Programming Children for Failure
“When I grow up, I won’t have children,” said my six-year-old granddaughter. “They are too much work.”
Yes, parenting is a lot more work today than it was 30 years ago. And more expensive, too, in more ways than one.
First, of course, the cost.
As far back as 2018, a study estimated that the cost of nurturing a child, from birth to the age of 21, was Rs1.7 crore at prevailing (2018) prices.
Exorbitant though this number may sound, a bit of thinking may get you to agree that it is actually a reasonable estimate. Starting with space for the child at home (not required if you remain childless), you need to add many more items—education, childcare, transport, healthcare, clothing, amusement +++. All the costs will add up to a hefty amount.
Let’s not quibble about exactly how much money has to be spent to bring up a child, because the variables are endless. Let’s just agree that it is a substantial sum.
This leads to an obvious outcome—people just can’t afford to have many children. Most people have just one child, maybe two; the third child is a rarity now.
The inevitable follow-on result is that children are treated differently today than they were in the past. Gone are the days of ‘one tight slap’. The norm today is to give children a great deal of freedom, autonomy and empowerment. They can’t be ‘told’ to do something any more.  Explanations, reasoning and persuasion have become the basis of interaction with a child.
So far, so good. Treating the child as an equal and a person, rather than a submissive underling, can foster a strong relationship between parent and child.
Unfortunately, all too often, this gets to be overdone.
An American school teacher lamented, “We have raised children to think that they are absolutely the most important person(s) in the room. They are so special that whatever they want to do, whatever they think or feel, or whatever they say is the most important thing.”
“Well…..we are not Americans,” you may be thinking. Yet, this is not very far from what is already happening in many nuclear families, right here in our country.
The consequence of treating children with kid gloves (please forgive the dreadful pun) is that we may be instilling in them the conviction that they are special and deserve to be treated as such by everyone around them.
Alas, when they grow up and face the real world, they will be in for a sad shock.
Yet, this is not really a disastrous outcome. Children do shed false notions about their ‘greatness’ pretty fast and get used to being just like everyone else.
Much more dangerous, and sometimes lethal, are the unrealistic targets parents often set for their children.
Every parent wants his son or daughter to achieve something great often something which they did not themselves achieve.
‘Great’ doesn’t mean becoming a famous scientist, novelist, film star or singer. Usually, it means getting a good job, such as engineer (preferably software geek—good chances of going to USA), doctor, or IAS (Indian Administrative Service).
To get there, the child has to qualify in a competitive exam, such as JEE, NEET, UPSC, etc.
Let’s consider JEE.
Thousands of children spend two years, or more, studying long hours for JEE in a virtual prison at Kota. Countless others go to tutorial classes in their home towns. The effort put into studying, just to clear an entrance exam—not to gain knowledge—is enormous.
After all this labour, about 1 in 50 JEE applicants actually get into an IIT.  
I suspect that most of these boys and girls, given a viable alternative, wouldn’t have opted to invest so much time and effort into something that has such a slim chance of success.
Apart from the work, they lose years of their childhood—which will never come back.
Why do they do it?
The most likely reason is parental pressure. Parents decide the best route to success in life for the child, and direct the child to work towards achieving that goal, the first step being the entrance exam.
What happens to the 49 (out of 50) JEE aspirants who don’t make it into IIT? They have to, by necessity, find some other route to ‘success’ in life. Unfortunately, a few take the failure to heart and end their lives rather than face the world as a loser.
Surely, there must be a better way to ‘manage’ the future of a child?
In fact, why try to manage it at all?
What would go wrong if the parents allowed their children to find their own calling in life, though perhaps not the ‘exalted’ status of a doctor or engineer or ‘sarkari sahib’?
What’s wrong with growing up to become a salesperson, an interior decorator, a craftsman, or a chef?
Perhaps the best way to prepare a child for success in life is not to choose any specific career path.
Instead, what would, in my opinion, work better is:
  • Expose the child to as many options as possible in the widest possible range of activities—studies, sports, music, arts, creative skills, theatre, journalism and more.
  • Maintain the closest possible communication with the child to understand what (s)he really likes or dislikes, and where the child’s interest lies.
  • Provide as much support as possible to the child to enable him/ her to progress in the chosen line of activity.
If, at the end of all this, your child doesn’t become a success by your norms, so be it.
If (s)he has been brought up well, the right path will open up.
Most importantly, your child will love you all the more for not pushing him/ her into spending years of effort trying to achieve something that is not achievable.
That would generate happiness all around, which is, after all, the purpose of life.
(Deserting engineering after a year in a factory, Amitabha Banerjee did an MBA in the US and returned to India. Choosing work-to-live over live-to-work, he joined banking and worked for various banks in India and the Middle East. Post-retirement, he returned to his hometown Kolkata and is now spending his golden years travelling the world, playing bridge, befriending Netflix & Prime Video and writing in his wife’s travel blog.)
5 months ago
A very well written article. Sadly, parents in our country push children to pursue something they may not be interested in and very often fail to achieve it. Yes, a child must be allowed to pursue what (s)he is passionate about and full support should be provided for it. The message communicated in the movie 'Three Idiots' immediately comes to mind.
Pragna Mankodi
6 months ago
Cannot agree more with the author! As parents we try to realise our unfulfilled dreams on the children which creates pressure on them from early childhood and they try to validate their achievements (or lack of it) with the \"targets\" given to them. In the process, they are robbed of their childhood and growing up they start blaming parents for their lack of success rather than taking accountability for their choices exercised. Majority of the suicides in Kota must have been because of this. Although there are certain abetting factors like inadequate infrastructure, education policies etc. Over protection of children in nucleus family is one more factor that makes a child emotionally weak and at a drop of a hat look forward to parent\'s intervention. How do you explain, otherwise, the grand success stories of a rikshaw walla\'s daughter or a street vendor\'s son achieving excellence despite insurmountable difficulties faced by them!
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