His wife, Susan, is a physician-teacher, whose focus has been on home and family, sacrificing career pursuits to invest hugely in their children who were raised in the U.S. from their teenage years.
Their son works as a software engineer, and is married to an architect from India. Their daughter is a hospital physician, married to an anesthetist from India, and they have just had their first baby.
In this interview, Dr. Mathew shares their cross cultural experiences and insights gained during their parenting years and how their parenting style evolved through the years.
What were your greatest learnings about your children?
Early on, we were able to recognize that our son and daughter were very different and unique individuals. Besides variations that could be ascribed to gender, each of them had uniquely distinct personalities – both very lovable. Jeff was the quieter, more shy individual during childhood (much like his father’s formative years) while Anne was the more lively, ever cheerful child, most often the spark in the room (probably resembling my wife’s childhood years).
We always tried our level best not to compare the strengths or weaknesses of either child, or with other children, realizing that their personalities were God-given, and it was our role to support the development and maturing of their inner selves. It has been a great joy and pleasure to watch their personalities evolve and grow into being wonderful, responsible adults.
What were some of your major challenges in their teen years?
Conformity to our expectations was the goal for most of their pre-teen years, but we realized soon that it could not easily happen on all fronts. We found this especially challenging during their teenage years.
One lesson learned was not to shut them down, or be critical of them, whenever differences over tastes, styles, viewpoints and more were aired. Differences would exist, and they could be discussed, sometimes even celebrated, if I was able to let go of my need to impose my views upon the children, and often extending that to my wife too!! We soon learned to keep communication lines open at all times, without causing a distance to develop, even after a heated or passionate discussion which ended in disagreement.
However, when it came to core values that we shared and wanted to develop in the children, we laid down clear expectations, something that is a vital ingredient in their growth and development. Setting reasonable boundaries for them in relation to simple matters like study time or play time, interaction with friends and relatives, or more complex behavioral issues were important to us. For example, it was very clear in our home that the children were also expected to be part of the conversation when friends or relatives visited. Unless specifically requested to do so, the children were not expected to stay aloof in their rooms doing their ‘own thing’ during these visits, even when they may have been much happier to do so. If they had to be studying for an exam the next morning, they would still need to meet the visitors before we excused them, after a reasonable interaction.
Whenever we sensed a departure from core values that we wanted to build into our children’s lives, we did set up clear expectations that served as boundaries within which the children needed to function. In matters of integrity, respect for others, utilizing opportunities, life-long learning or excellence in behavior, we used life examples before us, even as we tried our best to model these core values to the children ourselves. Such boundaries fail to have much effect if the parents themselves do not display true adherence to core values. A growing child easily understands ‘double speak’ when we say something and do another.
The next step in how things would play out seemed to be crucial: holding firmly to these expectations, so that the children understood very clearly that we meant what we said.
How has your parenting style evolved while going from the teen years to adulthood?
Besides recognizing that each child was different from the parents and each other, we encouraged some discussions about these differences during their teenage years.
While we were probably strongly opinionated with our own views early on, we learned to be more accommodating in listening to them, and trying to appreciate their own positions and viewpoints as they grew out of their teenage years. Rather than be the ‘sage on the stage’ lecturing to them at every opportunity, I sensed a greater appreciation from both of them as I changed more to being a ‘coach’ on their playing field.
How did you’ll handle the changing equations as they stepped into adulthood? There was a natural tendency to keep persisting in reminding the children of things we used to direct them towards during their childhood, such as the kind of clothes they need to wear, their food habits, or how to protect themselves in changing weather seasons and the like. Once I realized that they were not in tune with our ‘music’, I slowly but surely learned that our repetitions were in vain. Instead, I saw that third party credibility worked much better in the late teenage years, when I could redirect their attention to a similar statement or viewpoint from a celebrity of any other person of repute (or standing ) in their eyes. Much as they had learned a lot of things during their childhood, it was time for us as parents to come to the realization that our grown children did not need us in the same manner, as they did earlier.
Another interesting situation that evolved was their greater competence in some areas like technology, where I had to rely on their skills to get past my struggles with newer technologies like a laptop, audiovisual equipment like cameras, projectors, and other modern gadgets. This was indeed a reversal of roles, where I happily accepted being the learner! So, while there are still many areas where the parents experience and wisdom do provide value for the grown children,it is a win-win situation and vital to remember that learning is a two-way street in the context of teenage children growing up to adulthood. Once we accept this as a fact of life, it can be a source of great joy and pride to observe at close quarters the flowering abilities of our once little children!
