A long, hard look at parenting in our society
Suppose that you are living in the far future. Bio engineering has progressed to the point that cloning has become a fully-fledged operation that happens on a day to day basis. You are the owner of a circus and you work with scientists to breed a couple of elephants. Once that is done, you put them through rigorous training, keeping them in cages, using lashes when you see fit; all for your plan of introducing the ultimate attraction involving elephants in your circus.
They are being hurt in this process, and the things you are employing to reach your goals are objectively cruel. But you still think that you are in the right.
Why? Because you are the one who brought them into this world, and you think that this is the best possible future for them. They will have no autonomy, and they will be no more than puppets without a soul, dancing to the commands of the strings.
But you don’t care. They will have a sure and stable future, and it’s better to have a place over their heads and three hot meals a day than to stay in the uncertainty of the outer worlds.
They don’t know better
Now imagine the same scenario in the present day. You have brought a child into this world through sex or adoption. You push them rigorously to study, often employing verbal and physical abuse in the process.
You don’t give them a day to breathe, even when there is no school and they get holidays. When they come of age, you push them to pick a certain career path or marry someone against their wishes, and you deploy questionable means to do so as well.
They don’t know better, you say. They are kids, and they don’t know what they want. I want what’s best for them, and I’m going to make them do whatever I want, regardless of their intentions.
Be it being forced to choose engineering or medicinal studies, not being able to have romantic relationships or be with the person they love, or having to hide their own unique views on religion or sexuality, generations of kids are routinely forced to behave a certain way or the other just to please their parents.
This has been going on for years now, and while some people think these traits represent a small section of the population or deny the abuse as a whole (there has been controversy on Facebook where certain fanatics have pushed back against people who have tried speak out against parental abuse, the reason why I am writing this article in the first place), this is a very systematic problem evident in Asian cultures across the globe.
A lot of the things we do -- the way we think, feel, and act -- can be traced back to the environment we inhabit and the culture we are born in. Asian cultures across the globe differ from Western cultures in major and important ways, and Bangladesh is no different.
When measured with Hofstede’s cultural dimension scale, Bangladesh scores 80 in power distance, 20 in individualism, 55 in masculinity, 60 in uncertainty avoidance, 47 in long-term orientation, and 20 in indulgence. And aside from the score on masculinity, the rest of these traits have an underlying effect on our relationships with our parents.
According to Hofstede, power distance means the extent to which members of a society accept that there is a given, unquestionable hierarchy in society and people in the lower end of the hierarchy will be ruled by the people in the higher end of the hierarchy.
Individualism means the extent to which members of a society are viewed as individuals and as not another part in a greater machine. Uncertainty avoidance deals with how a society deals with an unknown future, and by extension, how open it is to unorthodox and novel ideas and behaviour.
Long-term orientation means how the society balances its links with its own past with the demands of the future. And indulgence generally means the extent to which people control their desires and impulses.
Bangladesh scores high on power distance which means there is an unequal distribution of power within its social fabric.
How many times have we heard the phrase: “How dare you question my decisions? Did you give birth to me or have I given birth to you?” Any time we have wanted to do something as simple as read a Masud Rana book, get into our chosen universities, or even marry the person we love, this is something that has been bashed over our heads repeatedly.
Of course, we have made some headway in some of these departments, but the truth of the matter is we are far from eradicating these toxic and harmful behaviours for good.
Let’s take marriage as an example. Talk around town and you will still find many women who don’t want to marry but are forced to do so anyway, while simultaneously being silenced about their rights.
It wasn’t even two years ago when a British-Bangladeshi narrated her harrowing story about how she was tricked by her parents into marriage when she was 15.
According to UNICEF, 59% of girls are married before their 18th birthday and 22% of girls in Bangladesh are married before they are 15. On the other hand, it is an open secret that women are pressurized and sometimes forced to marry people against their will, just because their parents think that they have to get married and a marriage like this will be good for them.
Marriage should be the celebration of love and affection two people feel for each other, not something that has been imposed on them by a third party. How many love stories have ended because the people who are supposed to be our best friends have abolished our dreams right in front of our eyes, just because they don’t like our choices?
They say that our choices aren’t good, but what makes them so sure that their choices are? Are they seers, born with the ability to see into the future?
Arranged marriages are more likely to fail since the only things that are considered in such a marriage are the potential spouse’s family, their career, and how much money they have. Compatibility is in no way based on monetary issues like this and parents try to poke their noses in decisions that will only mean the gaining/losing of social credit for them. Meanwhile, it is a decision that can have long-term repercussions for the child.
Then comes the dimension of individuality, where Bangladesh fared very poorly. How many times have we seen our artistic friends pursue careers in engineering and business just so that they can please their parents?
Sure, the parents claim that they are doing this for the best of the child, but at the heart of the issue is the fact that they are giving all the importance to what they think is right and disregarding whatever their child thinks.
“He/she’s my son, and I know what’s best for him,” they would say. What they fail to understand is that their child is totally different from them and, as such, he has different desires and wants from life, and most of the time, they don’t even try to understand as, again, they think it is their birth right to have all the power and decision-making abilities as parents.
