Archive | September, 2011

What to Do When You Can’t Set an Example

One of the ways you show your love for your child is by telling him things which are good for him. Like ‘eat healthy food’, ‘get enough exercise and sleep’, ‘plan your work so you can get things done on time’, ‘put your things away so you know where to find them when you need them’. There are so many things you say.

Does your child do as you say? If yes, you are one of the lucky few! 🙂 It may start out that way: he may do as you say; but inevitably, he will begin to do as you do. You may say anything (and you do!), but what do you DO?

At first, your child may not openly question you. He may not ask: ‘Why should I eat healthy if you’re eating junk all the time?’ But he will certainly think it. Keep telling him what he ‘should’ do, and he will begin to question the discrepancy between what you say and your behavior.

He has every right to ask: ‘Your closet is a mess. Who are you to tell me to keep mine clean, organized?’ (No, this is not a made-up scenario. I know a lady who is chronically incapable of keeping her closet organized. The rest of her home is spick and span. When I first met her, almost 20 years ago, I asked her how she kept such a neat home but such a cluttered closet. “It’s my husband,” she explained. “I’m a stay-at-home wife with no kids. When we were first married, he’d walk in from work every evening to find the house looking like a tornado had blown through it. Three months later, he gave me an ultimatum: the house had to be ship-shape or else… But the closet is mine, so I indulge myself there. Today, she is the mother of two teenagers. Her home is still a model of organization. Her closet is still a mess. “Call it self-expression!” she says. :-))

Your son questions your right to give him advice that you don’t implement in your life. You have no answer. You know you’re struggling with yourself. You know you are doing your best all the time – doing your best to be your best. In some areas, you are not as successful as you’d like to be; but that doesn’t mean you want him to go through the same pain you have lived through.

You don’t want him to be like you – hunting frantically for the wedding license or ring at home (that you KNOW you kept so carefully right here) when you were due at your own wedding half an hour ago.

And what about the big ones? The principle is the same, but if you have an addiction, and you are counseling your child not to smoke, or drink, or abuse substances – what then? You are in the trap – maybe keen to get out of it, or maybe not.

But for sure you don’t want to see your child in the trap. And you don’t know how to convince her. Because she has every right to question you (and she will) when you say, “Don’t!” Because you can’t set her an example. Because you are still with the habit or behavior you are advising her against. But you would give a lot to make sure she stays away from it.

How can you reach your child in such a situation?

As always, honesty is the best policy. Tell him how you started. Tell him your journey. Tell him the mistakes you made. Tell him how you’ve felt over the years about this habit or behavior. Tell him what happens in your mind and body. Tell him how you’ve tried to stop; what it is that keeps you stuck. Share the experience – all of it.

Of course, you need to be careful, and tailor it to your child’s age and temperament. But share. It is the only way she will even think about doing as you say and not as you do.

Maybe it was peer pressure. Maybe you wanted to look cool. Maybe your ‘friend’ introduced you to it. Maybe you were very stressed at a point in time, and began the habit or behavior to deal with that stress, but couldn’t get out of it. Maybe you come from a home where this is the norm. Whatever the story, share it.

Show her the horror.

I used to be fairly disorganized as a person, but one day, I hit rock bottom. I was at the airport, at the check-in counter to board an international flight with my 15-month old, and I discover my passport is missing. I almost dropped the baby I was holding in my arms. I had to make this flight – I had no options.

Heart pounding, mouth dry, hands clammy, stomach roiling, sweat all over my body in 20°C temperature, legs trembling, knees crumbling, mind numbed with horror, facing a questioning airline ground crew member, managing handbag and cabin baggage. And before I could take it in – you guessed it – my daughter started screaming and flailing her arms and legs. The tension in me got to her, I guess.

I’ll spare you the frantic phone calls to my husband and his cross-city scramble to get my passport to me.

Today, I manage the family finances, and am considered a model of how to file (and retrieve! :-)) all manner of papers and things, so there’s a happy ending to this story. But it was a long, painful journey – one I could complete only because I shared the pain with my daughter and enlisted her help. “Remind me. Nag me. Make sure I put things away.” She loved it! 🙂

The fact is that each of us is dealing with some issue about which our children can ask us how we can dole out advice to them when we are not able to get our act together.

Don’t let their questions stop you from giving them advice. Tell them – despite not being able to set an example. It takes courage to acknowledge you’re not doing as well as you could be, and your child will recognize (and applaud) it, if only you take that courage in your hands, and SHARE. And you DO have the courage – your love for your child gives you the courage.

