Recently I was at the doctor’s clinic with two of my younger children. One had a notebook and a few markers, the other had some toy trucks and I had a book, and we spent our waiting time each engaged with our activity of choice. For once there wasn’t any squabbling, and we got on with it. The interesting part is that not one, but two nice smiley mums in the clinic, waiting with us, commented on how novel it was to see children entertaining themselves without a gadget. Thank you, I said—moms complimenting other moms is always an unexpected treat. Then they asked me which school my children went to. For a minute I was puzzled, then I connected the dots—they thought that the kids’ school was responsible for their behaviour. A doctor’s clinic, especially when they’ve just called your name, is not the appropriate place to delve into the conversation, but I truly wanted to clarify that it wasn’t necessarily school that was making my kids into the people they are, but me, and the home they were being raised in.

The question was quite like the one a friend used to be asked all the time in school. She had beautiful hair, thanks to good genes and a strict weekly oiling regime, but in school all the girls wanted to know what shampoo she used. The implication was that her hair was beautiful not because of the effort my friend and her mother put into maintaining my friend’s hair, but the magic panacea of Pantene or Flex or Samsol. It got me thinking: things that are worth having taken time and investment and hard work. Good hair takes effort. Good skin does too. Good manners require constant mindfulness. Good kids take years and years of relentless pruning. You can’t just wash your hair with a potion and have beautiful, shiny hair the same way you can’t send your child to a particular school and expect them to graduate fully polished, moral, responsible and kind citizens. And yet, there were those perfectly nice mums who seemed to think that was indeed a thing. In the time I have spent teaching, I have encountered several parents who would just ask me, in an aggrieved way, if I could just “do something” to make their child better at English. I would invariably respond with the only advice that actually works: get your kid to read, and practice at home. The parent would invariably ask me, who saw their child for two hours a week, to do that instead.

School and teachers are not replacements for active parenting. I don’t understand what parents nowadays expect from educational institutions—thanks to the former CJ, fees have gone awry and resulted in dire cutbacks at school. On the one hand parents want a certain level of service from the schools they patronise; on the other hand they don’t want to pay for it either. They want teachers to “fix” their children, but don’t want to pay the fee required for a teacher of that calibre. Some things, in any case, aren’t repairable by a teacher. A teacher cannot “cure” an insolent student, or a student that won’t work, or one that is bunking class to take a nap in the common room. It’s not a teacher’s job to do that. My generation would die before they sassed a teacher; now students come to class with a cocky swagger—my parents pay for this, so you better hop to it. Their parents are largely my generation, and I am astonished at how far they seem to have fallen as parents, if they have raised college-level children who think it’s not a big deal to come to class without a pen, a piece of paper or the textbook.

It’s not just school either. Anyone I know who does any kind of business is perpetually faced with the dilemma of customers who want the best, but for the price of the worst. At a charity sale I volunteer for, clearly affluent people will have no qualms in asking for a discount on an already half-off item. People will buy fruit for a tidy sum and go blue in the face haggling over ten rupees. This is not some charming quirk of market-going. This belies some deep, strange problem we seem to have. There is a gap somewhere. Is it the hallmark of laziness, that we want a shortcut to desirable things without the effort? Is it bafflement—we know what we want, just not how to achieve those ends? We want successful children but instead of putting in the Parent Hours, we expect schools to do it for us. We want these magical schools, but we don’t want to pay them. We want efficient trash collection and sewage works but will do ‘kacchi-parchi’ tax fraud. It’s the shampoo doctrine, all over again. You think a bottled concoction will make everything better. And it’s so easy.