decisions about their careers, or who their partner should be, or where they should live and what they should wear is a gross mistake and a fallout of an erroneous patriarchal construct that we need to urgently challenge. For several reasons, and I will not go into those here and now, but simply because freedom is a right. No parent wants their child to live in chains. To examine our own relationship with our children and see the chains we feter them with for what they are is an important step of good parenting. A step we should not take with a sense of insecurity and trepidation, but with a sense of empowerment, knowing this is the right thing to do.

Freedom nurtures creativity, creative people drive change

By conditioning children to over-instruction and putting in place a system of rewards and brickbats, we teach them that seeking our approval is the chief objective of their lives. As adults, they continue to work towards the approval of someone or the other. A spouse, a boss, a friend.

Pushing kids through rigid structures and pressurizing them to over achieve may drive excellence and cause success in the short-term, but it severely compromises originality, believes Wharton Prof Adam Grant. “Limiting rules,” he writes, “encourages children to think for themselves.”

No one can be in doubt that we need original thinking to take us forward. We need new  ideas to tackle a host of problems, from malnutrition to climate change. We need innovative technology to drive economic growth and create prosperity. We need creative people to compose music, write plays and books, make films that entertain as well as enrich us immeasurably.

Easy to say, hard to implement: ‘Letting go’ is a mindset change

Even if you buy my arguments for less structure and more freedom, how do you act upon it in an increasingly competitive world that drives you to measure success instantly (and share it on your social media feed even faster!)? For a parent, taking a step back is incredibly hard. Taking the long view seems like a risk. What if it backfires? What if my child does not get through the best colleges? What if her musical talent goes wasted? We worry about the possibility of a perceived failure in the future because we are comparing our children constantly to their peers and to the best in the world.

My main rejoinder to myself when I find myself worried is that less structure does not mean apathy. It must be accompanied by an emphasis on quality interactions between parents and children and a concerted effort to create opportunities to expose our children to multiple stimuli, experiences and information sources. So the formula changes from choosing a select set of structured activities and ensuring they are done, repeatedly, till excellence is achieved to something else. Choosing fewer of these structured routines to free up time for a wider variety of less structured ones.

To make this shift happen is requiring me to change the way I think about life, about choices, about expectations. It is pushing me to place more value on the here and now and worry less about a future that I, in any case, cannot determine. Increased conversations are creating opportunities for debates within the home, often about complex and ethically difficult issues. About sex and gender, about the drug regime and politics, about the failings of the modern parent even!

I hope this journey will make questioners of my children (and push me to question too, as I learn everyday from these two and the students I interact with on a weekly basis). Those of you who know how disturbed I’ve been over what has transpired in university campuses across India these past few months may now understand why the muffling of dissenting voices is deeply disturbing for me. While I persevere in a difficult personal journey towards hands-off parenting, I fail to understand how a political agenda that envisages a nation of minions instead of one with creative thinkers will serve a nation that professes an ambition to inclusive economic growth.

Thinking urbanism: An evening at the BMW Guggenheim Mumbai Lab

To be in this part of Mumbai, the part that I remember rather well from my childhood, is sheer pleasure. After many many years, I visited Rani Bagh. Queen’s Gardens, later named Jijamata Udyan, is where the Mumbai Zoo is housed and we used to be enormously excited to go there as children, especially when the cousins descended from Goa and we had a rollicking time!

On Monday evening, I had the occasion to visit Rani Bagh again because the BMW Guggenheim Mumbai Lab is running at the Bhau Daji Lad Museum, the erstwhile Victoria and Albert Museum, which is located here. The Museum has been beautifully restored through a PPP between the municipal corporation, INTACH and the Jamnalal Bajaj Foundation. It is a UNESCO heritage site as well, pretty impressive. Regular people like hotel receptionists and shop owners at the other end of the block have no idea though!

The Bhau Daji Lad Museum inside the premises of Rani Bagh in Mumbai. A UNESCO listed heritage site.

The Bhau Daji Lad Museum inside the premises of Rani Bagh in Mumbai. A UNESCO listed heritage site.

The tower at Rani Bagh that you can see from the road when you pass by. A certain memory from my childhood in Mumbai

The tower at Rani Bagh that you can see from the road when you pass by. A certain memory from my childhood in Mumbai

The BMW Guggenheim Lab is an attempt to understand urbanism and debate issues around it in a specific city. I walked into a well-designed, attractive temporary exhibition-cum-interaction space that housed some thought-provoking exhibits and also had a series of presentations being made.

The exhibition space was set up at the back of the museum building and was beautifully designed and executed

The exhibition space was set up at the back of the museum building and was beautifully designed and executed

This exhibit re-imagined an unused space in the city where massive pipelines currently exist and would become defunct in the near future. Interesting.

This exhibit re-imagined an unused space in the city where massive pipelines currently exist and would become defunct in the near future. Interesting.