Who knows, you might just overcome the issue with your child’s encouragement and support. Maybe he’ll be the one to set you an example. 🙂 At any rate, there’s a good chance he’ll take your advice.


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When Your Children are Embarrassed by You

“Hello! We’re having a meeting of Grade 3 parents with all the subject teachers on Monday at 8am. It will last one hour. I’m calling to confirm you’ll be coming. You haven’t attended any such sessions over the past 3 years, and as the Parent Representative, I’d like to know if there’s a problem. Is there something I can help you with?”

As I finished saying my piece, I could sense the lady’s discomfort over the phone. We were both silent for a few moments.

As I was about to prompt her, she told me she had ‘no problems’. I told her I was glad to hear that, but that she might still have concerns she’d like to discuss with the teachers and other parents. Also, it was a good way to find out what was going on at school, and with other parents and the children.

After a bit, she said, “Actually, I don’t wear western clothes. I am more comfortable in traditional Indian clothes. And my daughter, she feels I’m not modern. She doesn’t like me to come to school. So I stay away. She wants me to come in pants and dresses like some other mothers. She feels ashamed to see me always in Indian clothes. She gets very angry. So…” Her voice trailed away.

Another silence on the phone.

I couldn’t say a word because so many emotions were warring inside me. I was incensed at how cruel the child was. I was pained by the hurt in the lady’s voice. I was horrified that a child could think this way about her parents. I wanted to charge in there and ‘do something’ about it. A moment’s thought, and wiser counsel prevailed. There was nothing I could have said that wouldn’t have sounded either patronizing or obnoxious.

Gently, I repeated, “You should consider coming for the meeting. It’s quite important. If you have anything at all to discuss…”

“No,” she replied. “Typically, my husband would be there, but he’s traveling, so we won’t be coming.”

I replaced the phone, contemplating what I would do to this girl if I could have my way with her.

But when I had gained some distance, I found perspective too. I found I could not blame the child. Her parents were responsible for her attitude. They had only themselves to blame.

Over the years, dozens of parents have confided in me about how they have strict instructions from their children about how they (the parents) should appear in public.

“You must wear lipstick.”

“Don’t come unless you’re wearing a suit.”

“You don’t speak English properly; it would be better if you don’t come to school. Send Mom instead.”

“You’re so short – you don’t look like a parent at all.”

“You’re so fat – lose some weight before you come to my school.”

In one instance, a 6-year old actually publicly refused to recognize her father because he was not (according to her) appropriately dressed! In the two years the child had been at school, she allowed only her mother to visit the school, because the father wore clothes indicating his religious affiliation. One day, the mother was stuck somewhere, and couldn’t get to school to pick the child up. She called her husband and asked him to rush to school as it was already very late.

After a while, the mother received a phone call from her daughter’s class teacher, who said, “There is a man here to pick up your daughter. He claims to be your husband, but the child says she doesn’t know him. What should we do?”

The lady had a hard time convincing the teacher that the man in question was her husband and the father of the child. It took over 15 minutes of conversation back and forth between the four people involved before the child consented to go home with her father.

This was narrated to me as an example of how fastidious the child was, how well she knew her own mind!

I tried not to show how appalled I was. And they were actually proud of the child behaving this way? If the primary school-aged child could refuse to acknowledge her parents, what was in store for the family when she grew up?

How come your children are embarrassed by you? After all, children are born ignorant, without any notions of good or bad, pride or shame. Where do they learn these ideas of being ashamed of themselves or their parents? From the parents themselves!

In the lady’s case, it was her own insecurity, her own lack of confidence in herself that the daughter picked up on and reflected.

Another mother might well have said, “Well, people dress differently. I prefer wearing traditional clothes, and I dress to suit myself. It doesn’t make me any less presentable than anyone else. It’s not clothes who make the person, but the person who makes the outfit.” Her daughter would have accepted the explanation happily, and taken pride in her mother’s appearance.

Another father might have explained to his child, “I believe in this religion. I was brought up believing in it, and it is an important part of who I am. My faith has helped shape my mind and my heart. I would not be the Dad you know and love without this faith. I am proud to belong to this faith, so I dress this way.” She would have understood and taken great pride in her father’s integrity, in the fact that he stood by what he believed in.

The most obvious thing about these two might-have-been incidents above is that the children would not have asked their parents for any explanations about their beliefs or behavior.