While they are proved to be right in rare cases, the myriad posts, poems, and stories found on social media about regret and helplessness when it comes to these decisions paint a different picture entirely. There is a reason a movie like 3 idiots has been so widely resonant with the youth of this country.
Then comes the dimension of uncertainty avoidance. Bangladesh scores highly on this, and the higher the number, the more narrow-minded the society when it comes to being open to unorthodox and novel ideas.
Here is where the social credit dimension that influences the decisions of our parents come into play. From marriage to university to work, when parents are making these decisions for us, they are not only using their false sense of righteousness and love in order to do these things, but they are also influenced by how they will be seen in society if their child takes a certain decision.
Bangladesh has a moderate score on long-term orientation and while this does mean that Bangladesh neither leans towards the past nor are they willing to accept the future on paper, in practice, Bangladesh is a country that is obsessed with the past in the way they put an emphasis on tradition and culture. With each passing day, they are actually going backwards within this paradigm.
If we disregard the fact that we are reverting back to the Stone Ages, the fact is still indisputable that we value tradition more than progress. Nuclear families are still shunned inside our country, and god forbid if someone decides to get a divorce and be single, especially a woman.
Even among teenagers, kids are not allowed outside of home, not allowed to read books that might be deemed harmful, and not allowed to hold “blasphemous” thoughts on religion, spirituality, and sexuality.
Every Ramadan, I see tons of people around me fake their fasts because if word gets out that they aren’t very religious, or worse, they are atheists, they are going to be verbally abused at best and disowned at worst. To be fair, some people just fake it so that their parents’ feelings are not hurt, but no one should have to fake who they truly are, especially with their parents.
As for the final parameter, how many times have you asked your parents for something as insignificant as a chocolate and been verbally abused as a result? How many times have you seen your female friends lying to their parents so that they can get out of their homes to hang out?
How many times have you heard women lament the fact that their parents won’t let them go on trips unless they are married?
An abuse of power
These aren’t even indulgences, but a normal expression of the human spirit. But due to how our society views a lot of these issues, our parents will still not listen to us and bar us from these experiences any way they can.
There was a social media post of an angry boy who posted about how his dad broke his laptop because he was influenced by his neighbour.
On his computer, the boy had a large collection of things that he was working on/had worked on and anyone who can relate to this knows how hard it is to build portfolios like that from the ground up again.
Even if he didn’t work on his laptop, how is it ever justifiable to break your son’s laptop just because your neighbour says so? Apologists would defend this action on disciplinary grounds, but this is definitely an abusive exercise of power in my book.
Now, are these things a byproduct of the culture and the upbringing our parents have gone through? Yes, and this is why I am saying that this is an issue in general and not some isolated case away from reality. But does it absolve them of their actions?
Before any child turns against their parent or posts about them on Facebook, they do try to have an honest, open conversation about these things with their parents.
But most of the time, not only do the parents refuse to listen and learn, they also resort to verbally and physically abusing their children as a consequence of them speaking out. While this also ties into the overall culture of Bangladesh (namely the power distance dynamic), it doesn’t excuse them of the abhorrent action that they are engaging in.
Even in my case, I have been put down by my parents multiple times and have been called an idiot and a loser, which has led to me having a distorted self-image and led me to suffer from crippling self-doubt. Recently, when I was talking with my mother about pursuing a career in writing and the arts, she demeaned me by saying that what was I supposed to do with the “one-two taka” I was going to gain from these endeavours.
And this is not an isolated case -- this is something that happens to people across the country. There is a social platform on Facebook dedicated to the people of this country, and not a day goes by without posts about parental abuse and such, and how even if someone has a mental illness, their parents won’t allow them to seek professional help because: “What will people say?”
One of the most popular memes on Facebook shows a mother beating her children when the children aren’t even at fault. And while most people share it because it makes them nostalgic for a bygone era, that shouldn’t be the case. Abuse shouldn’t be glorified because it comes from the people who have given birth to you.
Now, some people would say that these examples of verbal and physical abuse don’t mean anything, but there have been numerous studies that show how verbal and physical abuse have an adverse effect on children, and when it comes to taking the side of the experts over the people who have given birth to me, I will always side with the experts.
If that wasn’t the case, practices like sati would still be rampant throughout our society, just like dowry and child marriage is. As such, when dealing with parents, even if they have our “best” interests in their hearts, it doesn’t excuse them for being abhorrent in their behaviour -- something that could potentially cripple their children forever. In short, yes, it does make them bad parents.
Now, aside from our cultures and customs, religion also plays a role in how our parents approach parenting. Parents might groan about how the actions of their children will condemn them to hell.
But if you are so blinded by the promise of eternal peace that you forget that your children are their own human beings and that your children deserve all of the freedoms given to them by the declaration of human rights, then you aren’t fit to be a parent.
So yes, while puritan gatekeepers and pseudo-intellectuals are opposing the current trend of speaking up on the basis of religion and cultural preservation, it is absolutely necessary that we continue to raise our voices in order to see justice take place.
At the end of the day, abstract ideals like religion and culture are meant to make our lives better, and when aspects of these ideologies stop doing that and actively start to make our life miserable, then perhaps it is time to reconsider them as well.
Nafis Shahriar is a freelance contributor.