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Cover Story: Parenting in America

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November 2008
Cover Story: Parenting in America

By Ajay Vishwanathan

There was pained disbelief in Randi Hopper’s eyes as she stared at her daughter. A nurse practitioner for almost 10 years, Randi, who works in Atlanta, Georgia, and often reminisces about her days in pediatrics, loves children and knows how to deal with them. Yet she couldn’t believe what she had just heard. Furious at being spanked by Randi, her young, pre-teen daughter had threatened to call the police. The words rankled in Randi’s mind; she couldn’t swallow the fact that the child on whom she had bestowed such unremitting love and affection had thought of reporting her mother for abuse. Nevertheless, instead of letting her relationship with her daughter turn hostile, she calmly directed her to volunteer at a shelter for battered women and children. “I needed her to see what abuse actually meant,” says Randi. “This was not my daughter, this was a symptom of a modern day parenting quandary.”

   

A threat like Randi’s daughter’s, when I was growing up in India, would have been considered so ridiculous that even the policeman would have laughed at me, scolded me and ordered me to go back home and apologize to my mother. If Randi, who has spent all her life breathing American values, could seem so flustered in her own country, imagine the predicament of Indian American parents who find themselves battling such quandaries every day — they’re certainly in no place you would envy!

Visions of a better future lured most of us, steeped in firmly instilled traits, perceptions and beliefs, into a foreign environment. Parenting quality, in keeping with our widespread apathy in India towards the theories behind it, was never something we gave much thought to as we uprooted ourselves from a collectivistic India to an individualistic United States. In 2007, Dr. Judy Pearson, Professor and Associate Dean in the College of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences at North Dakota State University, published a commentary where she compared parenting styles from the United States, Puerto Rico, and India. She wrote, “In general, collectivistic societies emphasize group cohesiveness, emotional interdependence, obligation, and group solidarity. Individualistic societies, by contrast, emphasize personal autonomy, emotional independence, singular actions, and personal goals.” With such a disparity between our approaches, tender and vital interactions with our offspring face the prospect of getting squelched between two giant machines of discordant cultural emphasis.

The nature of the Indian American parent population is as complex as the parenting issues that loom: they could be Indian-Indians following the same or a different religion in India; Indian American-American parents with or without a compelling need to preserve their heritage; parents who have recently migrated from India with young or older children; Indian parents migrating from other places, including the Middle East, Africa or Europe, with children who have or have not been exposed to a third culture. The list of combinations is exhaustive, and the intricacies of the problems so interwoven and often so subtle that it is almost impossible to untangle every knot in this feature. We look at and brood over some of the issues, and ask ourselves: are we parentally challenged? How well have we adjusted to Uncle Sam? Or have we?      

Clinging to our culture

Some blame it on guilt, some see the need to preserve in their homes the last, nostalgic vestiges of their homeland, a few don’t want to appear too Americanized, and many strive to avoid the gradual demise of their identity. Whatever the reason, almost all Indian Americans, not wrongly, cling to their culture. In our own children, when we see the first warning signs, the early cracks in our identity, they appear to us as harbingers of cultural dilution. And we work hard to delay the inevitable. “I hardly paid any attention to religious ceremonies when in India,” says Dr. Mangalam Gopal, an early Indian immigrant who, in 1960, came to pursue doctoral studies at the University of Michigan, “but after our kids were born, I even phonetically transcribed some of the scriptures into English so that they could read it.” Dr. Gopal, and his wife Lakshmi brought their sons up in Houghton, a small university town in upper Michigan. “We did not have a temple, and no one to conduct classes like Bal Vihar,” Lakshmi reminisces. “It was therefore important to expose them to Indian aspects at home.”

There is also a deep desire to see our children speak our mother tongues. Some parents make it a point to reply only in their mother tongue so that the kids learn to talk with them without lapsing into English. Some send them to classes if possible, while some expose them constantly to Indian movies. “I didn’t enforce conversations in my native language,” Dr. Lester Fernandes (name changed on request), an Atlanta resident and the father of three kids, says. “I was happy as long as they could follow the conversations; it didn’t matter if they could speak it or not. They have so many other issues to tackle that this enforcement, I thought, was unnecessary.”

Kalpana Patel, on the other hand, thinks it would be wonderful if children learnt to speak their mother tongue. Kalpana, a second generation Indian American who came from England to the United States at the age of five, has a toddler whom she speaks to in Gujarati. She was surprised that the family elders, of all people, were worried when she was trying to get the child to speak his mother tongue. “Don’t confuse him, they said,” recounts Kalpana. “But now when he speaks to them in Gujarati, they are thrilled, and ask me to teach him new words.”

