The Tribune - Spectrum

Sunday, June 22, 2003
Lead Article

  Illustration: Kuldip Dhiman

The paradigm shift in parenting has been that it is no longer effective to use family honour, religion, fear of God or just parental authority to gain compliance from youngsters. The focus now has to be on the health risks and psycho-sexual fallout of behaviour as teenagers are taught to accept responsibility for their actions, writes Aruti Nayar.

The young girl who had been referred to a clinical psychologist by a gynaecologist after her second MTP was aware of contraception but had not practised it. She felt that it cut down on her enjoyment. When the psychologist told her about the need to be sexually responsible due to the health risks involved, she turned around and said: "What’s your problem? It’s my life!"

Yet another teenager took his girlfriend to Delhi for an MTP. It didn’t mean anything more than just a hassle. After all, he had tied up with a known doctor to whom he had already taken his various girlfriends earlier. it was no big deal for him or the girl— it is "just like brushing your teeth". And, what’s this big fuss about morality?

THE rising rate of premarital sex in Chandigarh could be due to numerous reasons but the fact that stares one in the face is the ostrich-like attitude of the parents who chose to ignore constant bombardment of explicit media images that focus on physical intimacy. In fact, parenting has never been as tough or as challenging as it is nowadays.

A further reality check with teenagers ranging from 14 to 18 on whether their parents were open about sex and sexuality with them was equally revealing. Sample some of them: "Even if you were to bring it up with my parents, they’ll faint." "Mera ghar se nikalna band ho jayega agar aap aisi koi baat karoge." "They will say instead of studying that’s what you think about. Now we know why you do so badly in your studies."


The conservative attitude is despite the fact that we are living in an age of open attitudes and communication without barriers. One would have thought that the flower power generation, the children of the sixties who are parents to teenagers of today, would have been more liberal and more understanding. Since their own parents were more repressive and rigid with absolute notions of right and wrong, it could be expected that they would definitely try and give a better direction to the problems of the tumultuous teens.

“Vary parenting techniques according to the temperament of the teenager.”
Surinder Singh & Sukhwant with their daughter Simran
Surinder Singh & Sukhwant with
their daughter Simran

Talking to parents as well as teens further drove home the point that not only teenagers but also parents remain woefully ignorant and ill-equipped to impart information that is relevant as well as essential in today’s context. This includes information about contraception, changing physiology, danger of contracting diseases and emotional as well as psychological consequences of promiscuous behaviour. We presume that the teenagers know everything from their peers, bio classes or the media; what we forget is that their need to talk about the physical and psychosexual growth is tremendous. When they realise that certain topics are taboo and out-of-bounds, they feel inhibited.

For parents, it is indeed a double bind. Since they are less authoritarian and more democratic with teenagers, it is tough trying to be a friend and imposing discipline at the same time. Sunaina, a healthcare professional, feels, "All this business of being friends means you can not wield the rod of discipline when the need arises. Rather than the child being on the defensive, it’s you who have to be on a constant trial to be able to deal with the youngsters accordingly. And believe me, that can be quite a strain."

Even healthcare professionals, who should know better, are surprisingly coy when they have to educate their own wards about the facts of life. Says Rakesh Sud, (name changed) a doctor who has two teenaged sons. "As a professional I would advocate transparency but as a parent my approach would be more conventional and conservative." Agrees Ritu Nehra, a clinical psychologist at the PGI, "The views one has as a professional are different when it comes to practising them as a parent or guardian. Indirect methods of dealing with information too can be effective." While the teenagers feel parental attitudes are antiquated, the parents are sick of the unending distractions that life now offers to the young ones. If the competition is cutthroat and jobs scarce, the parents’ universal cry seems to be: "Why can’t you sit down and study?" This is enough to drive the teens with surging hormones and blinded rationality around the bend.

