It was a usual evening; my husband and I had gone out to one of the popular restaurants in Bangalore -- the one in which you would typically share your seats with another family. It turned out that the family seated opposite to us on our table was a couple with a cute 3-year-old.
As we were waiting for our order to arrive, I couldn't help but notice how the child resisted the food the mom tried to give him. The parents tried several things -- distract him, cajole him, encourage him. The results were obviously not satisfactory. Finally, they pointed at us and said, "If you don't eat, they will think you are a bad boy!" I noticed that the child's interest was drawn to us for a few seconds; he stared at us strangely for a while, I smiled at him and then he was back in his own world. The parents looked at me and smiled. I smiled back.
This got me thinking -- I was a stranger to them, sharing a common space for a maximum of 30 minutes. Yet, this did not stop them from using me as a tool to put embarrassment and shame in their child's mind -- to achieve a short-term goal.
This innocuous but insidious drilling into the child's mind to do what gets approval from others can have effects more far-reaching than we would like. If a 3-year-old is urged to seek approval from strangers to keep up his "good boy" image, what are the odds that it would not burgeon into the more weighty issues through his teenage years and adulthood?
Be a good boy and do well in school, or you will be seen as a dumb child. Be a good girl and learn to cook, or people will see you as unfeminine. Be a good student and take up a job because the neighbor's son just did that. Be a successful person and make pots of money because that's what the world sees as success. Give up your family life if you want a thriving career because that's how everybody perceives great work.
More and more teens and adults are decidedly feeling unhappy because they are eternally on autopilot trying to field the world's expectations on them. Some of us meet those expectations only to realize that it failed to give us the fulfillment we sought within ourselves; some of us burnout mid-way trying to fulfill them; some of us realize that there has to be another way to find what we truly seek.
Arianna Huffington's most recent book, Thrive, talks about the need to redefine the parameters of success in life. She urges all of us to get off the external validation bandwagon and reconnect with ourselves for that innate sense of well-being and wonder which will automatically give us the means to live life on our own terms.
Too often, we forget that there is a deeper level to ourselves and our environment that we can connect with in order to truly experience life with love, passion, intention, gratitude and a serene sense of well-being. We fall into the dangerous trap of conformity and forget to remind ourselves that there is another way. More often than not, it is this need to conform that keeps us from quitting the jobs we hate, from doing something we love, from taking the road less traveled.
Watch this beautiful clip to understand the trappings of conformity.
But living life on our own terms really needs to be consciously inculcated from childhood.
My own wake-up call came when my 8-year-old daughter came home and announced, "Amma, you are going to be very proud today. My teacher said I have done great job on my painting."
It was unclear to me whether it was a proud moment or a warning signal. Slowly, I asked her, "Did you think you did a good job on your painting?"
She thought for a while and said, "Yes, but there are many things I could have done better. I should have used more color, more grass here, more shades here..."
It was important for me to let her know that external validation will come and go. It was time for me to get her to tap into her own visions for herself. It was time for me to tell her explicitly that she should and could really live her life on her own terms and not rely on other's impressions of her.
There are many things that parents can do to address this need depending on the parenting style they adopt. However, there are three things that cut across all parenting styles:
1. Do not compare: Comparing your child to another is the most common parenting mistake. Comparing one child to another is not only counter-productive, it's incredibly irrational. Comparisons might bring short-term results, but they are a surefire way of disconnecting the child from his or her own path.
2. Let the child explore: Believe in your child, no matter what! Of course, that does not in any way advocate being careless about your child's safety. Consciously decide to not let your own fears limit him/her. Avoid spelling out your fears even before your child has tried something new. Your child is unique and the world needs him/her and vice versa.
3. Take time to continually reinforce: Your child is constantly interacting with his/her peers, friends, teachers, siblings and so on. In short, his/her circle of influence is constantly increasing. Your job as a parent is to be constantly watchful for signs that he/she needs your reinforcement and support.
Remind the child that the race is really only with oneself.