Failure and success

I talk about the sandbox, but harder still is to watch your kid shut you out of her college application process and not go crazy.

If you let your kids fail, you might be doing them a favour
Shoba Narayan

November 19, 2013 Updated: November 19, 2013 19:36:00

It is a conundrum. Encountering obstacles and failures helps a child to develop grit and resilience, yet the hardest thing for a parent to do is to sit and watch as their child stumbles and falls.

Angela Lee Duckworth, a University of Pennsylvania psychologist, has said that grit and determination are surprisingly accurate predictors of achievement – much more so than IQ.

Grit is closely related to resilience. It is the ability to pick yourself up, dust yourself off and keep on going. Dr Duckworth calls it “intestinal fortitude”.

The problem for parents is that the best way to develop fortitude is to fail. So can you engineer failure in a fairly stable home environment?

My friend, Roopal, who graduated from Yale and Stanford School of Business, is a great believer in the power of failure as a way to develop grit.

She doesn’t mollycoddle or cosset her two young daughters. She doesn’t jump in to stop them from failing, whether it is tripping and falling in a sandpit or being told off by their basketball coach.

She has realised what most parents haven’t: the only way to learn from failure is to have it happen to you.

My parenting style is somewhat different. I am a preoccupied, distracted parent, much like my college professor father.

Neither of my parents were terribly involved in my life while growing up. They knew that I liked to write but didn’t necessarily read everything I wrote.

They knew I liked the arts but didn’t sign me up for lots of classes. They let me be. They were around but not heavily involved.

In the absence of struggle, is detachment a useful parenting technique? If you are unable to re-create a difficult environment that fosters grit, what do you do? The only way, in my mind, is to allow our kids to experience a small amount of failure.

We need to stop picking up after them, helping them with their homework, sending them to tuition classes – as is the norm in certain parts of India – and covering up for their mistakes.

Children need to own up to their mistakes and experience the hurt that is a part of growing up.

When your friends mock you, learning to deal with it is good practice for the grown-up world and its harsher elements.

A child who has never learnt to deal with hurt will be overwhelmed by the workplace and its attendant humiliations.

Similarly, a child whose parents help with science projects will never learn about submitting mediocre work, getting yelled at for it, and figuring out how to do it better.

In the absence of existing in that kind of tough world, allowing for controlled failure at home is the next best option.

Most experts agree that a significant component of grit is effort. Simply encouraging your child to keep at it and to make hard work a habit is a great start.

Dr Duckworth has pointed out that grit is inversely proportional to IQ, perhaps because children who are talented or have high IQs are used to things coming easy to them. They are not used to putting in the sheer dogged effort to reach their goals. Parental rewards through phrases such as: “You are so smart,” do not help either.

As for me, I call myself a detached parent because I’m lazy.

It is too much work to emulate Tiger moms who discipline, scream and goad their children into aiming for higher goals. Me, I just want to be left alone to do my thing while they do theirs.

If there isn’t blood flowing, I don’t intervene.

And therein lies the irony: I am the lazy parent who tells her child to work hard. My kids will thank me for it someday.

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

In support of arguing

My friend said something about fighting couples ages ago that served as the seed for this article. We were talking about elderly couples who balk at doing stuff for each other– particularly women. Caring for husbands during illness, that sort of thing. He said that a couple should fight all the way and iron out differences so that by the time you reach seventy or whatever, your angst about each others’ flaws is ironed out. Been thinking about this and this is a tangential take.

He who shouts loudest is just a teen trying to make his point
Shoba Narayan

Sep 24, 2013 Updated: Sep 24, 2013 09:24:00
Save this article

There are 15 teenagers in the building community that I live in. Every now and then, us parents of these teenagers will get together for what we euphemistically term “tea” but what is really therapy.

We talk about exams, SAT scores and the race to get into the right colleges. And then we talk about arguments and how our households seem rife with them.

“I didn’t grow up like this,” a mother will say. “I listened to my parents; didn’t argue so much about everything.”

“Times have changed,” we will admit ruefully. “The world has changed.”

“Sometimes it seems like my son argues just for the sake of it,” a parent will confess.

“No matter what I say, he takes the opposite view to the point where I have now started to instruct him on the opposite of what I want. But he is smart. He has guessed my game and is beating me at it.”

