Good Girl, Bad Girl

April 17, 2008

These are the standard phrases we use to praise or admonish the twins. In doing so, I’m sure we’re no different from millions of parents around the world.

I’ve read in parenting books that rather than saying “bad girl,” one should say “that’s a bad thing to do” to more accurately convey that it is the action that’s bad, not the person. Obviously, the same does not hold true for the “good girl” situations.

Earlier, when I studied Psychology, I read about unconditional love, which, as I understand and recall it, is simply reassuring a child that no matter what you do and how angry I might be, I will always love you. The child should never have to fear or be insecure on that account.

Both things, slightly confusingly related and even slightly contradictory as they are, make sense to me. I have to admit that I don’t always – or even often – practise the former; though I wish I could, it’s just too cumbersome a statement in the heat of the moment. I believe (think) that, though I say “no” and “don’t” about a million times a day, I don’t say “bad girl” all that often and I do say “good girl” just as often or more.

I like to think too, that they somehow know when I scold them, that I’m only scolding them for that particular action and that there’s no threat to my overall affection for them, as well as no sweeping judgement on their general nature. My basis for this assumption is the belief that they are still arriving at an understanding of words based on context and non-verbal communication. Therefore, “bad girl” = “doing that  is bad” is not too much of an intuitive leap for them, while it (“bad girl”) is quite distinct from “I don’t love you” or “I won’t love you if you do that”. Likewise, I believe that “mama scolds me but still loves me” is something they understand without the use of those exact words.

But, I’m no child psychologist; I could be wrong.

What shocked me recently, though, was two similar but separate incidents of people asking my daughters, “Are you a good girl or a bad girl?”

One enquirer was herself a child, maybe 6 years old. The other was an unrelated child-minder.

Wow! Do people normally go around making kids make these value judgements about themselves? Obviously the child had been exposed to this question either first- or second-hand, she could hardly have thought up that line of questioning herself, unaided. What’s worse, she proceeded to label Mrini “bad girl” (and Tara “good girl”) just because Mrini wouldn’t go to her (and Tara did). She was just a child, and somebody else’s at that, so I didn’t say anything, but in my mind, that is no kind of basis for praising or admonishing a child. (As it happened, Mrini didn’t care, she smiled and clung to me.)

The child-minder said her ward, when so questioned, always answered, “Bad girl.” She – and the child’s mother – found this amusing. I think it’s terrible! From the tender age of 18 months, that child has an image of herself that is negative, and even if she doesn’t understand the implications of those words yet, she soon will. And meanwhile, her caregivers aren’t even trying to fix that verbal self-perception! I’m sure they love her and hug her and praise her as well, but the fact remains that her predominanat recollection is of the words “bad girl” – and they find this funny!

As of now, the twins don’t even properly respond to the question, “What is your name?” (they both say something approximating Mrini), so naturally they have no answer to the good girl, bad girl question yet. When they do, I hope that in actions, words, and inner belief, the answer will be good.

Bengali Discount

April 6, 2008

Since the wireless network at home has been giving me trouble on my not-so-swanky-new computer, I walked into a computer-peripherals shop yesterday and enquired about the price of a network cable. I wanted 20-odd metres of the stuff, so the women at the counter said they’d have it “made-to-order” for me. Only, it would cost Rs 50 per metre. This sounded steep, so I called Headquarters (Amit, of course) to check. In the course of various conversations, they realized I was Bengali, and I realized that they were Bengali. It also turned out that they were mother-in-law and daughter-in-law, which I found interesting. I didn’t know two women in that relationship could successfully run a business together!

When I finished my conversation with Amit, I told them I’d let them know in a couple of days if I wanted it, just in case my engineer husband could fix the wireless. To this, the older woman at the counter said she’d try to organize a discount for me, because I was also a Bengali. Having said which, she quoted Rs 30 per metre for the same cable!

My response: that’s the wrong reason for giving me a discount.

