Is it possible to give too much attention to your child?

When we have children, the miracle that we create is so overwhelming that it is indeed very hard to realize that alas the sun, moon and stars do not rise and set for the solitary purpose of giving joy to our progeny. We are so overwhelmingly engaged in our very own personal miracle that most often we do not realize that for us our whole world has become our children, mostly at the cost of ourselves. The danger of such emotional engagement is that we lose touch with ourselves and stop evolving as a person. Our whole identity is endangered by this our wholly subjective engagement. And this leads to too much attention given to our children – insidiously, unconsciously, unknowingly and naturally.

And what does this complete parental involvement do to our children? Well this is how we birth the sense of entitlement in our children, isn’t it? That they are the center of the world. At best, they become attention seekers and will live their whole life trying to get the world to give them attention (body art???). At worst. they start believing that merely by existing they are great and they never develop that sense of drive that is so essential to evolving us as people and as a species.

So what to do? Here are few actions that may help in keeping the thought at the forefront of your consciousness every time you feel awed by your child’s ‘abilities’, that there are thousands of children doing better than yours. And the reason they are doing better is because their parents are helping them push their boundaries everyday. And you need to do the same.

  1. Praise their effort and not their ‘ability’ / ‘talent’. There is no such thing as a talent. There is only potential and hard work to keep pushing the boundaries of ability everyday.
  2. Let children find their own ways to amuse themselves. Choose to meet your friends / socialize in a safe ‘play’ area and them let them find ways to amuse themselves. Make sure you firmly tell them that while they are playing, you are visiting with your friends and if it is not important, then they should just get on with it. Of course you must check on them often. Yet it is important to let them see and experience that you do have interests that completely engage you, other than them. And more importantly that every little thing they do DOES NOT DESERVE PRAISE. This will also let them experience the ordinary and the mundane, know the feeling of being bored which will push them to be creative.
  3. In order to help them be self reliant, do not fill up their every waking moment with activities. Let them find ways to amuse themselves which do not involve branded toys, digital involvement and / or socializing. In my experience this is in fact the most important aspect of learning to be independent, confident and comfortable with the self. Believe me your child will need bucket loads of this as she races into her teenage years.
  4. Immediately, very firmly and without further ado dispel all notions that your child might harbor about being a prince or princess. The fairy tales that we all grew up reading were written almost a century ago and are completely obsolete today; they were meant for a time where our understanding of our world and our own abilities for justice, compassion and evolution were limited. The pretense engendered by such stories in fact retard healthy growth in the 21st century. Instead let them cut their milk teeth on books such as those written by Dr Seuss and Raold Dahl. They will learn more about their current world from these books than from the century old fairy tale. Speak to them how irrelevant being a princess / prince is in today’s day and age, that birth does not any longer decide worth of a person and that such ‘people’ are like leaches, living off of our planet without giving back anything (remember John Lenin’s Circle of life – “But all are agreed as they join the stampede, You should never take more than you give”) that all of us have to add value to our home (our earth) and work as a team to make it a wonderful place to be. I am sure that you get my drift by now 🙂
  5. Keep conversation number 4 ongoing.
  6. Do not continuously praise them and all that they are achieving. You do not want your child to become an accolade junkie and to only perform to external praise. It is important for children to learn to compete against themselves. Helping to establish an internal challenge system within your child is so much more important, because this has a much more long term impact of engendering continuous motivation for achievement and task orientation, without requiring continuous external renewal.
  7. And last but certainly not the least, get your children to start doing things for others. There is nothing more powerful to accomplish moving attention away from the self, than by allowing children to experience the happiness that can be attained from the ability of being able to give without any expectation of a return. More on this in my next piece.

Toeing the line between a lack of and complete attention is a hard one. Being sensible is hard when the emotions are so strongly engaged. The only way out is to be conscious of it and be a little selfish. In the end, this will stand you in better stead than becoming totally selfless and losing your sense of balance. And remember, you do not have too much time within which to achieve this – by the time your child is four, this sense of entitlement has already been embedded.

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On unconditional love.

unconditional love4

Yesterday I saw a film in which a parent is very disappointed with her 15-year-old daughter returning home after her set curfew time. She gives her teenager a disappointed talking to, conveys her lack of confidence in her child doing anything right and then (now this is the important bit) – this mother tells her teenage daughter that SHE DOES NOT CARE WHAT TIME HER DAUGHTER COMES HOME FROM NOW ON, AS SHE HAS ALREADY GRADUATED AND CAN MAKE HER OWN LIFE DECISIONS. “just do not involve me in them” she ends her talk, walks back into the room and shuts her door with chilling finality – effectively withdrawing all her maternal love. Her teenage daughter had in fact just turned down her friends’ invitation to drink and smoke pot and go running off with a close friend’s cousin across the war-torn border of her country to ‘look for a new life’, which she was being assured would be tons better than being with her tired parents and what her own country could offer them, because she cared a lot about what her parents thought of her. So now this young 15-year-old girl is so disappointed in turn with her mother’s demeanor, that she storms out of home at 1.30 am to do what her friends wanted her to do in the first place and the rest is too chilling to describe here. Needless to say, this girl falls into very bad / criminal hands and ends up murdered at 16 years of age. This story sounds like fiction, doesn’t it? Well let me assure you, it is not. It has happened before, in my own extended family, where parental love has been withdrawn or used as ransom for fulfilling expectations. The result is ruination for child and parent alike. In fact, from my understanding of the under belly of this world (and I do have some knowledge despite what it seems like), children falling to naught due to such parental actions is almost commonplace I’d say. Go into any average Asian household and you will see how children are bent to their parents will, by threats of withdrawal of love, manifested in either ‘the silent treatment’, continuous nagging with how much the child has disappointed the parent, threats of committing suicide (the parents), threats of throwing the child out of home to fend for herself – oh yes I have seen all of this happen with family, colleagues, associates. Or the opposite, parents offering promises of love in the form of things that cash can buy (houses / apartments, cars, a lifestyle) and all the privileges that are attached to such love in return for obedience and fulfillment of expectations. Indeed our Bollywood movies are full of such parent-child relationships. unconditional love

Then of course there is the more subtle way of communicating disappointment when expectations are not fulfilled by a child – complete disengagement with one’s teenager. Parents continue their life as though they do not even have a child. Or send them away to boarding school!

In the name of love, all juice is extracted from the soul.

Revolting I say!

I have no personal experience of such blackmail thank all the powers that be. However, when I see it done over and over again, I have noted that both parents and children are the biggest losers in equal parts. Despite having NOTHING, my mother had one thing in abundance and that is her unending love for her children. She NEVER ransomed our behavior for her love, NEVER withdrew it ever and now from what I see around me, I can only thank her from the bottom of my heart for her completely unconditional love. I even remember her once gathering us three siblings together and telling us “I want you to come and tell me everything that ever happens to you and I solemnly promise that I will help you. Even if you have murdered someone, come and tell me. I do not promise to condone it, but I will do everything in my power to help you deal with the consequences.”

So what is unconditional love. I read Gibran as a teenager and even though I could hardly understand the sentiment or the inner meaning, for some reason these words below stayed in my mind and heart.

On Children  
 Kahlil Gibran

Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.

You may give them your love but not your thoughts,
For they have their own thoughts.
You may house their bodies but not their souls,
For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow,
which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.
You may strive to be like them,
but seek not to make them like you.
For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.

You are the bows from which your children
as living arrows are sent forth.
The archer sees the mark upon the path of the infinite,
and He bends you with His might
that His arrows may go swift and far.
Let your bending in the archer’s hand be for gladness;
For even as He loves the arrow that flies,
so He loves also the bow that is stable.

Could be that as a child I was dealing with loss myself and there was some solace in these words that vaguely promised a sort of inurement from pain. Thus it is only now that I am beginning to understand these words and what it means to give unconditional love. As I grew older and my own relationship with my parent evolved and changed, I became more and more conscious of my own relationship with my children. I started questioning a lot of “expectations” that I had of and from them. Moreover, I also had an example in the form of my team partner and husband. He is and has always been naturally the most live and let live person I have ever known in my long life :). What I noticed was how he never imposed his own opinions / needs / desires on any member of his close family. There was never any verbal or non verbal communication from him towards his children to conform to either personality traits, tastes, behavior patterns that he felt were desirable. Yet there I was, buying clothes, food, toys, accessories for my children and trying to get them to like and be the vision I had of them in my head. My children are fortunate that I learn quickly once I see the light 🙂 and I slowly but surely started withdrawing my own vision of how I wanted them to be. I think one of the key drivers of changing my this mind-set was the realization that my own vision for my children was so much smaller than the one that they had for themselves! My own ego and grandiose notions about myself as MOTHER / BIG MAMA (all-knowing / all-seeing) was standing in the way of such a realization.  I will tell you the story of how this barrier fell subsequently but for now let me just say that I still feel that I am nowhere near as perfect in this regard as is my husband but I keep trying to reach his level of detachment from the end result, while still continuing to pour out all of that love that we have for our off spring.

