"There's a lot of talk today about raising kids in the "real world," but what does that actually look like? Here's how my mom gave me the gift of reality as far back as I can remember – and why I'm so thankful for that gift today." Ruth Malhotra, May 8, 2014
I recently attended a roundtable gathering of civic leaders in Washington D.C. focused on issues related to higher education reform. As the discussion shifted to our own educational backgrounds, I mentioned that I had been homeschooled for eight years – from age 7 to 15 – prior to attending a small Christian high school. "Oh, you must have had such a sheltered childhood," someone remarked with pity in her voice. Another inquired with a mix of intrigue and condescension, "What was it like when you finally entered the real world?"
I resisted the urge to say something snarky in response and simply laughed and described in general why I was thankful for that season in my life. But their reaction stuck with me and caused me to ponder what it really means to experience the real world, and to reflect on the role that my mother – who was my homeschool teacher and primary influencer during those formative years – played in my understanding of society and culture.
Over the years my mom has taught me countless lessons, and I could talk endlessly about her impact on my life spiritually and scholastically and everything in between… she has modeled what it means to cultivate generosity, to embrace academic discipline, and to develop a biblical worldview, to name just a few of the ways her example has inspired my trajectory.
Of all the gifts my mom gave me growing up, one that stands out is this: she taught me to experience reality. Here are five ways she raised me to live in the "real world" – and why I think that is vitally important:
My mom taught me to seek out different environments in every place.
From the time I was a very young child, our family would travel to India periodically to visit relatives and friends, many of who lived in posh neighborhoods and ritzy, gated communities. In a country often defined by the deep disparity between the rich and the poor, my mom always made sure that she took me to the slums of New Delhi where scruffy kids ran barefoot, to Mother Teresa's homes in Calcutta where the dying and destitute received shelter, and to the eastern village of Jhalda where she was born which still has tiny mud houses with no electricity or running water. I have such distinct memories as a young child of walking the dirt roads, of speaking with those whose daily lives were characterized by pain and poverty, of putting our arms around individuals considered untouchable by many in society. When my mom thought we'd had enough of luxury air travel, she took me on primitive trains and rickshaw rides… "If they can do it, so can we," she said. My mom wanted me to see for myself how a huge percentage of the Indian population lived, beyond just the privileged few we happened to know.
And it wasn't just abroad. When we visited Arizona for a family vacation one year, she insisted that we drive to the top of a Native American reservation and meet the families living there… as a kid I was shocked by how primitive and remote their living conditions were, but that was the lifestyle for thousands and she wanted me to see it firsthand. I have many memories just like that.
These experiences not only left indelible impressions on me, but also impacted the way I approach travel today. So often we only see the surface, and we miss out on understanding what is the reality for so many others.
My mom taught me to look for the vulnerable in every situation.
Our family attended a mega church in downtown Atlanta in the '80s and '90s that attracted a socio-economically diverse range of congregants. Many well-established families from the community were involved and held leadership positions at the church, but at times those from difficult backgrounds fell under the radar. My mom always made it a priority to find and reach out to them, even when it meant going out of our comfort zone.
I remember how one time in my Third Grade Sunday School class, I was upset that a snobbish "rich" girl, Cara, was making fun of a not-so-rich girl, Susan, for repeating the same dress two weeks in a row. My mom told my eight-year-old self, "You tell Cara that not everyone wears disposable clothes… and think about giving some of your new dresses to Susan." She explained to me how Susan had overcome many family challenges and was being raised by an aunt who faithfully brought her to church.
The reality is that no matter what setting we are in, there are always people around us who are struggling physically, emotionally, materially, or spiritually. My mom showed me how to be intentional about seeking them out and doing whatever we can to help in practical ways.
My mom taught me to be all things to all people – while being myself.
Our family had such a wide array of friends growing up, and I loved that our circle of interaction largely mirrored the reality of society. Some were obviously very well established and others were living paycheck-to-paycheck. Some were intellectual heavyweights and others hardly had any formal education. Some were grounded in Christian beliefs and others held radically different worldviews.