Prabhjot Malhi, Dept. of Paediatrics, PGI
Prabhjot Malhi, Dept of Paediatrics, PGI

According to Prabhjot Malhi, Associate Professor, Department of Paediatrics, PGI, adolescent medicine is an emerging field and according to guidelines from the Indian Academy of Paediatrics, adolescents are to be treated in the paediatric departments. Even a visible medical problem can be just a symptom of an underlying problem. In the Indian context, it is the overemphasis on studies, regardless of potential or ability that is often counter-productive. Even when parents come to seek the help of doctors in the adolescent clinics, they expect the doctors to echo their sentiments. Says Prabhjot: "Doctor sahib aap kaho ki yeh padha kare is a common refrain. When we refuse to echo them they are disappointed. Parents also have too many dos and don’ts. If you refuse and say no they will do the same things that you refuse in a more covert manner and lie to you blatantly." "There is no need to be very communicative after all they get to know everything from the media," says Neeraj Khullar, a lecturer in Department of Biotechnology. She agrees that there is no need for too much of openness because the media and the Net are enough to help the teenagers with all sorts of information. It is enough to be a warm parent and talk about personal problems but sexuality is best left to indirect methods.

“Prepare the youngster early on about what 
is acceptable to 
the family.”
Sanjeev and Poonam Bajaj
Sanjeev and Poonam Bajaj

So what does a teenager do if he can not handle personal problems that are sexual in nature? As a counsellor admitted, "Even when condoms are found in the teenager’s cupboard, parents do not confront their child. They often accept explanations, but are disturbed enough to seek help outside." Perhaps in the Indian context we never accept our children as sexual beings and they continue to be children always. Surprisingly, the undue focus on academics is responsible for the parents becoming linear in their thinking. They forget that their young sons and daughters can have other desires or dreams.

Development-appropriate parenting or age-appropriate parenting is the need but few parents bother to change gear or tack as the child grows older. According to Malhi, "If you have nothing nice to say the whole day, say nothing. Negative interaction soon becomes a vicious cycle. Because there is negativity, the teenager does not confide and because the child is not sharing, the parent feels excluded."

Moreover, in a family, according to what is priority, there can only be a few non-negotiable things about which you expect compliance. If there are many things falling in this category, there is bound to be a rebellion. Most parents feel ill-equipped to handle youngsters. They often hark back to their own time, forgetting that not only were they being brought up by parents with absolute notions of right and wrong and definitive ideas about child-rearing but also they grew young in times when there were fewer distractions than now.

Though teenagers do rebel against parental standards, psychologists have discovered that tension arises most often from two specific sources: when adolescents simultaneously fear and want independence and, second, when parents waver between treating them as adults and children. It is the timing of new rights and responsibilities, not disagreements over values that underlie much of the friction between teenagers and parents.

“Psychological and emotional bonding will take care of most of the problems.”
Balbir and Gursharan Jaspal with Neha and Ishan
Balbir and Gursharan Jaspal with Neha and Ishan

Poonam Bajaj believes in keeping the channel open with her teenaged son. "You cannot say no. There are so many distractions that you have to be there for them. If you stop them, they will do it covertly behind your back. My husband has told my son that his first drink must be with him and not chori chori. There are some no-no’s. No night outs and there is a time limit for coming back home. They detest being nagged and find it difficult to strike a balance between their own desires and parental expectations. One has to explain, however, what is acceptable according to the family’s code. I stay in a joint family so it is important to explain what matters and one should start earlier on instead of waiting for problems to crop up."

Inderpal, a banker, and Sharanjit, a lawyer, advocate constant vigilance and alertness on the part of parents. "Teenagers tend to choose their friends indiscriminately on the basis of money power and glamour. They want to expose more, wear less and even if you want to be a friend, the gap will always remain and the clash continues. They seem to have no time at all for the home. If it is not the phone, it is friends."

Gursharan Jaspal has to perform the tough task of parenting two teenagers while her shippie husband sails. She says, "The parents have to give leeway and establish psychological and emotional bonds with the children otherwise they will clam up. Encouraging more outdoor activities and a practical approach works better than just shooting orders." She tries her level best to be a friend to her teenagers but rues the fact that despite the fact that her husband is more lenient, the children are scared of him.

Erik Erikson, the renowned developmental phychologist likens a child’s passage through adolescence to the action of a trapeze artist that swings from one trapeze to another; the youngster must leave the safe haven of childhood and reach out for the independence of adulthood. But in between there is the unsupported flight known as adolescence. It is during this unsupported flight that parents have to give support of all sorts. Lynn Ponton, director of the adolescent psychiatric unit at the University of California, San Francisco, finds that teens whose parents set few rules or guidelines turn to their peers to help them form their values.