“It gets my blood pressure up,” a father will mutter. “When will it end?”

At our last meetings, someone shared two heartening studies. One was conducted by the Institute for Social Research at the University of Michigan.

In it, researchers used a sample of 1,842 adults between the ages of 33 to 84. Over the course of eight days, these researchers asked the subjects whether they encountered situations where they might have argued and what was their reaction to such situations. The subjects also had to give saliva samples.

Sixty two per cent of the subjects reported that when they encountered a tense situation, they did not argue; instead they walked away or kept their thoughts to themselves. The remaining subjects argued. They had it out with their opponent as it were.

Researchers discovered that while all their subjects had feelings of disquiet about the tense environment, only those that did not argue experienced elevated levels of cortisol – the stress hormone – for one extra day. Those that argued felt unpleasant and uneasy, but these symptoms were erased from their bodies through the argument as it were. Those that stewed in their thoughts and kept quiet had cortisol coursing through their blood the following day.

Household arguments are unnerving and enervating. But they do serve a biological purpose, it seems. They get rid of the accumulated stress that caused the argument in the first place.

The second study was recently conducted by the University of Virginia and it supports what numerous other studies have said.

Teenagers argue not merely to rebel or to prove a point. They argue for a deeper developmental reason. Arguing is a way for them to “separate” from their nest; from their parents.

It is his way of cutting off the umbilical cord and venturing forth into a brave, new and often terrifying world.

The good news is this: teenagers who argue at home often turn out to be well-adjusted adults in college. They eschew risky behaviours and turn down objectionable substances.

Arguing at home helps them formulate their own point of view about the values that they will take with them. It builds up their brain muscles and allows them to put choices in perspective.

While they may mock a parent for refusing to allow them to attend parties, such arguments also help crystallise the parental point of view to them.

My grandmother used to say that those kids who are rash while young will turn out to be model citizens in adulthood. She said that to comfort my mother while I was growing up. She insisted that the continual arguments that I had with my parents was a sign of respect.

At least your daughter is “engaging” with you, she would say. At least she is not deceitful and closed. The same could be said of today’s teenagers who have verbal battles with their parents, but will hopefully become model citizens of the future.

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


Motherlode of the NYT is one of my favorite blogs– along with The Atlantic’s “The Sexes.”
After the Paul Tudor Jones fracas, I wrote an essay as a reaction. To my delight, they published it today.
The headline is more extreme than my view, but I don’t write the headlines.
I also realize that by focusing on one thing– nursing– I am alienating parents who adopt, which too wasn’t my intent but goes with the polemic op-ed territory, so I’ll cop to that.
As always, I won’t read the comments– for a while anyway.
Finally, Naina, this is for you!!! Thank you.

June 4, 2013, 4:39 pm 5 Comments
Breast Feeding Killed My Focus on Work. I Don’t Miss It.

Years ago, when I lived on the Upper West Side, I used to have coffee with a bunch of mothers from my daughter’s school — the Philosophy Day School, “opposite Mayor Bloomberg’s house,” as we used to tell the taxi drivers. We would drop our children off in the morning and walk around the corner to drink mediocre brew and forge connections at Nectar Cafe.

Over weeks and months, we got to know one another. Selena used to work in Spain for the fashion brand Loewe. Charlotte had quit her job as a commodities trader when her third daughter was born. Megan had given up immigration law and worked as a docent part-time. I had graduated from the Columbia Journalism School and worked as a freelancer for… well, anyone who would take me. We were, in other words, the archetypal women whom the billionaire trader Paul Tudor Jones mocked last month in his speech at the University of Virginia: women whose laserlike focus on work was “overwhelmed” by motherhood. We were women with babies to bosoms, reminiscing about the hard-charging past lives we had traded to stay home and raise our children.

We were loud of laugh and brash of opinion. Sometimes, we marveled at how firebrands like us had ended up as traditional wives and mothers, holding the fort while our husbands traveled. It was our choice, we told ourselves. Most days, we believed it. We were smart, fiercely independent feminists who had compromised for the sake of the greater good: our families, our children. It was temporary, this exile of ours — until the kids grew up a bit; until our spouses traveled less; until we got that dual degree; until we found our calling; until I got my green card.

