The case of the official abduction of two Indian children from their parents in Norway – allegedly for poor parenting skills – and placement with foster care is indicative of the wide gulf in cultural perceptions between us and them on what is right or wrong in a given situation.
While one TV channel is running a shrill campaign on the theme of Norwegian cruelty which has forcibly separated two kids from their natural guardians – it is obviously playing to the domestic public opinion gallery – the more important issues are barely being discussed.
There must, obviously, be another side to the story than what the media has been portraying: We know that Anurup and Sagarika Bhattacharya were robbed of their three-year-old son Abhigyan and one-year-old daughter Aishwarya by the Norwegian Child Welfare Service. We also know that in India we would not usually allow such things to happen, however bad we think a child’s parents are.
This, however, does not mean that we as a society should pretend that everything is hunky-dory in the way we bring up our children. It’s not.
Columnist Vir Sanghvi raised this issue in The Mint some years ago based on his observations during an international flight. While seven-year-old Brit kids seemed well-behaved during the flight, 9-11-year-old Indian kids were “screaming and shouting, running up and down the aisle, colliding with the cabin crew and harassing other passengers.” And he asked: “Do we have the worst-behaved children in the world or what?”
The jury is out on that one, but we can’t quite have the worst behaved kids on this planet without the benefit of the worst type of parenting. Of which, more later.
At the outset, it’s worth looking at what the Norwegians seem to be saying about the case. A Firstpost report makes the following points about why the Norwegians took the children away.
One, they felt that the children were overfed. They concluded that when a child was hand-fed, it was tantamount to force-feeding. They were surely at least partly wrong.
Two, they noted that the children displayed an emotional disconnect with their parents.
Three, the son Abhigyan apparently displayed erratic behaviour at school.
Four, officials who came to investigate objected to Abhigyan and Aishwarya sleeping in the parental bed.
Five, the mother apparently slapped the son at one point – but she did not repeat that once she knew Norwegian law made violence against children illegal.
Overall, the Norwegians had serious doubts about whether Anurup and Sagarika had much parenting skills at all, with the mother seen as being unable to meet the children’s emotional needs.
One obvious difference between Norway and India is the high trust they place in arms of the state to protect their children. In India, given the pathetic performance of the state, most people would consider a child’s parental home – however flawed – a better place than putting her in the care of the state or foster parents.
Moreover, there are many aspects of the parents’ alleged behaviour – as noted by the Norwegians – that we as a society would not think poorly of.
Hitting children may be a declining phenomenon among the middle and upper classes (at least, one believes so), but it is very much the reality among the poor.
Children sleeping with parents upto a certain age – probably three or four – is the norm in most Indian families.
Hand-feeding is often done by parents out of a sense of affection or to coax children to eat healthy stuff. I remember my grandparents feeding me when I was a kid, accompanied with terrific stories to get the stuff down my throat. Those were the best times of my life as a child.
The charge of emotional disconnect, though, may be more difficult to identify with. Till about a generation ago, when staying in a joint family (or at least frequent visits to grandparents and relatives) was the norm, Indian children tended to build a variety of affinities with many relatives. In some cases, the father and mother may not even be the primary pillars of emotional support and ties. Uncles, aunts and grandparents were often higher in a child’s scheme of things.
More recently, with the advent of the nuclear family, women have had to bear the double responsibilities of home and work. With crèches and child-rearing help still lacking, one would not be surprised if their parenting skills were marred by extremely stressful lives.
But, in my view, the most important issue impacting our child-rearing skills is the sorry state of the Indian marriage.
Despite Bollywood’s romantic ideas about marriage, despite a convenient Indian assumption that marriage is a must for everybody, and especially for women, and despite the untenable pretense that “love will follow” once you marry, the stark reality is that urban marriages are heading steadily for the rocks. Urban divorce rates may still be only 7 percent of marriages, but the quality of marriages probably sucks for more than a third of relationships.
So what’s the connection between loveless marriages and bad parenting?
Lots. A book (Love will follow: Why the Indian marriage is burning) by Shaifali Sandhya, a PhD from the University of Chicago, professor of clinical psychology and a practicing therapist, tells us why. The central premise of a marriage – intimacy and affection between couples – is simply not there in many urban middle class marriages, and this impacts how we bring up our children.
This is how tales of the Indian mother-in-law get generated, too. Couples frustrated in achieving emotional closeness with each other tend to lavish their emotions on their children – something unfair and damaging. In India, tales of mothers doting on sons and expecting emotional support from them are aplenty, and the impact is felt even after the son gets married.
Says Sandhya: “Any one of these reasons – the cultural reverence of mothers, the limited role of fathers, the potency of a mother’s depression in a child’s upbringing – may prime their parenting to be overly focused on the child. At the same time, it is important to remember that even apart from such factors, there are cultural reasons for a physical over-focus on the child’s needs.”
Quoting Alan Roland, she notes: “The mother unconsciously demands that the child serve as an object of her own unfulfilled desires and wishes, however different they may be to his own.”
Given this reality, it needs only a little bit of imagination to realise that the failure of spousal relationships may be impacting child-rearing skills – leading to overindulgence (spoilt brats), a reluctance to allow children to develop independence, over-mothering, emotional possessiveness, et al.
Children brought up this way tend to have damaged relationships with their spouses, sending the cycle of bad parenting down to another generation.
At one level, Indians have a natural affinity to parenting and care-giving. But we may also be going over the top in some ways, thanks to the sorry state of marriage in India.
The Norwegians may be going overboard with the concerns over the parenting skills of an Indian couple, but we sure have plenty of reasons to sit up and take notice, too.