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Gender-Neutral Parenting And The Larger Family

Posted: December 9, 2011

Gender-neutral parenting is always a challenge, but the Indian extended family makes it extra difficult. How do Indian moms manage?

By Nayantara Mallya

Whenever I read parenting books, I use most of the strategies they suggest with a huge pinch of salt. In the Indian cultural context, a parent is under constant scrutiny from the older generation. Especially when Indian moms are progressive regarding gender stereotypes, roles and responsibilities, it can lead to clashes, misunderstandings and compromises, all of which breed resentment and are not in the child’s best interest. Some Indian moms share their experiences and tips on gender-neutral parenting in the context of the extended family.

Ignoring gender stereotyping is tough for Indian moms

My mother can really upset me with some stereotypes she won’t let go of,” says Veena Ghoshal*, a Software Test Engineer. “My husband, son, daughter and I were in a car that turned turtle on a slippery road last year, and we all sustained minor injuries. More than the accident, my mother’s anxiety got to me. My daughter lost two teeth and my mother was worried about how it would affect her chances of marriage. She’s 5, for crying out loud!

Veena’s mother was also concerned that the concussion Veena’s 3 year old son suffered might affect his intelligence, and therefore his chances of getting an engineering seat, she recalls wryly. It’s very tough to ignore blatant slotting like this – girls get married and boys study and earn money.

Veena feels it’s important to challenge such statements and beliefs immediately and directly, to avoid the kids accepting or imbibing the messages. She has had several battles with her mother, but feels she’s lucky that her mother is sporting about it. “While it hasn’t changed her attitude much, I think it’s good for my kids to see me challenging her.”, Veena concludes.

It’s very tough to ignore blatant slotting like this – girls get married and boys study and earn money.

Sometimes, parents don’t face discouragement, but support – often times family tastes and likes will influence how the grandchildren are raised. Baisali Chatterjee Dutt, Freelance Editor, says that her husband’s family is very creative and artistically inclined. “Whenever my elder eight year old son gravitates towards anything to do with singing, acting or playing music, I’ve only met with encouragement, never insensitivity. I’m sure, had the family not been so musically involved, this might not have been the case,” she feels.

Live and let live

I just let my mother-in-law have her attitudes. I don’t consider it my job to be teaching an old ‘dog’ new tricks, but I’m very serious that my kids should not be influenced by her limiting ideas.”, says Jayanti Pai*. She makes sure her daughter Shweta*, aged 4 and son Shreyas*, aged 8, understand that their grandmother has a right to her ‘old-fashioned’ views. Meanwhile, Shreyas and Shweta are given exposure to activities, roles, skills and appropriate chores for kids, regardless of their grandmother’s disapproval. Jayanti adds, “It’s harder to do. It would be easier to just give up and keep the peace…but how will it help my kids in the long run? The older generation, mean as I might sound, is on its way out, as is ours. The future belongs to our kids, so why burden them with archaic attitudes?

Talk about it

Meenakshi Singh, a college professor in Bangalore does not live in a joint family, but her kids are taken care of after school by their grandmother. She states, “I get my husband to talk regularly with his mother. I think if you’re on somewhat of the same page with your spouse, it really helps show firm boundaries to elders. ‘Yes, we respect your views, but we’d like to raise our kids our way and with our attitudes’, is what he tells her, and he does it very lovingly.

Let them know your expectations

Grandparents can reinforce gender stereotypes unconsciously, and parents can help them be more aware by making clear what’s preferable to their sensibilities. Elders tend to gift based on gender, such as girly clothes that are pretty, gold and other jewellery, dolls and kitchen sets for their granddaughters, and guns, soldiers, blocks and sports gear for their grandsons. “My husband and I have told our parents to please give cash, or to consult us before they buy gifts, and that has been the best solution for us,” says Meenakshi.

Grandparents can reinforce gender stereotypes unconsciously, and parents can help them be more aware by making clear what’s preferable to their sensibilities.

It’s challenging to deal with extended family’s efforts to pass on stereotypical attitudes to young kids. Often, the messages kids receive from their grandparents are more influential than those they get from the peer group and media. Good communication while staying focused on what’s best for the children’s upbringing and potential certainly help in nipping gender stereotypes in the bud.

*Names changed on request

Photo Credit: Anuradha Sengupta (Used under a Creative Commons Attributions license)

I'm currently a communications specialist in the corporate world, and mom to a teen

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  1. Thanks for this article, and for the strategies you suggested to cope!

    This reminds of my experiences growing up as the only child (boy) in a nuclear family in Bombay in the ’70s. I was lucky to have been raised with relatively few gendered roles – I was expected to be involved in most household chores, in addition to focusing on schoolwork and extra curricular activities. I also got to observe my dad participating in such tasks as grocery shopping, dicing the vegetables, and cooking on those occasions when my mom was unwell. While these activities may not reflect our modern day understanding of equal involvement of both parents in home-running, they were quite significant for that time and for our social milieu.

    However things would change every summer I vacationed at my grandmothers’ place in Madras. My paatti had long lists of don’ts (“don’t help clean up after dinner”, “don’t bring coffee from the kitchen to your relatives in the living room”, “don’t take down clothes from the clothesline and fold them”) and I was told that these were tasks for girls not for boys, and these tasks were either done by my grandmother herself or designated to female cousins visiting at the same time. When my parents were with me in Madras, they also preferred I do as my grandparents said as long as I was staying with them.

    It took me years – until my late teens – to stand up for myself. By then, my grandmother had also grown infirm, and did not resist my attempts to help out in chores as vehemently as before…

  2. Ways to Help Your Child

    There are ways we, as parents, can help our child grow and develop to become a great person. We all want that for our child, but do we do all we can to help them do that?