A funny thing happened on the way to my citizenship. Years passed. None of us “soccer moms” went back to work — a situation I would encounter again and again when I moved to Singapore, and then to India. Women who had met their husbands while earning their M.B.A. at Wharton, women who had graduated at the top of their law school, women who were smarter than their husbands and had made more money while dating, turned it all in to stay home and raise babies. We lost that killer instinct — that ruthlessness Mr. Jones alluded to when he said that mothers would never make good traders.

As a feminist who believes herself to be equal to any man, it is easy for me to take umbrage at Mr. Jones’s remarks. As a mother who enjoyed having babies to bosom, it is difficult for me not to nod in agreement. When you are caught up with a baby — your baby — the world does fall away. Petty competitions do not make sense any more. Trading does seem like small change relative to the rich rewards of motherhood.

I find myself drawn to a small phrase in Mr. Jones’s diatribe that nobody seems to have noticed or remarked on. Forget the female body references that got everyone’s goat. (“As soon as that baby’s lips touched that girl’s bosom, forget it.”) Forgive the finality with which he dismissed women’s futures as traders — “never,” “period.” Focus instead on the relationship that Jones described in poetic terms: “the most beautiful experience, which a man will never share, about the connection between that mother and that baby.” Do you hear the envy in that phrase? Do you hear the longing of a parent who wants to experience that “connection”? I do.

I realize that my happy experience with breast-feeding (I nursed both my daughters for two years) will not apply to everyone. I have friends who hated nursing their children, and I have other friends to whom the notion of having babies, let alone being stuck at home with them, was torture. But I do believe that this connection mothers share with their children gives them intangible, immeasurable fulfillment. I suspect that sensitive men recognize this bond and envy it, that they feel what Viktor Frankl called “the existential vacuum.”

O.K., maybe I am exaggerating. Or maybe I am gloating.

By feeling insulted, we are allowing Mr. Jones and his world to dictate the parameters of the debate. Why not change the paradigm? Why not celebrate the connection that he describes instead of bristling at it?

In our race to keep up with men, we women have forgotten the joys that are given only to us. We should revel in motherhood instead of discounting it. Instead of rapping Mr. Jones on the knuckles, we should smile serenely at the glories that are denied him. Instead of saying, “Sexist son of a dog,” we should say, “Suck on that, baby — no pun intended.”

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


Parenting dilemmas

This piece is heartfelt.  The problem is that I don’t see any solution to this.  Sometimes, parenting seems like a crapshoot– you make certain decisions and hope they work out.  My elder daughter still hasn’t asked for a dog! Did we make the wrong call?

Here it is at The National’s site and pasted below.

Smart choices or luck? Good parenting demands both

On the day our much-adored but very sick Labrador died, we pulled my teenage daughter out of school. Our dog, Ginger, had suffered a chronic kidney failure and had been on antibiotics for six weeks. We had taken our pet to the vet every morning and afternoon for three hours of intravenous fluids, which included a cocktail of drugs.
Ginger had stopped eating for weeks. Towards the end, she stopped drinking. One afternoon, the vet informed us that the E coli infection that had invaded her kidneys had affected her brain. There was no recovery. She would die tomorrow if we stopped the fluids.

The next morning, our vet came to our home to administer an injection that would put our pet out of her misery. My husband and I debated over whether the kids needed to be present. We both agreed that it would be too much for our 10-year-old to watch her pet being put to sleep. It was our teenager that we were unclear about. Would it help her gain closure to be present? Or would it hurt her?

Parenting presents many dilemmas – each with no clear answer. You make decisions on behalf of your child and hope for the best. Your child is unhappy at boarding school. The teachers are mean, he says. He is getting bullied. The curriculum is uninspiring. He wants to come back home. You agonise over your child’s pain.

Here is another situation with no clear answer. Do you pull him out of school or do you leave him there in the hope that it will toughen him up? It’s a fork in the road and each choice will have consequences for your child.

Most parents solve such dilemmas by talking it over with other parents and friends, while recognising that the circumstances of their lives are different and that their child – like all children – is unique. One size definitely doesn’t fit all. But still, the first thing I do when I encounter parenting dilemmas is to phone friends who are going through similar experiences. Talking to them helps me process the situation. Even if I don’t follow their suggestions, knowing that they are in the same boat helps.

