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Parenting Between Cultures

By: Keyuri Joshi Email By: Keyuri Joshi
November 2010
Parenting Between Cultures

Take the cliché about parenting being the hardest job around, and add to it the enigma of parenting between the polarities of Eastern and Western culture, and you have a perfect recipe for all-around stress, guilt and confusion. Sure, it’s also true that bicultural parents have at their disposal the tricks and wisdom of dual heritages. But as is often the case, humans are apt to be hounded by the negatives while taking the positives for granted.

“Should we encourage early independence as in the Montessori approach (which also appears to be the American way), or should we do for our children as much as our parents did for us?” “Should I reason with my 5-year-old, or should I establish my parental authority of the kind that says, ‘Because I said so!’?” “Should I shout at my children and give them spankings, though both of these, particularly spanking, are a big no-no here?” These are just some of the many dilemmas facing Indian-American parents.

While these dilemmas may not be unique only to bicultural parents such as Indian-American ones, it is certainly true that such parents face not only a generational conflict, but also a cultural conflict in parenting styles.

Then there are other dilemmas that remain consistent across all generations and backgrounds. Take a moment and think about what you want most for your kids as they grow into adults. A study posing this question revealed that the two most popular answers were “I want them to be happy” and “I want them to be successful.” Who can imagine any parent who doesn’t desire these life-enhancing qualities for their prized progeny?

The question is, what specific steps are parents taking to secure happiness and success for their children? Is it enough to provide three balanced meals a day, a roof over their heads, religious exposure, and a high-quality education that is supplemented by Kumon and the likes?

Why the need for learning parenting skills?

A number of parents might say that these basics, sprinkled with good old fashioned love and discipline are enough. There would be no further consideration of enhancing the parenting skills with books, classes or coaching. After all, it seems logical to think, “My parents didn’t take a course in parenting, and I turned out okay.”

If such a generational continuity in parenting style is considered sufficient, I am left wondering why, at spiritual retreats I attend, there’s a long line of parents seeking divinely ordained “cure all” answers to their child-rearing dilemmas. Included in these are predicaments regarding academic motivation, vegetarianism, dating, becoming “too” Americanized, depression, substance abuse and, in some cases, suicide attempts.

Curiously, parents aren’t the only ones seeking answers. Kids are, too. They admit to leading double lives: an Indian one to please their parents, and a “secret” American one to please themselves and their peers. They speak of feeling lonely and tell stories of sanity-cracking academic and cultural pressures for which their “loving” and “providing” parents are blamed.

These issues are by no means isolated to Indians in America. In an insightful book called The Price of Privilege, author Madeline Levine addresses the internal suffering and self-inflicted wounds of seemingly well-adjusted children, leading us to wonder about the demanding expectations and cultural influences in American society. By no means are American parents living in a panacea. As a sign of the times, they share struggles with their Indian counterparts both here and abroad.

As for Indians in India, a BBC article in February commented on an alarmingly high rate of suicide among Mumbai’s youth. Through the city’s “Life is Beautiful” campaign, several organizations help youngsters cope with academic pressure, peer pressure, communication problems with their parents, broken relationships, and fear of failure.

But one wonders, “Why are these organizations and initiatives needed?” Kids in India, like their counterparts here, often find themselves crumbling to life’s pressures. Clearly, warm and loving parents who seek to create happy, successful children are lacking in their abilities to do so.

Experts in both countries are pleading with parents to become proactive in reducing childhood stress. They are calling for parents not to just rely on tried and true methods of their own parents and grandparents, but to be counseled in newer and more effective approaches.

We must reach our children’s hearts and build a bond of genuine admiration, trust and respect out of which wisdom and answers to life’s tests can be cooperatively found. In today’s world, it is not acceptable to our acutely intelligent children that we demand these virtues from them without returning them in greater measure. After all, we are the parents and ours is the example that must be set if we expect it to be followed.

