Unalienable: Reflections on Independence and Belonging

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My Reduce, Reuse, Recycle Mantra

I grew up in India during the 1970s in a middle-class family. I wore a uniform to school and owned just two pairs of shoes. A proud possession was a wrist watch that my parents bought for my 11th birthday. My clothes were stitched by a tailor hired by my mother using fabric that she chose. The wide hem was designed to be taken out when I grew taller, thus allowing skirts and dresses to be used for longer. When I outgrew my clothes, my grandmother used them as scrap fabric and turned them, without the benefit of a sewing machine, into shopping bags and bath mats. Given the time and the place, I interacted daily with individuals who had far fewer possessions than I did. The servant who cleaned the dishes and washed the clothes (there were no machines then for these labor-intensive tasks), vegetable and fruit vendors, the guy who sharpened knives, and the one who re-fluffed the cotton stuffing in mattresses to make them fresh again—all conducted themselves with stoic grace. All these experiences made me aware of my relative privilege and I felt immense gratitude for what my parents were providing me.

My American-Born Fashionista Teen

Through lived experience, I internalized the “reduce, reuse, recycle” mantra years before encountering it in the US. I eschewed spending on whims and luxuries, preferring to delay indulgences until I started earning. 

Against this background, imagine my shock when I encountered the demands of my American-born tween daughter. She wanted a specific brand of lunchbox and backpack, clothes from certain “in” stores, and seemingly endless amounts of accessories, nail polish, and purses.

My attempts to inculcate in her the values with which I had grown up were a total failure. She was caught between our minimalist home culture and a peer culture that seemed to judge a person’s worth on the basis of her self-presentation and possessions. Television commercials’ slogans—“Have it your way” and “Because you’re worth it”—created the sense that owning the advertised products was a birthright. A corollary was that parents were seen not as providers, but as gatekeepers who stood between her and the doodads she fancied.

My Cross Cultural Balancing Act

I gradually came to understand the tough balancing act that my daughter was having to master. I realized that American culture and values were just too different and so my formative experiences were basically irrelevant and inadequate to teach my daughter anything. I knew that being a “tiger mom” who resorted to “because I said so” would damage my relationship with my daughter. I was afraid that if I failed to find the right balance, I would undermine her standing among her peers and this would, in turn, undermine her self-confidence. I needed to be a compassionate parent.

However, I continued to believe that the values I had learnt growing up were sensible and necessary antidotes to mindless consumerism. I wanted my daughter to develop a sense of gratitude for what she had and compassion for those who have far less. Indeed, I wanted her to spare a thought for the workers in far-off lands whose labor made our lives of casual abundance possible. Finally, I wanted her to learn thrift, delayed gratification, and the three Rs of environmental conservation. It takes a village to raise a child, but I was living in a village whose values diverged from mine. It was clear that I would have to come up with entirely new strategies to persuade my daughter and bring her around to a very different way of being. I also realized that, given her resistance to my ideas, I would have to build some guardrails to keep her on track.

Teaching Tweens Some Spending Guardrails

The first guardrail was a set of three questions that I taught her to consider when contemplating a purchase. Consider the purchase of a fancy outfit worth $300.

  1. Do I need it? Could she honestly claim that it was a need, i.e., something that she could not do without? 
  2. Can I afford it? Even if she had the requisite amount in hand, would he have enough left over to pay for other necessities?
  3. Is it worth the money? Was it a good value?

My hope was that pausing to answer these questions would put a brake on impulsive and emotional buying decisions. While my daughter memorized these questions fairly easily, this did not immediately translate into a changed attitude. The pressure to buy was just too great.

So I instituted a second guardrail. I started giving her a weekly allowance. Now, she had to manage her wants and needs, and present vs. future purchases within the limits imposed by the allowance. This taught her to respect the uncompromising logic of her pocketbook.

Parenting Is A Long Haul Journey

The days go by slowly but the years pass swiftly.

When she got into her first choice college, she quickly ordered a branded sweatshirt. I was happy to indulge her, for she had earned the privilege with her hard work. When she was accepted into an Ivy League graduate program, I offered to buy her the sweatshirt. “I don’t need it,” she said with a smile. Ironically, now I was the one being acquisitive.

Two decades have passed and I was pleasantly surprised when she recently recalled the three questions without missing a beat. It is apt that she has her own definitions of need, affordability, and worth. Priceless for me is the knowledge that the questions devised in the throes of a helpless and fierce love reside in her heart and continue to guide her.

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