Parental Love And Prevention Of Suicides By The Young – OpEd
By Prakash Kona
I am writing this in response to the suicide of a third-year BTech student of IIT-Madras who hanged himself in his hostel just very recently
Parental love is universal, there’s no doubt about that. For some reason, I find it much more conspicuous among Asians, Latin Americans and Black Americans. However, this is a general observation and means nothing serious. What is more important is that in close-knit societies, especially from poorer countries, there is a greater bonding between parents and children owing to the fact that they occupy the same space for longer periods of time. Special days of the year dedicated to celebrating mothers, fathers, siblings or grandparents don’t work very well in countries like India because we see our family members almost every day until adulthood and long after. It is not a particularly special thing for most of us. Just a normal, lived reality.
While parental love might be universal, I am aware that it doesn’t apply equally to all parents. What however cannot be denied is that there is no greater determining factor in shaping the child’s character than the relationship he or she has with their parents. The 1998 movie Stepmom with Susan Sarandon in the powerful role of a possessive woman who uses her position as a mother to get back at the ex-husband, who is with a young and pretty woman, offers an interesting example. At some point when the son tells the mother that ‘Isabel’ (the stepmom) is pretty, she replies, “Yeah. If you like big teeth.” The boy immediately responds, “Mommy…If you want me to hate her, I will.” It is a striking moment in the conversation between the mother and son, because, both the son and daughter love and worship their biological mother to such an extent, that they are willing to be pawns in fighting the battle on her behalf against the father and the new woman, who in fact are really nice people.
The Carthaginian, Hannibal Barca’s profound attachment to his own father who hated Rome and the great North African general who dedicated his genius to fighting the Romans until he committed suicide, is almost too well-known. Most children are trusting, like Ben and Anna in Stepmom and Hannibal Barca; ready to do anything for their parents. But, as they turn into adults, there is a vulnerability threshold which they are supposed to cross as part of the process of becoming adults. This is when things start to get a bit complicated. There is no doubt that children are influenced by their parents, one way or the other. Of course, as adults, it is imperative that we sometimes rise above that influence in making choices that shape our own futures.
In the normal scheme of things, children love and believe in their parents until they reach that vulnerability threshold when they have to be emotionally prepared to face the world. To begin with, it’s never a good idea to lie to them. Sooner or later they are bound to find out the truth. Love cannot become a reason for lying or manipulation. Maybe in some circumstances one could feign ignorance. I cannot say whether that is as good as lying or a lesser evil than that. The point is that the relationship between parents and children has that kind of a space where seeds of faith can be sown, so that the faith enables the child to become an adult on his or her own terms, without going through a depression, a panic attack or a meltdown.
I cannot think of anything more compelling than the love of parents that would prevent a child from harming him or herself. Often children, when they are still young, are unaware of the kind of pain they could cause parents when they voluntarily injure themselves or go to the extent of taking their own lives. Though my parents are no more, I shudder to think of how much pain worse than death it would have caused them if, as children, any of us took such dangerous decisions of taking our own lives. Children need to be made aware of that vulnerable part about their parents. That subtle awareness of how much their being alive means to the parents needs to be instilled in their consciousness. Some positive guilt in this direction could help immensely.
South Asians in general are not an expressive people when it comes to showing love especially as the children get older. These are reticent cultures where people would rather see characters holding hands and kissing in films than do anything remotely close in real life. We need to learn something from American parents in this regard. I like it when they make the children believe that they are unconditionally loved, no matter whether they fail or succeed. American parents are not afraid to openly express their feelings for their children. For most Indian parents, expression has nothing to do with love. It is such parents who first need to be given some basic education about human feelings in this country. I cannot see why it would kill them to tell the grown up child that he or she is loved unconditionally. The boy or girl would probably recollect it every time their minds took a negative turn for the worse.
