Parenting
Love is the excuse many Indian parents use to justify verbal and physical abuse against their children, but the two should not be confused.
  • Friday, February 02, 2018 - 09:28

By Ashwathy Ganesan

The video of a Bengaluru man beating up his son brutally has once again shocked the Internet. To make it worse, the video was shot by the mother, who'd been asked by her husband to record the abuse and show it to the child later if he was tempted to break the rules.

This isn't the first time that such a video has surfaced. In August last year, cricketer Virat Kohli had shared the video of a young child being beaten by her mother for not answering questions correctly. The child turned out to be the 3-year-old niece of singer Toshi Sabri and the family went on the defensive, claiming that the child was much loved and that nobody had the right to judge them by this lone video.

Love.

That's the excuse many, many Indian parents use to justify beating, pinching, slapping, and using objects to abuse their children.

I grew up at a time when corporal punishment was the norm - at home and in school. In the convent I went to in my kindergarten years, I was caned for playing in the rain. I was three.

My parents were suitably upset. They were of the firm belief that physically disciplining the child was not the school's right - it was theirs alone. Or rather, my mother's. My father never hit me but he did not object strongly enough to make it stop.

To be fair, my parents weren't the only ones who believed this. My cousins and friends, too, were subjected to whacks by their parents. Sometimes, a beating with a belt.

It was normal.

Verbal abuse was considered to be part and parcel of parenting. From innocuous animal names like donkey and dog to slut-shaming, 'bad' language was considered to be a lenient way of disciplining the child.

It was normal.

Did this mean parents in those days hated their children? That we were not beneficiaries of love, kindness or generosity when we were growing up? No. I have many beautiful, wonderful memories of childhood and I'm grateful to my parents for giving me all the opportunities that they did. But I resent having to write a disclaimer such as this every time we speak about abuse by parents- because abuse cannot and should not be confused with love.

Both can exist at the same time but they are not synonymous. Neither should abuse be trivialised because the parent supposedly has the child's 'best interests' at heart and nobody else on the planet will do all that s/he does for the child. It's possible for someone to love another and still treat them abusively. This is why it's so hard for victims and perpetrators to identify familial abuse as such because the concerned persons are bound to one another inextricably.

It has taken me several years as an adult to realise this. I had to become a parent myself to understand it. I had to hit my child and enjoy the sense of satisfaction it gave me. I had to feel the bliss enveloping my body as soon as I landed a slap on her back or screamed my head off. I had to enjoy the sense of power it gave me when I hugged her tight and consoled her the very next moment, because she would forgive me so easily.

I pretended this was about love. I was just being a good mother, like my own.

Though I had hated being hit and verbally abused when growing up, I was convinced that you couldn't bring up a child without doing it. I firmly believed in 'spare the rod and spoil the child' because that's the only model of parenting that I knew intimately.

This, even as I felt the damage it had done to me. I would fly into temper tantrums, sometimes even shaking uncontrollably with rage, when upset. As a young child, the beating and pinching was for disobedience or not studying. When I grew older and began asserting my will, it became about fitting into the moral standards that my parents felt were appropriate for a girl - what I wore, where I went, who I met.

We would have open discussions about everything under the sun - from politics to cinema - at home but some things were just carved in stone and I could do nothing to change these.

I grew rebellious and emotionally distant from my parents, not trusting them with my secrets. As a pre-pubescent child and later teenager, I would confide in anonymous strangers on Yahoo chat rooms and trust people I didn't know at all with the most vulnerable parts of my life. Thinking back, it was ridiculously foolish and risky behaviour and I thank my stars that I didn't fall into the trap of some monster who exploited the situation.

In romantic relationships, I found myself turning clingy if the other person didn't seem involved enough. It wasn't that I wanted them so badly, I wanted the approval and banked too much on the emotional comfort if offered me. I was no pushover and was opinionated about most things, but I would go to any lengths to please the other person only because I didn't want them to leave.

Of course, this meant that people DID leave. Because who wants to be with a ragey, whiny person at the end of the day?