Some children born here speak occasionally in their native language, but wish their parents had enforced it more than they did. There are so many words and phrases that they still don’t follow. Had their skills in their mother tongue been better, they could have conversed better with their in-laws here and with their relatives back home. Even their trips to India would have been more exciting had they been able to converse with the chaiwalas and the panipuriwalas.

Children have an innate ability to pick up languages. In fact, most of us in India were at least bilingual. Hence, there appears to be no harm in getting them to learn another language. It has also been shown that youngsters who are exposed to other languages outperform others in school, are better at problem solving, score higher on standardized tests, and can relate more comfortably to diversity.   

Overreaching?

The beauty of living in a country as liberal and magnanimous as the United States is the freedom to pamper our sentiments and pursue our passions. But some of us overindulge this freedom. We seem to want our kids to do everything their American friends are doing, plus everything we think they should do as inheritors of our heritage. The result: an exhausting schedule for the children, beginning with baseball at 7 in the morning, Bal Vihar at 11, piano lessons at 4, followed by Indian classical music training at 6. Are we overreaching and, in the process, killing the leisurely bliss that childhood ought to be made up of? Lakshmi Gopal offers some defense: “The children would have watched television or played video games had they stayed at home. With a packed schedule, they don’t have time to be lazy.” This argument demands an introspective look at our days of innocent fun in India: playing Trade or carrom in the afternoons, rubber ball cricket or langdi in the evenings, or exchanging library books and stamps. The list is endless, and of course not reproducible in an American setting. How will you replicate a playing field with three large stones as wickets and a dozen vociferous, chappal-wearing Indian boys clamoring to win a cricket game? Or a group of pig-tailed girls in a building compound playing hopscotch on hastily drawn chalk squares? Instead, I see a lone but happy kid sitting in the family room deftly using his fingers as he maneuvers to kill the villain on the screen.

Visiting India with kids

Sadly, despite our marked diversity, to most children brought up in the United States the face of Indian culture is the gaudy glitz of Bollywood. Most teenagers might not know who Pandit Bhimsen Joshi is but they can instantly recognize Shahrukh Khan or Aishwarya Rai; they might not know the significance of Navratri but they will go wild at dandiya nights over familiar Hindi dance numbers. “To make our little sons see and experience India firsthand, we made it a point to take them when all their cousins had their school break,” Dr. Gopal recalls. “That kind of direct exposure to Indian customs teaches them values that cannot be explained in a movie or a class. Now, as mature individuals, they love India, can relate to our customs and are still close to their cousins.” The success of Dr. Gopal’s method lies in the parents’ willingness to take their sons home when they were young and unbiased, when they could see the country not as tourists but as curious descendants.

Dr. Fernandes is more forthright about the visits to India. “We have to be careful how we expose our kids to our country. We cannot land up directly in a small town and not expect them to complain of excessive heat and mosquitoes.” His tip to parents: plan your itinerary carefully. “I often start with Bangalore, go to Mysore, and then visit Kovalam. We condition our children that way.”

Dr. Fernandes’ suggestion will work if we have the time and the money to sweeten our schedule. Unfortunately, even those who can afford to do it are often daunted by the thoughts of an India vacation with the children. The process of getting there and the vision of attending constantly to the kids’ needs and gripes are so intimidating that we hardly reflect on the quality of the itinerary. Not surprisingly, the only memories some youngsters have of India are the terrible beds they had to sleep on when they had a heat stroke, and the stingy bucket of warm water they were offered for their daily baths. Not the aroma of fresh ghee from the laddoo that their grandma lovingly placed in their mouths, or the distinctive spectacle of sweeping, lush paddy fields en route to their ancestral home.

The American Context

Adjustments and compromises seem unavoidable, as we, with our cultural baggage and tolerant attitudes to spanking, muse over disciplining methods in the United States. When many Americans are themselves so unsure about the right methods to raise children in this country, what do Indian parents, as relative newcomers, feel? “Some of the us are really confused about this,” says Vikas Samineni of Alpharetta, Georgia, a father of two daughters. “We are aware of these talks about children suing parents and ‘kids are unbeatable’ organizations, and at the same time, see our American neighbors smack their kids.”

