Both on television and in the media, we increasingly witness little girls to be beauty queens before they learned to walk. Some parents have high ambitions for their children. Of course there is a risk that children's own abilities, interests and needs are undermined at the expense of parents' intentions and desires. In working with children and adolescents in the field of mental health, I often encounter children that obviously or implicitly run parental errands. They are in a sense designated as parental delegates, whose purpose is to realize what the parents themselves never achieved, but always dreamed of.
Sancia could sing – beautifully! Her parents and relatives and friends always said that she should be a performer. At the age of 3, Sancia who could barely speak a complete sentence, went on stage and lisped a song solo before a crowd of over a hundred people. Everyone was impressed. ‘Our daughter is going to be a star! Our daughter is going to be world famous!’ her parents spoke about their plans for Sancia. Her mother escorted her to and from myriad classes – music, voice modulation, meditation and piano – all after school hours.
By the time Sancia was 12, there was no doubt about her ability. She opted to participate in a nation-wide hunt for budding talent. It was a hugely successful television show and Sancia, who had won so many prizes, would surely be the chosen one. The competition was tough. For the first time, Sancia felt a flutter in her stomach before she went up on the stage. When she had been younger, it had been different. Her parents had just encouraged her to go and sing. This time, they seemed desperate and tense. Her mother had hugged and kissed her and sent her up with a loving ‘You’ll do it’.
She sang on stage effortlessly and wowed the audiences. But her name did not feature in the final list. Disappointed, Sancia could not stop the tears from streaming down her face. On the drive back home, her parents argued about the choice of dress, the choice of song and the fact that the whole thing could have been done better. ‘It doesn’t matter,’ her mother said as her husband shouted his blame. ‘But we lost the cash prize, see Sancia, we lost the money that could have helped us to make you a big star,’ her father reiterated.
Tired and upset, Sancia went to her room even as her parents continued to fight. She slept soundly that night. She went to the kitchen to find her father alone. ‘Mummy’s left us,’ he announced quietly. ‘See, it was all her fault that you didn’t win yesterday. I’m going to be your manager now. I’m going to make you something. We don’t need her.’
But Sancia did. She loved her mother. Her mother was always nice to her, always there when things went wrong. Her father on the other hand was prone to shouting in the studio, on the stage, in fact, almost anywhere. Why even yesterday, her father had started to fight on the road.
Sancia was scared of her father, though. There was no way of knowing which way he would react. She sat quietly and absorbed the news. Deep within, she felt a huge lump in her throat, a lump that quickly transformed into a flood of tears. It was all her fault. She had not won that was why her mother had had to leave. Sancia’s father watched his daughter’s reaction and tried to explain that everything would be all right, but Sancia wasn’t listening.
Sancia’s mother returned after two days. Now Sancia no longer wanted to participate in singing competitions again. Her mother was disappointed but did not push her. The marriage was under strain and finally broke.
At the age of 20, Sancia was afraid, extremely so, of losing her mother. She was unable to form relationships with other people – they would leave her. Despite her mother’s return after the fight that night, Sancia alternated between hatred against her mother for making her go through the hell of that day and relief that she had returned. Her mother tried to encourage her to turn to playing an instrument for its own sake. She is sorry for the way things turned out after the disastrous television incident and wishes Sancia would put it behind her. But ever since the day she returned home so many years ago, Sancia has blamed herself and her talent for the breakdown of their family. The divorce was acrimonious with her father blaming Sancia for her failure to keep the family together. Sancia agreed with him – thereby making it all the more difficult to adjust to the new life after her father moved out. She is unable to see the inherent weakness of her father as a spouse, a parent and as a talent manager. He had accused Sancia’s mother of being an unwilling participant in developing her talent. An accusation her mother accepted with equanimity. Sancia felt cheated when she understood that her mother had not been keen on making Sancia take the quick ride to success.
Sancia still fears that her mother will disappear one day. She cannot bear to spend a day out of town without her mother. Worse still, she has stopped singing – singing brought bad luck. Her singing was the real cause of her parent’s marriage breaking up. Besides, she isn’t sure if her mother really believes in her talent at all. After all, she had not been keen on making Sancia famous. At times, she regrets the forced flowering of her musical capabilities and its unexpected and sudden demise but feels extremely insecure about getting it back to life again. She makes excuses and vague reasons in her mind to assuage the feelings of regret as they arise. She misses the stage and the applause but will never go back to the old misery; besides, her voice isn’t what it used to be. Sancia is confused about the many cues she has got from her parents. She believes her mother does not believe in her – which is untrue and she believes the accusations her father has leveled at her. Maturity must involve the development of perspective. In Sancia’s case, she has grown up with a sense of insecurity and distrust about the one person who really cares about her.
Talent and competition is a lethal combination. Often, parents see a child’s beauty or talent and decide that it should be put up on display without a thought about the effect of their decision on family dynamics and the child. Putting Sancia on stage without the active support of both parents was a recipe for disaster.
Children are extremely sensitive to their surroundings. Tension, anger, blame for failure, focus on the money that ensues with talent rather than the talent itself leads to misery for the young star and stifles growth of the talent. A singer who is unhappy cannot make her voice follow her command. Talent requires space, unfettered expression, nurturance to remain assured and molding to reach perfection. Parents of talented children would do well to dwell on their personal capacity to ‘manage’ their children’s careers. Some pointers would be:
- The child’s talent is not the source of the family’s earnings
- The ability to maintain equilibrium regardless of whether the child wins or loses
- Strong marital ties and a mutual acceptance that the child’s stars may or may not shine
- A search for viable alternatives if the talent does not get the standing it deserves
- Normalcy of life to be retained regardless of loss or gain
- Resolve possible conflicts about who carries out what role and acceptance of the mutual importance of each person in the family
Families must look within and discuss strategies if they wish to manage talent. The assumption that being a parent makes one a good manager is inherently flawed – the quality of parenting styles is palpable only after the child grows up and faces the world.