Sometimes external events can also help. We call this luck. My friend sent her son to boarding school. He hated it for years but later, much later, after he graduated as head boy and valedictorian, he thanked his parents for not pulling him out of school in spite of his weekly complaints.

What the boy didn’t know was how close his parents had come to driving up to the hills where the boarding school was and discharging him from the school he hated. They had to postpone their trip because a landslide had blocked the roads. Two weeks later, when the weather cleared and became sunny, so did the boy’s disposition. He stayed at the school that moulded him for life.

Recently, some friends have been asking me whether to get a pet. They know how much we enjoyed having our dog and how sad we were when she died. They also know that we will probably get another pet once we get over our grief. They call us to find out if having a dog in the house will be “good for the kids”.

Frankly, I tell them, having a pet often seemed like more work than it was worth. But there were also tender moments when I caught my kids lying on the floor, curled into a ball with our burly Labrador retriever. When they came home in a bad mood, or when they cried, Ginger would put her head on their lap and make them feel better. Every morning, she would come into the bedroom and our oxytocin levels would go up, simply because of her wagging tail and oh-so-beautiful eyes. Those benefits are hard to measure, I tell my friends.

But pets also involve chores – walking the dog, cleaning up their messes. The benefits of having one, much like parenting dilemmas, are not always obvious.

We pulled our teenager out of school so that she could be present during Ginger’s last moments. We still aren’t sure if we did the right thing. Did it give her closure or scar her for life? She says she is fine, but when we talk about getting another dog, she is the one who hesitates and asks us to “wait a while”.

Our younger daughter who wasn’t around when our pet died is ready to get another dog. So we sigh and wonder again and again: did we do the right thing?

We don’t know. I don’t think we’ll ever know.


Shoba Narayan is the author of Monsoon Diary: a memoir with recipes

Father’s Day column for The National

A piece I wrote for The National. Happy Fathers Day!

Father’s Day

Is being a father to a son different from being a father to a daughter? Shouldn’t be, right? After all, one of the central premises of parenting is to treat all your children with the same amount of love and affection. “You both are like my two eyes,” my mother used to say to my brother and I when we asked her which of us was her favorite. “How can I pick one over the other?”

It is a common theme. We parents bend over backwards in our effort to treat our kids fairly and equally. But we all know that we have embarked on an impossible quest. You may love all your kids equally but that does not mean that you will treat them equally. All said and done, a daughter is different from a son.

Nearly a decade ago, when my second daughter was a newborn, my wise journalism professor said something that I’ll never forget. David Klatell and I were talking about parenting. He is the father of two daughters and I mentioned that I had just given birth to my second daughter. “Your husband is a lucky man for he will have two girls who will adore him as long as they live,” said David. “Your life, on the other hand, will be a little more complicated.”

“A little?” I’ll say.

It’s been ten years now. My elder daughter is 14 and my younger one, ten. I can tell you now that David Klatell was right on the money. The father of two daughters has it easy (and I say this with a certain level of bitterness). On the days that I want to make myself feel better, I tell myself that the relationship that my girls share with my husband is not as multi-dimensional as what they share with me. My daughters love their father unreservedly and with an intensity that makes me envious. They are also scared of their father. When he raises his voice, which happens rarely, they run for cover. Fear and love, I tell myself, as I try to poke holes and pick flaws in their connection. That’s so limited; so stereotypical. It doesn’t have the many facets that I share with my girls. My daughters are embarrassed by me; they compete with me; lecture me; look up to me; love me; and hate me, often all at the same time. It is all so breathtakingly complicated. Isn’t that better? It’s got to be.

As I write this, my ten-year-old daughter, Malini, is making a Father’s Day card for her Dad. It has a garden, butterflies, blue skies, flowers, a rainbow, sunshine, hills, a father and a daughter holding hands. It is uncomplicated, just like their relationship. I envy that.

As a psychology student, I studied the Oedipal and Electra complexes in which sons competed with fathers and daughters competed with mothers. I see shades of that in my household, but even that, oversimplifies things. Sure, my girls compete with me, but they compete with their Dad too. They want to dress differently from me; they want to be “cooler” than their Mom. Their struggles with their Dad are deeper. They want to make their father— this alien creature— see their point of view. They yearn for his approval in a way that is different, and somehow deeper, than what they seek from me.