The bottom line is that life is long and success cannot be measured merely by achievement. In countries like India where people in general are extremely insecure, parents tend to burden the child with a lot of guilt attached to success, often without realizing how it could make the child hopeless and suicidal when he or she cannot make it on such prescribed terms. Failure in education, job or money should not be a reason for one to take one’s life. Who has ever succeeded in being happy without tasting from the bitter cup of failure! This is not a rhetorical statement. Success has countless parameters and having friends to share and talk to on a regular basis is, for instance, no small achievement. These are achievements that can be earned through good will and a modicum of acceptance of people, the way they are and not the way we want them to be.
I remember a student of mine who told me that her grandfather, despite being born poor, was so loved by his friends that in his old age, although he was disabled, his friends would come home and take him on a bicycle to spend time with them at the coffee shop. One would consider it a blessing to be in the place of the grandfather who had such sweet friends, which many people in higher positions would dream of having at that point in their lives. As clichéd as it sounds, there are things that money and worldly success cannot buy.
Of course I am opposed to children being spoiled in the name of love. That’s not the meaning of parental love. I don’t like it when children are told way too many times that they are special. They are not supposed to know that. They can only be told that they are special to their parents, no matter what. I also don’t like children being told that they are gifted, beautiful or intelligent. These things create terrible complexes that are very hard to get rid of as the kid gets older. He or she cannot be their natural self in the company of others. Children have to feel that they are a part of the rest of the world irrespective of whether they succeed or don’t. There is something genuinely sad when children are born into wealth and privilege, where they have to live up to a certain image given to them by those around. No one knows how much pain they have to deal with in their growing years.
At the same time, you cannot make the child hate him or herself and destroy their confidence in preparation for the so-called real world. This attitude was extremely popular with parents of my generation. First, you make the child hate itself and then you wonder why that kid turned out to be self-destructive and in some cases suicidal by becoming an alcoholic or drug-addict, without actually committing suicide.
Both the extremes, over-praise and over-criticism, can be counterproductive though I would rather go with the former than the latter. The thought, however, needs to be seeded in the minds of children that if they did something to hurt themselves or put themselves in a hurtful situation, that it would cause immense pain to the parents. This can have positive results when the child is placed in a dilemma with respect to his or her actions. But, of course, in the process they should also be educated not to hurt others. This must be specially drilled into the heads of boys who take it for granted that they could behave as they like with the womenfolk outside their homes. Parental love can achieve these things without too much difficulty although it needs to be done systematically along with a focused involvement with the child.
To be fair I don’t think that every mistake made by a child directly or indirectly leads to the parents. I know of very good parents who have rascals for children. I also know of very good children who have horrible parents. Once you cross a certain age you have a mind of your own. The past cannot always come in the way of the present. To a certain extent, yes. All the time, no. Conscience is older than human laws by hundreds of thousands of years. I am certain that it began at that point when the primate that led to homo sapiens became aware of its separateness from the rest of the universe. Without the emergence of conscience alongside consciousness, the species would have long become extinct like so many others of which we have no idea.
Conscience has to prevail in the most trying of circumstances especially in how we treat people who are weaker than us. There is neither an excuse nor escape from the punishments that come from conscienceless actions. However well one must have succeeded in fooling the world, in the end one has no choice but to pay for their wrongs. Pharaohs, sultans, kings, emperors, presidents, prime ministers, CEOs of companies, judges and bureaucrats are not exempt from the law of conscience. Children need to be taught at an early impressionable age that their lives are as valuable as that of any others. They should also be taught not to tread on the feelings of others even while learning how to preserve themselves. These are aids in building the morale of the child in a healthy way.
All this may have nothing to do with why the boy committed suicide at IIT-Madras. But, I am exploring one possibility that parents could seriously think about in order to ensure the well-being of their child. There is no evidence to suggest that the outside world – whether institutions, teachers or workplaces – is more important to the child than his or her own home. It is with one’s family that one is most oneself. An individual’s well-being at the vulnerability threshold depends on how deeply he or she feels that they could root themselves in the lives of their parents. Children should be given the confidence and freedom to venture into the sea as long as they give their parents an honest assurance that they are able to endure rough weather without breaking down. If they fail to make it and return to the shore they should still be welcomed with open arms and with the same love.