If you are clear about the person you are and what you believe in, you radiate it from every pore of your being. You are comfortable with yourself – being yourself – wherever you go, whoever you meet.  Your child sees you comfortable being yourself. It will never strike him to be embarrassed by who you are.

There is, of course, one honorable exception to this. When your kids approach teenage, they will suddenly become embarrassed by you.

“You talk too much” I am told. 🙂

My response: “You’re growing up, and becoming super-sensitive to others’ opinions. I am still myself, though I’m changing too. But know this – you will be a lot more embarrassed by me before you begin to be comfortable with me again. It’ll get worse before it gets better.”

Her response: “Oh, okay. And when do you think it will be better? ” 🙂

I shrug. “Who knows?” And we smile at each other. 🙂

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What Would You Say If You Could Only Say One Thing?

Today is the 10th anniversary of the horror that was 9/11. On this day a decade ago, many people didn’t know it, but they had said the last words they would ever say to their loved ones, friends and acquaintances.

As we remember everyone who was affected by the event (is there anyone, anywhere in the world who was not affected? I doubt it), we tend to take a fresh look at our own lives.

Here’s a scenario: You are a brave explorer, and are setting out on an expedition to Antarctica. You will be gone 5 long years, during which you will have no contact at all with the outside world. It has been a very difficult decision, because you have to leave your family and loved ones. But you decide to go, and you have the full support of your family – yes, even your children! You will return – that is guaranteed – so you can expect to meet them when you’re back. But for the duration of your trip, there will be no contact with the outside world at all. You can neither send nor receive news. You will be completely isolated on Antarctica.

Here is your question: What would you say to your children if you could only say one thing to them?

You will give them hundreds of instructions, pieces of advice, things to do and not to do, people to befriend and those to steer clear of, whom to obey, whom to go to if they have a problem – so much to say! And you will repeat yourself endlessly, desperate not to miss a single important thing. You might even draw out long lists (printed for easy reference, on the computer for when the paper gets lost, and backed up on two hard drives in safe locations for when you might lose the data on your computer) to make sure you haven’t missed anything out.

But at the moment when you turn your back on them, there will be one thing – the last thing – that you will say to your children. What will it be?

I’d like you to try this exercise. Really to sit down and think about it when you have the time. Figure out the one overriding message you want to leave your children with. If you have more than one child, you might have a different message for each one.

It would be great if you could share your message(s) to your child(ren) by posting it in the comments. I’ll write more on this, including my own ‘last message’ in a while.

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The Only Choice You’ll Ever Make

When you agree with somebody, there is no problem. You both feel the same. If there is a difference, it is a difference of degree. You like Tom Cruise, the other person loves Tom Cruise. But both of you feel positively about Tom Cruise, so you’re both happy.

‘Problems’ arise when you feel differently from someone else. And if that someone is your child, the problem assumes huge proportions. You are torn apart by your love for the child and your desire to see him ‘happy’ on the one hand, and by your ‘knowing’ exactly what will make him happy on the other!

Your son says “I’m going to get my left eyebrow pierced.”

You wince, cringe, bite your tongue, speak civilly to him about it, try to dissuade him with ‘logical’ arguments – and then all hell breaks loose. Your son is going to do WHAT?! You can’t believe it! How does he think he’s going to find an after-school job with a pierced eyebrow? And what of his position as a star of the school debating team? They won’t send him to the nationals (and he’s good enough to qualify) with a pierced eyebrow! He’ll blight his own future! All because of a silly whim! I mean, how will a pierced eyebrow add to his happiness? Does he have to do this to be part of the ‘in’ crowd? Who cares about such an ‘in’ crowd? (Umm – apparently, your son does.)

It goes on and on – for days, weeks, maybe months. Either he will get his eyebrow pierced, in which case, you will throw a blue fit, and blame every social, academic, physical, mental and emotional issue he will face in the future on the eyebrow-piercing. (Perhaps till he’s in his 30s – if he’s lucky enough to be forgiven that soon! :-))

If you emerge victorious (yes, I’m using war language, because this has become a battle between the two of you), he will blame you for everything. (“If you’d let me have my way, I’d be happier, and I’d have studied harder and got into an Ivy League college” (!), for instance.)

It might not be eyebrow-piercing. But there will be something or other about your child that drives you to distraction, that makes you feel as if you have no choice but to react as you do.

