Bogged down by examination anxiety, parental pressures, Indian children have lost the ability to dream

Parental pressure in India is among the worst in the world, with most seeking top performances for proud living room discussions. Students can't defy this pressure, and end up succumbing ahead of board examinations

Shantanu Guha Ray June 18, 2017 15:14:54 IST
Bogged down by examination anxiety, parental pressures, Indian children have lost the ability to dream

Editor's note: This is the concluding article of a three-part series on the demanding and unreasonably high cutoff levels imposed on students seeking entry into the country's preeminent colleges

Like their firm belief that watching two jungle mynas will always bring good luck, India's pushy parents are seeking divine help to get their children admitted in top colleges. They are at temples, churches, dargahs, and even consulting astrologers to propitiate the Gods, blissfully unaware that they are themselves the biggest trigger of this insurmountable pressure of high marks sweeping the country like a permanent tsumani.

In India, demands of ambition and demography collide with a shortage of desirable schools.

Parental pressure in India is among the worst in the world, with most parents seeking top performances which make for proud living room discussions. Only a handful can defy this pressure, the rest claim the system can never change. And so they join the deathly rat race, right from the day their child walks into a preparatory school.

Let's illustrate this with an example of defiance. Some months ago, a top corporate honcho in Delhi, J Anthony, was called by his daughter's class teacher. Among other complaints, the one that stuck out was the fact that the student, Preetika, was "a dreamer, living in her own world". And then, haltingly, the teacher added, "She is average in her studies."

Anthony said he was happy that his daughter was not among the top students in the school, and that he was happy that she was a dreamer. "My daughter is in a group which is the biggest in India. She may not get chance in a local college, but she could be in a small college abroad, living with four students in a room, learning to share and care. I am happy she won't be in the rat race, and happy that she is a dreamer, because this is the time to dream."

Bogged down by examination anxiety parental pressures Indian children have lost the ability to dream

Representational image. Courtesy: CNN-News18

The teacher found Anthony bold. It was a rare conversation between a father and a teacher. But those who heard the story shuddered, ostensibly because parents in India live under a perpetual fear of teachers, of their whims and fancies, so much that it all adds up to the much talked about term "parental pressure".

"But that's an exception. In most cases, the parent would have collapsed, and the pressure shifted to the child," remarked Sudha Sadanand, a senior editor with Amazon-Westland.

Sadanand says Indian parents pick up these pressures from schools where they see top students wearing special blazers or badges, and sitting in what are called "scholar classes".

"Ordinary students suffer the most, because their parents do not have the galls to seek an alternate career for them. Students marks have a strange co-relation with their parents' decibel levels in drawing room discussions. Better the marks, higher the pitch," he said. "Every parent wants his/her child to go to high-flying schools, get big scores. It's a changed society today."

It is clearly taking a big toll, as statistics would tell. Data from the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) says one student commits suicide in India every hour. The NCRB has figures pertinent to 2015, when the number of reported suicides of students reached 8,934. In the five years leading to 2015, 39,775 students killed themselves. The number of attempted suicides is double the figure. This apart, there are also many unreported suicides in India, notorious for having the highest suicide rates in the world for youth aged 15-29. They account for one third of all suicides in the country. A 2012 Lancet report said there's now serious need for urgent intervention in India's education system.

The government has been speaking of decriminalising suicide, the idea being to ensure young Indians who are already stressed and burdened aren't punished for cracking under the pressure. They often end up cracking, because of the pressure from parents to perform better. Especially considering it's Class XII scores that determine college admissions and subsequent employment opportunities, students aged 16-18 years face undue pressure at home to succeed. And when they don't, suicide becomes a way out.

"Parents in India are scary; they look at the neighbours' successes and turn it inwards, to raise their pitch. Students must perform or perish, there is no middle ground. Indian schools have become no-nonsense disciplinarian institutes," said Tanveer Nasreen, a lecturer from Burdwan.

Nasreen said that many principals do refer in private conversations to the preponderance of parents who want their kids to start school early, and be burdened with homework and activities. "It has always occurred to me that more than students, it's parents who get competitive in India," Nasreen said. "Every school creates a pressure cooker like situation, with claims of producing the perfect child, and every parent buys into that dream."

About 40 percent of India's 1.2 billion population is aged under 18, while many more are parents in their late 20s and 30s, who also have school-going children. What is worrying is that except for the very poor, government schools are not an option, because they are considered inferior. Hence, the competition for private schools is fierce.

And it is here, in the scramble to be successful in the great Indian education rush, that parents get hyperactive, spending hefty amounts or taking loans to send their children to private schools mushrooming all over the country. Education is big business, as corporate captains, real estate developers and foreign colleges all eye the billion-dollar Indian education market.

But the actual choices on the ground are few. As a result, there aren't too many alternative courses for children to follow. Educationists, social scientists and human resources managers feel that students need to seek alternative courses and not make run-of-the-mill choices, if they are to beat this pressure. More importantly, however, parental behaviour needs to undergo a serious change.

But nothing has actually changed in India. For over four decades, Science, Commerce and Arts were the most common choices, and this, in turn, determined what college courses students applied for. Even today, medicine and engineering remain the two most popular choices, and students depend on their Science and Math grades in classes X and XII to get there.

Parents rarely put pressure on education boards to add newer, innovative or creative courses, nor do they wish their children run for such courses. "Parents' expectations are the highest," says Suman Kumar, principal of Bluebells School in Delhi, adding that those who opt for the big courses hardly follow it up at the end. So why even push them to decide their life's choices when they are just 15?

A simple poll across six cities taken by filmmaker Ishani Dutta in January 2017 showed how people who had trained formally as engineers hadn't practiced engineering, but drifted to running restaurants, medicine stores, real estate brokerage and adventure sports. Some even became editors and some ran advertising agencies. "So why should children mindlessly study for professional courses? Why don't parents celebrate a 65 percent score or a 75 percent score on Facebook? Aren't they bringing competition into their bedrooms, traumatising their own children?" Dutta asked.

She is yet to find an answer.

The stereotyping of students and parents eventually impacts their careers at workplaces, claim HR experts. "Many act like robots, they can handle some great softwares, but cannot make a cup of coffee because they were not told by their parents. At work, these very kids must get bold and ask themselves — am I upping my game?" HR exponent Chandan Chattaraj asked.

Earlier this year, Class XII students and their parents huddled together in a Delhi school for one last interaction before the crucial final examinations. Tempers ran high when teachers told parents that students were complaining of "huge pressure to outperform others" at home. A majority of the parents denied the charge, while some agreed. Only a couple remained silent. The room had in many ways turned into a cauldron, resembling an angry town hall or shareholder meeting of a company on the verge of going bust.

"But there is no way one can come out of this, the pressure will always be present. Like the shlokas and mannerisms, this one has also been handed down generation after generation. We know we should not pressure children. Some of us don't. But the children are impacted severely by the environment," says communication consultant Swati Bhattacharya.

Her son scored 90 percent this year in Class XII, while her daughter scored 95 percent two years ago. The parents tried their best to bury the comparison. "But it kept bouncing back, parental pressure is lethal. And its extremely sad that it will stay for the next decade as well," Bhattacharya rued.

The face of the Indian school parent, sadly, has not changed — it remains angry and anxious. Their children spend days and nights boning up for exams, refusing to think there are worthwhile pursuits outside of being a doctor or an engineer. No one has lifted the knob of the pressure cooker to let the steam off.

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