- My latest book underscores the importance of Bhai Phota and Rakhi in nurturing sibling relationships for their social and emotional well-being.
Growing up in California, I celebrated Bhai Phota and Rakhi to honor and preserve our cultural traditions as Bengalis and Indian Americans. We also celebrated these festivals, so that my parents could make sure my brother and I would be there for each other in times of need. These rituals (bhai phota: putting a tikka on my brother’s forehead, or Rakhi: tying a string on my brother’s right hand) helped solidify the important bond that was being created from a young age between us and the values that my parents wanted to raise us with.
Today, I am consciously and intentionally aware of why these critical values and rituals are needed for my own children, especially during the digital and post-pandemic age. In my class on raising children in multicultural societies at San Jose State University, my students learn how important it is for parents to pass down important cultural values, beliefs and worldviews to their children. This provides them with a sense of who they are and what they value in life. It connects them to a deeper and more meaningful understanding of their cultural identity and in turn, this increases their self-esteem and confidence. We also discuss the importance of social and emotional well-being and the important role our families and siblings play in creating an environment that allows children to thrive.
My new children’s book, “Shanti and the Knot of Protection: A Rakhi Story” highlights the values that parents pass down to their children and the importance of having authentic and meaningful relationships in our lives. This book also discusses the origins of Rakhi, with a story of a young queen who needed protection from a King to make sure her queendom was not taken over by an evil conqueror. This is based on the historical story that is set in the 1500s in Rajasthan and is similar to the story of Queen Rukmini who asked for protection from King Humayun to protect her territory from an invasion.
This young queen loses her parents at a young age and decides to rule her new queendom by the four values her parents have taught her: strength, curiosity, community, and security. In addition to highlighting the importance of relationships, this book also highlights the importance of balancing one’s life with the four domains of well-being: physical domain, cognitive domain, social domain, and emotional domain. These domains are all connected to one another and influence our overall well-being in life. Through this story, children learn the importance of creating a community and feeling secure — not just with their siblings — but with their friends and other caring adults.
I also hope that parents will talk to their children about the importance of having authentic relationships in our lives in which we have people (family or friends) who will be there to support us in times of need. Talk to children about how siblings, cousins, or friends help them feel secure and loved—and who they would feel comfortable turning to in times of need. We all know how important these values and friendships are post-pandemic. Exposing our children to these topics from an early age is critical for their overall happiness and well-being. Through these types of conversations, we can raise children who are strong and confident in the decisions they make and the values that they live their lives by. Furthermore, we will also be raising children who are resilient when they experience setbacks and stressors in their lives.
Sibling relationships are unique in that they can be a protective factor for children for social and emotional well-being. The research shows, that positive sibling relationships promote prosocial behavior and emotional regulation in children. These relationships protect children from developing externalizing problems (e.g., aggression). In addition, the research reveals that positive sibling relationships can be a protective factor when children feel alienated and isolated from their peers.
However, it’s also important to note that sibling relationships can also be toxic and contribute to internalizing and externalizing problems for children who are victims. A 2021 study on family dynamics reveals that sibling bullying leads to a lower sense of competence, life satisfaction and self-esteem. This is extremely important to discuss because when a child is bullied by their siblings it doubles the risk of depression and self-harm during early adulthood.
As Indian American parents, it’s going to be environment to create an environment that helps us support our children and create bonds that will allow our children to feel secure and protected. We want to resist comparing our children because every child is different and we want to be aware of our own biases. We want to make sure we provide children with opportunities that allow them to have fun, and shared experiences together.
Parents can create unique sibling experiences through family game nights, hikes, city tours, go-kart racing, amusement parks, board games, etc. The important thing is to do it as a family and to provide the kids with different ways to bond, spend time together, and laugh. Another fun note for parents: siblings love to bond by creating a united front against their parents to do something that their parents don’t want them to do; I would say pick your battles and let them do it if it allows for them to bond and it’s not detrimental to their overall well-being.
We also want to continue our Rakhi traditions and rituals to remind our children of the special bonds they have and to remind them to take care of one another in times of need. Our culture is also changing with our times, and the Indian American culture is not fixed; but fluid. This means it continues to change with our times. “Shanti and The Knot of Protection: A Rakhi Story” encourages children to celebrate Rakhi with individuals in their lives (boys or girls) who provide us with a sense of protection and security. This could mean siblings that are both girls, siblings that are both boys, only children, or children who identify as LGBTQIA+ and don’t identify with traditional gender norms. I wanted this story to highlight images of inclusivity and to represent and validate the experiences of all children who are celebrating this festival in modern times. Through this story, children learn the importance of creating a community and feeling secure with not just their siblings—but with their friends and other caring adults.
In contemporary times, we know that many families are geographically dispersed. Today, many Indian-American families have created a network of friends that serve as their family. I know we have done this for ourselves in the community that we live in. The research shows that families are more resilient when they are connected to other families. We have to leverage the power of our neighborhoods.
For our own children, we want to help them make friends who are true, authentic friends. This means sharing the same core values. As Indian-American parents we want our children to connect with not just individualistic values which prioritize our own needs, and interests — but also our collectivistic values of being there for one another during good times and bad. This will help them connect back to their bicultural identity and live a well-balanced life. I hope all our children know that they are unique, loved, and protected in their lives.
Dr. Amita Roy Shah is the founder of My Social Edge.com and Hybrid Parenting.org. She is a senior professor Dr. Amita Roy Shah is the founder of mysocialedge.com, a company dedicated to meeting the social, emotional, and cultural needs of children. She is a senior lecturer at San Jose State University in the Department of Child and Adolescent Development. She is also the author of “It’s Time for Holi!,” “Lights, Camera, Diwali!,” “Brain-Based EQ for Kids!” and “Brain-Based Life Hacks.” She has a Master’s in Education from Pepperdine University and a Doctorate in Curriculum and Teaching from Teachers College, Columbia University.