You teach him how to make the bed, and he learns. What’s more, he actually makes his bed every day! 🙂 But he’s not making it the ‘right’ way (also called ‘properly’ or ‘correctly’), and that is a problem. If it is his bed, he will have to make it (and lie in it! :-)) all his life. I ask you: doesn’t he have the right to make the bed his way? What difference does it make, after all?

She was solving problems in differential calculus before she turned 10 years old, but she wants to clean, trim, buff and polish people’s nails at a salon. Obviously you’re tearing your hair out by the roots in frustration. What else can you do when she simply won’t listen? You have no choice!

That is not true. Whatever the issue: habits, attitudes, thinking, choices regarding friends, careers, significant others – you always have a choice. And it is always the same choice!

At every moment of every day, you choose either to be RIGHT, or to be HAPPY. There is no other choice.

Amazingly, most of us choose, almost all the time, to be RIGHT. And that sets us up in conflict with other people. Arguments, slanging matches, tension, anger; loss of focus, time, energy, health, relationships – we accept all this. Accept? We actively choose it!

Because we’d rather be right than be happy.

You want your child to do as you wish because you believe you know better. You may know better. But you may not! You refuse to even consider the second option. Comfortable in your higher age, your greater ‘experience’ and ‘maturity’, you are immovable in the notion that you are ‘right’.

Well, so what? Even if you are right, why should she listen to you? Some day, she has to learn to make her own decisions. How long will you look over her shoulder? How will she learn what works for her and what doesn’t? When will she be her own person?

You know it’s a criminal waste of her abilities if she works in that salon. Actually, so do I. I am 100% with you on this. But once you’ve coaxed and wheedled, explained and pleaded, threatened and blown up at her, there’s nothing left to do.

At the end of the day, you can’t ‘make’ her do anything. It has to be her choice.

I’m not saying you shouldn’t get your children to see your point of view. You are the parent. They do not have the breadth or depth of thought or experience to know as much as you do. But once you have informed them, exposed them to the consequences of a decision, you have to learn to walk away.

It has to be your child’s decision.

Meanwhile, you have your own choice to make. Will you choose to be ‘right’? If you choose this, you will be resentful of your child’s choice, there will be unpleasantness, fights, and you will create a deep rift in your relationship with your child. Because your love for her is set up in conflict with what you ‘know’ is ‘right’ for her.

What if you chose to be ‘happy’? You may obviously never be HAPPY about her choice, but now that she has made it, you may choose to accept it. Now you can choose to be happy that she is doing what she chooses, even if it is not what you wished for her. You can tell her frankly that you disagree with her choice, but that you are willing to respect it. And then go ahead and respect it!

From your point of view, at worst, she will ‘waste’ her potential at that salon all her life. But she will remember and value your support and respect for her decision. You will have a wonderful relationship with her.

At best, she will become impatient with the lack of challenge and choose again; something more in line with her abilities. She will not ‘waste’ her life. She will remember and value your support and respect for your decision. You will have a wonderful relationship with her.

It’s your choice.

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The F-word Your Children Want to Hear from You

I enjoy solving puzzles – anything involving words, numbers, and logic. I don’t always get the answer, but I still enjoy the effort.

One morning, as I sent my 6-year old off to school, I told her, “I’ve got a FUN thing planned for this evening!” Her eyes sparkled at the prospect of a surprise.

That evening, she threw herself at me the moment I entered the house. “What’s the surprise? What’s the surprise? I want to do the fun thing now!”

I extricated myself, told her I needed 15 minutes to catch my breath – yes, we set an alarm – and sent her off to do her own thing. No sooner had the alarm gone off, than she was back.

O-kay! I asked her to sit at the table with her eyes closed, and I’d bring the fun thing to her, and then we could have FUN!

I sneaked the child-level Sudoku puzzle books out of the place I’d hidden them, took out colored pencils, an eraser, and placed them on the table. “Open your eyes!” I warbled, expecting to be overwhelmed with cries of delight, if not kisses and hugs.

She opened her eyes and saw what was on the table. Blank eyes looked into mine. “This is Sudoku. Where’s the FUN thing?

🙂 It’s funny when I think of it now, but I simply refused to ‘get it’ then. “This is the fun thing! You’ll be able to solve puzzles too! Just think of it! What amazing fun!” No change in her expression as I continue to go into raptures about the FUN of Sudoku.

I must say she was very kind to me. She let me explain the objective of the puzzle, let me demonstrate how to solve it, and even solved a few on her own when I prompted her. At the end of half an hour, she asked if she could read, and I let her go.

