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The Indian Bug

June 5, 2012

The winner of 2012 Scripps National spelling bee championship is another kid of the Indian origin.   In fact, kids of the Indian origin, have been winners of this contest eight, out of the last ten years. No, small feat, that speaks volumes for dedication, hard work and plain effort.  I applaud the efforts of the young lady and her parents for the hard work they put in to get her ready for this contest. Daily drilling down into the child’s head words and etymology and the endless Rote if nothing else takes time and effort.  Indians perhaps rightly so are ecstatic and full of pride they feel for the recognition that comes with winning national contests.

While, the accolades pour in from all direction it however, does make skeptics like I wonder out loud (this post) about the reasons why Indians have dominated this contest over the years.  It’s almost like the Indians are falling over each other to get the promised prize.  It May not surprise you to know that the two runners up for this year’s contest were also of the Indian origin.  A moment of epiphany it seems a revelation a calling for the Indians to achieve the spelling nirvana.

According to one report this young lady’s Father has been drilling words into her using flash cards ever since she was at the very tender age of four.  A four year does not know or even care about participating in a contest of any kind she instead may have a number of other fun things on her mind that do not include a spelling contest. The fact is kids first and foremost have to be allowed to be just kids they most certainly do not wish to be pinned down every day for hours and years on to rote word after word. It reminds me of kids in religious seminaries in a trance like state moving back and forth memorizing the scripture for the fear of a lashing by the mullah.

It is then, not hard to ascertain, who really is behind this effort.  It, is then amply clear that most often than not the effort is being driven primarily by the parents.  So it begs the question is it really fair to the kid to be exposed to the pressures of a contest and the mental anguish at such an early age. This is the time when she ought to be just a kid playing and making mischief.  I am left thinking when she found time to just be a normal kid with play and social activities with other kids.  Then, did her enterprising parents in their zeal for recognition through their child inadvertently rob her of initiative and drive?  Also, if such is the case will this child grow up to be an independent free thinker, posses the drive to achieve and accomplish of her own accord with the necessary attributes for healthy development and creativity?

The fact, remains that this particular contest, is about and for kids. It is about Kids that have or display either the natural or acquired aptitude for gifted learning, reading, comprehension and memorization skills.  The drive or the interest for participation has to come rightly so, from the kids themselves and the driver of that then naturally has to be the competition that pits them against kids of equal or higher caliber and skills.

I have a colleague whose kid participated in the 2009 Spelling Bee and was a runner up. No small feat considering the extent and depth of the competition and the fact that this particular kid as it turns out was not just competing with other kids but as is the case with their recognition hungry parents.  I asked my colleague how his son got involved with the competition? Also, who was the driving force behind participating in the contest? In other words was his or his kid’s idea?  His most candid account was not only refreshing but illuminating and perhaps even served as a confirmation to my earlier premise that the healthy essence of this completion should be about kids themselves.

He essentially told me that his kid is and has always been from a very early age an avid reader.  This came as no huge surprise as I know this gentleman himself is a veracious reader.  His lunch time is spent on a daily basis reading while having lunch.  In addition, he told me his son is gifted with the ability of an almost photo perfect memory. According to him the kid can read stuff and retain all or most of it.  As a result at the age of 9 he came to his father and shared his desire to participate in the spelling bee.  Naturally, my colleague encouraged him and offered to help.  So for the next two years he told me he and his son practiced daily for an hour every day, just sixty minutes.  Does not seem excessive by any standards.  The most important fact here is that it was borne of the desire of the kid himself and he is the one took the lead throughout. Now, that is a learning experience that has all of the ingredients of focus, desire, perseverance and decision making built right into it.  No coercion or unnecessary influence to steer the kid in a direction he/she may not have chosen given the choice.

Additionally, I asked my colleague whether during these two years of practice; life came to a standstill for his child or his family with the single focus of winning the contest.  His obvious answer as you can probably tell by the amount of time spent for practice sessions was an affirmative no! This particular kid remained as normal a kid as any equally participating in activities most other kids are involved with.

