Conditioned childhood

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Conditioned childhood

The aspirations of many parents result in undue pressure on their children to perform for success, not skill, writes TANVEER AHMED

I remember as a child, watching a family friend who bought their only daughter medically related toys from an early age. For example, the mother would buy a plastic stethoscope for the child’s fourth birthday or the game ‘Operation’ for her seventh. All of it was strategically aimed to help their one and only daughter to ultimately become a doctor, an aspiration many South Asian parents hold for their children.
There was little question that the mother was a loving parent who only wanted the best for her child and ultimately, she was successful. Her daughter did become a doctor. But it raised the much discussed question about how hard should we push our children, or whether we are flexible enough to promote a wider variety of careers for our children.
Amy Chua is a Princeton academic who attracted headlines worldwide several years ago for suggesting that white, Anglo parents were just too soft on their children. She openly spoke of how her children were studying many extra hours on top of their usual tuition.
A key suggestion she makes is that the message within Western circles is that children are ultimately quite fragile, whereas Asian or Indian culture teaches that children are innately resilient.
This is certainly the case in India, where there is enormous pressure and competition to enter the best schools and thereafter, the most prestigious and lucrative careers. The child’s achievements are closely tied to the prestige of the family, as anybody who has heard Aunties brag about their relatives at dinner parties, would be well aware of.
But such intensity is not without a dark side. The Times of India reported that student suicides in India had jumped 26% between 2006 and 2011 and blamed it, in part, on the immense pressure parents place on their children to achieve high grades.
A Fairfax article about so-called ‘tiger mothers’ suggested Indians were likely to be as aggressive as any other ethnic group. A mother living in Australia identified as Mrs Dhaliwal said she does not allow her daughters to sleepover at friends’ houses and says sports can be ‘time consuming’ and might cause them to ‘fall behind in their studies’.
While some of us might pity Mrs Dhaliwal, the reality is that many people from the local South Asian community would share her views, particularly about extra-curricular activities being a distraction.
In reality, this is a misunderstanding. In the past few decades, a great deal of brain research has shown that we actually use more of our brain in navigating complex social tasks, than in technical ones. The vast areas of our brain that we are yet to understand are most likely to be complex apparatus to help us deal with the complexity of human social interactions.
I have a firm view that we underrate this in our culture to our detriment. A child of age twelve will use more of her brain at a sleepover or school camp than in any mathematics examination.
In today’s world, technical knowledge is of much lower priority than it once was, for the knowledge is accessible to all. What are highly prized are the soft skills of communicating, collaborating and mobilising.
Many children from South Asian backgrounds perform extremely well academically, but struggle later in the work setting exactly because their skills in these other arenas are not as well developed. They then find themselves resenting their peers who are more successful in spite of poorer academic performance, playing out an occupational story similar to many of their parents.
Another facet of parents focusing too heavily on studies is that children, sons especially, become dependent in areas like domestic chores or have a lacklustre work ethic. Unlike Western style parenting, there is no great emphasis on achieving autonomy and independence from an early age, for there is a more collective expectation that the children will retain close ties and even some dependence with the extended family. This is in many ways a good thing, but there are disadvantages.
We are all too aware of the esteemed place the eldest son has in South Asian cultures, to the point where they are often placed on a pedestal. When those same children grow up and are required to be independent, they are often grossly unprepared. I can look back on my own experience of having to prepare canned food briefly amidst driving back home in a panic to eat my mother’s cooking after first moving out of home. Wives are also faced with hopelessly under-prepared men barely capable of tying their own shoelaces without their mother’s help. This is the worst case scenario, but the broader point is that being prepared for the modern world requires a great deal more than being adept at quadratic equations or having a degree in medicine.