It’s Time To Talk About Fatherhood And Raising Boys Right
As Indian society’s engagement with modernity continues, one area where we desperately need more research and knowledge is fatherhood.
Indians pick up Western fads and ideas pretty quickly. A few days ago, we celebrated Father’s Day on 17 June, with celebs posting pictures with their dads, and reminiscing about what great fathers they have or have had. There is nothing wrong in this, but beyond some feel-good vibes, it does nothing to celebrate fatherhood in the Indian cultural context, or, for that matter, Indian modes of parenting and bringing up boys. For much of recent history, fatherhood was not studied even in the West, with motherhood getting pride of place, given the obviously important roles mothers play in bringing forth a new life and nurturing it for months – if not years – after birth. The role of fatherhood has been reduced to contribution of sperm to set the process of fertilisation going and providing the financial wherewithal to feed and protect the family afterwards. In India, despite our lopsided son-preference and deeply-ingrained patriarchy, we have done little by way of research to study fathers and boys, especially in our cultural context. A society that does not understand its boys and fathers is unlikely to be a fair one, one that treats women with respect and as equal partners. It is not enough to legislate draconian laws to punish rape and sexual harassment of women when we don’t know why this happens.
In the West, the literature and research on bringing up boys and fatherhood is a growth industry; among the ones that this writer has come across are Paul Raeburn’s book, Do Fathers Matter?, and Steve Biddulph’s Raising Boys. There are many more in this genre, but Raeburn’s book delves into the latest scientific research on the importance of fathers both in terms of genetic contribution to his children and their development post-birth. And it’s not all about helping mom change nappies or dropping kids off at school. Biddulph’s book explains how boys need different treatment at various phases of their lives, given the testosterone levels their bodies are bombarded with at various ages. Thus, he says, up to age six (or thereabouts), boys need almost the exact same treatment as girls (love, affection, etc), but this is when we start telling boys not to cry and be strong. After six and upto puberty, fathers become very important as role models, but in nuclear families, this is often when fathers are into mid-careers, and rising up the corporate ladder, and hence less available to their sons. But, curiously, after puberty, the boy needs another adult apart from his father to look up to in order to develop into a healthy adult male and later a good father himself. In this context, one can surmise that joint families provided exactly this experience for boys where they could have assorted uncles and older brothers to look up to as role models beyond their dads; now, in nuclear families, this opportunity is gone. This is not to raise any false nostalgia for a return to joint families – that is not possible in most cases – but to emphasise that we need new research on how boys need to be brought up in nuclear families, and on the roles fathers play in their development.
Our society is probably too mother-centric in its approach to bringing up boys, and this may not provide the necessary balance in what the child needs. We also need to understand how the Indian marriage is handling the stresses arising from high career and job-related pressures. You cannot be a good father or mother if the basic spousal relationship between husband and wife is on the rocks or resulting in needless tension and even violence. And yet, we have a few studies on this subject, though I do recall one from the last decade, by Shaifali Sandhya, who wrote a book titled Love Will Follow: Why The Indian Marriage Is Burning. The book explains from a woman’s point of view why many marriages are not working even though the partners may remain married. A good part of the reason is the mother’s effort to shower the love she doesn’t receive from her husband on her son, leading to huge complications in the latter’s life in adulthood, especially after marriage. This aspect has been adequately and anecdotally dealt with in our umpteen saas-bahu serials, where marriage is seen as a battleground between the mother and the wife, but we have no new insight on how to fix this.
Given the stresses of modern life, it is more than likely that our children are not getting the kind of parenting they need, and this is apparent from how unruly and beyond control some of our boys (and increasingly girls) have become. Just take any seven-year-old Indian kid to places abroad and compare their public behaviour with kids their own age in those societies. You may find that our kids are louder and more unruly than kids in the West. Indian parenting possibly leaves something to be desired. A relative of mine took his boisterous son to the Tower of London, and the security staff there had to ask his father to take him out since it was disturbing other visitors. On a long flight, you will find Indian kids sometimes running down the aisles or pulling the hair of the passenger in front, with little admonition from parents. We believe that kids will be kids, and thus must be excused for most kinds of unruly behaviour.
The larger point is that we don’t know much about what fathering ought to be about, and how our boys should be brought up. Clearly, the father has to play a larger role in the family that goes beyond providing the cash for its sustenance. The causal relationships on good parenting run in many directions; good parenting needs good husband-wife relationships, and this needs giving fatherhood its due, and bringing up boys as they should be brought up. Well brought up boys become good fathers, and good fathers bring up better boys. This does not mean the mother’s role is unimportant or peripheral; far from it. Successful men often have strong maternal influences, even if they are not the fabled “tiger moms”. What one is emphasising is that we need far more research and studies of Indian fatherhood and how boys need bringing up in the Indian cultural context. Until we do that the hard way, we will not be able to do anything to help our girls and women lead safer and happier lives, with higher quality relationships with their spouses and children.
We know what to do to help our girls: protect them, give them fair treatment, encourage them, and provide a workplace, where they don’t feel discriminated against. But do we know what our boys and fathers need to develop into upright and good humans? Probably not. Beyond mouthing inanities like “boys will be boys”, we have no new knowledge beyond what the West has to offer us. Time to remedy that.
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