>An Uncertain Lullaby


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This article by me was published in the Express Eye on 20 february, 2011. 

When I was a kid, I used to lie, cheat and steal. Now I have found out that I was imaginative, innovative and appreciative.

It is a useful perspective to hold onto as a parent. There’s not very much my daughters can do that I have not already done, I reassure myself. Their adventure-hunting father has covered the rest of the possibilities. I bite into some fruit and nut chocolate for added comfort, just in case.

Then came the time, when I began to find things in my daughter’s pockets. Crayons from school. Some money. A packet of biscuits in the drawer of her study desk.
I stay calm. It’s all right, all kids steal. I recount to my husband that I once got home a whole classmate with me from school, just to check the outer limits of my power as a 6 year old. It’s no big deal.
‘It is normal for a very young child to take something which excites his or her interest.’ Google coughed it up in .27 seconds.   

Yet, there is the unmistakable soundtrack of panic galloping towards me. Despite my highfalutin decisions to rewrite the family script, I must be doing something exactly like my parents, for my child to be behaving exactly like we did at her age. I walk out into park next door to breathe out the silent screams that are beginning to choke me.

A few weeks ago, I read the first excerpt from Amy Chua’s book, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, where she explains the how Chinese parents produce successful kids. Her bluntness and clarity was a hook, but I was also amused by the self-parody and the wry humour. I shared the article online. That is when I began to realize the enormity of what this piece was doing to its readers. It was dredging out anger, fear, self-doubt, judgements and passionate counter-arguments.

‘I threatened her with no lunch, no dinner, no Christmas or Hanukkah presents, no birthday parties for two, three, four years. When she still kept playing it wrong, I told her she was purposely working herself into a frenzy because she was secretly afraid she couldn’t do it. I told her to stop being lazy, cowardly, self-indulgent and pathetic,’ writes Amy Chua, describing how she pushed her 7 year old Lulu to master a piano piece.
Amy Chua clarifies that her book is a memoir, the story of her own eventual transformation as a mother. She says on the cover of the book that she has been humbled by Lulu, who became cold and angry towards her.

Tiger Mom. At first glance, it may appear that the parent in the trenches with her kid is doing all the hard work, and lenient parents are just plain lazy.  It may seem that her kids are soaring, while others are still playing in the mud, their potential unrealized. The truth is though, that it is easy to be a tiger.  It is so easy to be a tiger. You are the boss, you set the rules, you roar. The little ones get in line. But not for long.

It is the Mother part that demands courage, as Chua is discovering as well. Parents make mistakes, they are vulnerable. They learn to back off and secede territory. They face up to their own baggage of hurts and seek healing. Parents need the courage to fail without feeling like a failure. 

It is an intricate web, this parenting. We source the design from deep subconscious wells, from our memory and experience. We repeat patterns from our own childhood. We are the agents of our culture. Chua decided early that her daughters would play the violin and piano and excel academically. She is the daughter of Chinese immigrants, in single-minded pursuit of praise and admiration in America. She is not sacrificing fun and games, she has no idea of their value.

Most Indians will recognize the type of tiger mom Chua is. The word love was never used in Chua’s childhood home. That sounds familiar too. It is no wonder then that she does not know her gentle side. Tiger parenting is a desperate model, perhaps it works in desperate times. When Chua asked her 15 year old to suggest a book title, Lulu said, ‘The Perfect Child and the Flesh-Eating Devil.’ Sometimes, it is not so complex after all. Ask a simple question and you might get an answer that will reveal a lot.

Think of it as an extra-large jigsaw puzzle. The only way to begin to see the big picture is by focusing on the small details. Yet, everything one knows with absolute certainty can come apart in minutes. It hurts. So what? Happiness is not always fun. Sadness, not always unwelcome.

Self-esteem is another destination that Amy Chua prescribes the route to. After being abusive, angry and pushy for hours, she snuggles up with Lulu after the child has delivered the results her mother demanded. The same Lulu has now given up playing music and plays tennis instead. Don’t ruin tennis for me, she asked of Chua. ‘Mine is a cautionary tale and I am the mad woman in it,’ Chua has said in an interview.