Well, I said it with a smile, because I realized it was a snub, but I really meant it: I don’t think that is a good reason to give a discount, and it is not something I’d want to be party to or to encourage. And if they thought they were flattering me in some way, by giving me this discount for this particular stated reason, I want them to know that far from being flattered I would almost take it as an offence. This very sentiment, after all, is the sentiment behind “Northies” being targeted in Mumbai, Pune, and occasionally in Bangalore as well. If we, the “outsiders” start to build our own exclusive little clubs, then naturally the “locals” will treat us like outsiders. Shouldn’t we stop thinking of along the lines of “Bengali and therefore to be favoured over others”? After all, we are not even people of the same nationality in a foreign country, only people of the same state in a different state of our own country.  Why should it even matter to someone running a small business, whether a particular customer is Bengali or something else?

That’s my take on it, but what I wonder is: what, nowadays, would be considered the “proper” thing to do? Perhaps my reply was impolite, but was it also “politically incorrect”? Should I have been gratified to be given a discount just by reason of being of the same community? Is that the reaction that would have been commonly expected? Or was it, as I see it, an indiscreet and tactless thing for the person to have said?

“Respect Your Elders”

January 21, 2008
It is strange how two siblings brought up together can think so differently.

My sister has been a teacher for many years and is now an educationalist. (To be honest, I did not even know there was such a profession, until she told me so recently.) When my sister visited, we had a couple of discussions about the notion of “respect” – specifically, the very Indian notion of “respect your elders”.

In India, generally, “respect your elders” means, address people by formal titles (Sir, “ji” “uncle” etc), never use first names for elders, not even for older siblings (nor, heaven forbid, for husbands), listen quietly to what they say, don’t contradict and don’t “talk back”. Here, “talk back” includes trying to have a logical, sensible discussion, specially if that discussion involves an even slightly divergent point of view (and without that, where is the need for discussion?). In the old days – and perhaps for some people even nowadays – respect also meant keeping your eyes downcast, not daring to look a “respected” person in the eye.

My sister felt, based on her teaching experience, that kids nowadays don’t show respect for elders – that is, they don’t even address teachers as Ma’am far, less anything else. They use first names, they talk back, and they are rude.

My point to this, and to other aspects of respecting elders is, simply addressing people formally and politely is not respect. It might be courtesy and good manners, but it is not respect and it should not be taught as a form of respect. Politeness and courtesy are desirable values in themselves, but respect is something completely different.

Suppose you train kids to address parents, teachers and other elders politely, but in their minds the kids are thinking: “What do you know, you piece of shit?” Then what have you got – nothing more than hypocrisy, disrespect plastered over with good manners.

Of course, I’m not advocating teaching kids to speak their minds when they feel something like that. Quite the contrary. I’m saying, teaching kids to respect people – not just elders, but anyone, really – goes beyond lip-service and good manners. It means, teaching them to listen to and weigh what another person is saying, not just to nod agreement externally while they issue rude rejoinders in their minds.

It also means encouraging them to speak their minds – preferrably politely, but politeness is a different discussion altogether.

Which brings me to another point. Respect is a two-way street. If you listen to a younger person (sticking with the concept of “respect your elders” as opposed to simply respecting people) airing their views, and you are able to respond to their divergent points of view, intelligently and dispassionately – then, and only then, do you really win any respect.

If, iinstead, you say, “I’m old and wise and I know better, so shut up and listen to me,” and if the child or youngster actually does so in the name of “respect” then you have trained them not to be respectful, but instead to be zombies, brain-dead automaton, accepting “wisdom” as it is handed down without exercising any thought or evaluation of their own. How can this be respect?

I’m not saying elders don’t know better. They might – but then again, they might not. For me to respect someone, I need first and foremost to be convinced that they are right (in a discussion of some sort) or that they are really good at something. It could be someone who’s good at music, or writing, photography, tennis… Usually, it is something that I’d like to be good at – or even something that I think I’m good at, but that the other person is at least as good at or better. It is difficult for me to respect someone in a field that I have little interest in – say, ice hockey.