A close up view of the model

Side view. The sides of the exhibit were used to showcase books on urbanism and urban issues

Side view. The sides of the exhibit were used to showcase books on urbanism and urban issues

Another exhibit mapped the city of Mumbai by density and revealed just how dense the city is, especially its slums. For me, this defied the mth that high rise is the best way to accomodate more people

Another exhibit mapped the city of Mumbai by density and revealed just how dense the city is, especially its slums. For me, this defied the myth that high rise is the best way to accommodate more people

True to the spirit of the initiative, the discussions touched on issues like open spaces, sanitation and water resources that impact the lives of people in a city. I was happy to hear that all the speakers, to lesser or greater degree, advocated community-based approaches to address urban issues and spoke about the immense knowledge that comes from non-experts.

This is reassuring for us at mHS at a time when we are piloting technical assistance kiosks in communities where self-construction is the way people build their homes and where professional assistance is considered not just a luxury, but frankly, unnecessary. Clearly, while safety must not be compromised, it is important to understand why professional assistance is redundant and learn from the positive innovations that self-built homes exhibit. For a city like Mumbai that has attracted migrants for centuries and is very diverse, bottom-up approached to urban design are imperative and could produce stunning results.

The BMW Guggenheim Mumbai Lab kick-started on the 4th and seems a great way to help people connect with their city and think about urban issues. However, it seemed to me that the exhibit was a bit tucked away from public view and was attracting a niche crowd. I sincerely hope they have walk-ins from a cross section of citizens so that the information gathered through it (done via simple questionnaires that people fill, public walks and talks) is rich and diverse.

At this point in time, when India is getting ready to riding a speedy wave of urbanization, such interactive processes that involve citizens with urban issues could be considered in many cities, as much to inform professionals and governments as to inculcate awareness and a sense of pride among citizens. Broad-based platforms of interaction, data gathering via crowdsourcing and public debate can be excellent tools by which the shape of the future could be molded to achieve inclusion and better quality of life.

As I walked out of the Lab, I spotted my friend Asim’s name on a placard, only to find myself staring at his gigantic work of art Punha through a glass door! Spent a few minutes walking around this installation, hearing it sounds, feelings its moans and groans. Icing on the cake!

Asim Waqif's work 'Punha' caught me by surprise as I walked out of the Lab

Asim Waqif’s work ‘Punha’ caught me by surprise as I walked out of the Lab


Parliament adjournment symptomatic of an absent culture of debate and civilized dissent. Need to change this!Sep 7, 2012

It’s nothing short of a shame. The Parliament sessions being adjourned. I wince, but walk on as a citizen of the country, when young children get raped, when countrymen kill countrymen, when visitors from neighboring nations get lynched. But today, my head hangs down in shame.

Why is obstruction always a better option than debate for us Indians? Why cannot we have a civilized conversation, agree to disagree, or simply disagree with grace and firmness? Is it that we have not tried hard enough to develop a culture of conversation and communication, a culture of debate and civilized dissent? It would seem so.

I look around and see that theory playing out everywhere. Yesterday, students in a private Gurgaon institution burnt down a part of the building because a student died. She had a heart condition and died in hospital, but the students claimed she wasn’t given immediate attention by the institution. By no means is burning stuff down a legitimate response to the rage, the helplessness that the students must have felt in this situation.

We are a very angry people. So caught up in our anger, in our world of grouses that we have stopped listening to each other, to the person in front of us. If the opinion being expressed is other than what we believe in, we tend to shout louder and drown the other voice. What about listening? Listening does not mean you agree. It only means you listen, process, even learn. Then, you reposition your own thoughts in light if the inputs received.

When you debate, you are the strongest when you can convert your opposition’s point to your advantage. That requires you to first listen intently, patiently and then bring your intelligence into play. I’m not expert, but I’m wondering how well our Opposition listens in Parliament.

When the situation is not debate for debate’s sake and a group is trying to take decisions, listening becomes critical. But beyond listening, for those in position of power, is the need to take criticism in good spirit and address concerns in a logical, informative manner. Here is where the leading party seems to mess up. The Opposition would be less successful at disrupting if the Congress were forthright in providing ansers and even accepting mistakes where required. But then, politics isn’t that simple! Those in power will do whatever it takes to stay there, and ethical considerations simply do not seem to figure in the scheme of things.

To me, all of this only demonstrates an urgent need to build a culture of civilized dissent in our society. I was lucky to get a chance to be a debater in school. I got introduced to it by a certain Mother Teresa in Loreto Convent Lucknow, who picked me for an inter-school debate over other established debaters in the school. I went on to win and she encouraged me to hone my skills. Later, in Army Public School, many more opportunities came my way. I lost the fear of questioning, learnt to do my research well, learn to retaliate in a well spoken manner, learnt to back aggression with facts and logic and accept defeat gracefully, even while plotting to down the opposing team in the next round!

However, in our academic institutions, school and college, no one is encouraged to criticize or debate ideas. Students listen, teachers don’t. We perpetuate that culture of one way communication when we become adults and occupy positions of power. Our natural rebellion and dissent, or even curiosity, is suppressed and we learn to bottle it, only to express it as uncontrolled rage on social media or on the streets! We’re a nation of spoilt children, who all had a bad childhood, in a sense.

I’m aware that this is a simplistic diagnosis and a pop psychology type of hypothesis. But seriously, how do we change this and bring into our society a culture of listening, sharing, collaborating and building consensus- ideas, anyone?


