A snapshot of my childhood circa 1980, in a small town in India….
I am almost 7, maybe in 1st grade. We live in a two bedroom home with a small backyard. There are several streets in this neighborhood. And each street is called a “colony”. My “colony friends” are my closest buddies; most likely they will be my friends for life. When I am back from school, I run outside to play with them (unsupervised). We go from one house to the next collecting friends, every grown-up we meet is “uncle” or “aunty”. We pick up all kinds of snacks and drinks along the way, the toys get mixed up, and the games are loud and varied. One house has an enormous tree in the backyard, so we start to climb and during the race to the top I fall and scrape my elbows and knees. I climb back up and finish last. I force everyone to a re-race and this time I finish second. Occasionally, one of the Uncles or Aunties will give me a hug or a peck on the cheek as a show of affection. It is annoying but I make no protest because that would be disrespectful. When I realize I am hungry I return home for dinner. My mother asks me about homework and I make a mental note to get to it at some point. Someone has dropped by, an uncle who happened to be in the neighborhood and wanted to say hello.
We didn’t have a doorbell for the longest time; people would have to thump on the door to announce themselves. Now that we have one, we can’t wait for the unannounced visitors; the “ding dong” is the sweet sound of our upward mobility!
He stays for dinner, everyone who drops by must stay for dinner, it’s an unwritten rule. The guest expects it; the host would never be rude enough to presume otherwise. There is an overused saying in Sanskrit that translates to “a guest is like god”.
Before I get into bed I do remember to wash off the elbow scrapes and finish my homework.
Present Day, 2015…
I sit on the stoop of my single family home in suburbia, and watch as my 5-year-old scooters down the sidewalk with a helmet on. I never lose sight of her, and she knows not to go beyond my line of vision. I tell her to come inside at 6 because she has to take a bath and eat her dinner at 6.30, like she does everyday. Some days there is a violin class to go to after dinner, other days she can watch TV for 30 minutes.
Would I want her to have the seemingly whimsical and idyllic childhood that I had? I don’t think so. I don’t regret that her childhood is dramatically different from mine. I don’t regret the boundaries that keep her safe. I am grateful she gets to experience multiple structured activities. I appreciate the irony of trying to teach her social skills in structured environments and under strict supervision, but I wouldn’t have it any other way. I want her to experience life without fear or regret, but I’d like to be on the sidelines watching and waiting in case she needs an occasional band-aid or a listening ear.
Therefore, I make these promises to her…
1) Helmets are a strict ‘yes’, knee pads are overkill. She needs to fall and scrape her knees once in a while. She needs battle scars worth talking about. She needs to know that she can can fall, get hurt, and then she has to get up and start biking again.
2) Her personal space is precious, however young she may be. It’s hers and she has the right to protect it. If she doesn’t feel like returning that hug or holding someone’s hand or sitting on someone’s lap, no one can force the issue, no one can claim cultural exemption from this rule. Not family, not friends, not grandparents or uncles or aunts, not me. No one. She has the right to say ‘no’ to anyone without fear or guilt.
3) She is an Indian-American and it’s a label I want her to embrace. She must have a curiosity that makes her deeply aware and appreciative of where she comes from. But she gets to choose how her Indian-ness affects her. My childhood was mine; my experiences exist as a narrative. What she gleans from them is her choice. She does not need to replicate my life. Religion, rituals, clothes, music, spirituality, cultural conflicts – I will lay it all out in front of her and she can weave them together in a way that makes sense to her. There will be aspects of India that will capture her imagination, there will be things that frustrate her and make her angry. She will be horrified by some things and awestruck by some others. All her reactions are valid, and I will hear each one of them without judgment.
4) I will hover over every event in her life without apology – every homework, every recital, and every practice. I will ask questions, I will push, I will set boundaries, I will never lose sight of the smallest detail, I will be annoyingly aware of everything going on in her life. Then again, I am only allowed to hover. I cannot be an equal participant, I cannot finish the puzzle for her, I cannot complete her writing project, I cannot tell her what to think or how to feel, I cannot supply all the answers.