“Livin’ on the road my friend
Is gonna keep you free and clean
And now you wear your skin like iron
And your breath is hard as kerosene“
– Townes Van Zandt
This is a story based on two cats, Pancho & Lefty (names changed to protect identity and bear no resemblance to the protagonists from the 1972 country hit rendered by Willie Nelson).
Pancho is a high-society, ‘branded’ kitten that we purchased for a tidy sum. Lefty is a mongrel we picked up from the street.
Both have been with us for over a year and are healthy, cute and lazy like all cats! Between them, they share all the creature comforts of a modern ‘hooman’ household, including top of the line cat food, soft beds, private loo, multi-vitamins, etc. In short, life’s good for both.
Pancho & Lefty are as different as chalk and cheese. While Pancho comes from a long lineage of privileged cats that have enjoyed the patronage of kind humans, Lefty has had no such luck. Street cats don’t know where their next meal will come from. It’s a daily fight for survival. Not surprisingly, Lefty is forever on guard – sharpening her claws, foraging for food, eyes and ears always straining to read signs of danger.
Pancho on the other hand prefers to ‘chill’, smug in the belief that ‘hoomans’ will always be at hand. Millions of years of evolution which shaped his ancestors’ instincts is slowly getting tampered by modern luxuries bestowed on her by doting humans. There he is, snuggling up to Lefty for comfort.
Delay their food service and Lefty goes to action stations! Instincts kick in and she smartly goes ‘shoplifting’ in the kitchen and larder – even toppling a few dishes over to find a snack, if need be.
Pancho, on the other hand, chooses to put on a doleful expression and sit confused next to the empty food bowl. He hasn’t seen hard days and can’t deal with out-of-ordinary situations. Lefty’s initiatives usually finds some tit-bits for him too. Leave him out on the street and he will in all likelihood go into deep hiding or – worse still – perish, unable to deal with the harsh world.
Gazing at these two furballs one quiet evening, I couldn’t help but compare their life with that of our children. Coming from a modest background, I was always alert to the fact that there was no safety net, no father’s wealth or ‘contacts’ in high places to fall back on. Having scaled the difficult years, we are now well positioned in society to pad up our kids against googlies that the world may throw at them. Always looking out for them, granting their every wish, softening the odd blow and insulating them from the real world for as long as we can.
So must be the case with many families like ours. Some send their children to boarding schools in the hope that they learn to cope with life faster. However, even hostels today can be gilded cages with everything provided for, end to end. So what life skills would they eventually pick up?
Of course, we should never ever wish bad times upon our children. If we had our way, life would be one long fairy tale. But who has seen tomorrow? When the chips are down, who will be better able to deal with life – privileged Pancho or street fighter Lefty?
How much cushioning is good? Where does the line blur between parenting & over parenting? How much should we shield them and yet leave them independent enough to face a world without ‘father figures’ and ‘guardian angels’? Is never letting them fail or face disappointment good parenting?
Recently, I spent a few hours in a modern helicopter simulator as part of recurrent training for pilots. Every conceivable malfunction & emergency was thrown at us during the sim ride. Some I could handle successfully, some I botched up & we ended up in the drink. Looking back, it was those situations that ended badly that taught me the most. In all likelihood, not one of these emergencies may ever confront me in the real aircraft. But if it does, I will be better prepared.
Today’s parenting, particularly in nouveau riche Indian families, can be compared to the exact opposite of this. Keep the children in a protected ‘simulator’ where nothing is allowed to fail for as long as we can and then release them into a world full of virtual landmines.
Like some wise person said “prepare your child for the road, not the road for your child”. I wonder how many of us have got the wrong end of the stick. A few sneezes and a stuffy nose is enough today for most parents to rush their children to the nearest doctor. Antibiotics that eventually cripple the body’s immune system has become the first line of defence against disease. Mobile phones and gadgets that lure children into the virtual world have replaced basketballs and cricket kits as gifts of choice. Online shopping & takeaway-pizzas are replacing a healthy walk to the nearest shopping district. Uber & Ola has replaced the ride on Mumbai’s local trains. It’s too tough for them, we feel. Oh, really?!
As per Ann Landers (a pen name created by Chicago Sun-Times advice columnist Ruth Crowley in 1943 and taken over by Esther Pauline “Eppie” Lederer in 1955), it is not what you do for your children, but what you have taught them to do for themselves that will make them successful human beings. Six decades later, it still rings true. More recently, British/American author, motivational speaker and marketing consultant Simon Sinek bemoaned the fact that most millennials today are at the receiving end of bad parenting.
Pancho is growing up to be plump, lazy and extremely cute – with a feline sense of entitlement to boot. Lefty is turning more loyal, wily and tougher by the day. Whom would you rather have your children be?
©KP Sanjeev Kumar, 2017. All rights reserved.