So what started me on this journey of the discovery of unconditional love was not one shocking incident or a thunderbolt of knowledge from beyond. Rather it was a slow process of understanding, gauging and trying out. I remember how shocked and hurt I used to be when either of my children rejected my choice of clothes or books or toys. I am ashamed to admit that it took me a long while to let go my own earlier mentioned egotistic need for ‘heroine worship’ from my children. I would get all upset and sulky and cry foul – “oh but I am MOTHER and I absolutely know best!” It was only when I realized that I was indeed one very stressed human being (especially as compared to my partner, who was always calm and loving and nurturing) that I started questioning my own need to be boss of all decisions. By this time my children had started questioning my own choices and disagreeing with my choices of behavior for myself, when faced with similar situations. It is around this time that I finally started to let go of my ego and really started listening to them. Thereafter a wonderful thing happened. I actually started seeing them as individuals, who may have sprung from inside me but were now organically apart from me in every way one can envisage. I then started seeing my role in their lives as truly enabling them to become what they wanted to become by just providing the right environment in which they could flower best. I have to say it was a wonderful discovery for more than one reason. For one, I felt this complete sense of release. I think we parents have no idea about how much pressure we put ourselves under when we take it upon ourselves the responsibility of making sure our children are and will be exactly how we want them to be. Making all their choices for them and then being continually disappointed when they do not come out exactly the way we had wanted them to! Secondly but not lastly, I felt this amazing new interest in my children. I could not wait to discuss issues / situations and topics with them. I love to seek their advice as they have such a new fresh perspective on almost everything. And due to this, I am now part of formulating new norms in society, evolving my self and social norms as I go along. What a high.

I know, I have not spoken anything at all about my journey and for sure this journey is not an easy one. There is no doubt that being a parent is full of the pain and joy that we call life. Yet the reward is huge, for this one phase of your life has huge potential to teach you the meaning of unconditional love.

So let me now begin to describe this journey of mine a little bit for those of you who are also searching a path to this incredible state of being. By unconditional love I do not mean “no expectations.” Of course all parents have expectations for their children. They would not be good parents if they did not have such. What I do mean is that a parent’s love for a child is unconditional because it is accepting, understanding and giving. If these three values were a triangle, accepting and understanding would found the base and the value of giving would be at the apex. And in order to arrive at this unconditional giving of love, the first step in my experience in accepting. The second step is understanding. The result will be an unquestioning pouring of love for your children forever – one that is without disappointment, regrets for choices made and not made and pain for lost time, time in which you could have just shown your children the unlimited fount of love inside you.

Everyone has their own path to these three values of unconditional love. Nevertheless, from my own experience, I would like to offer up here some clues to watch out for and how to take those beginning steps, for those of you who are still searching:

Beginning steps for ACCEPTING:

  1. Allow your child to take baby steps in decision-making. Choosing what clothes to wear for the day, the story to read at bedtime, the snack to have for a mid afternoon one. Of course you provide the consideration set of choices but the choice will be your child’s.
  2. ALLOWING your child to make the wrong choice and then teaching her to live with it. Of course it could be the choice of watching a late night TV show on a school night and then making sure she wakes up in time to make it to the morning running club that she is committed to. This is teaching your children to make careful and thought out choices.
  3. Holding back your comments when you KNOW (of course from your experience) that a wrong character value is being lauded. For example your child comes home and appreciatively speaks about how smart her friend is to have cheated under the teacher’s very nose and not get caught! Hold your sermon. It will not be appreciated. Your sermon / speech will only result in further drawing the line for your child between parents and us and never the twain shall meet. And many a time, children will make comments / remarks that they know are taking an extreme opposite path to the one appreciated by their parents, just to check the extent of their boundaries / how far they can stretch it! Yes, kids are evil like that 🙂
  4. SHOW APPRECIATION for individual emerging character traits. Could be a manner of dressing which is different from the norm eg. old clothes, dressing down, dressing up. Could be a way of working which is very different from what you yourself practice – such as study with music, last-minute deadline meeting and so on. Now I know this is EXTREMELY difficult for a parent to approve of, especially if there is a lot of dressing up happening or a lot of last-minute tension of work deadlines. The idea is to appreciate first and then subtly but firmly guide towards a practice / habit that is more workable and value added in the final analysis. Rational based calm advice has been noted by me to work best in this regard. If your advice is not immediately followed, let it go. Do not push it or give ultimatums or have shouting matches. That will not help. Your particular detachment to the outcome, on the contrary, will help hugely in bringing to light the benefits and drawbacks of approach that your child chooses to adopt and you will see for yourself how self correction will start to happen.
  5. acceptingI believe it is important to dwell a bit more upon the issue of detachment to outcome. To my mind this is the MOST POWERFUL MENTAL TOOL to achieve the best outcome for our children because it helps us focus on the nurturing aspects of child rearing, removing the possessive aspect from this very important task and thus releasing the outcome for every probability of success. So here is one more story from my child rearing phase that I believe helped me detach myself from the outcome and allow the probability of success to kick in. My son works to deadlines, else he does not work! When his bum is on fire, he delivers. And he delivers beautifully. But this probability of success was a hard learning for the both of us. He has always been a relaxed child, happy to bask in the sun when it is shining instead of (metaphorically) working hard to build a strong shelter for rainy days. Thus he is always seeking shelter from whomsoever offers it when it rains. And he gets shelter because he is entertaining, relaxed, accepting, non judgmental and eternally grateful. Of course I did not see any of these awesome personality traits when he worked nights to meet deadlines and the whole house was running around offering him food, drink, assistance and whathaveyous. I had this completely awesome vision of my son (with my face on this vision of course, not his) as being always pre-prepared, calm, collected, in control, master / boss etc etc etc. And what I had was a completely crazy eccentric mad-professor like son, with hair spiking up (for the in-numerous times he ran his fingers through his hair in despair no doubt), I thought to myself! Little realizing that his creative juices were flowing when he did that, it calmed him (he told me this later). So of course, the result was always a tired, fractious, dissatisfied mother ME and a son who was forever cranky and dissatisfied with the lack of support from ME. Till one day he did not tell me that he had a deadline to meet. He worked more than half the night. And got huge accolades after the success he obtained. And I came to know of it almost a week later, FROM SOMEONE ELSE. I cannot even begin to explain the pain, sorrow, shock and credulousness that I experienced in that one moment when a clear knowing-ness of failure is perceived.. All joy of my son’s success was almost obfuscated by the pain of knowing that I had not been involved in his success! Of course I put myself through some very difficult introspection and at the end of it did not like myself at all. I had only been thinking about me and not about what works best for my child. If only I had understood his nature better and provided the right environment, I would not have faced the shock of being kept away from his success and joy! So thank God I learned. Because if I had not, the wall that my child had started to build between me and him would be more than halfway to finished now. And breaking that wall down today would have been next to impossible. So here is what I did after this incident. I held back all my comments on his LACKS and just started focusing on his abilities. In softer more communicative moments I would ask him to think about and even explain to me how he works when he races against time and  what happens inside his mind, what his own learning is from the way he works and how can he make it better. And due to such conversations with me and his father and sibling, my son has learned how to harness his need for delivery with pressure to be optimal and never detrimental to his health. He has learned to time delivery such that it is not ‘nervously’ much ahead of time (because then he will go crazy making changes on it till the last-minute) but just enough ahead of time for him to compose himself, relax enough so that he can delivery a great piece of work with equanimity!

This leads me onto UNDERSTANDING:

  1. Point number (5) above shows me at the first stage of acceptance; accepting that my child is DIFFERENT from me, does not fulfill my expectation from him (be prepared much earlier than required) and works at a different pace to what I could easily understand. It is only after I accepted this FACT that I began to understand that there is another equally good or better or different way of working. It opened up a completely new window of life and I stepped in boldly and learned another way. Thus accepting does lead to understanding in a deeper way.
  2. Understanding does not mean believing that everything our children do is right and everything they want to be is best for them. It merely means that as parent one continues to perceive one’s child as a LEARNER and oneself as a FACILITATOR. A Learner has to keep extending her limits and a Facilitator has to continue to goad, cajole, prod, urge and poke the Learner (in this case one’s child) to grow better and better with every experience, awareness and knowledge.
  3. Understanding that your children have HUGE potential, if only the environment is fertile; so much potential that you yourself as parent do not have vision enough to see it. Your role is to just keep that potential burgeoning. And guide your child subtly to keep her on the right track.
  4. Understanding that when your children ‘diss’ you, they are not actually ‘dissing’ you. They are merely asking for your respect. You give them that respect and they will never diss you. By respecting them you are doing them the greatest favor, because now they are learning to respect themselves and this is the beginning of the strongest foundations of self-worth.
  5. There is a fine line between indulgence and firm guidance. The trick is to understand that line, when the line shifts to arrogance of self-worth, it is time to pull the stop sign and say “go back and start again!” First remove those rose-colored spectacles through which every loving parent sees their child. To do this you need to detach yourself from your vision of your child. It is then that you will see that somethings are intrinsically not healthy for proper growth. So disagree when it is necessary. But disagree with a detachment to the end result. Nothing will guide the end result in the correct direction more firmly than disagreement with detachment.
  6. Remember that you too need to earn respect from your children and you will do that if you are not a pushover. You keep adding value to life in a way that makes them proud too.  Set them those clear boundaries of behavior (no swearing, gossiping, pushing boundaries – as spoken about in other chapters of this blog) and you adhere to them too. Listen to their vision of themselves and then recognize them for what they are rather than always what they should be according to your way of thinking.

