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The Sunday TimesPlus

30th March 1997



Fatal: the parent trap

Most modern parents are guilty of placing undue pressures on their children

By Chamintha Tilakaratna

My daughter came first in her class today", "My son was chosen for the school cricket team" or "my child got the lead role in the school play," are all snippets of conversations that most of us are quite familiar with. Most parents don’t lose a minute when they get an opportunity to boast about their children, be it at a party, at the market or at work. To prove that their child is the best, and the one who has achieved the most is the dream of every parent. Though their intentions are quite often innocent, the methods they resort to achieve this success are often harmful to their children. Little thought do they give to their likes and dislikes or the pressure they put on the children as a result.

"If you take a turtle and try to turn it into a race horse, you will kill it," said Dr. Hans Selye, a specialist in the area of stress. This is exactly what is happening today where we often see parents attempting to turn their children into race horses and trying to fulfill their own unrealised ambitions through their children.

In society today little children are no strangers to stress. Even at the age of 6 or 7 parents begin to drive their children towards the rat race. From the time they wake up early in the morning to go to school, till the time they go to bed in the night their schedules are such that the children have no time to play or to relax. More and more children are beginning to wake up not to a glass of milk but to a study session in the mornings. The schedule of many an urban child goes like this: he wakes up around 5.30 or 6 a.m. to study and get dressed to go to school, returns from school to change and go for a ballet, then for elocution, music, athletics or a tuition class only to return home to complete his school home work and then fall into bed exhausted. The schedule is the same the next day and the next and on all the days that follow.

Having to satisfy the demands of parents, teachers and trying to keep up with the growing competition, and also having to quell the desire to play and relax because there is no time for it in the already fixed schedule, the child most often becomes a victim of his or her own frustrations and anger.

Parents who never got to live their dreams tend to seek that satisfaction through their children. Can you blame them? Every parent tries to give something more than what he had for his child, more respect, better positions in life, a better lifestyle. The way they saw it possible to achieve success is the way they expect their children to follow.

"I knew this 6 or 7-year-old little girl who was very clever. She did everything from studies to sports and all one can possibly think of as extra curricular activities," said Ms. Anne Abeysekara, a well known counsellor. "She came first in everything just like her parents expected her to. One day, she was seated with another child in the garden and was watching a cat lying under the warmth of the sun, stretching itself quite comfortably and relaxed. This girl remarked at once, ‘Oh, how I envy that cat, I wish that I could be like that,’ Ms. Abeysekara said. The frustrations and the suppressed desires of the child were being released through the remark. The identification of what she lacks and what pleasures the cat enjoys had created in her a feeling of self-sympathy, which is truly very sad.

"Most often the pressure is imposed when parents expect their children to be exact carbon copies of themselves," Ms. Abeysekara said. "My grandfather, my father and even my uncles and aunts are all graduates who are either doctors, lawyers, engineers, or at the least degree holders. As a result, my parents expect me to become someone of that calibre and hopefully more. They remind me every week who my grandparents and my other relatives are and what a shame it would be if I don’t excel in education. That is the only area where I am pressurized, for they don’t encourage me to do sports or other activities. They feel that other things are not as important as studies and that if one gets involved in other activities one tends to neglect their studies," said Rohan who will be sitting for the G.C.E. Ordinary Level examination this year.

Living up to the expectations of parents and the feeling of failure and disappointment when one is unable to, are all things that children today undergo more often than not. In fact, there are instances when students commit suicide over their G.C.E. O/L or A/L results. A particularly tragic case was reported of a student of a leading school who committed suicide over his G.C.E. O/L results which were 7 Ds and a C. He had been so ashamed to face his parents who would, according to him probably have said, ‘Why couldn’t you get a D for the other subject?" The feeling of disappointing his parents led him to commit suicide.

Parents gathering at sports meets, school dramas, swimming meets and every other event is a pleasing sight. But behind the encouraging and smiling faces of the parents at these events are the passing comments such as, ‘That is my daughter who won the hurdles’ or ‘There, there, that is my son who gave the bouquet to the chief guest.’

"For me I always had to be the best athlete at the sports meet. If I didn’t perform at that level then on that day there would be a big lecture on how I should do better and be the best. Though it is a great thing for them, for me it’s quite a headache. To be quite honest at first I enjoyed taking part in sports and winning, but later on as my parents began to get involved in it, it became a nuisance," said Samanthi, 12.

