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Monday, Sep 16, 2002

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Long-distance parenting

K. S. Vasanth

With working couples seeking job opportunities in alien shores, their children are being left behind in India with grandparents. K.S. Vasanth on how this syndrome could affect the growing child.

With many of the talented youngsters packing their bags and going to foreign countries for higher education, job opportunities or migration, there is always this constant talk of brain-drain and how the parents suffer in their absence.

In fact, with the IT boom and continuing beeline to the US and other Western countries, the parents are slowly coming to grips with the `Empty Nest syndrome' and how to handle it.

But what would you do with those new-borns and toddlers who are growing up here in India as their parents sweat it out in foreign lands, in search of a brighter tomorrow? Let us take two such cases.

Maya works as a doctor in the US along with her husband, also a doctor. The demands of their jobs, that too in a foreign country, were so immense that they could not take along with them their three-month-old baby.

The infant is being brought up by Maya's parents in Chennai. Between the ayah, the grandparents and long-distance telephone calls from abroad, the child is growing up.

And then, there is Nusrat and her husband who live in Dubai. Nusrat's husband is working with an engineering firm there, and her three-year old daughter is being brought up here, this time by her paternal grandmother. To the little girl, Nusrat is only a friendly aunty, who showers her with toys and chocolates whenever she visits Chennai. Nothing more.

The question that arises is how these youngsters will be affected— physiologically and psychologically — by the absence of their biological parents. Aren't they being deprived of a vital part of their existence?

"Definitely," says Dr Lakshmi Vijayakumar, a leading psychiatrist in Chennai. "Many of these parents think that parenthood is something that one can do only in leisure. They don't understand that it is a full-time commitment that lasts till they die. And many of them think that if a child's basic needs, such as feeding and cleaning are taken care of, their responsibilities are over. In fact, nothing can substitute the warmth that a mother or a father can give the baby when they cuddle it or just lift it. For the child, it's as basic as food."

Anuradha Uberoi, a behavioural scientist, agrees: "Though the physical needs of these children might be met, you cannot say the same about their emotional needs. Sometimes, society also panders to these children by offering the rationale that he's a `poor child' as his mother is not there to take care of him personally. If the child learns that he is being allowed concessions and privileges as a compensation for his mother's absence, it seriously conflicts with his value-building."

Dr Lakshmi adds that children who grow up without their father or mother around, are more vulnerable to personality disorders. Their capacity to withstand stress is minimal, she says.

"I have told many parents who come to India to visit their children not to give chocolates, dresses and toys as soon as they arrive, since the kids will always associate their parents only with those gifts (more like a Santa Claus!). Moreover, on getting the toys, the children get so busy playing with them that they ignore their parents, which in turn creates a great deal of heartburn in them. Instead, I have advised parents to give those gifts when they leave, so that they can help the child cope with the separation better."

"The parents also cannot expect a happy reunion once they decide to come back or take their children with them," adds Uberoi.

The children may not be able to live well-adjusted lives when they eventually start living with their parents, because they are constantly comparing them with the way their grandparents who raised them.

"I find many children who live with their relatives harbouring resentment and anger towards their parents. This is also reinforced since their existence does not conform to their peer group norms of having parents raise their children. They feel they are living under rules and regulations different from those in homes where parents set the rules. This leads to suppressed anger against the parents."

The child also gets confused as to whom it should call her mother or father. "This, in the initial years of childhood, can create havoc on the child's personality," warns Dr Lakshmi. And, sometimes, the damage is not limited to the child and the parents, but also takes its toll on the grandparents with whom the child normally grows up.

These grandparents, who mostly would have just retired and leading a leisurely life, are also put under a lot of emotional trauma because they need to change their lifestyle for the kid. Though mostly they take up the responsibility with a lot of enthusiasm, it begins to tell on them and creates a lot of friction within the family, which, again, could affect the child.

In fact, making periodic visits to see the child is more harmful than not seeing the child at all, as the child is torn between reunion and separation.

Says Dr Lakshmi, "I can well understand the plight of these parents, many of whom I have counselled, struggling to get their priorities right. I tell them, it's okay if you can spend just an hour every day with the child. It is 200 per cent better than leaving it to someone else."

For every story told, there are thousands that remain untold. In a country, where the healthcare delivery system is struggling to cope with physical health, is there scope to worry about the psychological and the emotional well being of our children, is the question that begs an answer?

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