Once accepting and understanding has happened, even you cannot stop the giving of UNCONDITIONAL LOVE. And this I promise you. Remember when you are not overpoweringly concerned about whether the rose on your rose-bush will be a deep red or pink when it eventually flowers, you will keep tending to the rose-bush as well as you can – because you can influence the outcome of flowering but not the outcome of how it will look, smell and endure. Similarly you can influence the outcome of your child’s life with the equilibrium of happiness but not the specifics of personality / choices of career or life partner.

The importance of having conversations with your children.

Conversing We parents have all heard ad nauseam about the importance of keeping all communication channels open with one’s children. When my children were toddlers and every time I heard that phrase, either at a school meeting or from a parent with older kids (who had that irritating ‘been there done that’ tone – you know the one I am referring to?), I would go into a mental tailspin. Right so we need to keep talking. But what and how and to what purpose? I had no idea what this very intelligent sounding phrase meant and how to even start to keep all communication channels open. I could not focus on the future teenage years when my two-year old was throwing that temper tantrum on that mal escalator or when my nearly 5-year-old was sitting with his food on the table for HOURS! All I could think of was the here and now and how to handle this issue facing me now. But I was lucky. My partner, (with a name that means “far-seeing” 🙂 ), kept the big picture in mind. He saw importance of having conversations to facilitate communication with our children and so when the children started to speak, he made time stop for this purpose. And thus started my own journey with learning about how “conversations” can keep all communication channels open with one’s kids, so that when in those teenage and nearly adult years, they need the most counseling on how to manage relationships, emotions, social image and all the immense learning required to set those foundations for becoming strong and well-rounded adults, they would TALK with those people who care for them the most and who care for them unconditionally.

I would like to make one more point before I go onto describing my own learning about the importance of the art of conversation with our children and it is that it is almost a given that parents fall into the trap of instructions rather than conversations with one’s children! As parents we start off with the premise of ownership, responsibility, compliance for learning and all of these pre-conditioned ideas of what it means to be a parent. When you think about it, we have conversations with our friends, colleagues, social network – all of those people are not in any way beholden to us. But more often than not, we DO NOT have conversations with our nearest family members. There are grunts, information giving, instructions etc that POSE as conversations but ARE NOT SO. This is a trap that we need to be conscious of and avoid falling into. conversation with child

So I have learned that real communication is all about having conversations. In order to have effective conversations, I had to first understand the how and the what of conversations. Thus here I will share my learning about what worked for me and my husband as a team, all the HOWS and the WHATS, so that the process and the reasoning behind the purpose is clear to all parents, who like me, struggled (and continue to do so even today with teenagers) with every bit of nurturing required for one’s children.

The HOWS:

It all begins when children first begin to talk. Those first words / phrases and sentences begin the journey of having meaningful conversations. Yes the first and foremost how is this, having MEANINGFUL conversations. These conversations must be of importance to the subjects (our children) and to us too. I can only urge you not to waste time doing kid blabber. That to my mind is a bit disrespectful too. After all, if your child is trying to speak like you (that’s how children learn to speak by listening to their parents talk with them), then by speaking like them, when they cannot quite formulate the words well enough, you are actually stopping their learning process. A lot of new research done on child rearing these days that also validates that if you talk down to your children or use baby talk most of the time with them, children exposed to such talk then start associating their parents with absolute indulgence and no meaningful talk at all.

Okay so here are some pointers on how to start and keep those meaningful conversations going:

  1. Answer ALL those questions. Stop everything else that you are doing and answer your child, as intelligibly and as sensibly and as close to the truth as possible. Do not make up stories. this is the BEST way to STOP your children from ever asking you anything in the future, because they will associate you with HIDING THE TRUTH FROM THEM! Of course edit your answers to age appropriate words / phrases / understanding, but the core truth of the answer should not be altered or fudged. conversation anywhere
  2. If you do not know the answer (this was a very common problem I faced), find out / google it! Teach your children how to google for answers. Do not be afraid of the web and all the evil it can bear on your children. If you are the first teachers on the web, then your children will learn your way, which will be the guided way. Promise you, you will never have to use Net Nanny (and all those other newer / latest apps to block your child from accessing this awesome global highway). Your reward for all this hard work will be that you yourself will learn so much more than you ever knew before.
  3. Get your children hooked on having good conversations. Think up of relevant topics that interest you. Ask them to come up with topics that interest them. We personally found current affairs to be a wonderful conversation starter and a read prompter as well. I remember my husband always starting to speak about any current affair issue in a role-playing manner. If it was to do with the banking issues, he would speak about the whole event first in the tone of the banker, then in the tone of the banker’s boss, then in the tone of the President of the country. We were all (including yours truly) glued to his stories. Then afterwards, we all went away and read up about it. And this is how we started. And if current affairs does not interest you, you could use any topic of interest such as music, fashion, art, Maths, Science, your child’s day in school, her social interactions with her friends and so on. But remember you have to share your stories first, set the example and your children will follow suit. So be careful about HOW you relate the story, the tone you use and attitude you display, because sure as anything on this earth, you are setting the tone for how your children will face life – either with positivity or negativity, either with jealousy / aggressiveness or with generosity and grace. You are their God. Feel powerful huh? Well I hope you are feeling the pressure too – because you cannot run away from the fact that howsoever your kids turn out, you had a strong hand to play in it!
  4. Imparting the art of conversation is indelibly linked with learning from the art of storytelling. storytellingThis is where you can exercise all your fantasies and make up as many stories as you like. I learned that this was the best way to teach our children moral values. And yes I suggest you actually TEACH it to them because our world today is not as simple as it was when we ourselves were growing up. There are many more options available to our children today, they are being bombarded by a zillion messages. Thus they are obviously much more confused than we ever were. So TEACH them moral values and strong enduring character values. And the best way to do this, I learned, was from story telling. Any other way became a “speech” / a monologue and comes out pompous and judgmental and we could see our children physically (and so of course completely mentally)  tune out! So those bed time story telling times were invaluable. Of course reading out the stories to them was much easier. But my husband loved to make up stories too. His voice was soothing and he built those plots so beautifully and we were all (me included) spellbound. We told our children stories about all the human follies and failings, we told them stories of valor and the importance of fighting evil, we made up stories with fairies and monsters who were fairly human like and almost recognizable as real people. Oh yes, we were evil like that as parents :).
  5. conversation with teenage daughterDo not EVER talk down to your children, or tell them “you are too young to understand” or change the subject very obviously when you are having a conversation with another adult and they walk in and overhear a bit. They will ask you what you are conversing about and you then must either relate in brief or introduce the topic of discussion honestly or if the need arises, honestly let them know that you are a custodian of confidential information given to you by another, which you cannot breach. Of course they will do the same to you sometimes, after all children ape their parents all the time. So remember that you must honor their code of confidence as well – just remind them that you too can keep confidence (as they well know) and that you will be around to lend them an ear and meaningful mind, if they ever need it. Believe you me, they will and you will know.
  6. Give focused time to your children. especially when they have spent a half / full day in another environment and come back home full of outside experiences. Stop your cooking / cleaning / telephone chats with friends / Face Booking / IM’ing and sit with your children and become a receptor. I cannot over emphasize the importance of this role of yours as parent. All communication begins and stops here, at this point. I suggest you give a label to this time. My children loved it when I said “heyyy you’re back home. Wow. Now let’s chat!” Welcome them back, make them FEEL that they were sorely missed and blow up the ‘most of the times’ ordinary chats after school to “our special chatting time together”. Then these conversations take on a special hue, the children start looking forward to it and you have SUCCESSFULLY OPENED A HUGE CHANNEL OF COMMUNICATION. Phew! That was hard. but so so worth it. It does not have to be long. It could be a phone call from work, if you are a working parent and it could be 5-7-15 minutes maximum.
  7. Just listen. Don’t ask too many questions. And DON’T JUDGE. Okay more importantly DO NOT JUDGE YOUR CHILDREN’S FRIENDS. Rather guide them, when you are asked. And don’t worry, if you do not judge, you will be asked. Well you could interject the odd “oh really, then what happened?” to show your interest or “and what did you do then?” to show that your child’s reaction / action was more important than how her friend was behaving or even the odd “ya” to indicate your attention. Along with this, focus on what your child is saying. Remember it is not going to be scintillatingly interesting ALL the time, sometimes it may be just rambling or going over things in their own heads BUT it is very interesting and important to them. So keep your attention. I promise you your patience will be rewarded and that there will be those gems that you are waiting for and this will allow you to insidiously guide your child in the direction you want them to go and learn.
  8. Here’s something else that worked very well for me. In case there was this issue of not agreeing with how my child reacted or behaved in a certain situation, I would guide her by saying “now if I was faced with this situation, I would do this … And it has happened to me before that when I did it this way, the result was … and when I did it this other way, the result was …  (give the positive result for the action you want you child to take – yeah evil parents all 🙂 ).
  9. Try to hold back on the judgement. Seriously. I know this is the hardest one of all. But if you start thinking of your child as an individual separate from you, from you but not belonging to you, you will manage to come to this position of equilibrium. I cannot even begin to express how powerful this non judgmental manner of conversation is for guidance and counseling your child. no communication
  10. Remember that you cannot start when your child is an adolescent and you are faced with issues or hiding / lying / unacceptable behavior and hope this works well. If you have started this when they were toddlers, it is likely you have fairly smooth sailing teens. But if you are starting this when they are already adolescent, then you will really need to pull out all the stops and best of luck to you.

