by Rajan Gupta

Today many parents complain that their children

These are very serious issues that keep many parents awake at night. Many factors, both within the control of parents and outside, contribute and solutions seem impossible. Nevertheless, in most cases simply spending time with the children and listening to them will make a huge difference. To facilitate this, parents need to develop habits and activities that are fun and which all can share, i.e., activities that can be done together with enjoyment. Also, we need to share and communicate ideas, feelings, emotions and talents. In short, we need to become good Role models.

To effect change and fix these "problems" we have to discover the underlying causes. My deeply held belief, no doubt simplistic and over-generalized, is that my generation of parents, collectively the society, are failing. I would like to emphasize and stress that this failure is not because we are "bad" or uncaring people but because we have not known how to respond to changes in society, and because enough people in society have not stood their ground and become public role models. We can change this environment as most of us are doing the right things, but just need to connect the issues and establish clear priorities. To succeed we must, however, feel the urgency and work collectively towards an enlightened goal and not in isolation.

I will give three examples of how simple changes can create a big difference. I leave it to you to draw your own conclusions on how prevalent these practices are and how effectively you can implement changes to become role models. Once again I stress that please do not take home a message that we have failed because we are "bad" or uncaring, instead I hope that what I have to say empowers you to deal with the issues.

EXAMPLE 1: I was visiting a family friend and our conservation was interrupted by a telephone call. My friend asked his son to find out who was calling. When the son told him that Mr. So-and-so was on the phone, my friend swore under his breath and said aloud, looking at me, that this person is always harassing him and asking him to perform a favor that he is not comfortable doing. In frustration my friend told his son to tell Mr. So-and-so that he was out of station and would not be back for a few days. He then turned to me and by way of explanation said that because of his official position people do not leave him alone but keep calling to ask for favors. What I would like to ask you is what was wrong with this incident?

First, my friend was not willing to resolve the issue but kept Mr. So-and-so guessing and hoping. The reason for this delaying tactics is that we have made personal connections the central reason for doing things rather than keeping merit as the overriding criteria. Our links and relationships with each other, and our dependence on each other, prevents us from saying no. We perceive that a frank answer will lead to burned bridges. We are afraid that in our times of need and want there will be no one there to help us. Second, my friend was involving his son in telling a lie. Third, he was turning to me for sympathy, thus showing his own weakness. Lastly, his son did not react to this exchange as if something was wrong.

There are many simple ways in which such issues could have been resolved honorably and without involving the son. He could have gotten on the phone and said please call me in the office; or, I don't have a solution to your problem and will not have time to think about it during the next week; or, I am sorry but I cannot do this favor. Instead, he choose to tell a lie and set a bad example before his son.

EXAMPLE 2: I was giving a lecture on HIV/AIDS to students of one of the best schools in India. During the discussion on why corruption prevents effective implementation of any policy by authorities, one of the students challenged me. His claim was that some forms of corruption were necessary and OK and others not. For example, he said that if a policeman had initiated the process for towing away an illegally parked car, it was OK to bribe him for otherwise a lot of time would be pointlessly wasted. On the other hand, it was not OK for a policeman to accept a bribe for a truck carrying drugs to continue to its destination or for a prostitute to solicit customers.

The student would not understand/accept the connection between the two behaviors: a policeman who has been corrupted and will accept bribes of the "small" kind will also accept bribes for acts that cause grave societal harm. My question to you is -- from whom and how are the children learning such distorted values? Children are certainly not born with such concepts!

My message was that that there is no such thing as a "small" or "big" corruption. Also, there is no such thing as an acceptable and unacceptable corruption. Corruption is a very addictive habit. Once you fall for it, it does not stop; the appetite grows indefinitely. We desperately need role models who teach "don't ever start" by example.

EXAMPLE 3: I was at dinner with three industrialists. This was a night out for the "men" when they could drink and talk. Our conversation shifted to corruption and black money. All three industrialists were very clear in their minds that there was no problem with corruption, and especially with black money. They stated very animatedly that black money circulates and helps run businesses just like white. Very little of it leaves the country to foreign banks so there is no loss to the nation. When I asked them -- if the government does not collect taxes, how can it provide services -- they got very agitated and replied in one voice that the government officials were a bunch of crooks, their programs very inefficient, so the government did not deserve a penny. When I suggested to them that if they were willing to break the law so casually, then why did they expect the government officials to behave any different, they were adamant. In their minds the government officials were paid to do their job and should therefore not be corrupt irrespective of circumstances and environment. The business people would stop being corrupt as soon as the bureaucrats stop, otherwise their businesses cannot run.

The host's sixteen year old son had been listening to this whole discussion (and fetching soda and beer to keep our throats from getting dry) very patiently. At this point he turned to me and said "uncle you do not understand Indian circumstances. If you are honest you will starve. No business can run honestly." To me they had turned the problem into the riddle of which came first -- the chicken or the egg. They had abdicated responsibility by simply pointing a finger at someone else. Today, it is amply obvious that the politicians, bureaucrats, and the businesspersons are equally implicated, have worked out a system that works for them even though each constantly complains, and fight any attempt to change and bring about transparency. To me, even the question of how we got into this mess is less important than how we start to stop the widespread corruption?