Why emotional and social intelligence trumps academic intelligence

The great Vedantic master Swami Chinmayananda said that “children are not buckets to be filled but are lamps to be lit.” These words were ringing in my head when I recently met Ravi (name changed), a doting father who picked my brain on how to get his 3-year-old daughter into Atlanta’s “best” academic institutions. Ravi was ready to hire tutors to prepare his pint-sized tot for her preschool entrance exam and shared his vision of her becoming valedictorian, so that her future success was “guaranteed.”

Having some knowledge about the admissions process, I assured Ravi that the schools were less interested in his toddler’s academic prowess than in her ability to offer a congenial curiosity, a creative interest in learning, and a relaxed personality. Could she share toys and play pleasantly with other children? Would she refrain from using a # 2 lead pencil as a weapon of mass destruction if she became angry? How would she interact with other children who had heightened emotions? When Ravi heard me speak of personality traits instead of academics, he seemed shocked. And this shocked me! Ravi’s high hopes of his daughter’s collegial admissions caused him to focus on filling her bucket instead of lighting her lamp.

Most Indian parents I know are extremely well-intentioned in raising children. The strong cultural emphasis on academics is understandable in a country that hosted the world’s first university (in Takshashila), the earliest school of medicine (ayurveda), and discoveries such as calculus, trigonometry, algebra, the decimal system, and of course the number zero. This beautiful country with the world’s oldest and most perfect language, Sanskrit, regularly impresses society with its high achievers. It is understandable that any Indian parent would want their child to be a high achiever too.

Rest assured that the importance of worldly contributions stemming from a sound academic education is indeed important, but never at the cost of a child’s emotional and social health. Research in the field of emotional and social intelligence strongly supports that this area of development, if successfully nourished, is what reliably predicts a child’s future success and happiness.

Amongst other things, there is even a physiological reason for placing a premium on emotional health over logical intelligence. When our five senses experience the world, a spontaneous network of cells carries a message to the frontal lobe of our brain. It is in the frontal lobe that rational thinking takes place. But in order for any message to be transported to the frontal lobe, it must first travel through the brain’s limbic system, which is responsible for emotions and behavior. This means humans experience things emotionally before they experience them logically.

Not surprisingly, experts are increasingly emphasizing Emotional Intelligence (EI) and Social Intelligence (SI) as means for fulfilling human potential. In this context, EI is self-awareness utilized for optimal self-management. This includes the ability to recognize emotions, discover personal strengths to manage them effectively, and utilize those strengths to solve problems toward the best outcomes. Similarly, SI is social-awareness utilized for powerful social skills and healthy relationships with family, friends and community members. This includes optimizing communication, cooperation and conflict resolution.

Together, the skills of Emotional and Social Intelligence (ESI) are widely advocated in many interpersonal spheres, including, of course, parenting. Long-term research monitoring parents who have coached their kids in ESI has shown at least three types of benefits to children: attitude and behavior benefits, academic benefits, and health benefits.

Attitude and Behavior Benefits
Better awareness of emotions (both self and others)
Better ability to self soothe and regulate emotions
Better at handling of difficult social situations (such as bullying) more effectively
Improved focus
Healthier friendships
Better conflict resolution
Better impulse control
Improved values and ethical attitudes
Improved problem solving abilities
Decreased aggression and violence
Increased confidence
Increased empathy

Academic Benefits
Improved attitude to learning
Better grades in school
Better performance on standardized tests
Increased effort to achieve
Improved coping with school stressors
More trust and respect for teachers

Health Benefits
Better ability to calm heart rate faster
Lower incidence of infectious illnesses
Lower incidence of alcohol, drug and tobacco use
Lower incidence of sexually transmitted diseases and pregnancy
Lower incidence of depression and suicide

Regarding attitude and behavior benefits, let’s go back to Ravi as an example. Ravi, with very admirable intentions, wanted his daughter to pass tests at school, and was ready to hire tutors to accomplish this. He was filling her bucket instead of lighting her fire. It seems Ravi had forgotten about teaching his daughter how to pass the tests of life!

