Picture this. You are nervous and fidgety. You are ecstatic, also restless, with anticipatory excitement. The scene is familiar. The hospital waiting-room, or lounge. You pace, up and down the floor, conscious, at times, impervious, at times, to what is happening around you. Sometimes, you have a feeling that you are the cynosure of all eyes. You know that you are soon going to become a father.
Your doting wife is in labour, enveloped by a marvellous mental screen: the joyful agony and, then, the ultimate ecstasy, or supreme bliss, of being a mother. The exuberance is unmatched by any other, especially for first-time parents. As the tension mounts, you just wait for the good nurse or the doctor to emerge, and make the all-important announcement. But, before you come to grips with yourself when the good news is broken, you seem to be a totally relieved human being. The joy of it all takes time to sink in. For one simple reason, that, time, you reckon, at that momentous hour, seems to stand still.
The role of the mother is all too well known, even sanctified for all its unparalleled worth, down the ages. Since time immemorial, mothers have been the torch-bearers of every civilisation, or culture, both within and outside of their homes. Their mantle affected children directly; it still does. This is a doctrine as old as the hills. It was quite unlike fathers, whose role was assumed, by and large, to draft their children indirectly through the mother. Not anymore. Recent research quantifies that fathers influence their children directly, although it is agreed that just a few fathers are sufficiently involved and also provide significant influence, especially during their child’’s early years.
It is universally agreed that the mother assumes primary responsibility for childcare, all right, especially feeding, in traditional families. This is one reason why fathers generally spend less time than mothers with their children. Yet, thanks to the compulsions of modern living and nuclear families, where both parents have to work, the equation is slowly changing. However, the ‘balance’ is anything but remarkable.
In one early sample survey, conducted by a group of psychologists, on middle-class parents, just 10 per cent of fathers shared infant care-taking responsibilities, equally with mothers, 30 per cent had a regular care-taking responsibility, and 45 per cent reported that they had never changed diapers. The good news today is that with an ever-increasing number of women entering the work force — and, with younger couples consciously deciding to eliminate gender-based roles — men have become increasingly involved in child rearing. Studies also suggest that fathers show interest in their newborn and are affectionate and responsive care-takers. As a matter of fact, their ‘affinity’ can begin early — even as early as the bonding process, in the first moments of the child’s life.
The amount of time most fathers spend with their infants, it may be emphasised, is still limited. But, the quality of their attention, as psychologists report, is as high as that of mothers. Yet, it goes without saying that kids perceive their fathers as playmates; mothers as care-takers. If children want to play, they choose their fathers, a commonplace spectacle; if they want to be consoled, they seek out their mothers. At the same time, children also engage in different kinds of activities with each parent. In ‘rough-and-tumble’ games with fathers; in vocal sport with their mothers.
Fathers, like mothers, can engage in a variety of nurturing roles too. But, for this delicate engagement, or equilibrium, to emerge, a husband and wife’s relationship is often a strong, critical determinant of the quality of fathering and its impact on a child’s development. Says Rakesh Ghildiyal, MD, a psychiatrist, “The role of the father in a child’s social development is too vital. For instance, the absence of a father may produce a host of negative effects, unless the mother is aware of them. She should not only be aware of them, but she should take steps to avert them. The earlier she takes ‘control,’ the better it is for her child. To cut a long story short, both mothers and fathers can take care of their children effectively. A parent’s primary responsibility is to take care of their child. Only quality parental care can bring in results for the optimal development of the child. This care should be total, not served by way of any rationing article of faith. You don’t have a half-way house for this idea to bear fruit. No quid pro quo too.”
One of the biggest problems today’s parents, especially fathers face, is the communication gap. Not in all families, though. The reason is simple. In some families, parents talk too much; in others, they fail to listen to their kids, or are control freaks. Contributing to the communication gap is the generation gap. Just take a look at what is going on between you and your child. As a committed parent, one should visualise the dynamics this way — this is how a parent should understand oneself. You have to be relaxed and open too. You should allow your child to express themselves, as they ‘deem’ fit. More than that, parents have to behave well, whatever the situation. Because, children learn their behaviours by watching their parents.
Making yourself available, as child psychologists say, is one of the keynotes for good parenting. Younger children don’t need detailed memos, intellectual gibberish. They just need to know you are there and that you take care of their broken toys, mend them, or even treat their cold. A little sympathy is reassuring. It helps you build bridges of communication like no other. If you provide yourself with such platforms, early on, while talking about some uncomfortable subjects, as your child grows up, it becomes all the more easy to handle. Also, good parents should give feedback, not sermon or advice. Calm feedback can only produce a feeling of caring and friendship.
