The confused Indian American parent

by Rohini Mohan

We are the new wave of Indians who streamed into the US. We lived and worked as adults in a liberalized India that had already started to mesh with the West. Unlike our predecessors who moved here before the booming 90’s we were already exposed to many aspects of American life. Cable TV and the Internet had taken care of that. So we did not really have to worry about the ‘Culture shock’ phenomenon that the earlier generation of immigrants faced on arriving here. We went our merry way, working, getting married, enjoying life, integrating into the society (or not). And then, one fine day we had kids. That’s when we started feeling it – the dichotomy between two diametrically opposite cultures – the big face-off between the Indian way and the American way of child rearing.

P R Ganapathy explores the fundamental concept of child motivation. The Indian child growing up in India had a moving goal post. Here, the carrot is handed out before the goalpost is in sight.

Watching my son grow up in the US, going to a US school, I often wonder about the impact of this culture on him, and the values and lessons he’s getting from the environment around him. These lessons are often very different from, and sometimes at odds with, the values I grew up with in
India. In some matters, there’s a conflict brewing, and I know it’s going to result in a serious disagreement someday.

One specific area where I see this conflict is the role of praise or “positive strokes” in motivating him. The American system seems to lay a great emphasis on positive praise, often going out of the way to avoid criticism of any sort. Anything a child does is worthy of praise. “Good job” or “That’s wonderful” rolls off tongues with such ease that it makes me cringe.

I’ve been at the receiving end of this glib praise on a sports team that I’m a member of. Even after losing a game, often miserably, I sit down and honestly ponder the mistakes I made – the lack of fitness, or too many unforced errors. It’s not that I’m depressed or anything; I’m just trying to figure out what I need to concentrate on to do better then next time. But my playing partners are prompted to “motivate” me by telling me that I’m “selling myself short” or that I “shouldn’t be so hard on myself”.

I don’t remember it being like this growing up in India. Praise was something to be earned by doing really well. When you went home with a report card showing you got 95% in Math, your parents normally asked you “What happened to the other 5%?” They might’ve been on the other end of the spectrum and we often do “sell ourselves short”, but it taught us to set ourselves high standards to achieve before we’d get praise and be able to rest on our laurels.

On the flip side, we may often fall into the same trap that our parents fell into – the inability to appreciate the positive aspects of a situation. If something doesn’t meet one’s expectations, I find it impossible to honestly offer praise, or if I force myself to – I feel terribly dishonest inside.

Coming back to the influence of these contradictions on our children, I often worry that they’ll grow up resenting their parents (who never seem to genuinely appreciate what they’ve achieved) and craving the praise of their teachers and coaches, who seem delighted with anything. The child may never realize that there’s a world of possibilities out there if they only tried harder; possibilities that are well within their abilities.

Praise, yet motivate to strive higher – that’s the fine balance we have to strike. I’m not sure there are any clean answers to how to bell this cat.

And here is Sukanya Mahadevan’s lament about how we squeeze every last drop of opportunity available in the land of plenty to ensure that our kids have seen and done it all. Is this just the Indian thing to do? Or is it because we want our kids to have what we did not have growing up? Are we living vicariously?

When I was a kid growing up in Delhi, competition was stiff. Being an only child added to the mix and made it only harder. My dad was the good cop and mom was the bad cop. My mom made sure there was no time in my day for mischief to creep into my head. I went from school to various performing arts classes to tennis to back home for homework and ‘mom-made-tests’. My play dates were either with my books or friends that were hand picked by my parents. Once my rebellious hormones kicked in, I dropped a few of my performing arts classes, picked my own subjects to excel in and selected my own friends to hang out with. However, being on schedules has made me more methodical and efficient in life. So while rules rule my life, spontaneity causes chaos. This for me personally is sometimes good and sometimes bad. Even though my childhood was definitely structured, there was still room and time for unstructured interaction with friends and cousins.

Naturally when I had my own kids, I was thrown in a dilemma. Structure or spontaneity? Discipline or freedom of choice? All of us in the NRI community know that no matter where our kids grow up, they will face stiff competition to succeed. So what is this magic formula to future success? Some of us place our kids in private school and let the school take on the load of preparing our kids. Some of us pick excellent school districts to live in and let our property taxes flow down to them in the way of good education.

What about extra tuition? Should it be Kumon in Kindergarten or Huntington in High School? And then let us not forget memorizing tables vs. using Math facts. All this is just on the academic front. Then we have to worry about sports. For some strange reason we seem to think our kids are going to end up in Ivy League schools with sports scholarships! Should we teach them team sports like soccer or enroll them in private tennis lessons? Sports such as tennis involve individual coaching and therefore cost more but team sports like soccer are cheaper but require a lot more time, especially if they are good enough to make it to travel teams. Of course, some of us energizer bunnies take on more. Moms tend to get deeply involved with PTO organizations and dads tend to coach sports teams. On top of all of this, some of our kids take part in performing arts such as ballet and piano and school band. Never mind how the kids survive this rigor, it is a miracle that we parents survive these schedules and that our marriages survive the stress.

Of course let us not forget play dates and birthday parties. Now to this chaotic magic potion let us add Sunday Bal Vihars, Bharathanatyam classes and classical music lessons and we have one very over-achieving, dazed, robotic kid and a very gratified but severely exhausted parent. One has to wonder how our kids will develop social skills to live in the real world without free play and unstructured interaction with peers.

So is this glorified American dream worth the prize we and our kids pay in the long run? Definitely food for thought is it not?

It’s not just the American Born kids who are the confused Desis struggling with an identity crisis. The FOB (Fresh Off the Boat) parents have now joined the bandwagon. Parenting is hard enough without throwing the cultural dimension into the mix. Question is, is there a via media? The answer, my friend, is blowing in the wind…

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