A nursing student, 22 year old daughter of parents who had immigrated to the US from Kerala, was reported missing by her parents on February 24, 2014. She was last heard from by her mother who talked to her, on the phone. The daughter claimed to be in the library at the university campus, where as the police investigation revealed that she made the call from a fitness center.
The parents were in for a rude shock when they learned from police that their daughter, who was a nursing student, had not attended classes since May 2013. All along, her parents believed that she was going to school, and her mother who was under the impression that her daughter was on track to follow in her footsteps. She had been living at home and telling her parents she was attending school all through the fall and winter. The father’s credit card was even charged $6,072 for the Fall 2013 semester. I had heard from our daughter about of a few students who enroll in courses using the parent’s credit card and later cancelling their enrollment and taking the money.
The parents had not been seeing their daughter’s progress card and when her father asked to see the report card, she said there was something wrong with the computer. The mother had noticed that that her daughter wasn’t bringing home college text books. On inquiry, she said that she was doing online reading. In hindsight, how could a mother, who is also a nurse by profession ever accept such an excuse.
On March 11, 2014, the police found her dead body in her car and as per the police, the cause of death appeared to be suicide, due to inhalation of a noxious substance.
This case study reveals the challenges in parenting faced especially by parents emigrating from India. This brings out the need for positive parent-child interactions, especially at teen and adolescence levels. Each age and stage of growth presents unique joys and challenges, and the teen and adolescence years are certainly no exception. In fact, parenting during these years will always present unique situations as a result of the physical, social and emotional changes taking place in your child’s life. The parents have a great deal of influence on the behaviour of their adolescents.
Majority of Indian immigrant parents’ relationships with their children are formal and vertical with regard to age and gender. Communication and authority flow downward consistent with a hierarchical order. Indian parents accept as their duty the care of their children and children’s reciprocated duty is to unquestionably respect and honour their parents. In this context, parents expect children to accede to parental wishes and to behave in ways that reflect well upon the family, and many times the community. Many Indian immigrant parents rely on the inculcation of guilt and shame to keep children, regardless of age, focused on the importance of family obligations and to behave in ways that do not ‘bring shame’ to the family. Anything and everything the child does is castigated with the often heard remark that ‘its against our culture.‘
For a majority of Indian immigrant parents in America, the desire for children to succeed educationally and economically is a very high (only doctors and engineers please.) Accordingly, children’s exceptional academic performance is often viewed by parents as an honour to them.
This also forces children to hide their actual performance/ report cards. Parents are also culprits as they brag about their children’s academic achievements. It is very significant at high school level and when the child does not secure admission in a worthwhile university, next lot of stories are spun out by the parents. This further degrades the child’s confidence and they end up feeling out of place – trying to live in a castle of lies.
Lives of many Indian immigrant children, especially those at high school and university level can well be compared to the Hindi movie ‘Ram Aur Shyam,’ The children often end up leading a life of double role – one for university and one for home. It is akin to maintaining two girlfriends at the same time – one should not meet the other.
Concerns of Indian Immigrant Parents in North America
- Fear of Losing Children to the American Culture. Most Indian parents migrate with the hope of making it good with many opportunities North America offers to them and their children. However, they fear that their children, especially those who entered adolescence or young adulthood subsequent to emigrating and those born in North America, are becoming more ‘Americans’ and abandoning the family’s cultural values. Most of these parents fail to realise that the present young Indian society has changed and have adapted to the American culture of dating, live-in relationships, drugs, pubs, etc, (mostly kept under wraps.) Some Indian parents often demand that children minimise their activities like dating based on personal choice, partying, using contraceptives, marrying for love vs accepting an arranged marriage, or reject the culture outright. Indian children often perceive their identification with the parental native culture to be a disadvantage to making it big in the American society.
- Loss of Authority Over Children. Indian parents become aware of two very painful post-immigration facts of life: that there are vastly different rules for parenting children, and the new rules significantly lessen their general authority over their children. Many parents complain that the children do not listen to them and some are even scared of saying anything to their children. Parents also lament the ‘permissiveness‘ of the American society that condones children’s rights to challenge parental values and authority and often observe that raising children in North America is same as ‘living with strangers.’
- Disciplining Children. Many Indian parents feel restrained in their authority to discipline their children ‘appropriately‘ consistent with the usual and acceptable modes of disciplining children back in India. Many Indian parents used disciplinary practices that by American standards, are considered harsh and even abusive. For these parents, parenting in North America requires accommodation to new value systems, rules, and expectations. As a result, Indian parents overwhelmingly tend to be cautious in disciplining their children because of their unfamiliarity with other disciplinary methods and fear of breaking the law.
