“Life extends beyond academics. Just realising this can help us guide our children to be emotionally strong and positive. Strength and positivity are essential for our country, if we are to stop our valuable children from falling prey to disappointments caused by perceived failures” writes V Kamakoti, director IIT Madras.
There is nothing called “failure”. Wise people through the ages have said so. The honourable former President of India, Bharat Ratna Dr APJ Abdul Kalam said, “FAIL = First Attempt In Learning.”
No individual can embody Dr Kalam’s definition more aptly than myself. As a young JEE aspirant in 1985, I scored a single-digit mark out of 100 in Chemistry. That particular day of the examination was unfavourable to me. And yet, decades later, I became the JEE Chairman, thereby proving that achievement is not linked toscores, marks and grades.
For a youngster faced with the frustration of unexpected or unfavourable results, failure may appear real and larger than life. This frustration often arises because of unrealistic expectations and the mismatch between their capabilities or aptitudes and the field they are thrust into. Dealing with this frustration requires a drastic change in perspective, both by the student and by us, their caretakers.
How “failure” is perceived by us is shaped by what the activity means to us. If we are engaged in something we enjoy and encounter a roadblock, we perceive it as an opportunity to improve. I love music. When I play the violin in front of an audience and miss a note, I diligently work towards perfecting my fingering and bowing. However, when we are forced to do something that we do not enjoy and perform sub-par, the perceived failure becomes a burden, amplifying our frustration and negativity towards the experience.
It is important for us as parents to understand this. Our children can handle adversities better if they are interested in and excited about their activities. Oftentimes, parents have a vision for their children, well-meant no doubt, but visions that may not align with the interests of the children themselves. Enrolling children in rigorous coaching centres comes to mind. For children with personal ambitions and aspirations to get into premier institutions, these coaching centres can be of tremendous value. But is the parent sending the child to these institutes because it is their vision for their children and not the aptitude of the children themselves?
I’m not suggesting that parents should not guide their children. Our culture is built on the hierarchy of Mata-Pita-Guru-Deivam – the mother, the father, the teacher and then God, and parental support is pivotal in helping children navigate the complexities of growing up. The most valuable lesson we can teach our children is that success and significance are possible in all walks of life through passion, perseverance and the will to see things through. Any other guidance we provide to our children must necessarily take into account the child’s ambitions, aptitudes, and abilities.
As parents, we must realise that life is not all about engineering and medicine. The modern world offers abundant opportunities across various domains for our children and youth. Yes, the IITs are exceptional education institutions, but they are not the only educational institutions that provide quality education to the Indian youth. I recently had the privilege of attending the ‘Champions of Chennai’ awards event, where the awardees, intelligent and hardworking youngsters, were not all IITians.
Another aspect that warrants introspection is this. No good can result from comparing children. Each child is unique, and such comparisons can have detrimental effects, particularly at an age in which children seek parental approval and encouragement. It is important for both parents and children to understand that marks, ranks and scores in any exam are numerical representations and do not reflect the overall intelligence of the student. While diligent effort is undoubtedly necessary for success, fixating on numbers can lead to undue stress. There have been cases where students’ emotions shift unexpectedly and suddenly from happiness to sadness due to excessive pressure, sometimes resulting in unfortunate and tragic outcomes.
There is also much pressure on children to pursue certain fields such as computer science, and yet, no discipline is inferior to another. Remarkable contributions to society have been made by people from all disciplines. The largest revenue-earning department through Industry Consultancy and Sponsored Research at IIT Madras is Ocean Engineering. As we become the first country to land on the South Pole of the Moon, can we ignore the contributions of aerospace engineers? Could the world have survived COVID-19 without the vaccines developed by biological scientists?
The challenges that the child faces may not always be due to academic reasons. No family is without problems, and the child may be affected by issues within the family, like conflicts and financial issues. It is the responsibility of the adults to manage issues in a way that does not seriously damage the child’s emotional state. Interpersonal relationships can also be difficult to manage at that age. Being there for children during tough times is crucial. When schools and colleges express concerns about a student’s well-being, parents should respond immediately. Staying connected and offering unwavering emotional support can help children overcome academic and personal challenges.
My personal observation over more than two decades as a teacher is that a kid who is raised in a joint family is more emotionally stable than one who has been isolated from the extended family. The support and affection of grandparents and extended relatives can foster positivity in children. Although nuclear families have become the norm in recent times, children must be encouraged to communicate actively with grandparents and other relatives.
Life extends beyond academics. Just realising this can help us guide our children to be emotionally strong and positive. Strength and positivity are essential for our country if we are to stop our valuable children from falling prey to disappointments caused by perceived failures.
Happiness is a collective responsibility.