Indian Parenting: The Cost of Keeping Up Appearances
By: Kamaljit "Sonya" Virdi, Ph.D. | November 11, 2022
What happens when the approval of others comes at the cost of your child’s well-being and mental health? And would you recognize that it was happening? If you are an adult child of Indian origin, your parents likely encouraged you to become a doctor, lawyer, or engineer. You may have pursued a career in one of these fields to make your parents proud, even though you had other passions that would have led to satisfying careers. Or you may have been told not to seek support from your extended family or friends while struggling with physical, mental or emotional challenges for fear that it would portray your family negatively.
Within Indian culture, a child’s behavior is seen as a reflection of their parents, and therefore, the success of the child is the ultimate measure of successful parenting. Indian parents are often invested in what others think of them, especially those in their extended family and their local Indian community. This article describes the pitfalls of parenting that stem from keeping up appearances and provides suggestions for alternative parenting strategies.
Parenting Pitfall #1: Tendency to be Critical
Indian parents are known to point out mistakes and provide a lot of feedback to their children. From the parent’s perspective, the tendency to be critical comes from trying to help their child be better or prevent anticipated future embarrassment. As well intended as this approach may be, the impact is that it can lead to insecurity or self-doubt for children. Children often feel like nothing they do is ever good enough and the pressure to be perfect feels impossible. Indian parents are often proud of their children but don’t express it openly. They might be more likely to talk positively about their children to others rather than to the children themselves.
Do this instead:
You don’t have to give up your Indian values, but you may need to adjust your parenting to your child’s individual needs, especially if they are being raised in the U.S. Provide positive feedback to counteract the critical feedback whenever you can. Children like to hear words of affirmation from their parents. Reflect on the tone and volume of your voice when giving feedback and adjust it to be more sensitive to your child’s needs. Recognize that what works for one child may not for the other.
Parenting Pitfall #2: Emphasis on Physical Appearance
It’s not uncommon for Indian parents to comment on their child’s physical appearance. This may be because they are trying to help prepare their child for judgements made by others based on height, weight, and skin color. For instance, they may suggest that a child lose weight to protect them from criticism or to protect the family’s image. These types of comments can make children feel self-conscious about their physical appearance, doubt their self-worth, and can contribute to eating disorders like Bulimia and Anorexia Nervosa. Individuals with eating disorders are notorious for hiding their symptoms, so you may not notice them. They may also struggle in interpersonal relationships because they lack confidence in themselves.
Do this instead:
Avoid making comments about physical appearance. Recognize that your child is aware of the ways in which they don’t measure up to beauty standards. Make more comments that convey that you are affirming of who they are and what they are about. Comment on their positive qualities, such as their kindness, curiosity, or observing nature. Be mindful of how you might give preferential treatment to a fairer skin child over a darker skin one. Colorism, discrimination based on skin color, can be damaging to how a person sees themselves. If your child is courageous enough to talk with you about their insecurities, listen and try to understand their concerns. Come up with a plan with them rather than for them.
Parenting Pitfall #3: Comparisons to Others
Indian parents frequently compare their children to others. They may think that the comparison will help remind their child to work harder and strive to be more successful. But the impact is that the child can feel like their talents and interests aren’t seen as valuable to their parents. If the child changes paths to be more in-line with their parents, they may harbor resentment about it. And if they continue forward on their own path, they may doubt themselves. Children want to feel supported, and comparisons don’t usually feel supportive.
Do this instead:
Minimize how much you compare your child to someone else. Instead, ask your child what they think of that person’s career or personal choices. Make it more of a dialogue rather than an agenda. You might learn more about your child through this process and this can be a source of connection for you both. Ask more questions about what your child is interested in, and why. The better you understand your child, the less comparing you may want to do because you can see your child’s unique strengths.
Parenting isn’t easy, and it can be especially hard for Indian parents raising children in the U.S. Indian parents want the best for their children and have the best intentions for them. However, when parenting styles are driven by the desire to keep up appearances, children suffer. I hope that the “parenting pitfalls” and alternative parenting strategies described in this article provide a starting point for Indian parents and children to communicate and understand each other better.
At Therapy Changes, we help people understand more about themselves, clarify their values, and build meaning. If you, or your child are struggling and need additional support, Contact Us today. To fully understand you and your family, your San Diego Psychologist will consider your unique cultural context and personal circumstances.
Authors Note: Indian American and Asian Indians make up a diverse group of individuals that vary in terms of their time in the U.S., immigration status, and level of acculturation. The list provided above is not representative of every Indian person’s lived experience.