“Parents should realize that you cannot grow a tree in a pot,” says Dr V Jayanthini, a psychiatrist, without mincing any words. “You will end up with a bonsai if you are too protective.”
The world is a scary place and considering parents don’t have superhero capes, it is enormously difficult to stay sane as your child slowly but surely moves out of your control zone.
There’s a reason movies like “Bommarillu” and “Abhiyum Naanum”, which featured overprotective parents, did brisk business – they struck a chord with so many families out there.
When it comes to girl children, especially, the fear can become extreme, with parents stifling the child with rules for her own ‘safety’.
Their fears are not completely unfounded. India does have a shameful record when it comes to gender-based violence, with experts like Kate Gilmore of the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) even calling it an “epidemic”.
Menaka* has two children, a girl aged seven and a boy aged four.
Menaka suffered a traumatic episode of child sexual abuse at the hands of a neighbour when she was around six. In turn, she finds herself becoming more and more nervous as her daughter grows older.
She says, “I keep instructing the kids to be safe, when they are indoors and outdoors. I started teaching my daughter about good touch and bad touch when she was just 10 months old. When we go out, I usually hold their hands all the time. Even at the playground, I keep telling them to be careful while climbing and running around.”
Menaka’s husband is not aware of her past and is clearly the favourite parent between the two because he does not control the children as much as she does.
Menaka says, “It’s hard for me to let them play freely and not imagine things. The worst case scenarios keep running in the back of my mind all the time. I try to be prepared always, expecting the worst.”
Menaka, however, is aware that her overprotective nature could be affecting her children, especially her daughter.
“By nature, she is a very quiet person, no dare-devil. I feel my overprotection has affected her in some way. She needs reassurance from an adult, like me, or her dad or teacher, all the time. We are working on it,” says Menaka. She is trying hard to get over her irrational fears and move on from her past.
If Menaka’s overprotective nature was triggered by that one incident, there are many parents who become that way out of guilt. Dr. Jayanthini points out that in homes where both parents are employed, time spent with the child is very limited and parents therefore overcompensate by excessive pampering and coddling.
She says, “I know parents who don’t allow their child to play with other children because they fear infections. From where will they build their immunity? They don’t let them go anywhere! No playing. No socializing.”
Children react differently to overprotective parents. Some may become openly rebellious. Some may rebel but on the sly. They are tempted to indulge in risky behaviour just to regain the sense of control that has been taken away from them.
Since an overprotective parent is usually under the illusion that the child, however old s/he may be, is entirely under their control, they may never realize that this is happening.
Other children may shrink into themselves and grow into adults with low self-esteem and indecisiveness. They are incapable of thinking and acting by themselves.
“Parenting is like placing a fence around a plant,” says Dr Jayanthini. “You should know at what distance to keep the fence. And understand that once the plant has grown sufficiently, it doesn’t need the fence.”
The difference is clearly visible when compared to parents who manage to rein in their fears and let their children be. Tahseen Amber, a 21-year-old law student from Pune, says she was only fifteen when her father introduced her to the Youth Hostel Association of India that organizes treks and cycle expeditions to the mountains.
Tahseen has since been a regular visitor to the hills.
She says, “I have never seen such an open-minded parent. He gave my sister and I full freedom and allowed us to do whatever we want to do. He wanted us to be independent in each and every thing. Trust is what encourages him to do so.”
Tahseen’s mother, whom she says is her “backbone of support”, has received some flak from other family members for allowing her daughters to spread their wings but this has never made the parents stop the two sisters.
Tahseen’s Facebook page is full of happy images from her various adventures in the hills. Clearly, the relaxed fence that gradually disappeared has only made her a stronger tree!
*Name changed to protect privacy