My anger was often disproportionate to the circumstances. When screaming didn't do it, I would turn to self-harm. I'd slice my wrist with a razor, not wanting to kill myself but because I was so angry and I wanted to do something to express it. Sometimes, I chopped off parts of my hair.

My parents did not know this side of my growing up years. They only saw me sulking and dismissed it as teen tantrums. I was good at hiding my tracks.

The last time my mother hit me was when I was a working woman. I was 22. It was over a skirt I wanted to wear to work. She thought it was 'vulgar', I disagreed. The skirt came well below my knees and I'd bought it with my own money. My mother pushed me to the floor and kicked me for wanting to dress like a 'slut'. At that point, I didn't want to take this anymore. I got up and she raised her hand to slap me. I held her hand and said I'd slap her back if she didn't stop. And I meant it.

The physical abuse stopped though the name-calling didn't. We didn't know how to disagree, how to communicate the disagreement. I once ran away from home at night because I couldn't stand the verbal abuse. I went to a restaurant and ate a plate of spring rolls, wondering if I should take the bus to another city and disappear from their lives forever. If I'd had more money with me that night, I might have done it. It might have ended badly. Or perhaps not. I will never know.

I finally moved out of my house after I got married. In the initial months of my marriage, I found myself yelling and crying every time I disagreed with my husband about something. Because I'd grown up needing to scream to be heard, I didn't know how to put forth my view calmly. Thankfully, I married a kind and gentle person who was infinitely patient with me. When I started to realise that my opinions about my own life mattered and that I didn't have to shout every time, I learnt to handle life like an adult. I learnt how to communicate to the people around me without adopting an antagonistic tone.

All was well till my daughter was born. Like every new mother, I was overwhelmed with the new responsibility. The lack of sleep, the on-demand breastfeeding, the stress of having to listen to well-meaning 'advice' from all and sundry, the usual territorial disputes over the baby, made me irritable and frustrated. I had support from my mother for the first few months (for which I will always be grateful) and then she left.

Finding myself alone with the baby at home, I would scream at her for wailing or clinging to me, knowing that someone who's only a few months old wouldn't be able to understand what I was saying. I would try and drown out her crying by screaming even louder. Sometimes, I would hold her tighter than necessary because I felt I was at the end of my tether.

The first time I hit her, she was two years old. It felt bloody good. She was in the middle of a tantrum and it was so easy to end it by raising my hand. I did it one other time, a few months later. She was being unreasonable about something and I was feeling pretty irritated. I had a lot on my plate - housework, my job, motherhood. So I whacked her - and this time, when I raised my hand, I caught the expression in her eyes. She was terrified of me.

The power I had over this human being hit me in my face forcefully. I could do whatever I wanted with her - scream, slap, kick - and nobody would know. Nobody would ask me any questions. I could go on being the good mother. I terrified myself.

That day, I decided I would end this vicious cycle of abuse. I would stop kidding myself that this was the only way to bring up a child and that it was okay. It would be hard but I would do it.

And I did. It wasn't easy. I had to struggle with myself a lot to keep my temper in check, not give in to the little voice in my head that egged me on, saying all parents did it and it was fine. I stopped shouting. It's not that I became a parent who said 'yes' to everything - I learnt to communicate my 'no' to my daughter. I learnt to respect her wishes and opinions and put down my foot only when it came to health and safety.

I share a fairly good relationship with my mother now. The subject we both end up discussing the most is my daughter and my mother is glad I don't beat her or shout at her. However, she's still defensive about her actions as a parent and believes it's only because my daughter is "exceptionally good" and that I have a supportive spouse that I'm able to bring her up without resorting to violence. I don't expect her to understand.

I broke the cycle. And I'm glad I did because I know I could have turned into the monster parent in a video if I hadn't stopped when I did.

I also apologised to my daughter. She didn't remember me whacking her or screaming at her. But I told her what I'd done and said I was sorry because she must know that nobody, absolutely NOBODY has the right to treat her like that. Even if it's her mother who made her from blood and bone.

And she forgave me. Because that's what children do. You know that line about parents giving their child unconditional love? It's bogus. It's the other way round. We're too busy using it to justify the abuse we mete to them to see the truth.