It is not so easy though. As William Damon, PhD, a noted educationist and professor at Brown University, US, puts it, “Parents today are afraid of their children. It is disgusting, “not because of physical threats, but a kind of emotional blackmail... Some children have this nasty habit of applying pressure on parents whenever they have trouble getting their way. Take for example, temper tantrums. It is good for parents to hold the line. But, holding the line calls for a sense of conviction. If you want to succeed on that account, you have to set an example to your child. More so, with a touch of humour: It has to be a two-way signal post. You can’t ask your child to brush their teeth soon after they get up in the morning, if you don’t practice the act yourself.”
“Not all of today’s parental pressures,” as Damon observes, “are induced by the parent’s own worries or sense of responsibility.” For one thing, children’s age-old outbursts are still with us; and, it has been astonishing for one to observe so many parents of young children nowadays yielding to their children’s tantrums without a second thought. “Over the years, children who get away with their tantrums learn more subtle and more effective ways of exerting emotional pressure on parents.” Damon adds, “Getting a child to take ‘no’ for an answer is difficult in a cultural setting where children are taught the primacy of their own feelings.”
Damon illustrates a classical example, his own ‘mistake,’ to drive home the point. “One incident that I remember,” he notes, “with clarity occurred when my two oldest children were still in grade school. It was a weekend, and I was in charge of them for lunch. They requested McDonald’s because of a special promotion that they had heard about, but I could not bear the thought of another fast-food meal. I offered a number of alternatives that my children rejected summarily. Their badgering persisted, heightening in intensity. Finally, in desperation, I told them that McDonald’s was closed that day because it was a weekend. They bought the story and we ate at home. But, even as the words left my mouth, I was incredulous that I was saying such a thing. I am even more stunned that I could have reached such a state. My response to my children violated practically every belief that I have about parental communication.”
Damon elaborates, “This is no easy time for parenting. Strains on family life run the gamut from the economic to the emotional. And, the spiritual lines that run from generation to generation, the lines that have always created connections and channels of communication between parent and child, are fraying in the uncertain winds of modern times.” Add to this the loss of family ‘control,’ the trouble is both perceived and real. “Many parents have lost confidence in their moral authority. Because, they have missed the wood for the trees, and mixed up the cultural relativism of our times with the disquieting cultural wars, and noisy, politicised arguments. All of us are so accustomed to our own drawbacks, a morass of modern culture.”
Now, the big question: how can parents, especially fathers, give children complete direction when the culture around us sends out little more than a cacophony of skewed, dangerous signals? To quote sociologist Amitai Etzioni, “Many parents point to the great difficulty that they have in teaching their children right from wrong. They remind us that they are fighting a culture that bombards their kids with unwholesome messages... A community that is more respectful of children would make parenting a less taxing and more fulfilling experience.” To which, one could as parents add a few nuggets of wisdom. That good parenting need not await any transformation in society at large. In every corner of the world today, as in societies throughout the ages, there are always instances of parents who are resisting the general cultural trends and are establishing great families. Good parenting is certainly possible in even the most difficult, dissipated, or taxing, circumstances.
When a father, for instance, honestly assets his own needs to a child in an empathic manner, it builds both the child’s self-regard and the child’s trust in the parent-child relationship. How many fathers do that, or try in right earnest? Not many. Yet, there are a few who do. As one mother notes: “My husband did practically everything for our first child from the word go. He did not just change his diapers; he gave him bath and also draped him up neatly on his own. He gave him the first early lessons on toilet training; he even washed our son’s clothes when he soiled them with stools. He would also put our son to sleep, arrange to ‘spoon-feed’ him whenever he had the time. He took the pressure away in several other simple, small ways. And, for a working lady, that’s a boon. I had time to work in office and tend to the needs of my family without ado. With the arrival of our second child, we have again struck the right balance, albeit my husband is too busy now. So, I work part-time... just to keep in touch with my career, without compromising on the parental needs of my kids.”
Talk of balance. This is what good parenting is all about. More so, for a father. Because, parenting does not come to ‘him,’ as naturally as it does for a mother. Yet, the fundamental skills can be acquired. What’s more, the rewards are enormous. When a dad brings up a child, with all the affection, love, and sincerity, more so by being strict without being too rigid, he grows in his own vision — all by himself and also in his better half’s happy, harmonious estimate, or index.