How cut-offs, lists and percentages are robbing our children of happiness

Seeds of tomorrowBy the time you read this column I would have spoken about and moderated a discussion on ‘How to make your passion your paycheck’ at a career and networking forum aimed at women’s empowerment. I am glad they called it passion and not hobby. It somehow seems more legitimate.

It struck me a few years ago that I had got to that place where I could unflinchingly write ‘writer’ in the box that said ‘occupation’ while filling a form, any form ranging from visa to child’s admission. I couldn’t earlier, even though I had decided a long time ago that all I like to do is write. So I would disguise it as ‘advertising professional’ or ‘journalist’ or ‘editor’ or ‘content creator’ or some such.

I remember vaguely talking about following your passion many times to various groups of students at the school I taught at last year. They were in awe that I had a Masters in Pharmacy and chose to write (or then, teach English).

I met quite a few really talented students. One girl doodled like a magician. Another was a dream with a guitar. A third wrote songs she could make a living off. A boy made the best origami lanterns. Another did water color with the most delicate strokes. A third knew every species of bird in the Sahyadris. Another made the finest batik art I have ever seen. There were pianists, sitar players, basketball whiz kids, cricket prodigies, poets, botanists, tabla players, singers and dancers.

Somewhere I think they all knew that while their parents were ‘allowing’ them to indulge in their passions for a while, sooner or later, they would all have to fit into neat little boxes. Being old enough to appear for their boards also meant being too old to pursue your passions as if they were your life.

June and July are months of lists for students. Lists of those who make it and those who don’t. Except you really don’t know if not being on a list can actually be a good thing for your kid in the long run.

When I thought back to my days of board exams and the results thereafter, I was on every list. And that was my greatest undoing. Because being on a list and walking away was not acceptable then. May be it was and I didn’t really have the courage to walk away and pursue what I thought was my passion. I then imagined myself as a vet, a dancer or a writer. I pursued none. Years later, through a very long and convoluted path, I was glad I could still go back to being a writer. But it was too late for the other two.

It’s been a long time since then but the boxes haven’t changed much. Admissions have become online, but the cutoffs remain relatively the same. Or as my mother would say, marks have no meaning anymore; they are being doled out like crazy. But the higher the marks, the higher the cut-offs too.

One of the dear friends I made through this column has a son who has recently cleared his 12th with much flourish and was at the crossroads. The choices were many. Media studies, business school, oceanography, design, architecture and more. The parents offered him many options, and did their bit of research to figure what would be best for him.

The child was of course bogged down by all the choices, applying for admissions and the pressures of masculinity from his alpha male father. He turned to his mother for comfort. He knew she would understand what was going on in his mind, and more importantly, his heart. She asked him what was it that he really wanted to be when he grew up. And he said, ‘I want to be really really happy when I grow up, mom!”

And I think that nailed it.

We are okay with happiness as a byproduct, but not as a goal, as Eleanor Roosevelt reminds us. This is why it took me two decades after schooling to reach a point where I could say with all honesty that I made my passion my paycheck.

We are often putting our children into little boxes, defined by the marks they get or the marks they didn’t get. So our children are forced to say that they want to go to business school when all they want is to teach origami, or study engineering when they would rather be ornithologists or take up media studies when what they actually wanted to do was study rivers. So a great saxophonist becomes an MBA, a wordsmith becomes a Chartered Accountant or a food stylist pursues law. And they lock all these little passions in littler boxes which may or may not be opened for a long time. And in some sad cases, will never be opened.

I know I am not good at giving advice and don’t know enough to do it, but try not to see your children as the boxes they made it into and the boxes they didn’t. Because there is a lot of them that will never fit into any box. And that is what will eventually make them truly, really happy. And happiness is a great goal for anyone.

(A version of this post appeared as my column in Pune Mirror on 29th June, 2015)

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8 thoughts on “How cut-offs, lists and percentages are robbing our children of happiness

  1. “I want to be happy”… as a goal, brought back memories of a conversation I had with a friend a few years ago. I love my job and used to live out of suitcases. I was married for 5 years (when this conversation happened) and did not have children. My friend was giving me the gyan on why it is important to have children and not be such a workaholic. So as a part of the chat
    Friend: “What do you want from your life?”.
    Me: “I want to be happy”.
    Friend: But what do you WANT from life?
    Me: Happiness.
    Friend: But that cannot be a goal.
    Me: That is my goal for my life.
    Friend: So are you saying that you got married to your husband because you wanted to be happy? Was that the basis for choosing someone?
    Me: What else could it be? I believe that your happiness quotient after an event should be higher than before. Else you should not be a part of such a life changing event.
    Friend: You don’t know what you are talking about.

    Thank you Lalita for this post!!!! I think we do forget that happiness has to trump security and not the other way around…

  2. What a brilliant piece! Every time I read one of your blog posts, I think of posting a comment but then I get ‘busy’ with work and it never happens. But this topic is close to my heart so I HAD to leave a comment to let you know my thoughts. I am commerce graduate who by destiny got a really good job in a great company – good salary, great colleagues et all, but then one day I discovered my passion for photography and slowly with a help of a grt friend, learnt more about it. Today my friend and I cover events, portfolios and baby shoots professionally. Every other day I wonder what if I had learnt about this interest within me and had done a course in photography. Now I am a mother of a toddler so joining a full time course seems difficult, but I hope I can teach my daughter the importance of following one’s dream and passion and live a happy life; and as you say make her passion her pay check! 🙂

  3. Saw Inside Out yesterday…still brooding over it. And then I read this!
    Feeling shitty about breaking all the promises I had made to myself when I was young.
    Feeling double shitty about making my kids do the very same things I hated when I was a kid, in the name of a secure future.
    Also, seeing my beloved nephew suffer with this competition. Heartbreaking. Fulfilling someone’s vague dream, which he has convinced himself is his. I hope he finds his true calling. I can clearly see, but I cannot point it out to him lest it steers him away from his chosen secure path.

  4. Lalita, most of the time a child at the age of 17/18 does not know exactly what he/she wants to pursue, it”s mostly peer pressure or because her friend is pursuing a particular syllabus she just goes and gets herself admitted there.My daughter will be joining IT Engineering and she somehow is passionate about it,but my clear advice to her is, “do not shy away from course correction, if u feel like as you go along, its never too late for a good change ” Great post, as always.By the she is a big fan of yours, she use to religiously read your Sunday Columns in EYE IE.

  5. Some know what their passions are earlier than later. By the time I was 14, I knew I had to write. But what would I write ?? So pursuing a core subject helps to know what to write. Everybody cannot glorify and write about bollywood – I just cannot, even if they handed me gold on a platter.

    My brother is an excellent writer, but he does not want to write for a living, even for a law journal in his field. Doing Nothing is his passion ! His wife brings home the bread and butter . She is passionate about taking care of the responsibilites of home and hearth.

    I know plenty such people like my brother who are passionate seeing sunrises, sunsets, with some stars thrown in between on TV and at night
    Their goal is to be happy. Recently another friend who is also “idilling” said his goal is to be happy !

    Everybody has a passion. We all are passionate about something. Some never know what it is because they have not spend time with themselves. They are constantly “networking with people, TV, phone and these days the JUNK Social media, there i said it.

    Everybody has a goal . Deep down everybody’s goal is to be happy.

    Everybody is happy. They just do not know it. We are human beings. We cannot be bored /stressed/depressed for long. Our cells will get inflammed.

    Just my 2 cents
    Thank You

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