Over the course of the next 2 weeks, I would plan Sudoku puzzle time which never really happened, and I confronted her with ‘NOT having fun!’ (How blind a parent can be! :-)) I think she had reached the limit of her tolerance by then.

I was told in no uncertain terms, “You like doing Sudoku. I don’t. It’s not fun for me. I don’t want to do it. You can solve them, or give the books away.”

I hung on like grim death. “Maybe you’ll be interested in a year or so. I think I’ll keep the books.” She shrugged.

I kept the books for almost four years (! :-)) before I acknowledged that there wasn’t any point in doing so.

I know what you’re thinking. “We do lots of fun things together – me and the kids!” “We have fun all the time!”

Er – I’m sure you do. You take the kids out – for movies, to amusement parks, on vacation, treks, hikes, sight-seeing, museums. But those are planned trips, going-out fun.

What about every-day, around-the-house fun?

You don’t need fancy equipment or toys or a large space. It doesn’t need technology. You don’t have to spend a cent. It’s free, it’s always available, and it’s (your child’s idea of) FUN!

With small children, playing peek-a-boo, repeating silly sounds, splashing in the bath, clapping , jumping, scrunching up paper, tearing paper (if it’s meant for the shredder, you might as well have fun with it before it gets there!) – all of it can be fun.

Such fun is usually spontaneous, and we manage to have it just fine when the kids are young. Your daughter jumps on your back as you’re sitting on an armchair, and you hoist her up and bring her onto your lap. It goes on from there – you might tickle each other, or wrestle, or mock-fight or anything. You both manage to have a super time with each other, and the connection between you grows and grows.

But something strange happens as your child grows up. He doesn’t want to have the old kind of ‘fun’. And you don’t get it. Or maybe you’re not able to adapt.

For some children, at a certain age, fun is about them talking all the time – telling you what they think about people things and events (yes, there are no commas on purpose! 😉 ), what happened at parties school and stay-overs at friends’ homes (again, on purpose), what they want to do, what their friends are doing or saying or thinking,… – and having you listen.

All they want from you is to have you listen. Actively. To them. THAT is FUN to them.

Don’t think they’re fooled by your nodding your head and muttering “um-hmmh”. They know how well you’re listening, how engaged you are (or not). And if they feel your heart is not in it, they’ll stop talking to you after a while. No FUN, and more importantly (from your point of view), no communication.

Fairly obvious, isn’t it? They’d rather have fun telling you what’s going on in their heads and lives than give you a daily report in the format you’ve set up. (!! Chronological? People-based? Topic-based?)

Try putting yourself in their shoes. Would you rather tell your kids about what’s going on with you because you want to? Or because they expect you to report to them?! (“Tell me everything in 5 minutes – quick! Then I have to go hang out with my friends”!)

For a teenager desperate to flex his adult muscles and show his ‘doddering’ parents (you! – 🙂 ) a thing or two, being consulted in ‘adult’ decision-making might be FUN. If he’s fond of cooking, he might like to organize your next dinner party: plan the menu, shop for the ingredients, prep and cook the meal, decide on presentation – whatever!

Let your child tell you what’s FUN for him. You can choose to engage lightly or deeply. That is your choice. But the more deeply you engage, the more FUN it will be – for both of you!

Of course, if you HAVE to engage, it’s not really a choice, is it? More about this tomorrow, but in the meanwhile, you are a person in your own right, and if something your child finds FUN leaves you cold, tell him so. He will understand and respect you for your honesty.

But there must be some things he finds FUN that can be FUN for you too! Figure them out. And go for it.

Because FUN is what keeps your child connected to you from one day to the next.

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Letting Your Child Make You Happy, and Other Such Ideas

Some widely-accepted strategies to manage conflict are:

1. Separate the wrongdoer from the wrong.

2. Don’t accuse the person.

3. Talk about how the wrong action / words make you feel.

Okay, let’s dive in.

Your child is pushing your buttons. You’re determined to hold on to your temper. You say, “I get really upset when you hit your little brother. I wish you wouldn’t. You are his big sister, and you should be taking care of him, protecting him, not hitting him yourself. It would make me very happy if you stop hitting him.”

The next time she desists from hitting her brother, she will want your acknowledgement. “Dad is really happy you didn’t hit your brother. You made me very happy.”

Or else, “I get very angry when you throw your clothes and books all over the house. Please put your things away.”