What did you see as your role in their choice of a life partner?
Open discussion early on about what one should be looking for in the choice of a life partner can be helpful to children in their formative years. Instilling in them the notion that marriage is a life-long commitment can be one of the best foundations for a happy and healthy marriage later in life. This first step on what values to look for could be visualized as a primer coat of paint on which would fall some of their initial experiences and encounters of discovery with the opposite sex. Rather than consider the choice of a life partner as a chance happening, based on sudden emotions or fleeting fancies, we gave them the right perspective that this decision could probably be the most important decision in their adult life. Something that would impact them for the rest of their lives, and posterity too!
While it is indeed a blessing to have the support and guidance of parents in choosing a life partner, I believe this would ideally be a decision taken by both the boy and the girl personally. It should never be a parental decision that is imposed on the children. After all, parents will pass on at some point, and it is the couple that has to live out their lives together in love and harmony. This approach also precludes the possibility that marriage partners will blame their parents when things get rough in their own marriage relationship, which is often an easy escape mechanism to avoid taking personal responsibility for improving their relationship.
In what way does parenting evolve even further when they get married and have kids?
While it is a normal matter for most parents to be proud and possessive of their children, it is crucial for parents to understand that they need to step away from the center of their child’s marriage relationship. The ‘leave and cleave’ principle is the greatest model I have learnt of in how to avoid pitfalls in this area. As adult children get married and form a nuclear family, all involved need to understand a major change in the family relationships.
While the parents and all other family members continue to be greatly loved and respected as always, the son’s primary focus and responsibility has to be to his wife and the family he now raises. This new focus demands that a son ‘leaves’ his parents to ‘cleave’ to his wife in the new equation before him. This ‘leaving’ needs to be a conscious, rational decision that involves every aspect of his emotional, physical, mental and spiritual life. Equally vital for the wife to follow this guideline for a happy and healthy marriage.
To help their children entering into the new marriage relationship, it is of paramount importance that both sets of parents also understand this wonderful ‘leave and cleave’ principle to ensure marriage success. There are far too many marriages that have been rocked by either set of parents being too closely involved in the marriages of their children, due to ignorance or willful neglect of this fundamental need.
I would like to point out in particular that mothers and sons need to take special precaution to see that this principle takes effect, with no hard feelings on either side. Doting mothers are more prone to try and keep as connected to their married sons, but there needs to be a conscious effort to ‘release’ the sons to the new partner in his marriage relationship. Trying to supervise or ‘watch over’ the new couple is not a healthy practice, often leading to greater tensions building up, sometimes causing the new marriage relationship to flounder.
How did you prepare yourself to cope with the empty nest phase?
As grown children start leaving home to build their own families, there is a most natural sense of vacuum that develops in the home. A deeper sense of loneliness, emptiness or distance can create fears, and insecurities can develop. This will be especially true for mothers who have devoted all of their time in raising kids and being the homemaker, while others may not be hit as hard. One good approach for this empty nest phase is to prepare oneself well ahead of this anticipated time by planning to occupy one’s time with things that could not be done before, due the lack of time or focus earlier. Finding a part-time job to revive old skills, volunteering or starting a new hobby are all great ideas. Ideally, this preparation could start as children become more independent during their teenage years, more so in their college years.
My wife sacrificed her career prospects for over 5 years, while we transitioned into life in the U.S., so that she was very close to the children during those years of change and adaptation to local culture, customs and people. She took up a part-time job teaching in a college shortly before our son was ready to graduate from college, and our daughter close to finishing high school.
What advice would you give parents of young adults?
I think it would be reasonable to say that our experiences could have been somewhat different, given circumstances and events. While some principles in parenting can be applied across different contexts, socio-cultural and economic, it would be unfair to others to think that these insights could be generalized to be of application to all and sundry. Based on what worked for us, our advice would be:
- Keep communication lines open: differences can be discussed and even celebrated, not causing distance.
- Have clear expectations, holding firmly, dealing gently.
- Be aware of generational changes – tastes, communication methods etc.
- Be available to them. Involved as needed.
- Consider them as adults, with differing personalities. Leave room for self-expression and growth.
- Offer opinions or advice as needed and not imposed.
- Pray and model your behavior through your relationship with your own parents.