Our children learn a lot from us. But most of all, they learn how to be men and women from us. If you are lucky enough to be the father of daughters, you have got one entire segment of their growing up out of the way. Your daughters don’t look to you to figure out how to be women. Freed of that parenting constraint, they can simply adore you.

Happy Father’s Day!

The trouble with teenagers

I hope my daughter doesn’t read this. For The National.

My life: The trouble with teenagers
Shoba Narayan
May 18, 2011 Updated May 18, 2011 5.12pm

At a party recently, I asked a close friend what I considered an innocuous question. “How is Vivek?” I asked, referring to her son who had just graduated from Brown University and had returned home.

“I don’t know how to talk to him anymore,” my friend replied forcefully. “He is 22 years old and still hasn’t decided what to do with his life. He wants to take a year off to figure it out. What’s there to figure out? I knew I wanted to be a doctor when I was eight years old.”

“Things are different these days,” I murmured sympathetically. “Kids have choices. Not like how it was when we were growing up.”

“But he should at least tell me what’s on his mind,” my friend continued, barely registering what I had said. “He should tell me his plans, instead of floating about the house in limbo, answering in monosyllables.”

The teenage years are tough. Everyone tells me that. But as a parent whose first child has just become a teenager, I can tell you that the toughest thing is the silence that suddenly emerges like a chasm between you and the child who was once a part of you, who was once almost an appendage.

I used to be able to tell my daughter anything, and usually did once every few minutes from dawn to dusk. “Brush your teeth. Don’t forget your lunch box. Remember the library book. Did you finish your homework? Eat your vegetables. No TV if you don’t finish music practice. Clean up your room, young lady, or else… That’s it, you are grounded.”

And so it went.

My daughter’s moods were simple and transparent. I knew exactly what was on her mind, whether it was the oft-repeated “I don’t want to” or the resigned “Yes, Mom, I did my homework” to the querulous “I didn’t make the mess. Why should I clean up?”

The point was that I felt connected to her – until she became a teenager, until the wall of silence descended.

Nowadays I find myself holding back, figuring out just what to say to her, when to bring up issues and how to discipline her without having her pull back from me.

On the other hand, when my nine-year-old spills “ghost medicine” – a mix of shampoo, moisturiser, mouthwash and anything else she can find – all over her bed, I yell at her: “How many times have I told you not to mix ghost medicine on my bed?”

Young children are physically draining, especially if you don’t have household help. However, now that I have a teenager, what I appreciate is that young children offer parents a certain mental and emotional liberty that goes down as the years go by.

When my teenager comes home late from a party that I didn’t want her to go to in the first place, I cannot yell the first thing that comes to mind, because I need information from her. I need to find out who was there at the party and what they were up to. I need her to trust me enough to reveal her thoughts and actions. Yelling is the quickest way to shut her up and close her down.

I have to follow the parental version of Aristotle’s decree: “Anyone can get angry – that is easy. But to get angry with the right person, to the right extent, at the right time, with the right motive, and in the right way – that is not easy.”

Even more so when the person in question is your teenage child.

Shoba Narayan is a journalist based in Bangalore, India. She is the author of Monsoon Diary: A Memoir with Recipes.

How to bring up kids?

This is something I think about a lot. While I know that there is no magic formula for parenting, chasing one seems unavoidable if you are a parent. Whether you are a teacher, or a parent, or run summer camps, dealing with kids is an engrossing puzzle simply because there doesn’t seem to be one right method. The variables are too many– the kid, the adult, the situation, the kid’s personality, the adult’s personality, the other children involved, the history….the list goes on. But still we keep trying.

I am very fond of this piece. I wrote it a while ago and kept tinkering with it and tinkering with it. Here is the link in Mint Lounge and below is a cut and paste version.

Is an iPod their birthright?
The realization usually comes as a wake-up call after a question or a comment
The Good Life | Shoba Narayan

The summer holidays are looming. The children will be home. What are you going to do? Send them to camp? Fly off on a holiday to the Caribbean? Ask them to do chores around the house? Or all of the above?

One of the first things Michelle Obama did after entering the White House was tell the staff not to make her children’s beds. She wanted her girls to do chores, just like she did while growing up. Later, in a television interview, Obama told Barbara Walters that her children definitely believed in Santa Claus. Why? Because their parents would never buy them so many gifts at one time.