Discussing inequality makes some people squirm, but it's essential to acknowledge the dual reality that everyone is created equally in the image of God – and that there are often vast disparities here on earth when it comes to both possessions and belief systems. Although we are each limited, we serve a God who is not and my mom taught me to leverage our knowledge and resources for the good of those less privileged and to focus on the qualities that run much deeper than material wealth or lack thereof. She taught my brother and I to talk and dress in a way appropriate for whatever setting we were in and to avoid doing anything to make others feel inferior, at times even insisting that we wear old clothes when we'd visit certain areas. "I don't want my kids to attract attention or seem superior to the others," she once explained to disapproving relatives.
I've watched my mom as she has confidently pulled out her PhD credentials in Western academic settings and gone toe-to-toe with professors and philosophers, especially when it involved matters of Biblical integrity. Just as effortlessly, she can switch to a tribal ethnic dialect in a remote Indian region and speak to street-side shopkeepers as if she is their long-lost friend.
There is tremendous talk about diversity today, however much of it is contrived and very few people actually walk the talk when it comes to their circle of friends. But my mom has, and I continue to reap the benefits of that reality.
My mom taught me to grapple with the tension.
Mercy can be messy sometimes, and I've watched intently as my mom has wrestled with how best to navigate certain situations while walking with those who have encountered everything from the heartbreak of terminal illness to the devastation of moral failure.
How do you help those in need without contributing to a cycle of dependency? How do you support someone in their darkest valleys without condoning their bad decisions? How do you respectfully engage those with vastly different views without compromising your own? How do you show empathy with those who are suffering without being constantly consumed with sorrow and grief? We live in a complicated culture, and the larger your circle of interaction, the tougher some of these questions become.
My mom taught me that we live in a fallen world and that because we're all fallen people ourselves, sometimes there are no perfect options or win-win outcomes or fairytale endings. Tension is a reality of life, a fact that is often ignored by self-help manuals and prosperity preachers. But while there is pain and hurt and weakness and failure, we serve a God who rescues and restores, a God of all comfort and hope, a God who has promised to give us the confidence and the wisdom we need to navigate this crazy journey. And I've watched my mom lean on God for that divine direction time and time again.
My mom taught me to live life with eyes wide open.
Perhaps overlapping all of the examples I've shared is the idea that we should live life with our eyes wide open, cultivating a constant awareness of the realities around us. No matter what sector we're in, we each live in our own set of concentric bubbles and it's easy to miss the bigger picture – or to forget that we are very small people living in a vast and changing world.
Keeping our eyes wide open means that community service isn't just an activity we do one Saturday morning a month (or a year), but rather it is a lifestyle as the needs of others are constantly part of our thought process. (For example, on Black Friday last year, my mom called me excitedly from Macy's to tell me about her purchases… when I asked what she had acquired, she said "towels for the homeless and cookware for missionaries.") Keeping our eyes wide open also means that we don't view interruptions solely based on how they impact our own plans. (Whenever I'm with my mom and we see an ambulance go by or hear the sirens of a fire truck, her first reaction is to pray for the emergency and all involved.) I could go on and on.
We get so caught up in our own pursuits – whether it's getting that outfit on sale or getting to our lunch meeting on time – that our eyes and ears are often inadvertently closed to the reality around us.
In addition to the challenges and tensions that characterize our world, it's important not to lose sight of the amazing adventures and exciting opportunities that exist along our journey. Everywhere you turn, there are people with incredible stories and unique places to explore, and it's up to us to make the most of every moment. Living life with eyes wide open sometimes means going the extra mile so your picture of reality will be just a little bit bigger, and you never know how those added encounters will impact you down the road.
Teaching your kids to experience reality is one of the best gifts you can give them, no matter what their age or stage in life. It will enrich their lives in the present and leave them with many lessons for the future. I'm grateful it's a gift my mom gave me, and I hope it's one you'll give your children, too.