I drive down the same route through an urban village to my office every day. In the mornings, an old man carries a packet of grain and pours a fistful under a tree. How nice of him to leave grain for the birds, I think. Then comes an afterthought: The birds will soon be conditioned to finding grain under the tree. Then, over time, they will forget how to look for their own food. Ultimately, they will lose the desire to work for their food. What happens when one day the old man dies and there is no grain under the tree?
Why does the old man give grains to the bird? Is it his need to do ‘good’? Is it his protective instincts towards something he feels is helpless?
The old man reminded me of the generation of parents I belong to. Many people in my generation have struggled through their childhood and are ‘self-made’. There are parents who grew up in middle-class families at a time when India was not very economically successful. They started riding a wave of prosperity as they stepped into the workforce. For most of them, it is a natural instinct to work towards fulfilling all their children’s desires and give them the comfort they themselves did not have. Many would have heard the story of the boy who helped the butterfly out of the cocoon by cutting it because he felt very concerned seeing the butterfly struggle. The butterfly emerges with a swollen body and shriveled wings and tries to fly but is unable to and crawls for the rest of its life. The struggle out of the cocoon was necessary to push the fluid to the wings and make the wings strong enough for it to fly. By helping the butterfly, the little boy made it dependent for life.
Dr Mark D Seery, a professor of psychology at the University at Buffalo under the State University of New York, did a study in 2010 to see how low levels of adversity could impact a person’s coping skills and emotional stability as opposed to no adversity. Most of the research till then had focused on the impact of substantial single event adversity or traumatic experience and its impact on resilience — the ability to adapt, cope or rebound from a negative or stressful life event. Dr Seery’s nine-year research suggested that subjects who were exposed to low levels of adversity, as compared to no adversity, coped with recent adverse events better and had higher life satisfaction. He concluded that adversity can help people develop a “psychological immune system” to help them cope with the slings and arrows that life throws, while those with no experience of adversity may have a hard time dealing with tough times. The one thing we can be sure of in life is that there will be adversity and struggle. The nature of that adversity may change over generations, but it will be there.
Many of us parents do our utmost to protect our kids from struggle. As a result, kids are reluctant to push themselves beyond their limited physical or mental comfort zone and do even simple tasks.
Many mothers stand in waiting while their kids study, ensuring their every need is taken care of so that they can fully concentrate on their studies. Life’s not like that. Chances are that our attention will be required in multiple areas at the time of our most busy and important working period. Most of us would be able to recall times when we have been stretched in multiple directions and everything was urgent and important. No angel turns up to take care of everything else while we take care of one thing. The only angel is our will power and emotional stability. Getting our children to do some work and take care of their own needs independently while studying for exams will prepare them better and help them learn prioritisation and multi-tasking.
In India, parents who are economically well-off often think that their children should not do housework. Part-time help is usually found even in middle-class households. How many of us have washed our own car or cleaned our bathrooms? How many of us expect our kids to? My kids protest even when I ask them to help cut some vegetables or lay the table! Doing housework makes us down-to-earth and humble. It makes us grateful rather than entitled. These qualities go a long way in building interpersonal relationships in adulthood.
We even protect our kids from the struggle of thinking. I often used to wait at the IG Stadium while my daughter learnt gymnastics. There would always be a group of mothers sitting together waiting. Once I saw a couple of them writing notes for their kids so that the kids could simply study the notes when they got home. But, it is the note-making which is the actual part of studying, I lamented to myself! By taking away the struggle to balance sports with studies, parents often take away learning opportunities.
We all know that we should help kids find their own answers but often we end up giving it to them on a platter because it is easier for us or because they make such a big deal of it. My husband had, as a kid, to refer to the dictionary every time he came across an unfamiliar word. My son just looks up from his book and asks and there are at least two people willing to give an answer. How different are we from the old man who fed grains to the birds?
And then we wonder why this generation of children takes no initiative and give up so easily. Why they feel entitled to so many things and throw tantrums when they don’t get it. We fail to realise that it is the trek up the mountain that makes us a winner versus simply arriving at the summit. As Friedrich Nietzsche, the German philosopher said, “What will not kill me will make me stronger”. We need to expose our children to struggle so that they become strong and when adversity strikes, which it will, they won’t need us to save them.