My brothers and I were high achieving children of strict parents too. When I was 12, I pasted an article in my diary. It was titled, ‘The greatest gift you can give your child: Self Esteem.’ I don’t think I knew what self-esteem was, but I must have wanted it badly, because we were not allowed to cut up Reader’s Digest.

As an adult and a professional coach, I know that self-confidence is not something anyone can give you to keep forever. It is like a lake in the mountains, a valley of flowers that must be discovered again and again. Take the beaten path or make your own way, it is there for each one of us to find. There will always be fresh challenges on the way.

With 3 young children, we get enough opportunities to move gently, to stride fiercely, to trip and fall, to wipe tears and snot. Sometimes the chaos, the din and disappointments cross the threshold quite unexpectedly. One evening, at my parent’s place, I raised my voice and delivered some cutting edge dialogues to achieve a stunned silence from my kids. My father was watching. He will be proud of me, I thought. I’ll show him who is in control here.

Mum called me the next day. ‘Your father was saying, talk to Neeru. Tell her not to be so harsh, these hurts are not easy to heal. Relax, calm down. Why repeat our mistakes?’

The voice of Gabbar Singh whispered in my ear, ‘Socha tha sardaar khush hoga? Shabaashi dega?’
So you thought the Don would be pleased, did you? He’d applaud for you. You scumbag!

I believed my father was the real thing, as far as tiger parents go. He was telling me differently. He spoke through my Mum, yet something inside me healed. My father was giving me permission to be the change. 

Sometimes the scenic route is the only way. This is one of those journeys.

About Natasha Badhwar

"Because I'm a Tinker. That's who I am. Tinkers fix things. But I can't do it alone." (Pause for lots of action. Group Action......) "You did it, Tinker, you saved Spring!" I also have three children, one marriage, a million friends and one life.
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10 Responses to >An Uncertain Lullaby

  1. >with nuclear families and a highly competitive environment parenting has become a challenge. however, we must try and keep our heads above and stick to some of our principles. Reading your article has made me more conscious about the rights of my son and I have stopped pushing him as much as I used to. Thanks.

  2. Banno says:

    >Such a wonderful article, Natasha. The last lines have a resonance hard to beat, sometimes the scenic route is the only way.

  3. Natasha says:

    >Thank you, Rahul and Banno.Banno, the Editor at IE dropped the last line of this article for some reason. And I consoled myself that maybe they know better at the newspaper.In that context, your comment is incredibly validating. Love, Natasha.

  4. Ketaki... says:

    >Loved it.. 🙂

  5. Iris says:

    >How come you don't go by Neeru, Natasha? It's a pretty name – as is Natasha of course.

  6. sencomay09 says:

    >Hey Nats … its a fabulously thought provoking piece … but I am scared to ask you why you had me in mind while writing this !! :)))

  7. sencomay09 says:

    >Hey Nats … its a v thought provoking piece … I am just v scared to ask why you thought a lot about me while writing it !! 🙂

  8. mamabook says:

    Natasha, I loved this. Thankyou.

  9. Hello from Sydney, Australia. I found your post here via an Australian friend living in the US – I don't know how she found you but she's very good at finding lovely writing.I was so interested to read what you wrote, as a mother, a coach, an Indian and someone who read Battle Hymn of of the Tier Mother. I reviewed that book for my site – I agree with you, the book was more about Any Chua's learning than what she was teaching.On self esteem, I think the only good source of this is within – I think our children develop this as they have small successes in life, or as they have failures and then learn to bounce back into trying again. Even though I think it's important to praise our children for their efforts (instead of their results) I don't think even that praise builds their self esteem. What do you think Natasha? I wonder what the cultural influences are in India about praise, or about criticism of children? I travelled to India for 3 weeks last year for work and I met many teachers, but very few children. I had the impression that children are under a lot of external pressure to succeed academically (the privileged ones of course) and I wondered how you think this affects their self esteem?There has been a lot of writing in the West about the problem with the self-esteem-culture: where children are told they are fabulous and wonderful even when they have done nothing to 'deserve' that praise. Is that a problem too? I think it can be.But like you Natasha – as a parent, I just stumble through the "scenic route" making my mistakes and celebrating the successes. I also realise that I am not the one "in control" but the one "reading the map"!Lovely to find your blog Natasha.

  10. I LOVE your writing, so glad to have found you!

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