Obama’s quest to keep her daughters “grounded” while in the White House reflects a conflict that most upwardly mobile urban parents face today: how to enjoy the fruits of your labour without turning your children into spoiled brats.

The realization usually comes as a wake-up call after a question or a comment. Your teenage son casually asks for another iPod because he lost his barely month-old one during a school excursion. You take your Delhi-bred children to a beloved aunt’s home in Dharwad and your nine-year-old refuses to go to the Indian bathroom at her house. Your seven-year-old asks, right in front of your retired relatives, “Why aren’t we staying at a five-star hotel?” It is usually after events such as these that realization dawns: You are raising your children with a warped sense of the world. Not intentionally, but not wholly without fault either.

It is a familiar tale among the upwardly mobile and here are some conversational snippets that I hear over and over again.

“Both my husband and I grew up in middle-class families. Summer holidays were spent with grandparents and cousins. Nowadays, we travel abroad for holidays. We think of our vacations as annual indulgences. The only problem is that our children see this as a way of life—because they know no other.”

“My wife and I love gizmos. Our home is filled with them. After working 60-hour weeks, we feel that we have earned our right to enjoy them. The problem is that our children see our gizmo-laden large home, and multiple cars as their lifestyle, as their birthright. They don’t realize how much hard work went into it.”

“I celebrated my son’s fifth birthday with magicians, face painters, the works. I give him all the things I never had growing up. But he is no happier than I was, growing up. Rohan is always looking for the next new toy. What worries me is the thought that I am foisting a skewed set of values. Am I buying him things because I cannot spend time with him?”

“Does consumerism reduce character? As a parent, is it your duty to build your child’s character? What is the role of a parent?”

As with almost everything with respect to parenting, there are no formulas, else the world would be full of perfect children. One school of thought takes the “less is more” approach. In lectures and articles, steel baron Andrew Carnegie asserts that successful people have the “advantage of being cradled, nursed and reared in the stimulating school of poverty”. Carnegie goes further. He says there is “nothing so enervating, nothing so deadly” to great achievement than hereditary wealth. More recently, on his trip to India, Warren Buffett said, “Personally, I would much prefer not to be born rich.”

Most parents of this generation intuit that. We want to indulge our children but not spoil them. We want to give them the opportunities that were denied to us but don’t want them to feel entitled. We resist putting them on what happiness scholars call “the hedonistic treadmill” where they want more and more instead of being contented, even happy, with what they have. Simply put, we don’t want them to feel deprived but we don’t want them to feel rich either.

Carnegie believed that character springs out of hardship. Troubles test our mettle and conquering hurdles builds character. The trick is identifying what characteristics you want your children to imbibe. Most of us cherish this nebulous construct called “middle-class values”, but would be hard-pressed to define it. Some of it has to do with hunger, ambition and hard work; but most of it has to do with grace in the face of adversity, a porous sense of personal space, unconscious acts of generosity and never giving up.

Growing up privileged doesn’t automatically mean that you will become, as Carnegie fears, a wastrel. Witness Bill Gates or Anand Mahindra. Can children learn character in a comfortable setting, untested as they are in Carnegie’s school of poverty? Even if you buy into Carnegie’s theory, translating that into action is difficult. Does gifting your daughter an iPhone prevent her from learning the virtues of thrift? Where is the line between indulging our children and giving them a false sense of entitlement?

Solutions might include examining your own choices and seeing how they affect your children. For example, you might decide to fly business class when travelling alone and economy when travelling with your children. Another method would be to give your children routine responsibilities and chores such as making the bed or setting the dinner table. One family I know takes their children to volunteer at an orphanage during Christmas.

In the end, what helps (or hinders, depending on your point of view) parenting is the fact that there are so many factors involved. All we can do is make choices that seem right at that moment and hope that things turn out okay. After all, “slumdogs” can become millionaires and a black man with an Islamic middle name can live in the White House, both of which, as it turns out, happened without much parenting at all.

Shoba Narayan hopes that her children have good genes. They need all the help they can get, given her erratic parenting style. Write to her at

Sleepovers for The National M magazine

I am part of a rotating group of columnists who write for The National’s M magazine. My editor, Rick Arthur has the courteousness of a Southern gentleman but having never met him, I don’t know if he is American or not.

