The world is her oyster?


In an equal world, there would be no difference between how you bring up a son and a daughter. But in this messed up, unequal, volatile world, it is easier said than done, says national award winning filmmaker Janaki Viswanathan. Despite best intentions, she ran into some road blocks when it came to certain rules she applied to her daughter. She tells us how these road blocks taught her about herself, as much as it forced her to introspect deeply.

Parenting is a skill, a technique, an art, or whatever you may call it, that most of us learn from our parents. Of course, there were those feverishly scanned tomes by experts. In this digital age, the internet offers a ready reckoner and Google is always readily available to clarify all our doubts.

And yet, there are still many of us who fall back on tried and tested techniques and tricks our parents practised. Being an only child and a girl child at that, I watched and learnt from my mother, the art of child rearing!

When I was blessed with a son first and then a daughter, I was not unduly perturbed. A strong votary of equality between the sexes, I did not imagine any great challenge.

And when my daughter was born, it seemed like I had the routine down pat! I’d seen my mother do it after all! My beliefs proved right for the most part really till they grew into their teens.

I mean you had drilled good life values and healthy eating habits and hygiene, assuaged their fears and cheered them on in encouragement, supervised and guided their study and recreational efforts, and all of this was pretty much gender neutral.
So, I watched my children, boy and girl, glued to the TV set as they watched football late at night and swore in unison when their team messed up on the field! I did not particularly encourage my daughter to follow traditionally feminine pursuits like dance or needlework. It was all hunky dory really!

And as they grew into their teens, I began to realise that it was not going to be same, not for me and not for them!
Like with most households, it began with curfew hours!

Some have more curfew than others!
A worrywart at the best of times, I found myself hyperventilating when it was my daughter staying out later than the time of the hour that my nerves found acceptable. While a call or text message sufficed when it came to my son, I found myself far more protective and turning into some sort of a control freak when it came to my daughter. I wanted to know where she was at all times and with whom.

Predictably, she turned around and asked why I had two sets of rules, one for her and one for her brother. To her credit, she did not rebel and flout rules for the heck of it. She just wanted to know why I was doing what I was!

What followed was a time of introspection. I realised that for all my innate belief in equality, I was adopting different standards. I was camouflaging it in the name of care, concern and a mother’s protective urge, but the fact is that I was denying her the opportunities due to her because I was terrified that the world would harm her! My concern for my son was never this extreme!

It was not that I thought she did not deserve whatever her brother got. It was only that I was terrified to let my baby girl out into the world of big, bad wolves for fear! I wanted her to get whatever she wanted, I wanted to give her whatever she asked for, and yet, I wanted to keep her within the cocoon of the safety web that I had woven for her. I realised that I was limiting her not by my prejudices, but by my fears. Prejudice or fear, the fact was that I was limiting her.

It was not enough that I told her it was fine to kick a ball rather than play with a Barbie doll, if that was what she wanted. It was not enough that I made sure that I got them toys, gifts and just about everything in equal measure, lest either accuse me of favouritism. It was not enough that I loved them both in equal measure and with all that was within me. It was not enough that I made sure to give them equal access to opportunities, be it in sports or education.

I needed to let go. I needed to let go of my fears, my uncertainties and my anxieties. Or at least learn to deal with it by myself even as I did not allow them to become impediments in the way of her living her life.

Equip your daughter with life skills
Instead, I needed to help her develop an inner strength and a coping mechanism to deal with gender specific constraints and threats. I needed to help her equip herself with the skills necessary to deal with pressures and threats, be they physical or emotional. I needed to help her learn to negotiate life on her terms, without letting the prejudices of the world around her cripple or limit her. And in a strange way, maybe dealing with me and my fears had given her a taste of the fight ahead, right at home!

As the mother of a girl child, my biggest threat has been my fear of the big, bad world that my daughter will have to be part of. I cannot ask her to hold my little finger all the time. Instead I must try and be the wind beneath her wings as she soars above prejudices and pettiness and meets the world on her own terms.

I am sure my mother must have encountered and dealt with her set of fears too. Our horizons have expanded significantly in the last decades and with it the dangers too. From my grandmother whose world was her home, to my mother whose world encompassed her work space to me, whose world has expanded further in the public spare, the whole world is now to be my daughter’s oyster. Quite naturally, the dangers are going to rise exponentially, but also the opportunities for growth. I cannot limit the size of her oyster and limit her chances for growth.

Along with instilling in my daughter a sense of equality, I need to teach her to recognise and fight for her rights. Women need to nurture and nourish, but they need to be nurtured and nourished in turn. Relationships are never a constant 50:50 at each and every instance. However, the balance has to be achieved in the overall context. I need to teach her that self respect and self esteem are non-negotiable. A woman does not have to be selfless and giving all the time. She has the right to voice her demands and needs and selfishly expect them to be fulfilled on occasion. She has acquired this right thanks to the struggles of the women who have gone before her.

So, I’ve somewhat figured it out now. Learnt to chart my own path, which is probably parallel to the path of every modern mother of today. Instilling in children of both genders the need for mutual respect and space. Neither is superior nor is this a race. Both need to be taught to appreciate that differences are not to be taken as indications of strengths or weaknesses, but rather on how the genders complement each other. How combined strengths can effectively overcome combined weaknesses!

So there you have it, boy or girl, teach them the importance of mutual respect and regard. I think if the basics are in place, the war between the genders can hopefully be replaced by harmonious and peaceful co-existence!


Janaki Viswanathan

Janaki Viswanathan is a journalist turned filmmaker from Chennai. She won the National Award for her debut film Kutty (Little One). She has three features and several documentaries and short films to her credit.