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Easing Off the Gas Pedal

February 2007
Easing Off the Gas Pedal

I slowly maneuvered my six-month pregnant body to the back of my college's crowded bookstore, where they sold T-shirts in baby sizes. I was on campus for my 10-year reunion and could not resist the temptation to buy my unborn child a T-shirt from my alma mater. I entertained visions of attending homecoming games, reunions, and alumni events with my child, wearing matching T-shirts and hats.

However, when I left the store, I began to feel a little guilty. Who was I to expect my unborn child to conform to my hopes and expectations about his future? Was I really any different from the stereotypical Indian parents of my parents' generation—those who exalted careers in medicine and engineering and steered their children towards prestigious research universities?

Our ABCD generation has the advantage of familiarity with our children's American culture. This familiarity is something our parents did not have. This familiarity may lessen some of the intergenerational cultural conflicts with the next generation, but it may also make us more vulnerable to the pressures coming from the upper-middle class American milieu that many of us grew up in. Our generation struggled to find a balance between our parents' Indian values and our American ways. Our children's generation may be confronted with the even more daunting task of balancing our parents' Indian heritage, with our first-generation American experiences and their unique second generation experiences.

Parenthood, especially motherhood, has become an almost professionalized race or competition to ensure successful futures for our children. The America they are growing up in is not the same as the more leisurely one we grew up in—riding our bikes outside, creating elaborate make-believe games of "House," "Store," "School," and "Dr.'s Office," playing board games (on a board, not on a computer!), and spending hours coloring pictures. We collected stickers, friendship pins, and stamps. We made up our own teams and rules for informal games of tag, dodge ball, kickball, and wiffle ball with our cousins and neighborhood kids. Our America was perhaps a simpler, more leisurely place. Most of us were sheltered from athletic and scholastic competition until we were in middle school.

Nowadays, many of us are rushing out to buy the latest Leap Frog toys and Game Cubes, spending hours driving children from soccer practice to music lessons to tutoring, and planning over-the-top birthday parties, complete with the obligatory live Elmo. We are micromanaging our children's homework, in order to ensure their admission to the best preschools, prep schools, and colleges. We have reached a level of involvement and regimentation in our children's school and extracurricular lives that would confuse our parents.

Our parents were too busy establishing themselves and their families in a new country, to invest much time or effort into the minutiae of our school lives or play lives. We ABCD's have the luxury of devoting extra time and resources to raising "super kids." In the age of expensive video toys, Kumon learning centers, competitive preschools, and organized sports programs targeted to children as young as age four, we need to figure out how to give our children the best of our American upbringing, without succumbing to the achievement pressures and materialism, which have trickled down to the toddler level.

It is up to us to remind our children that learning and hobbies should be a lifelong source of pleasure and fulfillment, and not simply a one-way ticket to good grades and prestigious universities. And that there are many, many paths to fulfillment and happiness that do not require a degree from a prestigious school, a lucrative professional career, or a fat income. We want our children to reach their full potential, but they will not able to do that until we adults can separate our accomplishments from those of our children, and allow our children to be their own people.

I want Paawan to succeed on his own terms, and not impose anybody else's definition of "success" upon him. I want to spend more time finger painting and making Play Doh figures with him, than taking him to baby gym classes or teaching him to read before he's five. When he's older, I want him to have time to just play outside, and not be senselessly rushing around after school or on weekends, to enrichment activities. When he is a teenager, I want him to take school trips and pursue athletic, journalistic, volunteer, or artistic activities, not because it might look good in his college application, but because it is part of a lifelong commitment to learning and experiencing what the world has to offer.

In the end, I want my son to have a happy, reasonable childhood that will also prepare him to independently handle the challenges he will face, when the time does come for me to let go, eighteen years from now. We need to remember not to let the new sources of anxiety faced by my generation of ABCD parents overshadow the fact that unlike our parents, we are not burdened with the dilemmas of parenting in an alien culture. If we can do that, then our children will truly be able to enjoy the best of what America has to offer, and make their own way as second-generation Indian-Americans.


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