    Here are a few great ways to help you child grow .

    Love – love you child unconditionally. Whether he does his homework or not, cleans his room or not. Your love should be way beyond these things. Your child will notice that.

    Tell them you love them – Just tell them “I love you”, a few times a day. If you find that difficult, you only need it more.

    Believe – have faith in your child’s abilities and potential. Tell him that you do believe in him and his ability. There is no better way to grow a potent adult than believing in him totally.

    Set an example – This way your child can learn about the right and wrong straight from your behavior. Always remember that a child will learn whether you set a good or a bad example.

    Commend your child every time he acts in a way you find to be a good way. Commending him insures he will act that way the next time, too.

    Tell them what you see as good features – if you think that generosity is a good feature to have, tell that to your child, and commend them each time they act in a generous way.

    Remember that each child is different – let every child develop in his unique way and remember that an approach that is good for one child is not suitable for the other one.

    Stay positive – Tell your child what’s good, not what’s bad. For example, tell them that “being polite will bring you better results in life” instead of telling them that : “being rude will get you nowhere in life”

    Take a few seconds before you say something to your child. – especially when they did something wrong, pay closer attention to what you’re saying to your child. What’s the smartest thing you can tell him right now?

    Tell your child stories that has a positive message for life. I still remember the stories I was told when I was a child and the effect they had on me!

    Try to establish a peaceful environment in your home – this will have a lasting effect on the kind of person your child will grow up to be.

    Look at other parents and learn – take the good things and think how you can implement them with your child. Take the bad things and beware not to do that to your child.

    Ask yourself each day – how can I be a better parent?

    Being a better parent is not always easy but it has a lasting effect on how your child will grow and develop. Most parents just go with the flow. Don’t be like that. Make an effort to being a better parent. The rewards are priceless.

  3. Tina Olyai’s Top Ten Parenting Tips

    1) It Begins With You:

    No one can influence your child as much as you, as long as you’re spending quality time with your son or daughter. No one and nothing! It’s very easy for children to get caught up in gangs and peer pressure if their parents aren’t showing that they care. As a parent, you must take responsibility for your child and you must build the foundation in your child so that outside influences don’t become more important than parental influence. It all begins with you.

    2) Show Your Love:

    Shower your child with kisses and hugs. Everyday tell your child that you love them, and back that up with patience and sensitivity. Always You should be your child’s biggest cheerleader and build their confidence. Smile. Listen to your child and don’t assume you know all the answers. And once again, spend time with your child. Communicating with your child becomes much easier when you spend quality time by going to museums, or to the park or simply talking over dinner.

    3) Reading:

    Reading is one of the most important things you can teach your child and will significantly enhance your child’s chances of success. Reading is the great equalizer and it can put you on the same level with just about anybody, anywhere. Reading can take you places you’ll never go and help you see things you’ve never seen before. You should read books and have books in your home for your child. If you can’t buy books, then get a library card and use your local library. Have a reading hour with your child. Treat reading like something that your child’s life will depend on, and you’ll probably be right.

    4) The Most Important Years:

    Between birth and the age of five is where critical values are instilled in your child, and either you can put those values in your child, or they’ll pick them up wherever they can. During these years, the foundation of your child’s life will be formed and you must be responsible for driving the proper values. Respect, spirituality, honesty, integrity and accountability are only a few of the foundational elements you should put in your child. And the easiest way to do it is for you to live a life with these values. You see, it truly begins with you.

    5) The Environment:

    Take control of the conditions that will influence your son or daughter. Since there are so many things that can influence a child today, it’s key to remember that you are the parent and you know better than your child what is best. You have to manage your child’s friends, the television, video games and your household. Control what you can control, influence what you can influence and let the rest go.

    6) House Rules:

    Establishing house rules will set the framework for good behavior in your home. Your house rules are also a means for you to establish daily expectations. It’s important to establish your own house rules because you’ll find every house and every child has slightly different rules and sometimes no rules at all. When a person enters your house, they must abide by your rules. House rules apply for both visiting children and adults. You must be consistent.

    7) Managing Expectations:

    Show and tell your children what is expected. Children will typically do what’s expected of them. That’s not always the case with adults, but children will usually meet expectations. And there lies the rub; too many parents have low or virtually no expectations of their children. How ridiculous! Your child will perform to the level of what is expected, and if not much is expected not much can be gained. Set high expectations.

    8) Role model behavior:

    Find either a parent like the parent you want to be, or find a child that is like the child you want yours to become. Once you find that behavior, try to copy it. Meet with the parent and tell them that you like how they’ve raised their child and you’d like to know how they did it. You’ll get all kinds of great suggestions and possibly a mentor, but more importantly another parent whose advice you can use.

    9) Attitude is Everything:

    Controlling your attitude can determine your destiny. You can change your habits and your attitude is a habit. Positive thinking is a habit and an attitude that you should instill in your child. You are what you think, so controlling your thinking can control your world. A positive attitude will give you the ability to change how you see life and the life of your child. People want to be around others with a good attitude. Besides, having a positive attitude is fun.

    10) Enjoy Life:

    Have fun in raising your child. Every day is a blessing and some days will be more challenging than others. Make the best of whatever you have. Happiness isn’t based on money so don’t let money determine your happiness. Make a difference in the life of your child and then make a difference in the lives of others. You are one of God’s great creations and both you and your child can be almost anything you want to be. Enjoy the moment because children grow up so fast. Laugh, cry, smile and love. Tomorrow is promised to no one so live your life to the fullest everyday, and be the best parent that you can be.

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