So, then we might ask ourselves the question whether what these Indian families are doing to their kids an acceptable behavior for responsible parents.  We might then ask how dies this interfere with the the child’s proper development and upbringing?  I keep coming back to the initial premise that this competition is about and for kids initiated and driven by the kids themselves. It is crucially important for us to understand that any effort involving young folks needs to be structured in a way that the effort in and of itself does not become so overwhelming that it hampers the natural growth of a child or inhibits the growth of other necessary skills like initiative, ownership and decision making.  A child has to be allowed to first and foremost remain a child to be nurtured and allowed to develop through normal children activities with a healty dose of play and social activities and later ownership, accountability and choice.

Likewise, these competitions should never become the domains or glory points for the parents who become directors and string pullers of the puppets they put forth on the public stage.  Again, and unfortunately, what the Indians are doing is exactly that; they are perhaps inadvertently preparing prize contestants, show dogs pick your euphuism in utter disregard for the needs of the child.

If I sound a bit harsh in my judgment it is because I hail from a similar background and know quite well the nature of the parent child relationships.  It is a cultural thing and in essence it remains a cultural indictment.  It is a reflection of a society that inhibits natural growth of an individual in the name of several things to include religion, customs, societal norms and upkeep of every nature. Many a young folks in the South Asian culture grow up never having to have made a decision for themselves their entire lives. From the choice of friends to the choice of a marriage partner is dictated overtly in still traditional homes or covertly and suggestively in the “enlightened families who may have the good fortune to boast of higher education and in some severe cases illusions of being an intellectual.  From cradle to grave South Asians remain slaves to their parent’s whims and wishes, religious rituals, societal norms and all in the name of pedigree and character.  Parental pressure and absolute control over a child to behave, act and perform according to the parents exclusive wishes can lead to problems that manifest through more serious and sinister ways.   For example it is a common theme both in Pakistan and India that all parents want their children to either study engineering or medicine.

Development of a child to an individual requires besides good nutrition awareness of freedom of thought and reason at an early age.  Freedom of thought and accountability for individual actions lead to making a human a productive member of a society. Freedom of thought leads to the ability to think which in turn leads to creativity. Accountability for actions helps individual to think and discern leading to learned decision making skills.

So, while I should be happy for this little lady who just won the spelling bee. I am in fact concerned for her growth as a person.  For all I know this may be an odd ball case involving a child prodigy of four but, then from all I know there may be a lot of truth to what I have said. This commentary is not an indictment but a cause for awareness of an issue that exists in the South Asian community at large and the use of kids as contestants for parental glory.  It’s a bug in the system of development that manifests itself in among other things a spelling bee contest.



  1. Milaine permalink

    This story reminds me of the book “Tiger Mum” which i recently read. Similar stories in other cultures too. I wonder what the right balance is between receiving guidance and focus from parents and the freedom of choice…

    • Well thank you for taking the time to read the post. You are absolutely right about finding the right balance. I guess we as South Asian parents have some learning to do as well. Breaking social and societal barriers that we now accept in the name of tradition will take time and some bold decisions. Trust me this is a challenge for all South Asian parents. I know I struggle with it every day!

      But, the fact remains we have to change to allow our kids the wonders of free thinking and creativity. Thanks

  2. Rupa permalink

    Hey G:

    Well, it is essentially all about rataa. Our Asian kids in general are the product of their parents. We tend to look at our kids as our property and our extention perhaps too much, there in lies the problem! The problem is this viscious cycle continues and you are right our kids may lack the ingenuity and the drive to compete with the rest of the World.

    Although, finding the right balance is the key and the reality is it is a bit of crap shoot. Live and learn.

  3. Raza permalink

    This is so right I guess people who are part of this can appreciate more, I hope I learn from this and encourage my kids to do what they want to do.
    I can understand the pressure that the parents put on their kids I do the same thing with my daughter’s but as a parent I should be able to differentiate between guidance and pressure hopefully I can learn from this and be a part of my kids ambitions thank you for this article.

    • Raza
      Thanks, I really believe we the South Asian community have some learning to do. If our kids have to live and compete in this culture then as the old adage goes,,while ….

      Remember, controlled minds are closed minds. Thanks

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