You may be wondering what life lessons a child has at age 4. Rest assured that though the act of sharing toys or deciding who eats the last cupcake may be trivial to you, it is not trivial to a child who has not learned managing “I want” with acceptable social graces. Every hour of our children’s lives (as well as our own lives) has emotional content that needs management. Elementary school may bring with it a “mean” teacher causing sadness, middle school may bring a vicious bully who evokes anger, and high school will offer a substantial workload coupled with college applications resulting in stress and anxiety. How will Ravi’s daughter manage these emotions? Will she have a strong sense of awareness to recognize them when they rear their ugly heads? What methods will she use to self-soothe, instead of turning to alcohol, drugs, or immature friends who could steer her in the “wrong” direction? Where will this budding personality find her confidence and ability to empathize with others? Who will teach her these life skills and how will the lessons be taught so that they build her and not break her?

“Helicopter” and “Satellite” parents

With all these questions, it is easy to get carried away in the parenting role. While the goal of good parenting is noble, it does not mean that one should “hyper-parent” and by no means is raising kids a competitive sport. You may have heard the terms “helicopter” and “satellite” parents. Helicopter parents constantly hover over their children, dropping guidelines and advice, if not downright controlling nearly all the child’s thoughts and actions. Sadly, these kids don’t get the opportunity to think or act for themselves, as their parents are trying to “protect” their “best interests” at all costs. If we allowed our kids to fall while they learned to walk, why don’t we let them “fall” and learn from their mistakes as they grow into adults? Experience is a very good teacher.

Satellite parents, on the other hand, are “out there in orbit” and not guiding their kids enough. Their kids may feel unsupported in their endeavors. The benefit of parenting in the middle of these two extremes is to allow kids to think and act for themselves, to support them when they choose to ask for help, and to support them when they don’t ask for help but you observe them struggling, or when they are in danger.

The academic benefits are underscored by research that tells us that academic intelligence cannot build ESI, but ESI can strengthen academics. Once again, EI, also known as EQ (emotional quotient), eclipses IQ. (If you are interested in exploring this subject further, you may look up a September, 2010 article in the Harvard Business Review titled “When Emotional Reasoning Trumps IQ.”)

The health benefits bode well not just for the physical health of EI-strong kids, but their emotional health as well. As a parent myself, I’d rather see my child self-soothe through strong emotional intelligence skills than through substance abuse or other risky behaviors.

Coaching kids in emotional and social intelligence

Given the benefits of ESI, how should you go about coaching your kids in it? Five steps have been developed from research conducted by Dr. John Gottman (and further expounded upon in his book Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child.) Gottman suggests that if parents can effectively implement these steps even 40 percent of the time, they will have positioned themselves toward achieving desirable results.

A word of warning: These five steps will offer plenty of “quick fixes” for parenting dilemmas, but if you expect fulfilling, long-term solutions that enhance your relationship with your kids and also instill ESI skills, you will have to roll up your sleeves and forge a genuine, long-term commitment to each of the five steps. Like diet and exercise, ESI is a lifestyle change, in order to be effective in the long term. You expect your children to challenge themselves to get straight A’s. How can you challenge yourself to successfully incorporate these five steps into your parenting style?

Step 1 is to be aware of your own emotions. Yes, it starts with you, the parent! Whether you are male or female, Indian or American, young or old, you have emotions and often act on them without recognizing them. Have you ever honked your horn or cut someone off while driving before you acknowledged how angry you were that they cut you off? The more you grow an awareness of what you are feeling, the more you will recognize emotions in others. Though you will later focus on your children’s emotions, you will find yourself more adept at sensing everyone’s emotions, including those of your spouse, boss, co-workers and even your mother-in-law! To help train yourself in this critical first step, consider leaving yourself small post-it notes in convenient places, such as your bathroom mirror, car, office space, etc. as a reminder to become aware of your feelings. Another suggestion is keeping a personal journal, which helps you see patterns of what provokes your emotions and how you choose to manage them. It is imperative to note that emotions are not good or bad. What is good or bad is the outcome you experience based on how you choose to respond to those emotions.

