No Is A Good Word

Raising children in a world of boundaries and personal space.

Its about 10:30 on a gorgeous Fall Saturday morning in Washington D.C. We are in the park, my daughters favorite place in the world, after the bath tub of course! I watch her busily amuse herself, playing in the gravel, fascinated by tiny pebbles. Yes, life returns to basics and it is indeedthe small things in life that make a difference. It would be nice to continue to remember that through our lives.


As I engage myself with these philosophical ideas and keep an extra eye out for her, I see another toddler walk up to her. By now, I know that curiosity at this age is complemented with an its all about me flavor. I let her do her own thing and notice that he begins to get into her play space(yes, the idea of space is also introduced early) and tries to push her. I would have never guessed what I was about to see. She stands up, makes good eye contact and puts her hand out so as to send a strongmessage with her limited vocabulary and says, No, I dont want it. The boys mother hears that and asks him to come back to her. That was quite a boundary set by a 19-month-old.

Boundaries and space are novel or nascent ideas back in India. However, it is a crucial lesson in self respect for little girls that will last them a lifetime. This is not as simple as it seems for a South Asian parent raising a child in the West. How do Indian values of modesty, humility and self sacrifice find their place in a culture where assertiveness is the key to survival? Here are some steps:

Witness those assertive moments

As parents, we have the opportunity to serve as mirrors for our children. Just watching them succeed isn’t enough. We can help fuel these attitudes by being engaged witnesses. In this situation, it was critical for me to articulate and reflect to her that I was proud of what she did. Encouragement is not limited to good grades and good jobs. Highlighting these small steps that will help our kids develop into well rounded individuals is significant. For example, in addition to being assertive, if we can highlight their attempts at showing empathy, attempts at respecting those less privileged and attempts at respecting their own minds and bodies, we can help them create a broader and inclusive sense of who they are. Their identity will not be limited to their profession, their country of origin, descent or residence. In other words, we are more than the work we do and the place we live in.

Pay attention to your conditioned responses

We define the socialization of our children to a great extent. As I was commending my daughter, a part of me felt the pressure to let it go and not say much. I could hear myself saying “She is just a kid; this is not a big deal.” In reality it is a big deal, one that will set the tone for the manner in which I respond to many such situations in the future. It wasn’t that I didn’t want her to be assertive; it was just that my automatic response in such situations was to avoid a confrontation. This is one of those many moments, when I actually get the real meaning behind “cultural differences.”

India is historically collectivistic, in that the “group comes before the self,” quite the opposite of the individualistic beliefs in North America. My automatic and subconscious tendency would have been to keep both my daughter and the other boy happy. I have to be aware of and question my own socialization and how my conditioned response in such situations may be to maintain harmony. This can get in the way of me teaching my child to stand up for herself. But I have learnt over time that boundary setting doesn’t have to be about confrontation.

Be a role model for your children


We have all heard how children will do as you do and not as you say. If our children witness us standing up for them when an adult is rude with them or even when the daycare provider doesn’t change their diapers as needed, it serves in building a repository of such boundary setting memories.

Be flexible with yourself; parenthood in a global climate is tough and not well researched. Parenthood is always a work in progress. There is an additional layer of complexity if you are an immigrant or a “minority.” There is still much research needed in the area of South Asian parenting in a Western milieu. Just remember, it is not perfect and we need to get into the practice of being more aware and intentional in integrating the beliefs and values of the two different cultures. We can use this opportunity to pick and choose from both cultures to create a new and better path.

The author is a practicing psychotherapist.


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