A teenage daughter’s sleepover can fray a mother’s nerves
Shoba Narayan
Last Updated: Feb 23, 2011

My 14-year-old daughter, Ranjini, wants to go for a sleepover. This isn’t a simple proposition in my household. I am generally against sleepovers. This, I believe, is an Eastern attitude, and comes from the tradition of joint families, with all their incestuous complications.

When I grew up in India in the Seventies, the concept of sleepovers didn’t exist. During the summers, our entire family congregated at my grandparents’ ancestral home in Kerala. About 15 cousins slept under the same roof every night for about a month. We stayed up late, whispering secrets under the eaves and sharing jokes. Such enforced closeness brought us together, but also taught us about human frailty. There was the uncle who hugged the young girls for longer than was needed; there was the elderly aunt who was known to be a kleptomaniac (everything was locked when she came to visit); there was the cousin who shocked our Hindu family by eloping with a Muslim boy. Living with myriad family taught us children all the things that today’s kids glean through sleepovers, but in a much more intense, prolonged way.

On the odd occasion when my daughters attend sleepovers, they talk about staying up late and giggling under the covers, about raiding the fridge at night and about making pancakes for breakfast. My own childhood “sleepovers” taught me a lot more. I learnt that two people who were fantastic as individuals could bicker all summer in a dysfunctional marriage. I learnt that sleeping on a hard floor in a room full of women gave me the comfort of being in a womb and a sweetness of sleep that I haven’t experienced since. I learnt to look away when my grandfather belched after a delicious meal. I learnt that there were people – aunts, uncles, grandparents and cousins – who would love me no matter what. I learnt that these same people were not paragons of virtue, but flawed, complicated humans who could talk about generosity but act in a manner that was anything but. Living in a large family was like being in a permanent sleepover.

Today, I have to balance my own experience with my daughter’s expectations. I come up with rules that sound arbitrary, even to my own ears. When she was young, I told her that sleepovers were not allowed at all since I didn’t know her friends’ parents. As the years passed and I got to know other families, I changed the rule. She couldn’t go to the homes of her friends who had elder brothers, I said.

“Why?” she cried.

“Because I don’t want you around hormonal teenage boys,” I blurted out.

“Ma, this is so weird. All my friends are going to be there,” she replied.

I had nothing to say. How could I tell my daughter about straying, predatory hands that touched me in the middle of the night? How could I tell this innocent creature who thought she was tough enough to handle anything about feeling vulnerable within your own family?

Ranjini did go to the sleepover at her friend Tina’s house. Turns out that other Indian parents share my mindset. Faced with the prospect of 10 teenage girls sleeping over at her home, Tina’s mother sensibly sent her 18-year-old son away for his own sleepover.

All of us mothers with daughters breathed easy. And 10 squealing teenage girls stayed up all night and had a wonderful time.

Shoba Narayan is a journalist based in Bangalore, India. She is the author of Monsoon Diary: A Memoir with Recipes.


I used to be the Hinduism columnist for Beliefnet when it began years ago. When it got acquired, I even got stock options for which. They have a page for me here but most of my articles are archived under the Hinduism banner.
Beliefnet’s Search page which has all my stories.

Here are some of the topics and links.

The Meaning of a Guru

I have to admit that I have trouble with the whole ‘guru’ thing. Guru means teacher in Sanskrit, but it connotes much more than that. A guru is someone who removes your ignorance, without whom you cannot attain the knowledge you are seeking.
Delaying Puberty with Yoga.

Pop Karma: My Name is Earl TV show.

Ritual Initiation: Varalakshmi Puja

Rama: Beloved Avatar

Saying a Traditional Goodbye

Yoga as Middle Path

Loving with no strings attached

The Incomparable M.S. Subbulakshmi

Decoding Destiny with the I-Ching

Incarnations of the Mother Goddess

May Hanuman be with you

Soy: soul food or spiritual sham

Stop Building Hindu Temples

Bah, Humbug!

Confessions of a Closet Vegetarian

Fashionably Devout

Just Say No to Turkey Propaganda: Hindu Thanksgiving Recipes

End to Passive Resistance
Indian or Hindu: One, Both or Neither?

Karma’s a Drag
– Movement Meditation
Shortcut to Spirituality

Stripping the Soul out of Yoga

The Vasthu Vibe

Tuning Out the Teletubbies
Vegetarian Nirvana