Okay so those were some of the HOWS of conversing with my children that I have learned along the way and which have worked well for me. Now for the WHATS. This is equally important, because the adage “we are what we put into our minds” could not hold more true than if it leaped up and bit you in the face :). So here is it:

WHAT KIND OF CONVERSATIONS SHOULD SUCCESSFUL & HAPPY FAMILIES ENGAGE IN?

  1. No conversations about people we know, unless it is positive and learning from. Make this an overt written rule. When your children start talking about people (friends – theirs or yours, teachers, sibling who is not present, relative) just nip it in the bud right there and say “oh it is so boring and unnecessary to talk about other people and how they are behaving and what they are doing. Let’s change the subject, shall we?” The adage speak about topics, issues, situations and not about people we know should be followed strictly. The result from this will be a healthy positive atmosphere at home – keeping away from negative gossip, re-positioning gossip as rumor mongering and negative, keeping jealousies out of your home and family and even teaching your children to control and manage their jealous urges. Yet the most important result will be that your children will be popular socially. People / society love people who they can trust / depend on and who they know is not the “gossipy” kind, even though they themselves may not be able to emulate such a personality trait.
  2. Discussing situations / circumstances have another advantage. It opens the doors for your children to be able to discuss their own situations / circumstances etc with objectivity and reason / rationale. Keeping emotions out of some situations provides a great opportunity to see that situation clearly for what it is and act in a way that works best for one.
  3. Discussing great authors / books, leading edge thinking, innovations / ideas, politics, socio-economic scenarios across the world etc all are wonderful topics of conversations. Conversations with these topics encourage debate (as every member of the family may have a different point of view) and hence teach children not to get personal when discussing issues, keep personal emotions of ego / pride / jealousies and one-up-man-ship aside and focus on the FACTS about the topic at hand. And even though no consensus may be reached after ending the discussion, you can be rest assured that everyone has learned a lot from the different points of view to go away and look at that same topic completely differently from when they started discussing it. What more can parents want than to create an environment where they can show their children how to keep an open mind. So you may ask what have the children learned from such a discussion / conversation? Here are a few learnings: 1) Looking at the topic from ANOTHER / DIFFERENT PERSPECTIVE from the own. 2) ANOTHER way of dealing with the same issue (creative / lateral thinking). 3) They will never suffer from “it’s my way or the highway” syndrome! 4) Children will learn to use reason rather than emotions in choice / decision-making.
  4. Link up topics from point (3) above to your children’s daily life. They will start sharing their life naturally with you once they have learned and got hooked onto the art of conversing. Now this communication channel is open, you can encourage them to learn from great writers / thinkers / doers, debate both your points of views and LEAVE THE CHOICES OF ACTION IF REQUIRED OPEN FOR YOUR CHILD TO MAKE. You can be rest assured that your child will make the wise choice. This is indeed the power of conversation with parents.
  5. Discuss ALL issues, no matter how personal. Especially those that are related to socially taboo subjects such as sex, drugs, deviant behavior etc. Remember that all of these should be discussed with no tones of embarrassment or shyness creeping in, a completely open mind and very important, with empathy. This is VERY VERY IMPORTANT especially when one’s children are in their teens and there are all sorts of deviant behavior all around them. Remember these children are out trying to find their identities and they will push their own and social boundaries to see how far they can go and even to check out for themselves why some behavior is deemed deviant by society / their parents. birds-and-bees-600x390I am not even for a minute suggesting ACCEPTANCE of any such behavior at all. However, what I am suggesting and has worked for me is more of an open tone to discuss such issues and provide clear and strong rational for how and why such behavior can be detrimental for one’s physical and mental health. You may be asked to throw out some of your closely held social norms and you may want to do this mainly because this will help to retain the norms that are much more important to retain. For example you may want to let go of your rule of NO skimpy clothes just so you put money where your mouth is when you agree that women do not invite lewd behavior no matter how they dress! This does not mean that you do not discuss this issue with your teen and make sure she is aware that this attitude is a social norm and even discuss ways in which she can handle herself faced with this social reaction. In my experience, when an issue is not forced, most teens learn themselves that maybe this is a battle not worth fighting for.
  6. Offer up important information as you go along. Sometimes it will seem like your children have not heard you at all. Let it go. They have. They file it away when you don’t force it. Watch out for it, they will bring it out one day and discuss it with you. conversing

A great thinker once opined a simple yet very powerful thought: “a conversation is a dialogue, not a monologue! I have discovered the power of this simple statement. I have discovered that getting children hooked onto the art of making conversation is indeed a most powerful tool of communication, one that when used effectively teaches much to both parents and children alike.

Read read read … for a real education.

Are you convinced that your child will not be well educated, no matter which of the best schools she gains admission into, unless she LOVES to read?

Only read on further if you have answered the above question with an affirmative.

So if you do not want to leave the love of reading to chance, you need to make sure you try your best to inculcate this love in your children. Remember that like with anything in life, one loves the end result but to get to the end result, a lot of hard work is required. There are no short cuts unfortunately, other than chance 🙂

So here are some of the things I inadvertently did that worked in favor of my children becoming avid readers. I hope this can be of some help to all of you too:

  1. If you do not love reading yourself, know this is going to be even more difficult a task.
  2. If you are a reader, your job is 50% easier than if you are not.
  3. Allow your toddlers to chew their books, wet them in the bathroom, give them to their pet dog to read and chew if need be 🙂 🙂
  4. Try establishing a routine of reading – same time, situation, environment everyday. I made toilet time reading time and this worked superbly for me both in case of toilet training 🙂 and reading.
  5. We did try to establish bed time reading as well but as my husband was very fond of story telling, bed time became more story telling time rather than reading time. This made double magic – my children (and me) started yearning for stories being recited every night and dug even deeper into our books for more inspiration.
  6. Do not allow the TV habit to creep in. When the mind gets used to ‘mindless’ entertainment, to joggle it awake is an almost impossible task. We chose not to have cable TV at home after my children were born. The fact that neither my husband nor I were particularly attached to TV viewing, did help in completely throwing out the telly. In this way we never had to tell our children to stop watching TV. We also never made a big deal of it if they watched the telly at their friend’s homes.
  7. Encourage the use of the internet for edutainment NOT MERELY entertainment.
  8. Praise praise praise books at every opportunity you can get. Make your children reading heroes. Applaud anything they have read. Provide accolades for a new story told from the latest book addition.
  9. Buy your children as many books as they want. I made a big deal of saying how I was stretching my budget (as we have always had to have books shipped to us, my children grew up in non reading culture / English books countries and never had the advantage of browsing in book stores) to be able to buy them any book they wanted. I found my little ones revere these books even today and their reading of it even more.
  10. Make stories from various books one of the main topics of conversation in your home. Discuss the story, the various characters – weak and strong, their behavior and what you and your children think of this, what would they have done in the same situation and so on.
  11. Choose a role model for each age type; in my home we had Barney to begin with, then Brother Bear and Franklin; we then moved on to Cat in a Hat! Dr Seuss is still an all-time favorite.  After a certain time, a certain momentum is gained and children become self-propelled. When mine moved onto real historical characters and innovators I do not know but the conversations around these characters and their stories has not stopped till date. All of us discuss books after reading them and not everyone likes all books, which is fine too.
  12. Exposing children to all kinds of written genre from comics to short stories, novels, fiction and non fiction – all are very important. Allow your children to pick what they like and eschew what they do not. My son never read a fairy tale in his life. My daughter grew up on them and moved onto fantasy fiction much to the chagrin of her brother. However, no choice was specifically revered by us parents, all genres were interesting and my family was always open to discussing everything.
  13. Books books books everywhere, we are constantly tripping up on them in our home. Even now my children have their books littered all around their room and my son who moved out a year back, leaves his books in places in his room that he does not want their placement touched even today.