Step 2 is to recognize emotion in your children as an opportunity for intimacy and teaching. It is crucial that parents do not see negative emotions in their children as a challenge to parental authority. If a child slams a door shut, it is likely due to frustration rather than a diabolical idea to perturb daddy! Even as parents wonder how to manage kids who slam doors or misbehave in other ways as a result of negative emotions, it is important to see the value in allowing kids to express emotions and manage them, rather than to suppress emotions, leaving them unmanaged and festering. Kids who can count on their parents to help them process difficult emotions are less likely to indulge in ineffective ways or turn to others who would guide them poorly.

Step 3 is the most important step! Listen empathetically and validate your child’s feelings. If a son approaches his mother stating that he is upset because he did not make the baseball team, it would be best if the mother simply listens to what the son says and feels his pain. So many parents try to jump in and fix their kids problems without the crucial step of empathizing with them. Words without empathy do not allow people to feel that they are understood. If you want your kids to feel that you understand them and therefore find you approachable, then empathetic listening and validation of their feelings is an absolute must. The mother of the rejected baseball player might consider saying (with sincerity, of course) “I can understand that you would be so disappointed. Do you want to tell me about it?” Now, the son thinks, “My mom gets it, is approachable and available to help me!”

Step 4 is to help children label their emotions. Though the researchers imply that this suggestion is for younger children who do not have a developed vocabulary, I like the technique for children of all ages. When a child can say “I am scared,” both parent and child are on the same page about what the child is experiencing. A common starting point is now available for problem solving. A parent should try to include the child in the problem-solving strategy. Children like to feel included and when they come up with their own ideas toward a solution, they are more likely to follow through with optimal behavior to reach a solution. For example, if a child is scared about monsters in a bedroom, the parent can ask the child, “What should we do about the monsters?” Not only does the child feel that his opinion matters, he is learning problem-solving skills and independence. Benjamin Franklin said it best: “Tell me, and I forget. Teach me and I remember. Involve me and I learn.”

Step 5 is to set limits while helping the child to problem solve. As stated earlier, emotions are not good or bad. Your children must understand however that misbehavior as the result of emotions is not acceptable and will be effectively dealt with. So, for the earlier example of the child slamming a door, a parent might consider rendering a warning or consequence that includes a loss of privilege, such as no electronics for a day. Both parents must agree upon limits and consequences, and enforce them consistently. Goals should be identified, solutions entertained, and family values considered. As Step 4 suggests, children should be included in problem solving whenever possible.

What good is worldly success if it is fraught with negative emotions?

There is a widespread but misplaced investment in the visible markers of external success. It’s a logic that equates straight A’s, coupled with intense extracurricular activity, with admission to a “good” college, which in turn provides a good job, which in turn provides a handsome salary. This career and financial “success” may provide conquests and acquisitions. But what good is a high-powered job or a stately mansion if the occupying individual is full of hurtful emotions such as anger, sadness, anxiety or frustration? It is often said, “You can buy a bed, but you can’t buy sleep. You can buy a house, but you can’t buy happiness.” Does it not make sense that emotional and social awareness and management are vital skills that truly impact our children’s happiness and success?

Since schools do not include ESI in their curriculums, parents must take on the job. Teaching your kids ESI skills does not require any fancy equipment or financial outpouring. All you need is a strong desire and unwavering commitment toward the children you love. Parents of children who have tragically taken their own lives say, “I would have done anything to prevent this.” Perhaps their painful experiences can push us to choose to examine our parenting style and maximize its potential while we have the chance. The Indian culture rightfully places a great reverence on the role of parent. We have the potential to be a great Guru to our children as we hold a powerful influence in our ability to teach and guide them.

That said, the great sages of India have also advised that we learn from our children as well. This involves the sometimes difficult task of putting our ego aside and listening intently to someone younger and “less experienced” than us. You are not just parents and children. You are souls, evolving together. Successfully done, we not only soak up the rich experiences of these precious young souls, but we can grow with them, side by side, each of us as a child of God.

[Keyuri Joshi RN, MSN, is a Certified Parenting and Emotional Intelligence Coach. A "personal trainer" for parenting, Keyuri assists moms or dads to build and use a toolbox to achieve any goals they desire. She also teaches parents to build emotional and social intelligence skills in children.]

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