He was just another ordinary kid, except for one thing. The rare time my classmate Sameer failed to score full marks in a test, he would bawl his eyes out in the bus home. Nothing but full marks was good enough for him... or so we thought.
One night, 15-year-old Sameer leapt off the roof of his building and his private life became public. We got to know his father punished him regularly for his ‘unsatisfactory’ marks. Once, after scoring 45/50 in a Maths test, Sameer was ordered to scribble the right answers in his notebook all night. He survived the suicide attempt but never returned to our school.
This was in the 1990s, when parents weren’t as competitive as they are today. It would be safe to say that Sameer and his family were the exception then.
Now, an increasing number of parents are going to bizarre lengths to ensure they sculpt winners out of their children. It’s a frenzied madness that is causing terrible psychological and emotional damage to kids of all ages. And it’s not just restricted to performance at school. Take, for example, the recent news report that the Karnataka Secondary Education Examination Board has been besieged with requests by parents to access the answer sheets of their children’s classmates under the Right to Information Act (RTI).
Mental health professionals say such intense pressure to be competitive has the potential to change a child’s mental make-up. Besides obvious side-effects like a rise in suicidal tendencies, such children may grow up to be highly-strung loners with a very low Emotional Quotient (EQ), serious self-esteem issues, an inability to deal with failure and an immense fear of letting down loved ones and not being loved in return.
Sharita Shah, woman and child psychiatrist for the past 14 years, has noticed a 30-40% increase in the number of stressed out children brought to her for help from the time she started her practice.
The pressure to be competitive starts as early as pre-school when children as young as three are put through gruelling pre-admission preparations. When a child fails to get into a good school, parents complain about it in front of the child, who gets easily depressed, says Asmi Shah, managing trustee of Kinnari Cultural centre that helps prepare children for school interviews, and also conducts hobby classes. “We notice the change in class, where the child’s movements become very restrictive.”
Parents also push children to be competitive in leisure activities that were originally meant for relaxation. So, once they grow up, letting down their guard becomes a problem. “Most of them also begin to have trust issues,” says clinical psychologist Samindara Sawant. “It’s sad, but not surprising, to see even Grade 1 and 2 students saying that they are stressed out.”
Sudha Krishnamoorthy admits she was a pressure parent. A retired school teacher in Mumbai, Sudha says she was obsessed with her daughter’s performance in school. Once when her child brought home a dismal report card, she became so furious that she grabbed hold of her cheek, pinched it and didn’t let go till she drew blood. “But I sought help soon,” says Krishnamoorthy, adding that she shares a good relationship with her daughter today.
Scarred for life
Children who are subject to intense pressure by their parents can turn out to be deeply flawed adults.
Clinical psychologist and trauma therapist Seema Hingorrany who doesn’t have “time to breathe” given the number of child and adolescent depression cases she deals with, says such children grow up to become adults who look at everyone — a colleague, girlfriend or husband — as potential competitors. “They may not be able to sustain long-term relationships. They are always on the edge, insecure, jealous, anxious and will rate everything based on performance,” says Hingorrany.
While it might be possible for children who are pushed to be competitive to do well in a smaller environment like a school, s/he might suffer from the ‘I am not good enough’ syndrome once s/he enters the real world which is much more competitive, says Sharita Shah. “This can lead to frustration, depression and substance abuse.”
What’s worse, there is a very real fear that when such children become parents, they may turn out to be exactly like their mom- or dad-zillas, scarring one more generation. Parenting techniques children adopt when they become parents largely depends on how well they were able to cope up with pressure from their childhood nurturers. They could be extremely competitive, extremely passive or well-balanced. However, very few children fall under the last category, stresses Dr Shah.
Contrary to what parents think, most children rarely feel grateful for being pushed so hard, leading to permanent rifts with parents. Computer engineer Maya Mohan, 24, may never find it in her to forgive her pushy mother for her “hellish” childhood. “My mother was very critical and hit me for the smallest of things. I hated everyone, became a loner and even contemplated suicide!” she says.
It was only after she moved out of home that she learned to enjoy life. “I love my mother, but I lost a chunk of my life. I wonder if I will ever be able to forgive her completely.”
Some names have been changed to protect identity