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Parenting in Joint Families
Interview with Dr. Sushma Mehrotra, Psychologist

Is a joint family a happy family?

Commercial Hindi cinema has painted a saccharine sweet picture of families in the mind of the public. The audience is familiar with images of benevolent parents, brothers and sisters and their spouses that display cloying affection towards each other and who are willing to sacrifice their happiness for the sake of the family. Even if there is a black sheep in the fold, at the end of three hours he has realized the error of his ways and all is forgiven. But one only has to read the papers to shatter this illusion. Dowry deaths, property disputes, domestic violence, sexual and mental abuse - While this would be an extreme view, as these are family problems, not necessarily joint family problems, the fact is that the joint family is definitely not all joy and laughter. It would be unrealistic to expect it to be so. 

According to Dr. Sushma Mehrotra, "Not every family is a happy family. What is most important is the atmosphere in a joint family. If there is a congenial atmosphere in a joint family, it can be a virtue. However, if there is tension and conflict between the members of a joint family and if they are constantly playing games and trying to score over each other, all the advantages of a joint family are lost." 

Rohit Roy's experience is a case in point. He says, "Growing up in a joint family was definitely not a pleasant experience for me. My father's elder brother controlled the finances and my father had to ask his permission before he could buy anything. My aunt completely dominated my mother and treated her like a servant. She would tell my uncle that she was buying toys for my sister and me and then send the toys to her relatives." 

Sharing and caring?

Dr. Mehrotra feels that if there are several children in the joint family, there is a tendency for parents to make comparisons. Also, if one child is given something and the other isn't, it could lead to the development of unhealthy competition and feelings of envy. Most 'unhealthy' children come from joint families because they live together out of compulsion and not out of choice. 

Dr. Mehrotra has found that in spite of living in a joint family, children don't know how to share. "It is always assumed that children from joint families are more likely to share their things as they interact on a daily basis with so many people. However, if the family atmosphere is hostile, it can have an adverse affect on children. Especially in families where there is a lack of transparency, where many things are left unsaid, and where there is a lack of free expression."

Who's the boss?

Another problem is that there are too many authority figures in joint families. Sometimes, grandparents undermine the mother's authority because they feel that they have more experience in raising children. They pass adverse remarks to the mother in front of the children like, "You don't know how to handle children" - As a result, the mother feels suppressed, depressed and frustrated. She, in turn, takes her frustration out on her children, which affects the overall development of the child. In Dr. Mehrotra's opinion, "Children become very manipulative. They become the master players of the game. They learn how to get exactly what they want by playing the elders off against each other."

What is most important is that there should be agreement between the authority figures on disciplining the child. For instance, even if the grandparents do not agree with the mother on certain issues, they should not discuss these things in front of the children. Very often, grandparents pull up a mother for reprimanding her child. What they should do is back her up so that the child is aware that he has done something wrong. Otherwise, the child will always be in the right according to someone's standards. They should sort out their differences in the absence of the child. 

Generation gap is another important factor to be taken into consideration. The needs and expectations of the younger generation are constantly changing. The fact remains that there are no standards and rules written in stone as far as parenting is concerned. Now, in joint families, members of the older generation, tend to lay down the law in an autocratic fashion. The authority figures need to operate in a democratic fashion and make an attempt to bridge the generation gap. They must try to update their knowledge about the lifestyle of the younger generation and not constantly pass judgement on their activities. They must realize that times change and the way things were done in their time may not work any more. Everything cannot be seen in black and white. If they insist on being rigid, they will just distance themselves from their children and grandchildren. There will be a breakdown in communication and the elders will find that they are slowly becoming marginalized in the family. There should be respect and concern for each other's feelings rather than a constant battle for supremacy and authority. 

There are benefits 

A harmonious joint family set-up can be a boon. It can provide a wonderful support system emotionally and financially. In the ideal sense, one can share both one's triumphs and failures. The joint family is ideal for the woman who wants to work as well as have a family. Working women have someone to leave their children with when they are away at work, rather than leaving their children in a creche or with servants. They can be assured that their children are being looked after by people who care for them almost as much as they do themselves. After all, as they say, "blood is thicker than water."

Mrs. Usha Mehta highlighted a few of the benefits of a joint family. She said, "While we had our share of fights and arguments, I did find that being part of a joint family had its advantages. There were people with whom you could share family responsibilities and social duties. My sister-in-law and I take turns cooking, dropping the children to school and baby-sitting. Despite our differences, there is a bond that grows from sharing common family experiences. Also, my children did not have to go out of the home to seek companionship. They always had their cousins to play with."

Everyone knows how difficult family relations are in general. Nuclear families sometimes find it hard to maintain cordial relations. One would probably think that in joint families with so many people and so many vested interests, maintaining family harmony must be an uphill task. Dr. Mehrotra feels that as far as problems are concerned she would definitely not say that there are more problems in joint families and less in nuclear families. Some people have difficulty dealing with other people and such people will face problems wherever they go. For a joint family system to work, the members will have to learn to adjust, to overcome their petty jealousies, to develop mutual respect between the generations, and to learn to give each other space.

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