My daughter got her first job a couple of months ago. Sigh . . . That part of parenting, raising a child from infancy to adulthood until she gets a degree and a job that she’s happy with, is over. The moral dilemmas around parenting are thankfully behind me.
Parents get a lot of flak for pushing their children to compete. When mine were in school I tried to dial down the pushing to ‘just do your best, it’s going to be fine’. There was no way I could raise my children in India and tell them not to worry about doing well in school if they were to eventually get into good colleges. The main thing was to keep it constructive and never stress them out with neurotic goals.
Competing is one way of channelizing aggression in a positive way. A little aggression is part of human nature, though the word is used in common parlance to mean uncontrolled anger and violence. Aggression is an inbuilt survival skill for warding off threats to our being, for protecting ourselves. As long as competition is coupled with good sportsmanship – in any sphere – it’s fine. Parent-induced angelic goodness doesn’t work in the tough world of children. It just makes the child timid, a target for bullies, instead of making her confident.
As a parent I was torn between raising my children to be ‘good’, and teaching them to be canny in a not-so-safe world. Somehow, sullying their innocent little minds felt like a crime. There was always a conflict between toughening them up, and leaving them vulnerable by keeping them blinkered against the unfair side of life. Over the years, learning from both, my own children and the kids and parents I met in clinical practice, I concluded that it was important to keep things real and be practical, sacrificing lofty ideals where they might do more harm than good. It was about finding a balance.
Frankly, I don’t think there’s ever been a time in human history, since the establishment of civilisations, when there was no competition. Competition has to be measured, though, and shouldn’t turn a child into the kind of insensitive go-getter that kicks and shoves everyone else aside to get ahead. So it is important to encourage cooperation as well: share, be nice, listen, wait your turn, say thank you. The world needs team players. Competition and cooperation, along with jugaad (resourcefulness) and duniyadaari (the art of dealing with people) are what we try to pass on to our children, along with formal education and soft skills. I might add – jugaad is much more than problem-solving skills, and duniyadaari is much more than interpersonal skills!
Despite our best efforts to give children a good education, 80% of Indian engineering graduates have been declared unemployable by the National Employability Report 2019. Eighty percent! This is a statistic that has bothered me ever since I saw it. I find myself thinking ‘there must be some mistake – this is unbelievable’. How hopeless it must make those young people feel, after struggling for years to get into college and graduate with a decent GPA. The thinking among educationists has recently shifted from STEM to STEAM, including Arts in Science colleges, something that will hopefully help our youngsters gain the necessary soft skills. More importantly, we need to raise the standard of college education so new graduates are work-ready.
As a psychiatrist I have seen the despair of unemployed people at close quarters. The only way I can think of preventing despair and self-harm, frequent concomitants of being unable to support one’s self and dependents, is to raise children to be resilient. This is what parents could do during children’s school years if they weren’t themselves putting undue pressure on children to get impossible grades and build incredible résumés. Resilience training has been tried in a few Indian schools and published articles are available.
It’s also important to teach kids to deal with failure. This is not as hard as it sounds. Every child fails at something in his twelve years at school. I used those experiences as opportunities to let my children know it’s normal and acceptable to fail sometimes. Through 2015-2016 there was considerable interest in studying the benefits of failure and there is plenty of information available online. The main thing is that parents and teachers must respond to a child’s ‘failure’ with constructive comments and not shame or guilt the child.
Education is a vexed topic in India. I have read through portions of the draft of the New Education Policy. It seems good, at least on paper. The part about vocational courses especially caught my attention. If vocational courses are taught in a truly practical way, like Germany’s dual VET (Vocational Education and Training) system, they might be the answer to some of our unemployment worries. Obviously, vocational training must guarantee employability, and the jobs youngsters get after vocational training must be remunerative enough.
Last month I had a conversation with a friendly young waiter at a restaurant. He was from a small town in north Karnataka. He said that boys with engineering degrees in his hometown were not able to get jobs, so he decided there was no point wasting time and money on college. I asked him what he might be doing, like maybe five-ten years from now. He said he and his brother – who was also working at a restaurant – were planning to start an eatery of their own. I don’t think that’s a bad idea at all if the alternative is a college education that confers a degree but can’t get you a job.
Life Skills are apparently being taught in schools to help kids navigate life better, like avoiding taking up careers they have no aptitude for. These are the ten Life Skills listed by the WHO:
- Decision making
- Problem solving
- Creative thinking
- Critical thinking
- Effective communication
- Interpersonal relationship skills
- Coping with emotions
- Coping with stress
To this list I would add basic cooking, sewing (at least hemming and back-stitch for mending and minor alterations, and how to sew on buttons), doing laundry, riding a bike, and managing money, if I didn’t think many young people would scoff at their redundancy! I guess people have to individually decide what ‘Life Skills’ mean to them, but these are what I tried to equip my kids with before they left for college.