The kids at school have returned from their holidays and the winter term has begun with much fervor. On day one, I asked them, unsure of what their answer will be, “What do you miss the most after coming back to school?” I figured going home must have been a big deal for these boarding school kids, and perhaps the weeks gone by would have been times for intense bonding.
I realized I was terribly old-fashioned when they echoed in unison, “Internet!”.
Now that was disturbing in more ways than one. I was expecting them to miss their old buddies, conversations with family and friends, parents, grandparents, siblings, their home, their animals or some such. But internet? I sighed. So much for the illusion of separation. I guess you cannot separate what isn’t together and that seems to be the landscape of family I mostly see all around.
One thing that has changed hugely in my life this year is that I am having more conversations with children. And their parents. Most of the time, they are saying to me what they don’t say to each other and I wonder why. There seems to be a sudden bankruptcy of words between parents and children, and being a teacher, I often realize that I have to be a conduit between them. Unfortunately, I cannot deliver emotions from one to the other. Sometimes it is rewarding, but mostly it is exhausting and emotionally depleting.
It’s not about the distance. I have often seen people living in the same house not talking to each other. For days. Weeks. Years. That is because family is defined by flimsy things like a few people sharing a house. Or a car. It never comes with a “must talk to each other” clause. Sometimes, there is a comfort in understanding each other’s silences, but more often, it is about wanting to tune off each other’s words.
I see more and more children around me having mostly transactional relationships with their parents. Parents have turned into people one gives wish-lists to, hoping most items get ticked off. But parents are transactional too. Some don’t write to their children unless the kids write to them.
Most of my kids at school often seem more burdened by their weekly emailing hour and monthly call-chits (the slots they have to engage with their parents). The parents often complain that the kids don’t write enough. Or that they write just two lines and mostly ask for what they need or want. A few children do write long, rambling emails to their parents and I can already tell them from the rest of the class. I am sure Re will keep raising the bar for me on being a better parent, and perhaps I will do the same to him too. But there is one thing I can say for sure. There will always be conversations.
A few months ago, I asked my students to write an essay on their parents’ childhood. They could choose to write on one or both parents. Most of them stared blankly at me, and hadn’t got anything down on paper, so I asked them why. They said they didn’t know much about their parents’ childhood and would have to email them to ask. This disturbed me a little. After a few weeks, they came back with their essays, but by then, the magic was lost.
I find that the more people can buy, the less time they seem to spend with each other and the same applies for their children too. It’s as though the things we buy have replaced the people we can be with. Every human being has been replaced by a screen or app.
A friend of mine recently remarked that she was not the type who ‘called her mother back’. It was said in jest, but then I began to wonder. What is so cool about being disconnected from your parents?
Through my columns and my blog, I often receive letters, emails from parents that make me feel like agony aunt. Most of them are still grappling with parenting, which makes me feel like I’m not alone in not knowing what is the right thing to do at any given point. But most of our conflicts with our children are our conflicts with ourselves.
The thing about being a parent is that it is one job in your life where you can spend an entire lifetime not showing up, and still qualify on paper as a parent. Yes, children look good on our resume. May be we just have to earn a place in theirs.
(This post first appeared as my column in Pune Mirror on 8th December, 2014)