Sort of like how your parents tell you what to do, and what not to do, and where not to go, and which dress is appropriate and when to be home. And you smile, and nod, and say, “sure.” Because they’ll never find out what you’ve done and where you’ve been anyway.
I venture to say that the Indian youth has mastered this art of blatant disregard for and naïve underestimation of parents and parental words of wisdom. Not all youth, of course, and not all parents; for not all youth communicate with their parents and not all parents espouse words of wisdom. But mine do and did. And I’ve done and do.
Allow me to explain.
Take dating. That dreaded word, which far too many Indian parents avoid, as if the two syllables could change a future-engineer/future-doctor/National Merit Scholar/Spelling Bee champion into a … normal teenager. And I don’t know if the parents can’t handle the idea of their children dating, or if the children are so afraid of what their parents might think that they never bring up the subject. But for whichever reason, a considerable number of Indian teens have started “dating” behind their parents’ backs.
Smiling and nodding and “yes”-ing and “sure”-ing while making discreet plans to betray their parents’ trust. Having special “boyfriends” and “girlfriends” with whom they are in constant contact through email and instant messages, but rarely meet, and never invite home for dinner and a movie, because their parents don’t know of the other’s existence. Meeting frequently with that “significant other” at supposedly kosher cultural events and bhangra bashes.
It all seems rather juvenile: both the attempt at secrecy on the part of the teen, and the front of ignorance on the part of the parent.
How many times have I heard elders decry dating and declare smugly that they don’t give their teens inappropriate opportunities to meet with the opposite sex? Parents, you know what’s going on. Other people’s daughters and sons are dating, but your child is immune to the pulls of adolescence?
And how many times have I had female friends scold me for mentioning the proper name of the object of their affection in front of their mother or father in the front seat of the mini-van? Nick is “Nikita.” Neil is “Neelima.” My mistake.
It’s a mistake I’ve made often in the last few years: misjudging the height of the communication barrier between my friends and their parents. Because there is no communication barrier in my family; I consult first with my parents and report first to my parents. I say what I want to do and do what I say I’ve done. And though many of my peers have ridiculed me for running first to mom with stories of first crush-first kiss-first date and all those that would follow, I see nothing illogical about sharing the intimate details of my life with those who have opened the intimate reaches of their heart to me. What I do is no secret. And where I’ve been is public knowledge.
And yes, I have done that which many in the Indian community do but not many dare to share or discuss. I have “dated.” I have dated boys. But I’m not just talking about group outings to see PG-13 blockbusters at the AMC Mercado. I’m not talking about taking a friend to my school’s Black and White Charity Ball. I’m talking about twosomes, driving to Oakland to hear Zakir Hussain, and watching obscure independent films in run-down theaters, and picnics in San Francisco on windy days and coffee-dates, and dinner-dates. I’ve gone out on Fridays and Saturdays and Wednesdays, in the evenings, mornings, and afternoons. And I’ve come home safe and sound to talk about it.
Outings have been parent sanctioned and parent advised. Dates have been scheduled into my family’s schedule. My mother and father know who I’m with, and they know where I’m going. And no matter what anyone says about the problems with sharing “too much” with family, I reap the rewards of my openness. I am entrusted with responsibility and have consequently learnt how to be responsible.
My parents trust me. Not because I’m a “good” girl and they don’t know what I’ve done, but because they know what I’ve done and I’m still a good girl. Because I tell them the worst. Because I put up no pretenses. Because I am honest. They tell me to learn from their mistakes and I listen, because they also allow me to learn from my own. They tell me what to do, what not to do, and they tell me when to be home. And I listen, because they have also given me the freedom to go out and grow and learn and come into my own.
Now let me interpose that “dating,” as I’ve casually thrown around the term, is not for everyone. Dating is not the only means through which we adolescents grow and learn and come into our own. After a break-up earlier this year, I in fact have decided that dating is the last thing on my agenda as a high-school junior. My purpose here is therefore not to advocate for the teen who wants to attend coed slumber parties or late-night drive-in-movies, but to appeal to the parents who have imposed undue restrictions on their adolescents. The parents who shy from the topic of dating. Who prevent their children from going out in groups and in pairs. The parents whose attitude toward a healthy social construct has resulted in the aforementioned behind-the-back dating scene.
To deny your child the opportunity to go out, to date, to have “boyfriends” or “girlfriends” and some measure of freedom is unfair and shortsighted. Because the purpose of dating is not to sneak a kiss in the movie theater or provide food for schoolyard gossip. Rather, dating can be a useful tool in assessing one’s ability to relate to others on a more personal level than is possible in the usual school environment. It provides opportunity to look beyond oneself and consider the desires of another. It allows us to learn about other families and perspectives, expand our outlook on life and enjoy meaningful companionship. Dating is a crash-course in inter-gender communication and development of a sense-of self.
We must uplift dating from the status of a taboo subject that it has become in the Indian community. We adolescents must be allowed to learn and grow from our own relationships, and our own mistakes. That way, when we leave home to forge our own paths, in college or elsewhere, we go so much the wiser. And you, dear parents, won’t have to say, “I told you so.”