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     Volume 4 Issue 1 | June 25, 2004 | 8th Anniversary Issue


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Food for Thought

The Pitfalls of Parenting
Farah Ghuznavi

Some months ago, I was walking in Geneva with a friend and her one-year-old baby. We were both fairly exhausted that evening, since the previous couple of hours had been spent on a hectic dinner and a somewhat fragmented conversation, interrupted on an almost minute to minute basis in the way that only a toddler can interrupt these things. In fact, the reason that we were out for a walk on that chilly evening was because my friend was hoping that a) the various sights and sounds of the ride would keep the baby occupied in his carriage, and allow us to have a much needed conversation and b) that he would eventually fall asleep, lulled by a combination of movement, and natural tiredness.

I have to say that after forty-five minutes of walking, I was becoming distinctly sceptical about this possibility! Finally, fed up, she decided that in order to persuade him to at least lie back in his carriage (thereby increasing the prospects of option be mentioned earlier), she would strap him down in his pram (since sitting up and viewing all the exciting things around him had been having a far from sedative effect on his spirits). This was only done after considerably heart-searching, though, because as an enlightened parent of the twenty-first century, she could not reconcile the idea that she was effectively tying him down physically, with her general principles on child rearing. The roars this provoked from her son did nothing to make either of us feel better, but fortunately it worked, and a quarter of an hour later, blessed silence fell....

The incident made an impression on me, because basically it made me realise how much the idea of how to treat children, and how to behave with them, has changed over the past few decades. It is not that I really think that being strapped down in a fairly comfortable pram at eight in the evening is likely to have a traumatic effect on a one year old (especially since he is in any case being taken for a pleasant outing), but more striking that in today's world, there are parents who worry about these things. After all, from other stories I have heard, many people have experienced considerably more traumatic parental behaviour in their time!

Some of these were genuine mistakes. I think that many people today are aware that it is not safe to give babies nuts to eat, since most nut packets actually contain warnings that small children can choke on nuts. However, thirty years ago, a friend of mine who was around a year and a half old was given a bag of nuts to keep her amused while her parents were doing some chores. In a normal situation, she would probably have been okay, since she had in the past exhibited a striking ability (and enthusiasm) for independent consumption of nuts, and enjoyment of the same. However, on this occasion, things did not go quite according to plan. In the fashion of toddlers, she managed to get her finger squeezed in the door hinge while she was eating the nuts, and immediately started choking on one. The next forty-five minutes involved a hectic visit to the hospital where they managed to remove part of the nut, while the rest disappeared somewhere into her system. Although she took no lasting harm from it, for her parents, this is not a pleasant memory (she, luckily, doesn't remember any of it!).

Rather more worrying was the story of another friend, who grew up in England. She was the first baby in her family, and was born when her mother was relatively young, and possibly had ambivalent feelings about motherhood. It was not that her mother ever consciously mistreated her, but she left her behind while travelling on the bus on several occasions. Which, of course, later necessitated a panicked trip to the bus depot, where fortunately, the baby was always found unharmed; in fact the drivers in the depot became quite well acquainted with this baby! For those who may be alarmed by this story, I should add that my friend does not appear to hold any grudge against her mother, and is actually a very pleasant and well-adjusted person. Nonetheless, the idea of these frequent "abandonments" is a bit harrowing, even for me….

Another case of this kind of absent-minded parenting (though on a rather less serious scale) came from other friends, who have three children. The eldest was about seven, and the youngest three, when their mother went out for a whole day, leaving her husband in charge. After having fed the children breakfast, she carefully instructed her husband about the various food items she was leaving for their lunch, and how to feed the children. When she returned at three in the afternoon, she asked him if the children had all eaten. To her surprise, he replied that they hadn't. "Why not?" she inquired, quite agitated. "Well, I haven't given them lunch yet. None of them cried at all, so I didn't think they were hungry", he said!

Sometimes things happen because parents also have different ideas of what constitutes a traumatic experience. For example, on a work-related trip to rural Bangladesh some years ago, my colleagues, who were also my hosts, told me that their ten-year-old daughter would stay with me in the guest house which was part of the very large compound. One of the main reasons behind this was that I had explained that I was not particularly fond of cockroaches, and this area was renowned for them, due to the large number of ponds nearby. My host assured me that his daughter was not in the least scared of cockroaches, having grown up dealing with them, and that she would dispatch them for me. Despite being embarrassed at relying on the services of a ten-year-old for this, I felt too grateful to pass up this opportunity.

Later that evening, when the first roach crawled into our bedroom, I looked expectantly at the little girl, expecting her to spring into action. Instead she looked at me worriedly, "Aunty, can you kill it ?" she said, in a quivering voice. "But, Hasina, your father told me that you are very good at killing cockroaches", I said, somewhat taken aback. "My father thinks that I am silly to be so scared of them, so sometimes he picks them up and throws them at me", she said. I listened in horror, not only because the idea was so repulsive, but also because I realised that I would now be required to take "terminator" style action myself. Did I do it? Well, you try having a ten-year-old looking at you expectantly, hoping that you will protect her from the nasty insects. Of course I did. But while I can laugh about it now, and though I honestly don't think Hasina's father meant to be cruel, I can't say that in her place, I would have appreciated her father's method of dealing with the situation…









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