In the Hollywood Blockbuster, ‘Gladiator’ (2000) Richard Harris as Marcus Aurelius addresses his son, Commodus passionately, “Your faults as a son are my failures as a father.” Words that in real life many parents in India would perhaps admit in their lonely introspection but rarely speak out.
Perhaps, in a rare bout of confession, your close friend might choose to lean on your shoulder to lament about drug abuse and arrogant behaviour of his teenage son. Or a colleague might confide in you about his disturbed relationship with the wife taking a toll on his daughter’s studies in her final year at school. Such candid opening up might shake you out of your comfort zone and you might ask yourself, “Am I taking my own parenting behaviour casually?”
Parenting competencies are among the most critical life skills. They have distinct and powerful influence on the wellness and happiness of the community, not just in the present but over the medium to long term as well. Parenting should be a key focus of our self-assessment and rejuvenation as we manoeuvre through life’s twists and turns.
Parenting competence means and includes the ability to effectively facilitate the physical, cognitive and emotional development from the infant stage to adulthood. The life cycle of development to adulthood involves different phases such as baby (first year of birth), toddler (1-3 years), pre-adolescent (3-10), adolescent (10-19) and young adult (19-24). These phases form a continuum of cognitive and emotional development. It is critical as parents to understand, appreciate and adjust to the changing needs of the child as it traverses these stages.
There is the story of a woman taking her young son to Sri Ramakrishna Paramahansa and saying, “Swamin, My son is starting his school tomorrow. Bless him that that he gets the best of education and grows up to be a success in life”. Sri Ramakrishna asked, “How old is your son?” “Five Years,” replied the lady. “Young lady, you are late by five years. His education started the day he was born”. The importance of parenting in the early years of life is highlighted by the anecdote.
There is no one-size-fits-all prescription to effective parenting. While there are many contributors to child development such as teachers, the peer group, extended family members and the community, the most critical relationship that has the opportunity and potential to mentor the child in the formative stage of life journey is the parental bondage. Single parent situation poses additional challenges to ensure that guardian parent ring-fences the child from the spill-over of own emotional pressures.
Parenting the new born and the toddler is loaded with challenges. Especially when both parents are young and working, early parenting is riddled with possible tensions and anxieties. Imagine the time you had your first child and both you and your spouse had tight assignments on hand. The child came into your life even as you were struggling with two transitions in life – from being a student to an employee and from a carefree son or daughter to a spouse. Both changes have had their own share of emotional pressures. With the arrival of the new born, there is an inevitable role enrichment and consequent incremental responsibilities to be handled with care, concern and sharing.
Dealing with the child’s likely aggressions, tantrums, whining, inattentive listening and occasional stubbornness could all suddenly appear overwhelming to many first-time parents. While these behaviours are common and an essential part of growing up, the response of parents could accentuate or soften the challenges. Many parents approach the growth pangs with talking down and aggressive disciplining. Child psychologists advocate a softer approach involving attention, patience, empathy and assertiveness to deal with toddlers.
In the adolescent phase, parents need to demonstrate empathy and appreciation for the ‘individual’ in the child. By the time children reach around ten years of age, they have had many childhood experiences that knowingly or unknowingly have made impressions on their minds. Adolescence experiences have critical role in the long-term habit formation of children and hence calls for great sensitivity in parental behaviour.
One of the common mistakes in parenting is the tendency to compare children – either between siblings or among peers. Though the intention of the parent in such comparisons could be to create a healthy competition, the outcome could be a dent in the self-image and confidence of the child.
As children move on to the young adult phase, parenting enters a slippery path. In much of the Western world and even in most of the East Asian cultures, parenting adopts an increasingly hands-off style once the child is on the threshold of adulthood. 18 years is by and large accepted globally as the inflection point when active parenting yields to a more indirect supportive and mentoring approach.
The fictitious feeling of ownership and control over grown up children is one of the reasons for growing uneasiness in relationships and interactions between teens and parents. Mentoring and coaching relationships can be effective only if the mentee looks for and appreciates the facilitation. How the young adult would seek your mentorship and guidance voluntarily depends a lot on how you have brought him or her up through adolescence. Many parents fail to appreciate the evolution of the child and the pressures of growth that he or she goes through. Effective parenting should facilitate a process of self-realisation, self-regulation and self-management in the child. As parents, you would be the happiest when your child finds its moorings amidst the demands and pressures of life.
Psychologists talk about four parenting styles. These styles are not mutually exclusive. Parents demonstrate combinations of these styles depending upon their own childhood, professional and social experiences that would have shaped their behaviour. Parenting involves essentially two core behaviours – being ‘demanding’ of the child and being ‘responsive’ to the child. These core behaviours and combinations of various shades of the same would lead broadly to four parenting styles: Detached, Permissive, Authoritarian and Authoritative. An authoritative approach recognizes the child’s individuality and independence and therefore is most likely to be effective in the open, connected and digitalised world that we live. Needless to say, children resist and react to authoritarian parenting and its long term negative fallout is significant.
Many parents are guilty of ‘helicopter parenting’ well into young adulthood. Watching over their shoulders can be understood by the children as lack of confidence in their ability to self-manage. The term "helicopter parent" was first used in 1969 by Dr. Haim Ginott when he quoted teenagers he interviewed for his book ‘Parents & Teenagers’ saying their parents would hover over them like a helicopter.
It is quite common to see Indian parents escorting their teenage children between coaching classes and tuition centres. There are parents who do the homework for the smaller children regularly; many take leave and oversee the pre-examination preparation of children. Many children brought up in highly protective, patronizing and intimidating parental control tend to go astray once the rigid discipline is loosened as they enrol for university programs away from home. A child who is allowed the space to self-manage, take ownership of academic pursuit of choice and encouraged to share household responsibilities generally demonstrates better ability to manage career and social situations post schooling.
Emotional engagement between parent and child through continuous and supportive dialogue, facilitation and empowerment is the key to healthy and sustainable child development. Lack of parental engagement might push the young to lean more on peer support, which can hamper healthy and independent development of life skills.
Every parent needs to spend quality time with children. Get them involved in family huddles, share and seek feedback, value their opinions and at the same time be assertive. A simple and effective practice is to insist on having dinner together and sharing the day’s experience with each other. This would tremendously boost the self-image and responsibility of the child and strengthen the bond of mutuality and support among all family members.
Parenting is too strategic a competence to be taken lightly because it involves facilitating and shaping the values, attitudes, habits and behaviours of the future generation.
*Ravi Kumar Pillai is a practising strategy consultant, trainer, coach, mentor and start up enthusiast based in Trivandrum. He can be contacted at