Reading increases vocabulary, inculcates incredible communication skills, increases knowledge about human beings of many many different types, thus increasing sensitivity and the emotional quotient of children, to say nothing of increasing knowledge of many things diverse, deep and different.

Like with everything, watch out for a good balance of reading and human interaction. Both are equally important. I have seen too many children hide behind their books (like I did as a child) not to know how dangerous this can be by actually retarding growth in social skills and grounding in reality.

So … go on then ….

Read in order to live – Gustav Flaubert

Mamma, who is God?

HaloDisclaimer: if you are a religious person, then please do not read further. I am writing this on request from and for other non-religious parents like me. Moreover, nowhere in this writing do I intend to hurt the feelings of any religious person, in any way. If I inadvertently do so, then I apologize in advance. I believe in live and let live and make no value judgments about people based on their religion or lack thereof; the only judgments I am making are for me and my family.

Dedication: I am writing this piece especially for my sister, at her own behest, as she is caught in the midst of two old religions and wants to find the right path to a good life for her child (a union of this intermingling of religions).

However, I hope that my mother also reads this post so she understands better why I have chosen my own God and not followed the family one 🙂

Can one impart important values to one’s children without using the support of religion?

The simple answer is YES. One can. BUT it is a difficult path. YET to my mind it is the stronger and more enduring path to achieving lasting happiness in this life. This is the path of reason, buy in and understanding that ‘doing the right thing’ logically, psychologically and rationally begets a good life. This path requires constant questioning of the given norms and oneself. Keep thinking about cause and effect, assess and evaluate self actions vs results and whether these results meet expectations or not. This is a path where one evaluates the truth one finds along the path of life, questions it, tries and tests it before adopting it. This is a path that requires continuous learning.

Yup, not easy. But, maybe, leads one surely towards real knowledge.

The one main motivation for me, the one that kept me trudging on this path even when I was hanging by my last thread of patience, was the strong belief that if my children understood what it all means and agree that this ‘way of life’ will be good for them and bring them lasting happiness, then they will be in control of their lives and not let life control them.

So what is this non religious belief system or approach all about? Kali

Before even getting into the area of God and religion and what it all is, I think parents need be clear about their own belief systems. It is a simple logic that applies, in that if we ourselves are unclear about all these very important concepts or have not thought about it, there is no way we are going to be able to help our children clarify their own ideas and find their own ‘God’ or ‘life’s truth’. I decided early on in parenthood that I will not allow any third-party, no matter how Godly / Holy to define my own and my children’s understanding of what constitutes a good and happy life. Right away I knew that this path that my husband and I had collectively chosen was going to be very difficult, swimming against the tide is never easy. However, looking back, I think three life events helped my husband and me to follow through with what we truly believed in. The first was that we moved away from a society in which we were expected to follow the set norms (we moved away from the country where we were born and grew up in, almost immediately after the birth of our first child). Second was we moved into a society where there were no given or set norms; in that, all differences were acceptable and the only norms were to be compassionate, giving, friendly and understanding (we have been expatriated across three different countries till date (not counting our passport country), living like global nomads since our children were born). And last but not the least, I was lucky to have met a real life sage as I was growing up and the truth he imparted to me made me step more confidently on this path of reason rather than blind faith.

Thus as I slowly evolved into a non religious person (yes I was not born this way 🙂 ), I started thinking about my kind of person’s place in this world. When questioned about my non religious status (or atheism if you will), I now describe a non-religious person as someone who does not follow any organized religion but who has adopted the path of reason, logic and who uses their own life’s learning (and historical data) to find the real truth that supports a good and happy life. I describe a non religious life as one that attempts to achieve the best they can, adding value to self and others and this earth our home and always give more than we take from it. And most importantly, the reason for doing this is not fear, not blind faith, not unquestioning acceptance of current norms, because everyone accepts it, BUT because of a strong belief and knowing ness that this is the best way to be, as this is the only way that will lead to happiness and a good life.

Answering the question – mama who and / or what is God?

So how did we as parents answer this question, mamma who is God? Our answers evolved and became more complex across the various stages of our children’s development and depending on how much we could see they understood. Here below is how we answered this question and in the process exposed what we reasoned and understood to be the ideology behind all organized religions:

  • ‘God’ is a role model of how to be good. A symbol of what being the ‘best’ a human being can be. 
  • Human beings are not born with an intrinsic understanding of the difference between good and bad and why it is important to do the ‘right’ (or ‘good’ if you will) actions. So ‘God’ and religion is a way that different kinds of people have described their role models. So that they can be inspired to be good and live life the way it should be lived – which will bring them happiness.

As you can imagine, children are never satisfied with one answer. Our answers to them (on anything) were always open to debate. As parents, my husband and I have tried never to impose our thinking on our children. We have always encouraged them to think for themselves and adopt a thought, an idea or an activity, only if they themselves are convinced that it would be right for them. This is not to say that we have not connived to guide our children along the way we wanted them to go, all the time letting our children think that it was a path that they themselves had chosen. The simple philosophy behind this parenting style is a basic understanding that (a) for children, parents are their first role models (b) human beings value freedom the most. When parents say something it always impacts on their children, for better or for worse. When parents open opinions to debate, it impacts even stronger. When parents force their own opinions, the natural reaction of children is to push back. So of course, as my children grew older, there were many more related questions about God, religion, values and so on and loads of discussions on the subject have happened all through their and my growing years, till their late adolescence I think. There is no way I can put all those discursive questions and answers down here. So here below are a few important issues we have discussed over the years and I am delineating here the way my husband and I tackled them.

  1. Why is it important to be discrete?
  • Because then we can control our animal instincts. By exercising self-control we can steer our life in exactly the way we want. We will not be buffeted by life but instead be in full control of our lives.
  • Because the way to happiness is building on abilities, traits, relationships and not confusedly going from one to the other or continuously seeking variety in everything.

2. What is good? Is there only one ‘good’ for everyone or do different people have different ways of being ‘good’?

  • ‘Good’ is what needs to be done and be in life to be happy. There are a few universal goods, that are  important for everyone. These are being honest, not being lazy, being polite / civil, having a civic sense, good hygiene etc to the more evolved goods like having self-control, being compassionate etc. Being good in this way makes us stronger human beings, well able to tackle whatever happens to and around us and with people who we care about. Then there are other kinds of good which change with the context – sometimes the same action can be bad and / or good, depending on what the context is (reasons behind the action). For example, simple choices like do we un-restrainedly eat fatty food stuff when under nourished to avoiding it completely when tending to obese body weight or to more complex choices like do we save the life of a family member at the cost of a stranger’s life? This second kind of good must be learned from life and every person learns this differently.

3. Why do people ‘pray’? What are these various places for prayer all about?

  • People pray because this is the one time they can focus inside their mind and not be distracted by all the tangible things that surrounds us. To help them focus their minds, they use idols, images, symbols that for them stand to be the highest good. They call this object / image / symbol God and focus on this to focus on themselves and what they really are and want to be. A bit like a reminder to themselves to be good on that day / hour and to believe that this is best for them. 

4. Why are there so many rituals? Why do people donate so much money to places of worship?

  • On the question of rituals: the easiest way I found to describe a ritual is to say that it is an action that is repeated without thought and / or question. It seals a ‘faith system’ because it becomes an unthinkingly done habit. So a ritual could really work to make thinking of doing GOOD things a regular habit 🙂 Like (blind) faith, a ritual could move a person towards achieving something that otherwise could have been impossible for that person to do – due to the structure and rigor with which an action is repeated to accomplish the desired result (example practicing Maths, serving the needy, taking care of a sick person till he / she becomes healthy again – sometimes against all odds). People then call these events / results miracles, because normal behavior could not have accomplished the same. However, in some other cases, blind faith and rituals could act as curtains of iron, blocking one’s mind to fresh new thoughts and ways of doing things in a world that is evolving. It is important to understand that a ritual is just an action for a much bigger and greater GOOD and that greater good is more important than the ritual. If that greater good is not being achieved, that ritual or faith must be eschewed. In many cases, religious rituals are inter-twined with cultural rituals, so many people also follow these rituals to keep their culture alive. 
  • On the question of donating money to places of worship: Religious entities need money to propagate their religion – to build places of worship, to communicate the tenets of that religion, to pay the salaries of people who work towards making more and more people believe in that religion and become  ‘good’ and so on. Thus these institutions had to become ‘organized’ to ask for money donations from believers. Believers donate money because they want to propagate their own beliefs of doing good as well. 

5. What is this one God / many Gods fight about?

  • When religion is organized, then each religion thinks their version for “who is God” and “the best way to live our lives” is better. Some religions have many Gods, some children of Gods, some only one God, some only one symbol. All religion vie with each other to have more followers because people like to be in homogeneous groups and do similar things, as this endorses their own choices and they don’t have to spend too much energy and thought to think about the choices they are making.   

6. Why does everyone say never to debate on religion? Why do people become so emotional whenever religion is being debatable?

