Note to readers: My Family and Other Globalizers is a weekly parenting column on bringing up global citizens.
Amongst the most universal of hoary cliches is the generation gap. Just as day follows night, so every generation of parents recalls their own upbringing as gritty and disciplined, while worrying their children are spoiled and soft.
We spend so much of our early adulthood rolling our eyes at our parents for their antiquated ways, trying to escape their out-of-touch mentality. Then we have our own kids and find ourselves helplessly converted into our own parents by biology.
When I turned fifteen years old, my father had presented me with a cheap watch. “I got my first wristwatch when I was at university,” he’d intoned dolorously, seeming almost reluctant while handing me the present. I was left in no doubt that he considered me to be overly indulged.Twenty years later, I sounded equally sorrowful as I gave my son, Ishaan, his first plastic, Mickey-Mouse-decorated wristwatch on his fifth birthday. “Here you go, lucky boy. Mama only got her first watch at fifteen.”
But the chief perpetrator of the generation gap that divides my children from me, is School. In the 28 years since I graduated from high school, pedagogy has become cuddly.
The school I went to, typical of India at the time, was wholly focused on academics, with reams of homework and constant examinations that required copious by-rote memorization and regurgitation of facts.My children, however, go to a school where the emphasis is on arts and craft, building self-esteem and encouraging self-expression. They share their emotions as part of the curriculum. Homework consists of taking photos of the patterns of clouds in the sky. They cook spaghetti for their “science” lesson. And instead of memorizing the works of the great poets by heart, they’re encouraged to write their own poetry and given golden stars for their, ahem, free verse.
What’s funny, or not – you decide – is that descriptions of my school years have the effect of a horror story on my boys. They are equally fascinated and appalled by them. They ask to hear them at bedtime, in part because they are tickled by the idea of their mother in the role of a powerless child at the mercy of capricious adults. And also, because it comforts them to know that these are experiences that they will never have.
“Tell us about the child abuse in your times,” they beg. I am amused to hear my school life described in those terms. Growing up, physical punishment - what the boys refer to as “child abuse” - had been like the buzz of mosquitoes: an unwelcome, but unremarkable part of the mundane background.
My mother spanked me when I was naughty. I bore it with reasonable cheer, and it didn’t stop me from flushing my spinach down the toilet when she wasn’t looking. Teachers at school smacked kids when they misbehaved. It didn’t stop us from whispering with our friends instead of listening to their tedious explanations of past participles.
Once I played truant from PE class in Grade-3 and made off for the playground instead. When found out I was made to crawl around the sports field as punishment. My knees were scratched up by the end of the ordeal, but I was mostly relieved that the teacher didn’t send home a note for my mother. Then I would have been in real trouble.
There was also a deranged Maths teacher in middle school who threw thumbscrew compasses used for drawing circles in geometry at day-dreaming students. Could I be remembering this correctly? Could teachers really have thrown spiked metallic objects at students at the elite public school I attended in New Delhi? I’m reasonably sure that my memory is accurate, although we are talking about 1988. I remember my friends and I as simultaneously horrified and impressed by the teacher in question. His precision was legendry. The compasses invariably landed on students’ desks, rather than their bodies.
What I know to be beyond dispute was the morning assembly ritual in which the school principal personally slapped every male child caught transgressing rules, in front of the entire school. The principal gathered himself up and then really leant in, bringing the full weight of his robust body to bear, as his hand landed on the hapless student’s cheek.
My boys’ eyes always become so round on hearing this particular detail, that they threaten to spill off their faces. In their school, morning assemblies feature a ritual in which every day a child is feted for having been “caught being good.” The idea is to reward random acts of kindness that teachers keep an eye out for all day.Things have changed!
And yet, despite the terminology my boys use, I did not feel abused as a child. I had enjoyed school, insisting I was well even when sick, so as not to miss out on a single day.
I’m certainly glad my children are spared the compass-throwing Maths teacher and assembly line-slapping school principal. But they face their own set of challenges, which my generation was spared, chief amongst which is social media and its pressures.Child rearing practices vary greatly over geography, culture, and time. What remains constant is the generation gap and the fact that growing up is inescapably a mix of trauma and triumph.