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Swati Desai, Ph.D., LCSW

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Confessions of a Confused Mom

Posted: 01/22/11 02:12 AM ET

I am a confused mother!

I am a mother who does not want to simply uphold the way I was raised, but I am not able to fully embrace the American way of raising children. I am a mother who does not have a strong conviction that there is one fixed, right way of raising children. I am less confused about how I want my kids to turn out to be. I want them to be accomplished yet happy, driven yet with integrity, risk-takers yet responsible, compassionate yet ruthless about reaching their goals, balanced yet relentlessly pursuing what they choose, unique and independent yet family-loving, monetarily successful yet not material-driven, secure, friendly, polite, caring, knowledge hungry, creative, focused, exuberant, interesting, cooperative, intelligent, empathic -- let me think if I forgot anything.... In order to achieve this, I read books, I pay attention to the parenting tips, I talk to other parents, I watch parents of other kids, and self-explore on what I must be doing wrong and how I can improve. Often times I second-guess my own choice in a specific situation, and wonder if I could have found a better way of parenting.

Just for the record, I am not called a neurotic person. I have a reputation for being a calm and thoughtful person.

When I read books about how to raise happy kids, I say "happiness is not everything; you must make a difference in this world." When I see a book on "How to raise brainy kids", I say "how about the EQ factor?" When I see a book on "How to raise confident kids", I say "Too much independence can lead to unpredictable results, kids need strong discipline."

I am a modern South Asian/American Mom, from India, the country that was colonized by the British Empire for 150 years, the India that is caught between idealizing the individualistic Western (British and now the US) culture and the hundreds of years of Indian traditions of self-sacrifice for the family.

Just like my culture-of-origin is caught between the East and the West, I am confused about what principle to follow when it comes to parenting practice. I am a psychotherapist and I do not work with children -- not very surprising! When I follow the guidelines by fellow psychotherapists and ensure being emotionally very available to my children, I worry about making them emotionally entitled and self-centered just like some other American children. On the other hand, when I look at some Indian parents, I have a strong negative reaction when I see them enforcing high achievement in children as an accolade to themselves.

I know what rules are supposed to be good for them, on TV and electronic device usage, certain foods, and too much material. Sometimes, it is too much trouble to keep enforcing the potentially unpleasant rules, for the fear of being a "nag." In addition, occasionally the questions arise such as, "Did Steve Jobs have such rules when he grew up?" "Should they be deprived of having a fun and relaxing time?" "If technology is my child's passion, then should I let him be on the computer for as long as he wants -- as long as I keep track of how much YouTube he is watching?" If I monitor their actions too much and try to be too available to solve all their problems, I worry about if they can be mature and independent choice makers like the Americans I admire. If I let them be free to fend for themselves, then my knowledge of research about the perils of permissive parenting starts hovering over me. I look around and I watch the "independent kids" making mistakes and exploring on their own, only to realize later that they wasted some years in reinventing the wheel. I do not want to be overprotective for the fear of making my kids too anxious, and yet I shudder at the stories of date rape, bullying, and "boys will be boys." If I raise my kids to be compassionate in the Buddhist sense, I worry about taking out the "fire in their belly." If I want them to be tough and self-defending, I wonder if my rules such as "stupid is a bad word" become an antidote. Should I allow them to use "curse words" like most of their peers, and in fact, display tough judgmentality myself like most other moms do? Should I allow them to be judgmental in order to feel "safe" and "confident" in their own little world?

Should I try to be a "brutal" mother like the Tiger Mom, Amy Chua? Not possible, because I just simply could not bring myself to call any kid "garbage," even if it means churning out "success" and "self-esteem." Besides, what if your child was not able to keep up with your expectations? Should I be like my Indian mother (who did manage to produce happy, ambitious, and mostly pleasant people pleasers), who enforced what she thought was "good" for us, without ever giving us "three choices" or finding out how we "felt" about it? Not possible, simply because the environment in which I am raising my kids is so different, and so are my values about respecting individual feelings. Should I be expecting the self-indulgent, nonchalant teen behavior as "it is normal" or should I make sure to enforce different values (people oriented, responsible) from young age -- just like the teens in India seem to be respectful and responsible? Is it possible to go against the culture around you without making your kids feel like an odd man out?

In the middle of my confusion, when I allow myself to pause, I do notice that my kids are turning out to be the type of people I want (OK, not everything from my ridiculously long list -- but the gist of it), in their own searching ways. I did not enforce it, but my high-achieving daughter has always chosen not to fall for the "popularity" contest in her schools. Without explicit instructions, my smart son knows how to respect and treat people. Both of them aspire to be good students and good people, and yet are able to keep their individuality, some times in spite of their mom. Above all, they feel very safe and close to both me and my husband. Did we do something right? I look around amongst their friends (raised by conscious American mothers) who mostly seem to be good yet successful kids. If I look hard, I may be able to come up with a few general rules.

  1. Keep your expectations high, whatever "expectations" you choose, and whatever ways you choose to enforce the expectations. Do it even when the kids complain or resist it. Merely "feeling good" is not enough, in the end, they stand up to the plate. In this, I agree with the Tiger mom.
  2. When you choose your expectations, remember that there is no one fixed goal applicable to all children. There are genetic, temperamental, gender-based, and birth-order based differences. Keep looking for what the specific child is capable of and keep modifying your expectations. If you choose the expectations even before the child is born (straight A's and musical instruments), you will add to the stories you hear in response to the Tiger Mom's article, the anxious Asian kids who do not want to raise their children the way they were raised. This "exploring" for what is specific to the child is much more difficult than having pre-defined expectations, but it will pay off. This is where I disagree with the Tiger mom.
  3. Be willing to self-explore, admit, and modify your own self. As Dan Siegel points out in his lecture series Mindsight, this is the one variable about parental characteristic that is shown to lead to secure attachment to parents.
  4. Above all, be ready to sacrifice some part of your life -- money, time, your own desires, and order in your life! Without this willingness, none of the above will work!

Am I right in my conclusions?

 

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