Asking questions is considered to be an important aspect of a child’s psychological development. Regular interaction between a parent and child and the answering of questions such as those relating to identity, society, their physical environment and family relations, allows the child’s knowledge system to expand and encourages curiosity. The primary source of answers for a young child is his or her parents. Theoretically, guardians are the primary socialisation agents for an individual until the beginning of his or her teenage years.
According to Mr. Erik Erikson, a famed developmental psychologist, the formation of attachment with the guardians during early childhood is an incredibly important factor in developing confidence and a sense of exploration. However, by the time adolescence usually arrives, the bond established between the child and parent often weakens. An unspoken agreement comes about between the parent and the child, where both somehow assume that all mysteries and curiosities of the world will now be answered through the child’s own sources, like the internet, social media channels or through schools and interactions with peers. Willingly or unwillingly, parents fade into the background.
What most teenage-parent relationships lack the most is trust. ‘Can I trust my parent to even attempt to understand my problems?’ is a question that summarises the lack of trust teenagers have towards their parents. Fear of judgment and consequences that may arise cause teenagers to hide away from their parents. On the other side are parents who, as a result of their worry and fear for the child, constantly form terrible conclusions and expect the worst. While their worry may come from a place of concern, it tends to lead to an incessant barrage of restrictions, suspicions, and eventually, barriers. Moreover, their experiences with their own parents define their parenting styles. While basic events, emotions and problems have remained relatively the same through generations, individual and cultural influences come in conflict with the cookie cutter approach to parenting. Thus, the gap between the child and the guardian worsens, with both parties equally to blame. But this process does not begin in isolation. In order to truly bridge this gap, it is important to understand the root of it.
The growing divide
The advent of the internet age has also led to the children today developing a greater level of awareness of the world around them at a very young age when compared to their peers from the earlier generation. With the world becoming a more interconnected place, teenagers today are made increasingly aware of numerous issues, both those their age might commonly confront (mental health, sex, body positivity, gender), and those that they might not (violent extremism). The barrage of information through the web also raises a ton of questions in their minds; but due to the deepening generational gap between them, children often hesitate to reach out to their parents for answers. Instead, they turn to the internet, to social media channels and even their peers to saisate their curiosity.
The online information onslaught also has an another side to it. Teenagers are constantly fed a stream of personalized images, feeds, news, music and thoughts from other cultures. Their world has shrunk, and unlike the earlier generation, they are far more easily able to connect with their peers from the other side of the globe. Thus an Indian teenager, who is aware of what is going on in the world, might feel passionately about, and even identify with movements like Black Lives Matter or the #MeToo campaign. Attempts to empathize or relate to these events might lead them to (often unfavourably) compare their own lives or the societies they live in, with the foreign ones.
All of this naturally leaves them both highly curious, and strongly opinionated.
However, the generational divide and adolescent awkwardness prevent teenagers from seeking answers from their natural guardians – their parents. They instead drift towards social media platforms, seeking answers from friends and strangers alike, sometimes causing them to be misinformed or being led astray. This in turn fuels the suspicions and concerns of parents who automatically assume the worst. Teenagers therefore feel compelled to hide their online activities from their parents, leading to yet another layer of distance between the parent and child.
Staying close: A personal story
However, there is one teenager-parent relationship that isn’t marked with this customary distance – mine. My questions began as soon as I learnt how to string words together, and there has been no end to them since. My mother and father are both ‘evergreen learners’. Our home is filled with books, and I was taught to never stop understanding the world, and the different perspectives of the people who belong in it.
But often, my questions are about the world closer to me and my life. Even before I reached adolescence, I had questions about sexuality, sex and gender. For instance, I would see transgender people or hijras on the road, and naturally had questions about who they were, why they looked so different from other people, and why there were so many of them begging on streets across the country. Answers to all these myriad questions were given to me by my mother. So as soon as a question popped into my mind, I turned to my mother. She gave me an answer to all that I asked, and she never worried about any awkwardness creeping into our relationship. She knew that such topics were a part of life and so couldn’t be avoided. Thus, she replied without hesitation.
My other parent, my father, is a little different from my mother. While my mother kept her nose in books and lived life with her family, my father was more adventurous, rebellious and lived life according to his own rules. He has however never hidden this phase of his life from me, and has also always been open to being judged.
His adventures were never hidden from my curiosity and my judgement. There have been occasions where I’ve looked down upon things he’s done, such as his old habit of smoking. But my father made no attempt to hide himself or his reasons. My conversations with him cover a range of things, from advertising, economies, international politics, to terrible drivers. Car rides are filled with me throwing my questions at him, and with him answering them patiently. But more than his words, his actions and the way he treats me, allows me to be comfortable. For instance, my sanitary pads are not hidden from him nor is my menstrual pain. He knows what I need, to help with my period pains. He also supports all my decisions regarding my future- not of marriage or children- but of further education and career.
The way forward
While I am lucky to share a strong bond with both my parents, and have found them receptive to my questions, I am not so privileged to assume all are.. Most parents try to escape from ‘uncomfortable’ or ‘inappropriate’ conversations by steering clear of certain topics. Thus, many parents hope that by shutting down conversations on rape, they can prevent their children from indulging in sexual intercourse, or that by not addressing issues of patriarchy, they can ensure their kids never encounter it. Or worse, parents let the responsibility of educating children lie with their teachers or the outside world in general.
But just because most parents don’t share a strong bond with their children, or find it hard to express their concern for them well, it would wrong to assume that they wish the worst for their children. The world is a strange and daunting place. Teenagers often feel isolated and alone. Parents, on the other hand, fear they aren’t doing enough to equip their children to handle the world outside. So they will each push the other away and fight, as my parents and I do sometimes too. But the difference is, no matter what, I always come back to my parents with my questions because I feel safe and accepted by them. Because even when I feel confused and alone, I know I have a safe and non-judgmental home to come back to.
It is important for everyone to have this home, which isn’t barricaded by false notions of decency, traditions and society. And it is up to both parents and their children to create such a home.
So to my fellow teenagers I say: communication is a two-way street. Our parents can’t be expected to be all-forgiving and devoted to the relationship. They can’t read our minds either. Trust must be earned, from both sides. We must be open to them, their words and their problems. Lend them an ear or shoulder, to let them know there is more than blood or kin relations bonding you. One must learn how to look beyond fights, perceptions or assumptions. While many believe parents must be authority figures to their children, to me, there has to be a deeper understanding between them to allow a child to trust the world.
As for parents, I don’t romanticize them as omnipresent beings who know everything. No one expects parents to know everything. However, what parents are expected to do is work towards being the first ones their children come to with their problems and questions. However, since they too live in changing times, they must first educate themselves properly to adequately answer questions from their children. Because having such answers come from parents does more than ensure their validity. It has greater value since it comes from guardians with whom the child first formed an attachment. There is a high level of trust that backs such attachments. However such trust can’t be expected of children simply because of social norms. It must be earned by parents, through genuine and continued human contact. It is important for parents to stand by their children, to develop an open and non-judgmental mind, and to continue strengthening and nurturing their relationship with their children throughout their life.