Can we evolve new tenets for our democracy? Musings on India’s bankruptcy of vision – Aug 17, 2012

The last issue of HT’s Brunch carried a one pager by Shashi Tharoor on the 40s as a decade for India. In this piece he outlines “democratic institution building, staunch pan-Indian secularism, socialist economics at home and a foreign policy of non alignment” as the 4 pillars of the Nehruvian legacy, which was evolved equally by Nehru, Gandhi, Patel and Ambedkar, the four stalwarts that guided India through that tumultuous decade to a bright future in a world being torn apart by fascism and violence.
All four pillars stand contested today. Institutions are severely crippled by corruption, nepotism and a serious lack of vision and direction. Secularism is threatened not just by communalism (which was top of the mind for statesmen in the aftermath of the bloody Partition) but by racism, regionalism, casteism and the class wars. The incidents unfolding in Bangalore and Chennai, where hundreds of people from north eastern India are fleeing home in fear underlines that many Indians feel threatened in their own homeland, for absolutely no fault of theirs. It is a despicable situation and whoever is behind this is both racist and cowardly. I am upset that there were no strong steps taken by the city and state governments to counter this fear and the resulting exodus. That is another sign that even those in power inadvertently accept the unfolding disintegration of India. Scary!
The remaining two pillars. Socialist economics is something we are struggling with in the face of capitalistic forces, the need to be competitive in the global scenario. Our large population of poor people is a drag on our economy, no matter how much we try, we are unable to translate this into an opportunity. Mind you, there is real potential here and several social sector entrepreneurs have shown that innovations in technologies and trying new business models can harness the aspirations of the poor and fire the double bullet of giving them upward mobility while creating modestly profitable businesses. The problem is that even the government looks at the poor as objects of pity and not as customers for services or even as citizens with equal rights. That is the real failure, the failure of vision.
I won’t discuss non alignment. The world has changed much in the past six decades and I am no expert on foreign policy.
If all these four pillars are contested, it means we urgently need to re- envision the tenets of democracy for India today. That is what political manifestos are supposed to do, but instead they pay lip service to vision and announce populist measures. Why are we shying away from asking the vital questions? There are certain things every Indian wants- security, opportunities for growth, etc- but there are many issues on which consensus may not be possible. We need to build a climate of debate, an ability to hear the plural voices out there. Instead, we find it easier to watch and wait for the end, the revolution, the disintegration into chaos. I suppose it is time for me to read the latest works of both Chetan Bhagat and Tharoor to explore these thoughts further. Until then, I am attempting to place my agitation on hold and focus on making my weekend productive and enjoyable!

Open-ended education and the importance of ‘play’- Jan 21, 2012

Almost on cue, today’s ‘Open House’ at the school (Shikshantar) my kids attend addressed the importance of play for children. The connection of the school’s presentation to my experience at SPA yesterday was astonishing and I’m attempting to draw some relationships here between early education, higher education and professional practice.

‘Play’ is loosely defined as an activity that children (and I think it applies to young and older adults as well) want to do, use their imagination and creativity in, do spontaneously and has an objective (in itself) that may not be apparent to those not involved. In essence, play is an open-ended exploration of whatever the child has on her mind. Instruction deters play and parents were being urged by the school to try and provide the time and space for open-ended, unsupervised play, offering a safe environment for children to simply be! Research has demonstrated strong correlations between this kind of unstructured, open-ended, spontaneous activity and cognitive learning. Children who engage in play are better socially adjusted, have better critical thinking abilities, are more tolerant, etc.

Open-ended, unstructured learning reduces as students move into middle and senior school and, strangely, further reduces during undergraduate courses. To me, that seems ludicrous and I remember a group of us hotly debating this with our teachers back when we were in SPA. The explanation we got was that students would not produce any work if there is no deliverable, no deadline. It was an issue of a lack of trust in the capability of students, but also the knowledge that students have not been oriented to this sort of self-motivated learning from school.

So there you have the problem and a partial answer. To expect undergrad students who can ask questions, be tolerant of conflicting opinions, debate and discuss openly, we need to give children the opportunity to explore and develop their minds through their education cycle as well as in the home environment. Sounds simple, but in a world driven by competition, results and the urge to constantly instruct, it’s one of the toughest things for parents and educators to implement.

Why were things slightly better in our times? Because we had slightly less stressed parents, less isolating lives at home, other children (cousins, friends) to play with, our early lives were not filled with back-to-back instructions-brain-o-brain classes, tennis coaching, dance, music, tuition and what have you. We didn’t have ‘play dates’, we simply played.

Kids are cornered from both ends. While we had structured school, but plenty of unstructured time at home, many children nowadays have structured school and home time. It’s a frightening situation, where they are cornered with no time of their own. Don’t we adults crave me-time, to indulge in pleasurable activities? Then why do we dare to presume what is ‘desirable’ (read appropriate) to our children instead of letting them be and letting them choose for themselves?

I guess the only thing we can do is recognize the need for open-endedness and unstructured time and trust that learning will happen if these were to be provided along with some good inputs and exposure!


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