Father’s Day Cover Story for Us Magazine

“When the academic year starts,” Baba says, “I’ll get you a small car to drive to college in.”

“Really?” I ask.

“Sure,” he says.

“Over my dead body,” Mama interjects hastily. “You are not driving anywhere alone.”

I laugh at her intensity. “Don’t you trust me?”

“I trust you,” she says emphatically, “but I don’t trust the society.” It’s Baba’s turn to laugh.

“You can keep it in the driveway and polish it up,” he says, winking, “and we can take it for a spin around the neighbourhood.” I grin. I know that this scenario is as likely to turn into reality as the first one, but I appreciate his (theoretical) willingness to empower me as well as Mama’s concern for my wellbeing. Childrearing is a dual process; two different styles combine to form the whole aspect of parenting. If either element were missing, my upbringing would be incomplete. To quote Jim Plouffe, “We (men) are not part-time mothers; we’re full-time fathers, and children need both.”

Daddy may I…?

“I never dared to speak up in front of my father when I was your age.” You must have heard that at some point or other. That’s because when our parents were children, father-child relationships were defined as “me father, you child; me decide, you obey”. Period. Fathers were shown report cards; playground conquests and disappointments were for mothers’ ears—if mothers also thought that it was better to keep children at a distance, their offspring had to seek intimacy elsewhere. This style is convenient for parents because they don’t have to deal with the consequences of being flexible about where they put the full stop. If you don’t play with the baby, you don’t get puked on. If you aren’t your children’s confidante, you don’t have to listen to their problems. If you keep your child in a box, you save the mental and emotional energy needed to let it go out into the world. Your kids don’t “speak up”: no “buts”, “it’s not fair”s or endearing goo-goo eyes when they want something. Many families today still consider it the proper way of handling children, but times have changed. Schools involve parents in their child’s affairs as much as possible, putting stress on fathers’ participation; the media highlights the importance of fathers as well as mothers; factors like “child psychology”—previously unheard of—are talked about now. However, the main change is due to those fathers who decide that they want to be closer to their own children than their own fathers are to them; those men who appreciate that a child’s upbringing begins not only in the mother’s lap but also on the father’s shoulders.

Children are not the only ones who come without instruction manuals…

…fathers do, too. A father has to define himself; when he does, it combines with other factors to give the final framework of how the child is brought up. For example, the issue of getting permission for something is different in different families:

“I’ll ask my father.”

“I’ll ask my mother.”

“If my father agrees, my mother will too.”

“I have to ask my grandfather/chachoo/other important figure.”

“Have you forgotten? I never get to do anything.”

Children tend to have trouble deciphering parent-talk, and father-speak is no exception. This is compounded by the fact that male psychology is different from females’. The most common (note: common, not only) mode of male self-expression is: when they’re upset, they’re angry; when they’re depressed, they’re angry; when they’re disappointed, they’re angry; when they’re frightened, they’re angry; when they’re nervous, they’re angry; and when they’re angry, they’re angry! (Females can follow this pattern as well, though they are better known for the crying pattern than the angry one). Therefore, children are likely to misinterpret father-speak because it is essentially different from mother-speak. Fathers do express worry and concern conventionally as well, but it is more practical to sharpen your translation skills than to wait for them to talk in your language.

Being involved

Fathers who want to play an active role in their child’s life try to be involved in many ways, but it’s harder than it sounds, especially as the child gets older. It’s easy to love a small child; as John Crudele says, “Kids spell love T-I-M-E”—and they measure it by quantity, not quality. Fast forward several years, and “spending time” takes on a whole new meaning. He can arrange the most spectacular “family bonding time” in the world, but the child will resent it if it makes him miss his football match. He may or may not be open to the idea of watching it with his father. He may prefer to watch it with his friends. Or perhaps, the father decides to do something with his child that he enjoyed when he was young, thinking she will enjoy it as much as he did, but she does not have the slightest inclination towards advanced origami. The majority of children consider their parents old-fashioned and out of step with the times. That doesn’t make it any easier. To quote one parent: “When I ask my son about his day, he just says ‘fine’, but when he’s on the phone with his friends he talks for so long.” The average teen would take this comment as a criticism of his talk time, missing the point that his father just wants his child to communicate with him as well. If the child is unclear how to talk to his father, his father does not have a PhD in teen-speak either. He does, however, have a PhD in “useless comments”. They are not actually useless, but if you do not understand them, that’s what they appear to be. You know what I am talking about: those little things fathers say, most of which make sense when you think about them seriously, like Howard does in “The Kid in the Red Jacket” by Barbara Park:

My father gave me some advice. I was explaining how much I hated to eat lunch alone, and he looked right up from his dinner and said, “Horn in.”

“Er, horn in?” I repeated, confused. I guess it must be one of those old-time expressions they don’t use much anymore.

“Sure. Be a little pushy. Stand up for yourself,” he explained. “Sometimes you’ve just got to take the bull by the horns.”

“Oh geez, not more horns,” I groaned.

“Bull by the horns,” repeated Dad. “Haven’t you ever heard that before? It means you’ve got to get right in there and take charge. If you don’t want to eat alone, then just walk up there tomorrow, put your lunch on the table, and say, ‘Mind if I join you, fellas?’ That’s all there is to it.”

I didn’t say anything, but kids just don’t go around talking like that. If a kid came up to a bunch of guys eating lunch and said, “Mind if I join you, fellas?” the whole table would fall on the floor laughing.

Still, I knew what Dad was getting at. Even if you’re the shy type, you have to get a little bold if you want to make any friends. Sometimes you even have to sit down at a lunch table without being invited. You don’t have to say, “Mind if I join you, fellas?” though. I’m almost positive of that.

As for the other comments which do not make sense, they are comprehensible when you consider the sentiment behind them. For example, if my father calls the screech made by a car when it suddenly brakes “drifting”, he’s not being ridiculous, he’s just trying to sound relevant to his children, who may or may not take it as an opportunity to explain what drifting really is. Remember, one day you will be the one using some term and your kids will be the ones rolling their eyes. Give him a break. He’s only trying to reach out to your world.

Fathers appreciate attention. If yours has a mobile phone/an email account, send him a text/email (a forward message, “hey there” message, anything). It’s a compliment to someone who has the impression that you leave him out of your technological pursuits.

I have this mental image in my mind of the child jumping into a sea of friends, pastimes and academic work, with the father standing on the shore, alone, watching. We talk about finding ourselves, our soulmate, the meaning of life, and stuff like that—what about helping a man find the little child he used to bounce on his knee once upon a time? That child has transformed into something that challenges his understanding. The child just needs to realise this in order to recognise his father’s efforts, stop rebuffing them and bridge the gap, but it doesn’t stop at that; he must get a two-way traffic of talking and listening flowing. It’s easy enough when you accept that there will be foibles and fumbles on both sides, instead of expecting smooth sailing all the way and getting frustrated with every bump and jolt. When the father gets to actually know his child, he stops looking for his lost toddler because he no longer needs him; he has his grown child to enjoy.

They say “mother knows best”. I say mother knows best about some things, father knows best about others, and those things they don’t know, others know best. Grandparents, for instance. My parents are convinced that they are the only ones experiencing bumps on the road while raising their teenage son; once Baba said to Dada Abu to talk to my brother about it. Dada Abu said, “Jaisey tum sudhar gaey they, is tarhan ye bhi sudhar jae ga.” (“The way you turned out right, he’ll turn out right too.”) Whoever says expertise comes from experience sure was right.

Originally published in Us Magazine, The News.