It is also intriguing to learn the points of view of an Indian American young woman who has Indian parents raised in different backgrounds, with a father who was brought up in India and a mother who was raised in a Western society. From her close observation of parenting trends in Indian families, she feels that in general, Indian parents tend to make their kids feel less than perfect. Her mom, having been brought up in a different culture, had a different take: she tried to first build their confidence and sense of security. She understood well that sometimes words could be more damaging than spanking. Kalpana feels that it is essential that we treat the children keeping in mind the accepted norms of disciplining outside of our houses. “The teachers, for example, have their own way of dealing with misbehavior,” she notes, “It is important to be consistent in what constitutes a punishment, especially with respect to what is enforced in school.”

Money and work: coming onto their own

We want our kids to respect money and yet not value it more than human relationships. But the message we give them unconsciously may be different. Dr. Fernandes doesn’t mince words. “We tend to ask young children what they want to become when they grow up. And when they say ‘teacher’, we go ‘What? That is just 35,000 a year! Why not a doctor?’” Dr. Fernandes feels that the idea that ‘money is everything’ is inadvertently implanted in their minds very early in their lives. Career choices are inspired by financial rewards and not by personal satisfaction — the bane of a typical Indian middle class mentality.

Curiously, there is also a tendency for Indian parents to discourage their children from earning their own dollar by working part-time in places like Starbucks or Publix. “Because of this attitude, I feel things come easy to our children,” observes Dr. Namrita Ravinder, a San Diego resident, “Why not let them earn their own cash and learn to budget their expenses?” Kalpana agrees; she started working and had her own checking account when she was in high school. For her, the work experience was invaluable. It helped her handle the ‘Do I really need it?’ question better. “My first car was a Geo Metro,” says Kalpana, “but I have seen several teenagers who have bought exorbitant cars with their dad’s money.” However, there is a no dearth of reasons for not letting the youngsters work behind Caribou counters. Some probably feel guilty because they never had to work in India themselves. The more important reason seems to be to prevent the youngsters from being distracted from their studies and career goals. Some youngsters have gone astray with the money that they earn on their own; they feel that they should be allowed to spend it, unhindered. Parents feel they can monitor their kids’ spending better if they provided them the money. This point of view probably reflects our innate resistance to giving our children independence, stemming from a mishmash of protectiveness and our inability to trust their rookie decisions. We want our children to be as self-confident as the Americans, but we are afraid to let them make independent financial or social decisions.

Food, religion, and attire: Indian versus American

Unless you live in a small American town with just one or two other Indian families, there is a high likelihood that we have segregated ourselves, forming powerful cliques that allow us to dole out Indianness in generous portions to our children. Learning what we eat, how we eat it, what we wear, and what we worship is natural because it is not organized, is powerful because it is subconscious.

Namita Manohar, a Ph.D. candidate in Sociology and Women’s Studies at the University of Florida, Gainesville, talks about the issues that cultural differences engender, especially in pre-teen children, not necessarily in small towns. “The younger kids, usually aged between 7 and 12, need to understand where they come from and what their customs mean. They are aware of being different, because of their skin color and food habits, and they really want to fit in and belong,” observes Namita. When these children are asked in school what they are, they say ‘American’ but don’t have convincing answers when quizzed by their sometimes-jeering colleagues on why their mothers then wear a sari, or why they bring idlis for lunch instead of pasta. “I’ve known parents who have told me how preoccupied the kids can be, and how anxious they are to know what their parents plan to wear to school. They want their moms to wear Western rather than Indian clothes, hoping to mitigate their different-ness to some extent,” remarks Namita. “They also want to know why they cannot have a name like Henry or why their hair is not blond like Kirsten.” Namita feels it might help to expose the children to the origins of their customs and habits, and get them used to religious and cultural activities which will lessen, “to some extent, the confusions inherent to being bicultural in a society where non-whites continue to be subtly designated as ‘outsiders’ or ‘foreigners.’”

As kids grow up, they learn to appreciate the various options they have in religion, food and attire, and make educated decisions. They are better placed to explain their Indianness to curious questioners, and feel less out of place. However, undesired problems emerge when, at that point, the parents try to force young teenagers to live an Indian life, and not their own: Don’t wear mini-skirts. You better come with us to the pooja. You can’t cut your hair this short.

Developing empathy

Suffering is a relative thing. Sleeping on an empty stomach under a leaking roof is suffering, so is enduring a slow Internet connection. The French novelist Marcel Proust once said, “We are healed from suffering only by experiencing it to the full.” If that were true, it might take most Indian American kids, living in a protected cocoon, more than a lifetime to heal. How can you empathize with real adversity when the highest level of pain you’ve withstood is a blistering attack of acne or a messy romance?

