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Wednesday, April 01, 2020

It’s okay if my son doesn’t get into college: A note from a Dino Mom to Tiger Moms

Kids ought to feel the joy when they compete in those maths classes, dance competitions or cut-throat academics and not a sharp shove from the over-ambitious parent who has elaborate designs to ensure a blindingly bright future.

Updated: July 10, 2019 10:52:24 am
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By Tanu Shree Singh

We recently went through the uncertainty of the cusp between school and college. The boy was giving entrance tests, was losing confidence and mulling over taking a sabbatical. As luck would have it, I met quite a few mums (where the heck are the dads?) sailing in the same boat.

“What is his alternate plan?” most of them would ask.

“Well, if he doesn’t get a college of his choice, he plans to take a year off, prepare and try again.”

“What!? Why would you want him to waste a year?” their eyes would nearly fall out.

I would fold up a little and mumble uncertainly, “There is no such thing as a wasted year. And it is his decision.”

Their eyes would then change and brim over with pity, “Tch Tch! You have an overly optimistic view of the world. Please for once take things in your control.”

I would always make some excuse or the other and scoot. When the irritation quotient got too high, I’d give them a nasty one.

This cycle continued till the boy got through in a college of his choice. More than his joy, I was gleeful for having gotten the over worrying tiger mommies off my back.

Tiger moms! Somewhere in the Sunderbans, a tiger mum just winced at that misnomer. She doesn’t push her cubs to swim an extra length or run an extra mile. She just idly sits and watches the cubs explore life, always keeping an eye out for danger and putting them in their place when they get to be a paw-full but never making them walk a straight pre-defined, straitjacketed existence. So, by that definition, I am a tiger mom. But, if you go by the popular reference, I fall more in the dinosaur mom category…err, more specifically – the herbivorous kind.

Now that the older one’s “future is secure”, the tiger eyes have fallen on the younger one. At a recent run in with an acquaintance outside the ATM, I was asked, “You are free now! At least half of it. What does the younger one plan? Eleventh, right?”

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I have many things I want to say to her starting with the correlation of children’s academic life with parental (specifically maternal) freedom. Instead, I nod, smile and blurt, “he loves art.”

“Yes, but what does he plan?” she persisted.

“Umm….pursue art?”

She blinked. And then left in a huff. I am sure she was offended by my lack of involvement in teenaged career choices and more so with the lack of good, responsible sense to convince the boy to take science or at least commerce in eleventh grade. Here he was, studying humanities, brush in one hand and his idea book in the other. I watched her walk away trying to comprehend what just happened.

Sometimes, it does get difficult to stay unaffected. You have frenzied parents all around you, scurrying from one class to another, from one competition to another, half pulling, half dragging their children. And there you are with a mug of coffee in your hands and two boys who mostly read, sometimes write and indulge in free play at the local park if they aren’t playing with the five dogs. That doesn’t mean they do nothing else. They do get to play their fair share of sports but never have I walked up to the coach and asked him when they can play “professionally”. As long as they keep those muscles moving, I am cool. But the coffee mug and books strewn everywhere have become a permanent state of our lives.

So what do we have here? The quintessential tiger mom would say — a bunch of unmotivated, directionless children with a future of an obsidian shade. The Dino mom, however, is convinced that the motivation levels are optimal and the bit about direction is true. How boring to know at 12 what you’d want to be at 40! In fact, last night I told my 18-year-old that getting into college doesn’t mean putting blinkers on. Keep questioning yourself, discovering yourself.

Back in college, I remember, during one of our classes, our lecturer had told us, “there is enough space for everyone in this world and there is absolutely no point in thrusting our own dreams on to the kids.” In the name of a bright future, is it fair to push my child to study a particular subject or pursue a sport? If it were so bright, why did I not succeed in it? Perhaps, we end up making our real or imagined failures, stepping stones to their forced success.

Research has repeatedly shown that unreal pressure leads to nothing but stressed out children heading for a fairly early burnout. The key term being ‘unreal pressures’, a thing we all deny with a vehement “NO! Absolutely not! I am a strict parent but I let my child choose whatever they want to.” On a closer look, there is always a child lurking in the shadows who might disagree with similar passion. There is a thin line that separates the tigers from the dinosaurs and an even thinner one distinguishes between optimal control and a free for all. Where we stand is always obscured from our vision, as the tiger stripes camouflage themselves very well within parental duties and the child’s ‘best interest.

What does it mean then? How do I decide what is optimal? How do I remain immune when I hear other moms brag of their little one’s skills and medals? Or when I see some other child outshine mine at the debate competition? It was difficult when the boys turned one and I heard mothers exclaim, “Hasn’t started walking yet? Mine walked at 10 months.” And it is difficult now, when they say, “Art? Why are you allowing him to study that? Is it even a thing to study? Tch! Artists are typically jhola-chaap. Please rethink.” The boy loves art, that should be reason enough. Apparently not; more eyebrows shoot up and eyes roll in contempt.

Each day, I question myself – am I doing the right thing? I am still looking for that answer. Something tells me that so far, we are okay. The older one is gearing up for college, the younger one is happy in his zone (with suitable number of teenaged outbursts), they have read more books than I ever laid my hands on, they are mostly respectful, barring the times when teenage angst takes over and, most of all, the stress in their lives is still limited to dog-eared pages, stolen books and the constant struggle with me over length of hair. They are compassionate and never hesitate to question. What else can I ask for?

A computer wizard, a national level player, or sets of straight A’s – they are all labels. At the end of the day, what we ought to reinforce is a fair usage of character strengths by them. Psychologists across the globe are presenting large amounts of data indicating that happy, fulfilled children go on to have a contented, joyful life and this happiness comes from exercising character strengths and not mindless mugging up of science lessons, though, if that gives joy to the child then so be it — a win-win situation! The point is that they ought to feel the joy when they compete in those maths classes or dance competition or cut-throat academics and not a sharp shove from the over-ambitious parent who has elaborate designs to ensure a blindingly bright future.

So, as tiger moms continue to claw and tear ahead pulling a child along, we, the coffee mug wielding dino-moms smell the roses that the little ones got for us, with bonus hug thrown in free of cost. And sometimes we find solutions in a tub of ice cream for the artist, prospective lawyer and the dino mum.

(The writer has a PhD in Positive Psychology and is a lecturer in psychology. She is also the author of the book Keep Calm and Mommy On. Listen to Season 1 and 2 of Tanu Shree Singh’s podcast Difficult Conversations With Your Kids.)

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