"What I can’t stand is being compared with my friends, relatives, neighbours. At the end of every school year or at the prize giving my parents always compare the marks that I have received with that of my cousins, neighbours and relatives who are of my age," said Nadeesha, who is an Year Eight student.

This, Ms. Abeysekara said, was a common mistake that parents make. "Making comparisons is very bad. It brings down the self esteem of the child and gives the child a feeling of defeat and failure," she said. In many cases the child ends up feeling sorry for himself and feeling angry with his parents. When a child is constantly being reminded of his failure, he tends to lose self esteem and confidence.

Take the Year Six scholarship exam for example, which puts so much pressure on children who are barely 9 or 10 years of age. Students are sent to tuition classes in preparation and often forego those precious hours of relaxation. Parents are desperate for children to perform well and this tension communicates itself to the little ones with often adverse results.

Parents also nowadays seem to be quite well known for making themselves a nuisance to teachers and coaches. Buying more expensive gifts than other parents in an attempt to bribe teachers and telling them how much their kids like the sport or the subject and how enthusiastic they are in that area are always what parents do to make sure that their kid gets ahead of their mates.

Though one does not expect parents who have gone through the same pressurized experiences to place pressure on their kids it unconsciously happens. "I don’t want my kid to go through what I went through," is something that most parents say but when it comes to practice, it is not the same. The majority of parents tend to drag their children through the same things they underwent.

"Recently two of my grandchildren came here from abroad. They had insisted that they wanted to come back to Sri Lanka, but they had specifically stated that they didn’t want to go to school here. That is because there is so much of pressure in the education system here," Ms. Abeysekara said.

"Though my parents don’t pressure me directly, the fact that I know deep inside that they expect me to excel in my work, has pressurized me. I have in a way put the pressure on myself," said Dedunie, who sat for the G.C.E. A/L examination recently.

Many a time have we come across occasions when parents have requested their children to act, sing or perform in front of visitors. "Do that act you did for the school play," or "recite that poem you learnt at school," are some of the things parents often say in the presence of guests. When the children refuse or act shy the general reaction of the parent is, "Stupid child, why can’t you do that," or "C’mon do it" which if they don’t is followed with a scolding as soon as the visitors leave. Such pressures put on children by parents cause a feeling of disgust in the child to such an extent that they tend to become self-conscious and backward.

Living in an era where children are placed under quite a lot of pressure by parents and immediate relatives, it is no surprise to witness so much of unrest and frustration in youth. "Don’t come home without marks above 75 in all the subjects or at least in Maths, Science and English," are remarks that kids are rather tired of hearing. "How much did your friend get?" "and "Why couldn’t you get the same or above?" "are all questions that parents tire children with. Though parents don’t mean half the things they say, the effect these words have on children is quite damaging.

A school teacher said that especially in the lower grades such as from pre-grade 1 to around Year 6, parents are more demanding and are constantly at the child’s and the teacher’s back. They try to keep track of the child’s progress, which is good, while at the same time they try to keep the teachers happy, hoping that the child will get special care, privileges and attention from the teachers that way. In the upper grades this is not as visible, unless of course the parents want their children to turn out to be prefects or captains.

A nun who teaches at a school in Colombo said, "Children are so pressurized into becoming prefects and holding positions in school that after the final selection parents send letters and give telephone calls saying how certain students don’t deserve the positions and what they do out of school and how unfair it is that their child didn’t get any position." The child under so much pressure at home from parents has to go through further embarrassment at school as a result.

Ms. Abeysekara advises that parents must learn to appreciate whatever the child achieves, be it at sports, studies or any other area where they show talent, instead of being particular about which area they should excel in. Accepting even the defeat of a child will help the child’s self-esteem and confidence, allowing the child to reach for higher goals and better achievements. Parents should never look down on their kids for whatever reason. "Try to identify the hidden talents in your child and encourage them in that direction, given that they are interested in that field as well. After all every profession taken up with enthusiasm and interest will be a profession where one achieves success. Many actors, singers, even doctors and scientists are those who followed their talents, not those who felt a desperate need to be someone for the sake of satisfying others," she said.

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