Atlanta residents Raj and Kavita Rao, whom many of their friends consider to be model parents to their daughters Monisha and Sonia, make it a point to visit India every summer with their children. Raj believes that Indian American kids develop more empathy when exposed to India in short and frequent bursts. “Most of the kids in India are desensitized to the suffering since they see it every day,” he observes. “They are inured.” In an effort to educate his son, Dr. Fernandes has sent him to volunteer at a non-profit organization in Africa. “Since he doesn’t know anybody in that country he had to find his own way and work hard to settle down in a new setting.” In Africa, Dr. Fernandes’ son is getting used to being given a bar of soap and a stone to wash his clothes, which is a far cry from tossing his shirt in the washer. In a few weeks, Dr. Fernandes fervently hopes to welcome home a son with a fresh perspective on life.   

A single mom’s challenge

Nirupama Masse, who moved to Atlanta from Dayton, Ohio, recalls facing problems that rose from being viewed “differently” because of her being a divorcee.

“For some reason, married Indian ladies felt threatened by single moms like me. They were superficial, and didn’t mingle well socially. I suppose it is common; even married men probably feel the same about single guys being around. I experienced that even with American women.”            

Looking back, she is amazed at how well she coped. A significant source of her strength was her relationship with her son, Darshan. Her brother in Illinois, who is a male role model for her son, was also there when she felt alone. She says, “I did realize that I was a mother and couldn’t replace a father-figure. For that I had to depend on my brother, and nephews to ‘talk’ to him.” Nirupama was more focused on bringing up her boy rather than her “Indian” boy. She and her son grew extremely close to each other. She didn’t try to influence his career choices, and encouraged him when he decided to major in political science. Life wasn’t easy. “Being a single mom, there was barely enough money. My son started working at 16,” Nirupama recalls. “He knew that if he wanted extracurricular activities in his life, he had to pay for them himself.” He was a responsible son; he worked as a telemarketer, taught at Sylvan Learning Center, and found ways to finance his life outside of his career. Nirupama went to India often with her son, and found that he took interest in Indian music. He even went to India alone at his own expense. The merit in Nirupama’s method was the fact that there was no method. She didn’t worry too much about losing her Indian identity; her only goals were her son’s happiness and future. “I was more interested in raising a child who can be a well rounded, decent human being. I placed more importance on his desire to pursue what he wanted to do in life,” says Nirupama.

Darshan knew that things would not be smooth when he decided to become a pre-med student. With a keen determination to succeed and a strong mother by his side, he was successful in getting into medical school. Nirupama’s face is flush with pride and elation as she talks about her son’s achievements. Looking back, she feels her son would probably have been more Indian than what he is had her husband been with her. As a single mom, instilling cultural values in her son, especially while experiencing antisocial looks and frosty attitudes, became secondary. “I do agree the best way to raise kids is to have both the parents involved in the child's life,” she concedes, “but, under the circumstances, considering my ex-husband’s undesirable attitude, I did my best.” Her son completed his studies with flying colors, and is now a board-certified neuro-radiologist.

The positives of being in the U.S.

The opportunities open to Indian American parents in this country, along with their own rich diversity and customs, are akin to an extravagant buffet spread. Even so, the advantages of an enticing buffet can also potentially be the cause for indecision, gaffe and clutter. The key is to recognize the line between a wholesome satisfaction and overindulgence.

“You have to get it right,” points out Nithya Narasimhan, a business graduate from Emory University, and a mother of two girls. “Sounds simple but it is one of the most daunting tasks that every Indian parent faces.” There are numerous advantages that you can capitalize on in this country, including the chance to be and look different but hold your own. Americans love people who have the guts to stand their unique ground and convince others that they have a valid perspective. Uncle Sam also gives you the room, literally, to practice your faith and religion, which is a wonderful facet of American tolerance, considering that there are so many countries and schools of thought around the world who feel threatened by new and mushrooming ideologies.

Nithya sums it up: “The east-west combination can be fantastic; imagine an alliance of Indian values of inherent frugality, respect for people and environment, some spiritual grounding, empathy to adversity, and discipline, with the western credos of creativity, independent thinking, confidence in self, and taking responsibility for one's actions!”

If we look around, there is an impressive assortment of successful parenting stories; some went by the book, some followed their gut instincts, and some formulated the perfect recipe drawn from what they saw and heard. The challenges can seem insurmountable, but we are not alone; with a little patience and some wisdom drawn from each other’s experiences, we can work towards that perfect east-west combination of values and accomplishment.


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