This is the story of my struggle to allow myself to be the kind of parent I want to be. I grew up in India, but moved to the U.S. in my 20s and became a mother here in my 30s. I had never felt like an outsider, ever—until I had a child.
I read a lot of books so that I would be the best mom I could be. And I suddenly found myself wondering, did the Indian parents I saw in my parents’ generation—and many in mine—get it wrong? My father was a big believer in the importance of a child’s first five years. I often heard him tell people how he couldn’t scold me until I was five. He reprimanded his younger brother for raising his voice at his kids before they turned five. Raised voices or not, we didn’t have any concept of time-outs anywhere around us. I can’t recall a time when I cried and a grown up didn’t come to console or hold me. They always did. I slept with my mother until I was five. My father would tease me and say I was my mother’s tail, but neither of them did anything to get me to sleep alone or in a different room with my siblings.
My parents weren’t the only ones with this kind of approach. The phrase I would hear in almost every home we visited during my childhood was some version of 'Let the kids enjoy themselves.' They have the rest of their lives to be grown up. And the social fabric of our world supported them. We would go to the fanciest of restaurants with our parents and run around and play tag. No one would stop us—not the managers, not the other diners. It was normal. Soon enough, the servers would join in. It was lovely.
I’m not suggesting for a moment that my parents and their friends necessarily had it right. Some of them produced kids who were happy, some of them didn’t; some of them raised CEOs, some of them raised stay-at-home moms. I’m just saying that it’s okay to be an elephant mom, an elephant dad—an elephant parent.
If you’re wondering what 'elephant parent' means, it’s the kind of parent who does the exact opposite of what the tiger mom, the ultra-strict disciplinarian, does. Here’s a short video clip that shows how real elephants parent. And that’s what I’m writing about here—parents who believe that they need to nurture, protect, and encourage their children, especially when they’re still impressionable and very, very young.
My elephant mom was a doctor with infinite patience. I failed a Hindi test when I was in fifth or sixth grade, and I remember going to her, teary-eyed, with my results—and hearing her tell me that it didn’t matter. There were many more tests ahead. As I sobbed in her lap, she stroked my hair, hugged me, and told me there would be another test, and I could pass that one. (I did get the annual proficiency prize for Hindi a year later at the same school.)
My grandparents were doting parents, too. On both sides, the families lost everything in the partition of India. They had to flee to India from what is now Pakistan. My naana (mother’s father), originally a doctor from a wealthy family, began saving every rupee to educate his girls. He stopped going to the movies, his favorite past time. Both he and his wife stopped buying new clothes and began stitching them at home instead.