So friends we are back to the fundamental question -- who sets the standards for society and who are the role models? How do we expect the children to develop good moral character, a spirit of hard work, honesty, and respect for the parents? Everyone is pointing their fingers at someone else for the many problems facing India. In people's view everyone else is corrupt and dishonest. Their own actions are out of necessity and forced upon them by others.

Today the teachers are blaming the parents for not paying any attention to their children or teaching them any values while the parents are blaming the teachers for being incompetent, uncaring, and only interested in promoting lucrative private tuitions. The children are caught in the middle of all this and surrounded by a fast changing world They have no role models; do not know how to establish solid anchors which will remain firm during times of crises, trouble and hardships. They are growing up in a very strange and unhealthy environment. I would like to illustrate this with a very disturbing example.

I was at a dinner party at the local prestigious club when I was introduced to a couple who were the envy of all. They were in their early thirties, their business was thriving and they were always having a good time. It was evident that the couple was very lively, had a spark, were aware of their success, and enjoyed being the center of attention. The conversation shifted to children and my attention was further drawn to them when they said that they had a nine year old daughter and a five year old son since I have two sons that are nine and four. While we seem to be constantly chasing our tails -- cooking, cleaning, driving them to various activities, and reading to them -- here was a counter-example showing how to maintain fun and excitement of life before children. Since we all want lives with frequent fun filled parties I wanted to know their secret.

In response to my query as to how they managed the wife pointed out that they too could not have enjoyed the daily club life had it not been for the fact that they have a wonderful nanny, a great cook, a maid to care for the house, and a chauffer to drive the children around. They could not imagine how anyone could live life without domestic help.

At this point visions of a conversation with an OBGyn cum pediatrician, from just the day before, came to my mind. The doctor had told me of the very rapid increase in the number of cases of sexual abuse of children (both girls and boys) by nannies, servants, uncles and cousins. She was lamenting the fact that in many cases this abuse carries on for years before the parents wake up and bring the child in for treatment, by which time the trauma is deep and long lasting. I regret to say that I did not have the courage to caution the couple; I just hope they would not become part of the depressing statistics.

Our failure to provide role models, our failure to appreciate our role in defining children's behavior and actions, especially in these very challenging times, is what prompts me to say that we as a generation of parents are not recognizing the fast pace of change and are not changing our own behaviors to respond to the challenges. It is in this sense we are failing.

Friends, I would also like to address the issue of how to develop awareness on addictions and how children fall prey to alcohol, tobacco and drugs. The biggest influence on adolescents comes from their peers and what they observe their role models in society doing. I would like to share with you an experience I had during a visit to India seven years ago. I was very impressed by the sudden acquiring of taste for single malt scotch by my friends. Glenmorange and Glenfiddich were household names and out were the old favorites like Chivas Regal and Johnny Walker. Not being a whiskey drinker I asked my friends how they choose one brand over the other since they all taste harsh to me. It is a question of "smoothness" one friend told me. Good scotch has a different kind of "buzz" said another. A third said that he could tolerate more of a single malt scotch. And finally one said that it was a question of status and class. Today nobody he knew drank Chivas (too bad I had brought along a bottle of Chivas!).

Friends, how do such tastes, fashions and appreciations develop? Mostly by word of mouth, media, movies, and now the internet, spreads news of what is cool (what our generation calls status and class); what has a gentler come down (no hangover); which gives a better high (buzz); which drug can be injested more easily (pill or inhaled or smoked or injected); which has a beautiful rush (smooth); and finally which is supposedly not addictive or damaging (good quality scotch versus local whiskey). By this example I hope to highlight that adolescents have the same drivers in their choice of drugs and very similar thought processes that lead them to try alcohol, smoking or drugs.

Today, a dinner invitation in North India is an invitation to an evening of drinking. The food is served around midnight, after about 3 hours of drinking, eaten quickly. Usually, this part of the socializing is over in about fifteen minutes and then everyone departs. Why should getting together to party be any different for adolescents? Talking and dancing becomes secondary to smoking, getting high on alcohol and drugs, and possibly exploring their emerging sexuality. The parallels between adult behavior and those of the adolescents are obvious for anyone to see -- both are seeking status and class and defining what they consider fun lifestyles. Only the choice of drug is different!

How do adolescents move from one drug to another? Down the grapevine comes information on what is cool, what is "hip", and kids respond out of curiosity and seeking new thrills. Another reason is simply what is at hand and readily available. For example, if some adult, habituated to drinking single malt scotch, is at a party where only Chivas Regal is being served, would he/she refuse to have any or give in to an "inferior" brand just for that one day? Similarly, someone used to getting high on hashish may find himself/herself at a party where speed and ecstasy are freely available. Unfortunately, some of the hashish smokers will try these "new" drugs and many of them will like it and continue using them in the future.

So friends, I don't believe there is a real mystery in the behavior of children today. They are doing what society around them is defining as "cool" and "in". They are impatient and want their thrills quick and easy. The issues confronting patents are that life has become very complex, there are many distractions, and changes are taking place incredibly fast. We need to understand these changes and develop safe behaviors for ourselves and for our children. We have to learn to be role models in a changing world, preserving a value system that is honorable and lasting. Our children are looking up to us to provide this leadership by example -- let us not disappoint them lest they in turn disappoint us.


Rajan Gupta