Comment Essay Op-ed and Comment

Teaching moments– parenting

This one is for Cheeni and Rooney and all the new puppies who elevate our lives

Be your own person – as long as you do what I tell you

Dec 11, 2012


The other day, my 10-year-old daughter asked me a strange question: “What is the hardest thing that has happened to you?”

Aha, I thought, a teachable moment. My mind raced as I thought of the many things that I wanted to teach my child. Like a politician who gives the same sound bite no matter what question is asked, I decided to twist my child’s question to suit the answer I wanted to give.

“Life is hard,” I began, my hoarse, sore-throat voice adding gravitas to my pronouncement. “The hardest thing for me is to balance the multiple and often conflicting opinions that come from people I care about and eventually do what I really want to do. Does that make sense?”

My daughter shook her head.

“It’s like when you are a boss in an office,” I continued. “Everyone gives you ideas and suggestions. Often they are the opposite of each other. You have to choose one idea and that’s very hard.”

“Why?” she asked.

“Because the people whose ideas weren’t chosen will feel bad. So you have to choose one idea, but not make the other people feel bad.”

My daughter turned away to observe a hovering butterfly.

Sensing the competition, I pushed on, going into a long and elaborate diatribe about weighing choices, working in a team and being decisive. When I finished, I asked her the same question back, more as a courtesy than any real interest in her answer. What, after all, could be the hardest thing for a fairly privileged 10-year-old?

“And what is the hardest thing you’ve experienced, dear?” I asked, filing my nails.

“Oh, when Inji [our dog] died,” she replied with devastating succinctness.

I felt like an idiot – for dismissing her question, for ranting on about decisions and for forcibly insisting on that teachable moment. No wonder she had looked at me strangely. She probably hadn’t understood a word I said. What was I thinking, talking about being decisive to a 10-year-old, who still has to ask her mother if she can buy a new toothbrush?

But while my methods may have been devious, my message was important. If there is one thing I hope my daughters will learn, it is to be their own people – with one very eastern caveat: be yourself, I say, but do it with grace. Choose your path, but do it without hurting the people who care about you. Yes, it is a paradox; and yes, I find it incredibly difficult.

It is, I find, a peculiarly eastern idea. Let me explain.

For close to 20 years, I lived in and around New York. I have now returned to India and have lived here for six years. To say that there are many differences between the two places would be stating the obvious.

But for a child, there is one key difference between life in India and life in America. In India, people are not reticent with their opinions, particularly on matters that have nothing to do with their own lives. It percolates down from the Indian joint family. Many times it comes from real affection, although it can also be irritating.

My daughters are besieged with opinions about what they should eat, how they should dress, where they should go, when they should return and who they should become. Some of these opinions are easy to dismiss because they come from distant relatives we only see at weddings. But many come from close family and friends: grandparents, uncles, aunts, cousins and family friends.

These are well-wishers who have the child’s best interests at heart. But often, their ideas are contradictory.

An uncle, for example, may want to teach my daughter to ride a horse. “No, no,” a grandmother will say. “Why teach such dangerous sports to a girl?”

Who should you listen to? And which path do you choose?

In every country, family members will offer contradictory advice. But here in India, the breadth of what is considered family is so much wider.


Shoba Narayan is the author of Return to India: a memoir



  1. I am back!

    Your kid asked a simple question. You answered with a lecture, well-meant in intention and off-the-mark in content! I am curious why you didn’t reply with the real hard things in your life – e.g. Memphis, returning to India (the first time). The real teaching moments are in how you dealt with your situation during your hardships, no?

    The lesson – choosing a path without hurting people – is interesting because every known philosophy urges you to “do the right thing” regardless of consequence. From Suguna Iyer, would a woman of the 1920s choose the path of no-education so as to not hurt the vibhuti splashing, sambar swilling, belly-popping patriarch?? Is it an acceptable choice, even a real choice, between the English medium school in the next town and total ignorance (and marriage at 13 and babies at 19)? And is the choice of the local Tamil medium school an acceptable compromise? Would Periyar or Ramanujan or Helen Reddy agree?

    Indians are not reticent, but neither are Americans (especially New Yorkers!) But Theroux and Kipling correctly observed that Indians are blunt about expressing their opinions about others lives, but not as forthright about their own choices. The South Indian (TamBrahm) mentality of “say-no-first-to-everything” (education abroad, skydiving, choice of mate) is a clear and timeless example…

    It’s not clear why the “breadth of what is considered” family is wider in India. It cannot be proximity: countless Long Island families (much like the Barones!) and South Jersey families (like the Patels … hehe) have exactly the same dilemma. Its rather like comparing the Mumbai suburban trains to the NYC subways. That rush hour trains are denser in Mumbai is an indication of overcrowdedness, not closer ties among people.


    1. Hi again. I agree with Theroux and Kipling. But that particular charge doesn’t apply to me– given that I go out on the limb with respect to my choices. The ‘breadth’ of family thing is true.


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