Let Kids Be Kids

Last summer, when my 6-year-old son took swimming lessons, I became friendly with another Indian mother. We spent time chatting while our sons were in the pool. Soon the boys started playing together every day after their swimming lessons.

This idyllic pace had continued for barely a few weeks before she declared, "I want my son to do freestyle in the morning, and backstroke in the afternoon. Why don’t you enroll your son in the afternoon class too, so that they can both learn swimming faster?" My mind went abuzz: should I accelerate his training? No, I decided eventually. He shouldn’t have to give up his afternoon playtime to become a star swimmer.

This wasn’t the first time I had decided not to follow the example of an overzealous Indian parent. When my son was about to complete first grade, parents had gathered at the school’s annual Open House. One mom said, "I need to check out all the second-grade classrooms to evaluate teachers for my daughter for the next year." The day second-grade classroom assignments were posted, there were seven messages on my cell phone from Indian mothers congratulating me that my son was "lucky" to be placed in the best class.

"How is a high-school science grade related to family honor?" the puzzled wife of a high-school science teacher once asked me. "My husband had a meeting recently with an Indian couple who accused him of ruining their family’s honor by giving their son a low grade in science." She confessed that now after her husband hands out test papers, he slips out of the building through a back exit where he keeps his car parked surreptitiously to evade competitive parents in the parking lot.

As immigrants, we invest too much importance into every opportunity afforded our children. Our obsession sometimes borders on the unethical. At a third-grade parent-teacher conference the teacher apprised parents of an Academic Dishonesty Policy. Apparently, some students brought in flawless homework that they couldn’t reproduce in class. I wonder what message it sends to children when parents complete their homework.

I do not shirk my parental responsibilities. I check my son’s homework, help him with projects, and drive him to after-school activities. Yet, there is always someone ahead of me with a parenting master plan. This master plan seems to include straight As, honors courses, Ivy-League admissions, and high-powered jobs.

In implementing this master plan on behalf of our children, are we not depriving them of unstructured experiences that are not goal-oriented? Do we even allow them to fail so that they can learn from their failures? Are we robbing them of their childhood?


Nirupama Vaidhyanathan is on the editorial board of India Currents.

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