  • Religion is not debatable because its tenets are based more on blind faith and total acceptance without questioning and not on clear and transparent reason. Believers cannot debate an ideology that they have never questioned and on which their whole identity is based! Thus the whole issue of any religion is very emotional and can lead to unreasonable loss of control. Thus please never ever debate it. 

Adopting the God of reason instead of (blind) faith has worked for us thus far. Not a day goes by without my children (now into middle and late teens) pushing me to stretch my boundaries of knowledge, abilities and information further. To change and evolve and become better than yesterday. I hope a time will come when my children will study what all religions have to say (and I am sure by now that they will do this objectively and clarity of thought) and pick the best of life’s learning from across them, to push their own boundaries of understanding further.

Telling Lies?

LiarJohnny Johnny?

Yes papa.

Eating sugar?

No papa.

Telling lies?

No papa.

Open your mouth.

                        Ha ha ha!

Philosophical disclaimer: Inculcating the value of honesty is not a matter of saying one or two things to your children, reiterating it and then waiting for it to work like a magic charm. Neither do I have a simple formula that works in 3 months. My life’s experience tells me that this is a learning that must be inculcated from infancy and reiterated till your child leaves the nest. And that it is interlinked with many other aspects of nurturing, such as building self-worth, engendering trust by giving it, learning to think critically and continuously questioning the ‘norm’.

There are two main ways of inculcating values in our children – one via religion and the second by using reason, logical thinking and obtaining what I call “buy-in” from one’s child (meaning the child is convinced that this is right for her and adds value to how she see’s herself). The former religious way is probably much easier, as it is unquestioning and brain washing an infant to believe in an unseen power with divine retribution as the sword of Damocles hanging over our heads, does mean that a “value based” path will be ostensibly adopted without much effort expended. However, to my mind, such an adoption is either superficial or completely fanatical (as is witnessed across our globe today with religious terrorism seeing heights never seen before), due to the fact that there is almost no understanding of what it means to actually live that value in our daily lives and dangerously it is blind faith and not reason which empowers it. Thus this way of adopting a value is prone to misguided attachment to the vessel itself (the belief system) rather than the content inside that vessel (the actual values and life’s learning that impact on leading a good life) and hence resulting in the loss of the very values it is meant to espouse. On the other hand, reason and logic and actually living those values is obviously the much harder path to inculcating good values in children, as it requires a lot of effort and continuous thinking / questioning / analyzing and finding the method that best suits your personal needs, the situation and the environment. Yet I am convinced that it is indeed the only one that inculcates solid and unshakable values by virtue of the fact that this method draws on and becomes stronger only when there is buy-in from the child. How much better to brain wash a child to believe that the only way forward is for our mind to conquer our bodily (animal) needs / wants and walk the path of honesty, which is the ONLY way to building a strong, healthy and peaceful future. 

The Lying Malaise – the underlying reason and the key cause:

 Lying is a form of defense mechanism that the vulnerable (can there be anyone more vulnerable than our infants / children) adopt to protect themselves from those to whom they are beholden. It originates from FEAR, fear of repercussions from non compliance. Left unchecked, it morphs into various different forms such as stated above, manifesting various forms of fear, such as fear of not measuring up, fear of effort / hard work, fear of lack. This latter is further fueled by greed (wants and desires that are unattainable due to lack of effort and / or abilities) when unchecked, inevitably deteriorates character and the fall from grace is complete and final.

My (no doubt heretical) belief is that the main culprit behind children lying are unfortunately the very parents who nurture them. Parents who are the most concerned about their children, love them more than one can imagine, are also the ones who are most engaged with their children’s upbringing, whose children are very bright and are making top grades all the time, are often times unfortunately the very ones who are fast becoming pathological liars.

So hey what is going on? How can so much love and engagement and good intentions to raise strong, worthy and independent adults bring on such a huge gap in character? That a human failing of this size goes unnoticed is quite amazing, isn’t it?

In my observation, two types of parenting methods result in children who learn to lie as a way of life – lying to others but more importantly continuously lying to themselves.

(a) The Over Protective and Indulgent Parents – those for whom their children can do no wrong, who indulge their child’s every need and want and who inadvertently do not allow the child any independence of thought or action. There are tell-tale signs of such parenting on their children. The products of such parenting are usually thoroughly spoiled, insensitive to anyone else’s needs (other than their own), having a huge sense of entitlement and believing that the whole world exists to cater to their every need and want.

(b) The Overly Engaged Parents are those who’s raison d’être are their children; from morning till night they are engaged with every aspect of their child’s life. Such parents take almost all their approbation from being GOOD PARENTS and are give a lot of time and effort to making sure their child feels their love, their discipline and knows the amount of effort they are making for their children to be successful in life. Children from such parenting are usually very bright, perform to high academic standards, socially successful and are generally high achievers. Yet these parents have made the same cardinal mistake that their over indulgent counterparts have – they have forgotten to teach their children to become independent thinkers and doers.

Hence both types of loving and really engaged parents forget one very key aspect of nurturing and that is empowering their child to make the right choices and take the right life decisions for themselves! Oops.

Consequently, my take on this incredible phenomenon that is occurring all around us is that children learn to lie from the cradle mainly because parents are the ones who were (and maybe continue to into adulthood as well) taking decisions on their children’s behalf. Overly engaged parents (now called ‘helicopter moms’ or even ‘tiger moms’ I believe) decide almost everything their child does – right from the type and brand of toothpaste they use to brush their teeth with to the subjects they take in school, the extra curricular activities participated in, to what the child answers when asked a question by another adult in a social situation! These children do not take any responsibility for their actions because they have never been given an opportunity to! They have not been taught to take decisions, make choices, learn from their own mistakes. Thus begins the development of the most common of human failings – telling lies! When children start asserting their freedom of choice by not following the directives set down for them and then lying about it to their parents / guardians / educators, the tricky journey on the path to dishonesty begins.

Many would aver that over engagement by parents is better than complete lack of engagement. However, I believe that the ills wrought in each case are far worse in the former than the latter. In the former case, we are producing a future full of adults like the ones who brought Wall Street down in the last most recent financial crisis – highly educated, with huge accolades from almost all their education institutions, ostensibly being able to generate huge wealth for themselves and the world but who completely lack any strength of character to build solid foundations for the future (in other words take no ownership for their actions and still continue in the same blithely happy state of non responsibility, doing the same actions again and again and again, with impunity and not losing an iota of social acceptance that they enjoyed before the debacle that they engineered happened. Incredibly the actions of such professionally acclaimed people are supported nay endorsed by the very society that is decimated by them and their actions. There is no soul-searching by this society that has lost all its hard-earned savings or quality and even substance of life; rather there is anger and frustration and violence – but all to no effect. Children continue to be nurtured in the same way by their parents, education institutions believe in exactly the same manner of imparting education (knowledge without any guidance on how best to use that knowledge with values as foundation) and the cycle is repeated again and again and again (three times already in my 48 years life). A great man, I think it was Einstein, once said that insanity is repeatedly doing the same action and expecting a different result every time! However, in the latter case, where there is no engagement from parents or society in case of children, at least we can see the antisocial adults that result from such non nurturing and can beware of them! Thus to my mind the former compliance based parenting style is far more dangerous for the future of our species than the results of the latter lack of parenting. 

So, what to do? How to impart this very important value of honesty and make sure it forms the solid foundation of our children’s ethos?

First off, parents need to understand what’s going when they see the signs. The biggest issue here is that we parents do not see / note these signs as our eyes are so blinded by our inordinate (and rightly so) love for our progeny, that the opportunity of guiding towards the hard path of honesty is lost. Thus I have here below a few such signs that I learned over the years that I should have recognized for my first and then caught it in case of my second (better late than never is what I say) and I am listing a few big ones down so that you my readers may do a better job than I could do:

  1. Telling small lies – for example the most common one is to say they have brushed their teeth when they actually have not. Another very common one is to say they have eaten all their vegetables or had their milk or done their homework, when this is only half the truth.
  2. Doing things that are expressly forbidden. I mean the very common ones like drinking soda, eating candies, underage smoking and drinking alcohol. Even Eve could not resist when expressly forbidden, so can one really expect our children to?
  3. Lying by withholding the truth. The assessment result not mentioned, the test not mentioned before an evening out and so on.
  4. Lying by exaggeration – of branded gizmos owned, the rank in class (comparison with others), abilities, credentials etc that are not there.
  5. Having a fair amount of cognitive dissonance. For example, if others smoke in school they will be caught but I am smarter and will never  caught, my finger nails are not as long as my friends so will pass inspection unlike others whose nails are much longer, I am not as over weight as those other children, I am at least smarter than those dumbos who fail their lessons every time, I listen to the same trashy music but it will not have the same impact on me as it has on those losers … and so on. When children start showing that they feel good about themselves only when they compare themselves to their peers who are in a worse place than them, the you do have a problem not only of hiding from reality (lying) but of lack of self worth as well on hand. 