- Loss of Authority to Select Children’s Mate. Indian immigrant families represent a kaleidoscope of religions and cultures and consider it their right to select and to decide whom the children will (date and) eventually marry. They do not accept the fact that arranged marriages among Indians is on the wane. Notwithstanding the decline in the practice, however, many Indian immigrant parents continue to endorse arranged marriages. Some parents do not hesitate to send marriageable children home to seek a spouse in case there are few or no eligible candidates. Some parents may even ‘import‘ a potential spouse from India. Some parents do permit culturally exogamous dating and marriages and most children prefer selecting, dating and eventually marrying someone of their own choosing, based on the North American criterion of romantic love. Parents complain that children’s refusal to accept an arranged marriage as a rejection of them and their values and negatively reflect upon them as parents within the community. They also reference the progressively increasing divorce rate among younger Indian immigrants and worry about their children’s ability to ‘make a good marriage.’
- Loss of Face Within the Community. Within the Indian community, parents are held responsible for their children’s behaviour and are criticised for their failing as parents, because children’s behaviour reflect negatively upon parents. They believe that it is the paramount duty of their children to enhance family pride by honouring their parents through their culturally appropriate behaviour and outstanding accomplishments. Consequently, when children behave out-of-culture, parents invariably complain that such behaviour dishonour them as ‘Indian Parents‘ and devalue their standing as ‘Indians‘ within the community.
- Religious Institutions. Indian parents seems to prove the adage of ‘being more loyal to the king than the king themselves’ when it comes to their religious matters. They force their children to attend religious ceremonies, mostly without explaining the details of the ceremony and its significance in real life. Religious teachers employed by these institutions are ‘fresh off the boat (FOB)‘ from India and do not connect to the North American society and the stresses the children undergo here. They ensure to instill a feeling of ‘guilt and shame‘ in the Indian parents for not strictly adhering to the religious practices and the ‘sin‘ they are committing by not protecting their children from the ‘hazards‘ of the ‘evil‘ North American society. Their sermons are mostly archaic and have no place in the modern society. Luckily these sermons are in their dialects or in ‘Hinglish/ Punglish/ Manglish,‘ which these children do not understand. These religious heads will talk non-stop on the evils of the North American society, but wants you to part with your dollars liberally at any instant.
The Way Ahead
- Monitor and Supervise your Child. Children want parents who listen and try to understand, set good examples, and offer guidance. A delicate balance of allowing your child freedom while still exercising a level of parental control is key to your child achieving independence.
- Monitor Your Child’s Activities. Show a constant and genuine interest in your child’s life. Know where your child is at all times. Ask where they are going after school, when they will be home, and which friends they will be with. Parents who actively monitor and guide their children tend to have adolescents who experience positive relationships with peers and who are less likely to use drugs.
- Check-in Regularly. Talk to your child after school to ask about their day. If your child is scheduled to be at a friend’s house, call the friend’s parent to confirm the arrangement. Be involved without being overbearing. Your child may protest your monitoring behaviour, but setting boundaries and sticking to them will show your child that you love them.
- Parent in an Authoritative Style. Parent with warmth and respect, avoiding to be overly controlling or overly lenient. Authoritative parents are warm but firm. They encourage their children to be independent, but as parents, they manage to keep limits and controls on their child’s actions. Authoritative parents openly discuss family rules with their children, which allows the children to express their views. Authoritative parents are nurturing, while providing the rules, guidelines, and standards that children need.
- Encourage Your Children to Bring Home their Friends. This will ensure that you meet your child’s friends and know the company he/ she keeps. Interact with your child to find out the activities and conversations that took place during their outing. This is easier said than done as you have to earn the confidence of your child, especially by not reacting to those uncomfortable issues that may crop up. This will provide some insight into the activity pattern of your child outside the school hours
- Eat Dinner Together. Eating dinner or at least a meal together as a family provides an ideal opportunity to interact with your children. Talk to your child about their day, their friends, and current events. It also shows that you care enough to take time to listen and learn about their interests. Research finds that teens who eat dinner with a parent five or more times during the week are less likely to smoke, drink, use drugs, get into fights and engage in sexual activity.
- College and University Students to Study with Education Loan. The children must utilise the facility of the liberal educational loans, especially those funded by the governments. It not only satisfies the financial need to proceed with higher education but helps in saving income tax also while repayment. Tax benefits on education loan end up reducing overall cost of the loan. Most student loans offer lower interest rates, deferred payment options and a repayment grace period following graduation. This will ensure that the children are better focused on their education. It can also act as a monitoring tool for the parents as the next tranche of the loan would not be released unless the student has scored adequate marks and have the requisite attendance. In case the parents are financially sound, they can assist the child to repay the loan in full or in part upon graduation.
Wishing all parents ‘Great Parenting.’ Remember what Mayim Chaya Bialik, American actress, author, and neuroscientist said “I came to parenting the way most of us do – knowing nothing and trying to learn everything.”
(Photographs are of our daughter Nidhi and our son Nikhil)