Monika Singh, Clinical psychologist
Monika Singh,
Clinical psychologist

Monika Singh, a clinical psychologist, is of the opinion that the emphasis should be on clarity and information. She says: "Parents should be able to talk freely about issues related to sex. Education about sex should start from home and not left to class teachers, peer group and books/magazines. Good communication is essential to facilitate healthy discussions. It is important that parents themselves be clear about misconceptions and myths related to sex and sexuality. In case they feel inadequate, they should freely seek the help of educators, counsellors and doctors. The teenager should not be fearful of approaching either the parents or the counsellor in case of any problem. We have to create a set-up where help is available to teenagers at all times. It is indeed worrisome when a young high school girl, after her second MTP, turns around and tells you that she did not take any precautions because she wanted to enjoy herself, while another girl rebuffs the gynaecologist and says: ‘What’s your bother, it’s my life!’ That is where the role of the counsellor comes in. The girl was referred to me by a gynaecologist. She was aware of contraception but did not practise it. I told her to take care of herself and at least protect herself but the emphasis on the pleasure principle made her avoid focussing on the health risks. You have to warn the girls that they can become sterile or the uterus can get perforated." Just as boys have to be told that there is more to a relationship than a one-night stand and promiscuity can create avoidable health risks at a time when they can’t afford to get defocussed.

As Michael Carrera, a health science professor at Hunter College, says, "In shaping the values of young people, parents are more powerful than any clinic, any sex education teacher, any peer." About the conflict of trying to be parents and friends simultaneously, Monika says: "On no account should the parents cease being the guiding force or monitoring agents. Sex education is not only imparting information about anatomy and physiology but also about how one perceives oneself as well as the opposite sex. Tell them facts and even the child will not ask more but if you smirk or attach shame to some topics, the child will shy away from discussing them with you."

Sukhwant Judge, the mother of 15-year-old Simran and 19-year-old Sonal, agrees that the explosion of explicit media images makes the task of parenting extremely challenging nowadays. She is of the view that it is easier to counsel an extrovert child, instead of an introvert. There is no point in talking about issues that would make the child uncomfortable. In that case, the intervention of a third person or a book is more effective. The biggest challenge is to help your child resist peer pressure. Her elder daughter Sonal was always mature beyond her years, so she required different handling as compared to Simran who is more outgoing. If they have to see an adult movie, it is fine. Stop them and they would do it behind the back. If the question is just of watching adult movies, going to late night parties and discos, it would be fine. But when interaction turns "serious," the fallout can be lower grades or opting out of school or college and risky behaviour that exposes them to various health risks.

If sex is likened to "brushing your teeth" it is not difficult to imagine how atrophying this mechanical approach could possibly be. It is bound to have a ripple-down effect on all relationships later in adult life. "I accept that my daughter will be tempted. So I have prepared her to take care of herself," says an executive but adds, "I’m sure I’ll not be able to handle it if she gets into trouble."

Teenagers can turn around and blame their parents if the line of discipline is hazy. As a counsellor says, "You have to give them supervised independence. At no point can you abdicate responsibility." Tough task, indeed, and tougher in this age of dual- income-no-time couples. Parents need to educate themselves. We are going through such social changes and, that too, at such a frenetic pace that it is imperative for the parents to stress on what is right and what is wrong and what could lead to what. The paradigm shift has been that no longer is it effective to either use family honour, religion, fear of god or just parental authority to get compliance from youngsters. Instead the focus has to be on the health risks and psycho-sexual fallout of behaviour as they are taught to accept responsibility for their actions.

When it comes to defining parenting in our times, my friend’s father, I think, had the last word, "Parenting is somewhat like a wiper on the windscreen. All we need to do is to give our children a clear vision. And the rest follows on its own." Perhaps, we, as parents, need to gain a sense of clear-sightedness first before we start demanding it from our children. Or else, it’d remain a classic case of cart leading the horse or the tail wagging the dog!