And here below are some of the actions that helped my husband and me begin this journey of inculcating honesty within our children:

  1. First and most important is for parents to be concerned about inculcating honesty in their children and not be unwary and complacent that their children will just emulate this from themselves, especially if they themselves are modern and deeply engaged parents.
  2. After this above awareness comes in, the underlying parenting style needs to change from authoritarian and obedience / compliance oriented to discursive and democratic decision-making oriented. It is indeed difficult to shirk off or hide from the result of a decision which was openly taken by the child, after discussion with the parents.
  3. It is also important to understand the distinction between over indulging parents and understanding and supportive parents. For over indulgent parents, their child can never fail in anything and either all failures are hidden to appear as successes or children are always protected and cossetted from competing in the real world. In this case, parents are not being honest at all, thus there is no question of imparting the value of honesty. However, understanding and supportive parents help their child push her boundaries of learning and achievement every day, make it alright to fail as long as one tries their best and support their child to learn from her failure.
  4. No ‘punishment’ for telling lies (when a lie is caught out). This is a short-term remedy or a sticky tape approach on something that is showing a crack and children always find more creative ways to lie and NEVER be caught out. For a value as important as honesty, a subtler approach is definitely worth the effort.
  5. Showering stress, pain, anger, frustration and loads of monologues and speeches about the ills of lying per se – almost never worked for me.
  6. Starting the discourse on the importance of honesty very young. For instance gently repeating to my infant / child (albeit with my second one, as I was completely at the mercy of my first 🙂 ) that the action of wrong doing (right from an uncontrolled bladder to breaking a toy in anger) belonged to her and not to the inanimate toy or non favorite person of the hour. There is rejection of course, much noise and fury, but all for a good cause I say. Infants learn very quick, so I recommend that if this learning of taking responsibility for actions is important to you, nip this transference of responsibility in the bud when you notice it. Then it will be gone for life. Else even when your child is forty years old, you will be told by him “it is not my fault!”
  7. Showing great appreciation for “owning up”. The first time my child owned up to an ‘accident’, wrong doing etc, I did not miss the opportunity for praising my child’s courage for owning up and facing the consequences of wrong doing. The consequences were always mitigated for owning up and sometimes, if after a discussion I felt that the learning had been effectively internalized and my child felt truly sorry for having engaged in that wrong doing, I did not bother about the consequences at all.
  8. Upon noticing that first lie, realizing the underlying problem and removing that obstruction, so taking away the reason for lying. NOT ASKING IF YOUR CHILD HAD BRUSHED HER TEETH OR NOT, BUT NOTICING IT ANYWAY AND CHANGING ONE’S OWN ACTION / BEHAVIOR TOWARDS ONE’S CHILD. For example, when the child lies about having brushed their teeth but has in fact not, explaining to the child the reason why a parent tries to inculcate this good habit in their children. Thereafter, every time taking note when child has not brushed (bad breath, obvious absence of freshness etc), making an obvious exaggerated facial expression of revulsion / acting disgusted by running away from the room, not providing the breakfast till teeth have been brushed, every time a tooth has to be filled by the dentist reiteration that this would not be required if your child had made an effort to keep her teeth clean after meals.
  9. Treating failure as a learning in life and not as a label of being a Loser! Teaching my child to push the boundaries of learning and not being afraid to fail has possibly been one of my own biggest learning in life. As I accept failure from my child as a sign of trying, so I loosen my own fear of failure and became far more understanding and supportive of helping my child achieve her goals. By understanding and supportive, I do not mean indulgent of failure. Failure is failure and should not be misguided to seem a success by an over indulgent parent either. Looking at failure in the eye and tackling it head on to turn it to real success
  10. Opening all topics of conversation in the form of debates at home. No subject is taboo. All subjects are dealt with in conversation in a rational and non emotional manner.
  11. Not reacting in an emotional manner when my child disagrees with me or point-blank refuses to do something I would like her to do.
  12. Understanding when to give in and when to dig in.
  13. Continuously holding up the role model of honesty and how that links up with strength of personality and leadership qualities. Using as many real life stories of where honesty and integrity worked for a long-term success story and where the lack of it caused a huge and irremediable failure.
  14. And last but certainly not the least, teaching one’s child to self reflect / question, face reality and not hide behind excuses. For example: the litany of “it is so unfair” should be discussed as “yes, life is unfair. Just look around you and see that child who is struggling to get even a meal a day and you are throwing yours! so yes, life is unfair. But it is up to you to make it fair.” Another example: “it is not my fault. The teacher was in a bad mood, the teacher was unfair, that child was bullying me, it was raining, my dog ate my homework.” The way to tackle this is “yes tough luck. Now change your luck. It is in your own hands to change this by talking to your teacher, making sure you have a raincoat, making sure your dog cannot reach your homework …” In this way we are able to empower our children to be in control of their life, look at reality in the face and have the verve and grit to change that reality to the one they dream of.

There is an old saying that goes ‘honestly is the best policy.’ And if we all believe that indeed it is, then to paraphrase from the great Bard “the quality of honesty is strained in our world, it does not drop by itself like gentle rain from above upon the place beneath …” naturally and by itself. It must be effort-fully woven into the very character and personality of our children, till it enters their DNA and then and only then will it flower in the form of strong, compassionate and enduring individuals, who will always keep adding value to others and to their own lives.

Technology and the child

SLAVEDO NOT LET YOUR CHILD BECOME A SLAVE TO TECHNOLOGY, TEACH THEM TO MAKE TECHNOLOGY THEIR SLAVE! Given our world today and the pace with which it is moving forward and changing, this is the objective we as parents had for our children with technology and the internet, which are almost synonymous terms today.

Any innovation / invention is exciting, for the fact that it is new and can do so much more than has ever been done before. If such an invention is life changing, then it is almost always completely engaging and enticing. Thus overdoing it, over using it, being completely in its thrall, is almost the norm. I mean, look at the way the refrigerator went! 🙂 🙂 On a more serious note, witness what happened when the television first started getting its claws into the masses. I am sure no one has forgotten the TV bellies (as many still carry the curse). Check out the statistics of the sheer increase since in congenital disorders (heart, diabetes etc). The term sedentary lifestyle was coined after the television conquered the masses – no change in food habits but huge change in lifestyles witnessed by millions who became couch potatoes in front of the machine they fondly called their “tellies”. With the refrigerator at hand! The television thrall still pervades in huge parts of middle class Asia & South Asia no doubt and the competition for the better telly is still enacted in neighborhoods of not only small town Jhumri Tillaiya and Mithila, but metropolises like Mumbai and Shanghai as well. To say nothing of Saigon, where expats will pay many hundreds of US dollars to get a little box that will stream for them their favorite television programs, without watching which, they cannot have a good time at home! To say nothing at all about the beers chilling in the chillers within arms reach.

The huge changes wrought by the television 30-60 years back, depending on which country you were born in, is repeating itself with the internet revolution today. The wide open web has and continues to change the life of millions of people in ways that could not be imagined even 10 years back. Little children have more knowledge than their parents and while knowledge is power, think of that knowledge (I mean the Biblical apple eaten by Eve 🙂 ) without the experience to know what to do with that knowledge. Now into this mix throw in parents who do not have an iota of that knowledge and if they did, they do not have a clue about what to do with it, let alone being able to support their child in a way that children could handle this knowledge with the care it deserves.

Internet and the child.jpg1Nevertheless, I am not going to write about the bad impact of technology on children. A lot has been said and continues to be said about this – thanks to the very internet that it cautions against, people across the globe and tiny villages in lands we have not even heard of, are now reading about the bad effects of being enthralled by technology, in other words being addicted to it. Technology like television and money, is an easy seducer, easy to be enthralled by and in awe of. When one starts worshiping anything / anyone, it leads to a blind and unquestioning following, a chase in fact, that to my mind can only result in exhaustion, confusion and depression. Thus I am, instead, going to write about how to introduce technology to children, to guide their usage of it, such that it may enrich their lives. Hence fulfilling its raison d’être. These below recommended thoughts and actions are coming of course from my own experience in this regard and I have delineated below what worked with my children. Of course I bungled hugely, but I do not want to bore you with those, instead just share the specifics of what worked and mainly the how to.

I do not espouse keeping children away from technology. That I believe would be like keeping one’s children locked up in their room, so that they may never have any chance of being hit by a car if they went out. Technology is here to stay and seeing how it can and indeed has already, completely enrich the human race, children from the infant stage must learn to use it well. However, to my mind, the rules of how one teaches a child to swim (remember the rubber tubes, the constant vigilance before letting go), to bicycle (remember the side wheels, the supporting from the back before letting go), a teenager to drive a car (remember the staying in the front seat for many years even after child-adult gets her licence), are the rules one applies when exposing children to the internet. Overall there is one strong belief that has underlain our attitude as a family to internet usage, which all in my family agree about is that a one on one and face to face interaction, with total concentration and focus and no distractions, is a very enriching activity and can never be replaced by technology. 