Even when I respect a person for some achievement or ability, I might respect only that ability – not the whole person. Take, for example, a former boss of mine. She wasn’t really a nice person, and in my opinion she was screwing up her own life and the lives of a lot of people around her (including mine), so I couldn’t respect her as a person because I thought she really needed to sort out her priorities. But I really respected her skills at some aspects of our work – I learnt a lot from her and I always felt she was really good at what she did.

Another example: when I had been married only a few months, I was at a gathering of Amit’s uncle and his friends, in Canada. His uncle is a university professor and of course many years our senior. This gathering was a sort of introduction of me, the new bride, to his close circle. In the course of discussion on some theoretical subject, his uncle said something and I – I don’t know why I did this – did not exactly contradict what he was saying, but said something somewhat divergent to it. At first his uncle said a flat no to what I was saying. Then – and this surprised and really pleased me – he thought about it a moment and said, yes, you’re right, actually. Given the social context – his friends and peers, me the newcomer, much younger, comparatively uneducated – for him to have given due consideration to my point of view and then to have conceded it was almost unthinkable, yet he did it so casually and I doubt he even noticed or remembered it.That – for me – is the essence of respect. He heard me, without thinking of my age and standing in the group, and he considered what I had said only for what it was worth, not for who it came from. I respect him tremendously for that. It is something I have met so very seldom, even in my immediate family, that I have mostly given up airing my thoughts except to very few people in whom I trust.

This is what I’d like my kids to learn about respect – politeness, courtesy and using the appropriate forms of address are all desirable and good, but these are not respect. Respect is not to be given by default or by habit; respect is due to every person, regardless of age or anything else, but respect must be earned, and it is not a one-way street.

Washed or Unwashed?

September 1, 2007

The other day, my cook brought me beef biryani. Yes, we eat beef. Do I hear gasps of horror? Well, anyway. She does bring us biryani from time to time, but she seems to be bringing it more often the longer she works with us. If she keeps it up at this rate, one day she’ll be getting us home made biryani three times a week, and consequently will not have to do any cooking here at all. Her biryani is generally delicious and not overly oily either, so I’m not complaining.

Anyway, when she brings biryani, I get the impression that she expects me to turn it out into a bowl and return her own bowl to her. She is, of course, perfectly well able to turn it out into something herself, but perhaps this is not the right way for me to accept a gift? So, I turn it out into something and compliment her extravagantly (but sincerely, mind you) on the aroma, appearance and quantity.

Now, I was brought up to believe that if someone brings you food, you wash the vessel, and then fill it with something and return it. The something should ideally be some home made speciality, or, if not, something sweet, like fruit, dried fruit and nuts, or in the worst case, chocolate. If you didn’t have anything handy, you kept the dish until you had something suitable. In the worst case, you could return the dish right away, provided it was at least washed and clean.

I’m not sure whether this was a “northie” custom, a “hindu” custom, a “western” custom, or simply a custom that ran in my mother’s family or even, unlikely though it seems, was made up by my mother. But this was the custom I was brought up to.

So, having emptied the dish, I set about washing it, as I have done in the past. My cook objected. I thought that she was simply shy to see me getting my hands dirty, when she was there to do the dirty work. There is, even now, some sort of attitude that it is undignified for the “memsahib” (for want of a better word) to do menial work.

So I waved her objections aside and started to wash the dish. Then, with an apparently even greater degree of discomfort and vehemence, she insisted that I desist. “Why?” I asked her. “Oh, if you wash it, the love goes away,” she said.

I gaped at her. This was a new one on me. But she reiterated it, so I hastily dropped the half soaped dish and left her to it, feeling quite abashed. I hadn’t intended to wash away the good will with which she had brought the food.

I wonder: is this custom a “southie” custom, a “muslim” custom, an “indian” custom (that I have been so far unaware of) or simply a custom specific to my cook and her family?

So you see my problem – what on earth do I do about future offerings, specially from other people? My own instinct and upbringing say it is dirty and ungracious to return dishes empty and unwashed. But on the other hand, if the person is going to take offence at me washing the dish, hadn’t I better return it unwashed? But if I do so, won’t they go back and say, “What dirty people, they didn’t even wash the dish and return it!”

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