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Why reading is as important a parenting duty as any other

We are almost never introduced properly to one of the most important skills one needs in a complex, and now increasingly lies-filled, social world: critical thinking.

What follows is excerpted from a post I wrote on Quora in answer to a general question What is it that Indian parents are collectively doing wrong? This answer garnered a good number of comments, and you can see those on the original Quora post here.

I am 33, and many of the folks I grew up with are now parents. My answer is largely informed by what I know and understand about people of my generation.

One crucial thing that (privileged, well-earning) Indian parents are doing wrong is that they are not reading (or are not reading enough; or reading indeed, but pretty pernicious stuff). Most such folks in their late 20s and 30s today work – often have to slog – in corporate settings or government posts. Office politics, stress and exhaustion provide us little time to spend with families, let alone pursue hobbies or devote energies towards intellectual pursuits. Besides, most of us come from the generally mediocre Indian education system that focuses almost exclusively on training students to become mute, passive employees as against guiding students to become rational, wise humans. We are almost never introduced properly to one of the most important skills one needs in a complex, and now increasingly lies-filled, social world: critical thinking. [To see how a Sanskrit scholar bemoaned, more than a hundred years ago, such a lack of critical thinking skills in Indians, read this article on Ramkrishna Bhandarkar.]

We understand little and misunderstand a lot about our country’s, and the world’s, history. We have hardly read and understood the humanities or the social sciences in detail. The name of Amartya Sen, for example, makes many folks I know think not of ‘trailblazing economist and philosopher whose ideas have inspired generations of scholars’ but of ‘an anti-national anti-Hindu Congress sympathizer’. (I have met and conversed with the wise man, and I assure you the latter thing is as true as the claim that demonetization has reduced corruption in India.)

This is the average default status of ‘middle-class’ Indian parents today. To put it another way, this is the average default status of the people who are raising and deeply influencing future citizens of India (including policymakers and politicians, entrepreneurs and doctors).

As is clear, most of that is not under their control. I studied medicine, for example, and I fully understand how very difficult it is to read or be exposed to anything other than medical textbooks and medical matters after age 18. And then how very difficult it is to just read anything once one begins working. Besides, very few of us are fortunate enough to be in secondary and high schools where at least one or two broad-minded and worldly-wise teachers positively influence our malleable minds and attitudes.

My point is that young people in India, with a general background of mediocre intellectual education, are extremely ill-prepared to be parents – which is different from the far easier activity of becoming parents. (This is of course the case in other countries too.)

Being a parent is a full-time job of raising a human being, a social being, and a citizen all through one person. Many parents thus underestimate the profound significance, to society and to humanity, of giving birth to a person. Mostly we think about ourselves and our immediate family when we ‘decide’ to become parents. When we think that way, we prepare that way. We plan approximate dates of conception, we think about eating well, we think about savings and finances, we think about insurance and the like. This is all well. What is not well is that we hardly think about our own intellectual development before becoming parents.

When one is past formal education and is working regularly to earn a living, the main recourse left for intellectual development and critical thinking is reading (sensible, rational, non-polemic) books and articles. With our so-called busy lives, this is now impossible unless we actively think about it and work to make it happen. And we absolutely need to do this, because the answers we give to our kids, and the ideas and opinions we expose them to, now just can no longer be the same old superficial, evasive stuff that has been the case in parenting for the last few generations.

If your kid asks you about Kashmir and you infuse in them the same old exaggerated claim that ‘enemy Pakistan wants to take it away from us’, you are simply creating another generation of Indians who will fail to understand the complexities and intricacies of Indian history. If your kid asks you about why that man is cleaning up people’s feces on train tracks at the railway station and you avoid answering honestly about the legacy of caste and untouchability, you are creating another generation of Indians who will fail to understand that caste-based approaches heavily pervade Indian society even now. If your kid asks who are adivasis and all you can come up with is ‘primitive people living in the jungles’, you are creating another generation of Indians ignorant of our basic history and of the social and structural inequalities in India.

Therefore read, parents. Read.

Read, for example, about the complexities of Hindu-Muslim violence and ensure that your kids never develop any hatred and intolerance towards an entire community of human beings; read on Development as Freedom and ensure that your kids have a broad humanist (and not a narrow industrial) understanding of vikas and progress; read on how we form our identities not on purely rational grounds but by selectively using the Past as Present – and this ensure that your kids focus more on their identity as human and social beings instead of any other identity.

Read because as parents you hold the keys to human welfare; as parents you can collectively influence humanity more than any powerful leader or writer or philosopher.

In fact as Indian parents, influencing a full fifth of world’s children, you actually will influence humanity. For better or worse – will depend upon how you do it.

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