So here goes, this is what worked for me and hope you all can get a few nuggets from this:

  1. If you yourself are a technology / web junkie (I myself may qualify 🙂 ), switch off completely all gadgets when interacting with your children. Make that time, mine is 30-45 minutes after they come back from school, to just converse with your child about her day and your day and share thoughts and ideas with words and eye to eye focus.
  2. Always expose the child to the most cutting edge technology (of course provided you can afford it. Yes this is an expensive buy but we would always make this acquisition either a ‘performance related bonus’ (tagging it on academic scores, a task done very well or some other personal achievement) or a special gift for a birthday. The idea was to teach the child to survive in the world today. Saving a few dollars (or Dong if you please) on a last year technology kind of reduced the reason why the technological exposure was being allowed and almost encouraged in the first place. Our view was that if we wanted to make our child ready for the future, she had to learn to master state of the art technology first, not be scared of it or of change and in fact look forward to it and embrace it. If children cruise just a tad ahead of the curve, then there is a chance that they will start innovating themselves. And say what you will, the game of tomorrow is going to be played out in the area of innovation.
  3. One qualification on point number 2 above: buying the latest technology does not mean ALL of the latest technology, it does not mean the latest mobile phone either nor does it meaning buying the latest gadgets that enter the market unthinkingly. It merely means ONE of the latest technical innovations. My children got a laptop each and the latest notebook / iPad (once in two to three years), all depending on how well they used the technology available to them. We drew a line at the mobile phones. Both my children carry the cheapest mobile phone available, mainly to communicate with their mother, who (both mine ruefully agree), needs to be in touch with them much more than anyone else in their lives 🙂 :). More than anything else, this qualification succeeded in taking away the aura of branding completely from their minds and urged them to dig deep down into themselves and gain their self-worth from themselves and their abilities, rather than from the brand they carried.
  4. Till the children are say 9-10 years old, controls like Net Nanny are recommended. However, it is likely that you have a child like mine, who at age 8 systematically dismantled every single control his father placed on his laptop and then challenged the dad to try another one!
  5. Thus what worked for us was web education, education, education. Before buying and gifting the gadget, do the groundwork. Explain clearly to your child your expectation from them when they have the gadget in possession. The dangers of the open web must be explained with the analogy of an open highway and all the dangers must be reiterated. For many of our children the school does this for us. But this does not mean that this should not be discussed at home in an as open a manner as possible and debated etc. Of course in case of toddlers, mommy and daddy have total control, so short exposures with ‘educative’ shows / games worked well with my children, but always under the aegis of one of us.
  6. Like with everything else in life, including television time, play dates, sports, Gameboys and X-Boxes, sleepovers and homework, clear rules with the use of internet must be established. The diagram below clearly elucidates the symbiotic relationship between science, society and technology. If all three (science, technology and social interaction) are used with balance and rational thought, then technology will be sure to become your child’s slave and not vice versa. Here are some rules that worked for my family: Technology and the child.jpg2
  • For infants – ‘good’ shows that edutain, handling of the latest gadget in a careful manner, are all good, in short spurts, during the day. Preferably choose one or two time-slots for this. This programs your child’s mind and there will be fewer battles later on – such as NEVER an hour before bedtime, reading a book, playing with friends etc.
  • No technology on the meal table. EVER. Period. No discussion and non negotiable. Actually same was true of books as well and television at meal times. NEVER. ALL TABOO 😮 My children fine honed their conversation skill during meal times.
  • No technology for at least 30 minutes before going to bed. This was a very hard one I have to admit and was the cause of many a heated discussion and sometimes even huge scolding (I am saying this tongue in cheek, as voices were raised at times, much to my husband’s chagrin, who ABHORS raised voices – I believe it is a cultural thing 🙂 🙂 ) matches.
  • Innocent before being declared guilty. Always. I discuss, debate, give knowledge, guide on how to use that knowledge, disseminate the value systems that also help guide that knowledge to the right usage, but I am NOT A POLICEMAN. I trust my child to keep word, just as I do. So if I do catch my child playing computer games when they should not have been, then there is one and then the second warning. Thereafter grounding rules apply. And like with everything else, following through with the cause and effect is a parent’s job after all.
  • Discussions about the dangers when on the open web on the dining table, what to watch out for, how and what specifically can make the open web a dangerous place, generating discussion about the specific dangers faced really helped hugely with handling this technology business in my home. Somehow I was always the culprit and the children and husband continue to make fun of my gullibility. Moreover, I realized that having a scapegoat was working as a good real life example of how easy it was to be silly when using the web. Thus I would highlight all my mistakes (especially when my children were younger) and allow it to be dramatized more than necessary, as it was all for a good cause.
  • Research and all the data that is constantly and instantly available via the web about the ills of the web, were accessed and discussed. Number of hours of sleep required for best learning, technology before bed leading to very bad sleep cycles, exposure to illicit material on the web such as porn, dark arts, horrific crime and child abuse was and is continually openly discussed in our household. The reasons why all these are not value adding (I learned early on in my children’s growing years never to say “good” as it was never cool) and why and how to avoid all of these have always been openly discussed as well. Thus clear expectations and value systems were established.
  • As parents we have never made a big deal about having the access to the web in the living area and not in the children’s rooms because early on my husband and I realized that this was more a matter of trust. My children are used to accessing the web in their respective rooms and we trust them to do the right thing. Neither my husband nor I have ever popped into our children’s rooms to peer into their laptops either. To date, I have not had cause to regret our this decision.
  • Cyber bullying is a big issue with all adolescents and teenagers. This was and continues to be the most important topic of discussion in my family. This links back to general self-worth of the child and if it is manifested here in the form of either her being bullied or doing the bullying, then it is a symptom of a deeper and separate malaise. Technology and the web are not the cause I believe, it is merely a very sharp and dangerous conduit of the malaise. Thus merely removing technology and web from the child’s life, to my mind, cannot cure this malaise.
  • Social networking on the web has never been taboo in my home either. I have never banned my children from it because I believe that it is important that my children learn to communicate well on the web. What personal material to put on the web, how to brand themselves and nurture their social image is to my mind a life skill, as important as learning how to swim and drive and manage money.
  • If your child is always sitting with her notebook or iPad, then check what she is doing with it – reading a magazine / book, learning Math, exploring science, researching History topics or playing Angry Birds. If it is only gaming, then there may be an issue. If there is only technology, then there is definitely an issue.

Internet and the child5.  Any new gadget (iPad, iPad mini, iPod, laptop, notebook etc) purchased was always gifted with the idea that it must add value to our children’s lives. How this gadget could add value was also clearly delineated. For example yearly subscriptions for great thought-provoking and current affairs updating magazines were purchased and spot quizzes about the articles were run on the dining table after a few days. The gadget was also explored for all its uses, mini presentations, art work, project solutions and so on. Thus if the gadget was being used mindlessly (silly games, social networking all the time etc), this was always severely looked down upon, was labeled with terms my children hated such as silly ordinary teenagers, a follower, donkey, brainless and more in similar vein – am sure you get the drift. Grounding the child from using the gadget was used only as an underlying threat and honestly I have never had to follow through with this one.

6. Going out to play, play dates and sleep overs, sports, music, art and academics (Maths with and without a calculator) has all to be in an equally balanced household for technology to be used in the best way possible. Technology should be allowed to answer every single question there is on earth, a digi-dictionary used when playing scrabble, research to be done on different types of topics / subjects), digi-scales and converters in the kitchen when baking should be encouraged, when discussion nutrition of ingredients all kinds of research must be done as a family, on holiday for maps and routes and language translations and historical information and so on. But technology must be put away when communicating on a one on one – at a theater / show, on the dining table, in the bedroom 30 minutes before going to bed (if not more), at a restaurant, outdoor activities as a group / family etc.

7. Learning from my children. Though I am listing this last, I cannot overstate how important this aspect is to nurturing the best relationship between technology and the child. As a parent, let us face it, we are all going to be far more technically challenged than our children will ever be. Yet we adults (especially mothers who are not working in this field) need to be somewhere close to where our children are with technology and the web, to be able to guide them and course correct if required. If we are not, we will not have a clue about where are children are at and unfortunately like in any relationship (however loving) some amount of disregard does creep in when there is a gap in skill levels. So if you want your children to listen to you (or at least have a sensible conversation with you) with regard to this subject, you need to be a somewhat savvy user of the web yourself and keep abreast of the latest technology. And remember, what’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander; so if you are constantly only social networking on the web, you cannot expect your child not to!

So here it is. This above is what worked for my family and continues to do so. Of course there is no formula. What works for one might not work for another, so course correction as you go on and trying different ways, is the only way forward.

Finally, the most important learning for me from my own life experience on this subject has been that constant guidance and education with regard to the ‘best practices’ with technology and web usage is required and conversations about this must be ongoing. Moreover, other activities which counter balance the thrall that technology can apply on any idle mind, must be given continuous importance in the daily life of the child. Taking away technology completely or letting the child indulge in it without thought, are both easy to do and a sure-fire way of seeing your child become a slave of technology.