You try to manage your child’s behavior from morning to night by telling him your reaction to specific behaviors of his. Some of his actions make you happy, others make you sad, yet others make you angry, still others disappoint you. This way, you try to teach him ‘acceptable’ behavior, and train him to live the way you’d like him to live.

What you might not realize is that you are also taking away all his power as an individual.

Look at the message he is getting: He makes you happy, or sad, or embarrassed, or proud, or confused, or hurt, or annoyed. And you? You’re just the puppet being jerked around at the end of a string. He’s the one making you feel all the emotions, so he has the power!

Hmm – maybe it’s the words; the words should change. Maybe you could say, “I feel happy or proud or furious when…” instead of “You make me feel…” But the message is still the same. Your child has the power to make you feel a certain way by behaving (or not) a certain way.

Very subtly, he is learning manipulation.

Why do children get away with throwing tantrums? (And tantrums of different kinds are thrown at different ages – this is not about the Terrible Twos alone. :-)) They do it in a very calculated fashion. They have calibrated, almost to the second, the moment when you will give in to them because you can’t take the tantrum any more. The tantrum might be yelling, spitting, banging, giving you the silent treatment, throwing things around, refusing to eat or go to school, not doing chores – whatever. But you let it get to you. So they manipulate you to get what they want from you.

Here’s an incident that always makes me smile when I think of it. 4-year old Lily, the youngest of the family, cried for minutes on end at the slightest impact. “It hurt!” she would wail, and only be mollified by large quantities of candy, cola and other ‘taboo’ foods.

One day, when she and Josh, her 8-year old brother, were the only ones at home, Josh heard a huge crash in the backyard. He was in the kitchen making a sandwich, and knew that Lily would be screaming in a moment. Surprisingly, there was no sound from her. He was just thinking of going out to investigate, when the door to the backyard opened, and Lily walked in, her knee bruised, blood dripping down her shin. Lily was startled to see Josh, and stopped mid-stride.

“You’re hurt? And you didn’t even shout once?” asked Josh, not really able to take in the phenomenon.

She said, “I didn’t know there was anyone around to hear me, so I didn’t yell.” 🙂 🙂

Kids are supreme manipulators.

Don’t let them get away with it. Just keep doing your thing. It won’t be easy, because they’ve trained you too well. 🙂 But you’re the adult here, and it’s time to take back your power. They may try to annoy you, but don’t be annoyed. You may be boiling, but try not to show it, and with time and practice, you’ll see how easy it is to stay cool.

She has a problem. She wants something. What if it had been someone else’s child? You’d just have left her alone and removed yourself from there. Well, go ahead and do it! The only one preventing you from doing so is yourself! Don’t play her game. Walk away. Do your own thing. It will take time, but she will slowly learn that she cannot ‘make’ you feel a specific emotion.

There are two wonderful results of not letting your child ‘make’ you feel a certain way.

For one, you will take back your own power. People and events have the power to affect you only so long as you let them. In the words of one anonymous person, if you’ve lost your job, your car has broken down, and you’re down with the flu, why make things worse by being depressed?

🙂 Okay, this is a clear exaggeration, but seriously, we make things a lot worse for ourselves than they need to be. You’re stuck in traffic. Worrying, abusing all and sundry, driving like a maniac – none of it will get you to your destination on time. It will take as long as it will take. Then why let it ruin your blood pressure, heart rate, digestion and mood? Why hold so much tension in your body that you’re aching all over when you reach? Only you know the answer to this one. But if you don’t have an answer, someday you might begin to realize you’re not playing it smart.

The other delightful outcome is that your child will also learn to be responsible for his emotions. Most importantly, he will learn to rely on himself for his happiness. Because you will have trained him, through your responses, that no one can ‘make’ anyone happy. People just are – happy or irritated or pleased or … This is a big one.

He will also be less likely to be manipulated.

The biggest immediate beneficiary is you. When you deny him, and he tries to give you the old: “I’m really sad because you aren’t letting me play my PSP”, you can give him the same logic in reverse.

“I’m not letting you play, but you don’t have to be sad about it. You’re just choosing to be sad.”

Your children will get it after a while, so long as you are consistent. They’re smart, you see! 🙂

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The Power of an Idea

Ideas are powerful. Saints, intellectuals, thinkers, philosophers, scientists, litterateurs – in short, achievers from all walks of life extol the virtue and power of an idea.

Who am I to disagree with them? I, too, believe in the power of an idea. But I want to show you the other side of the coin today. The power of an idea not to build, develop, encourage, support, construct – but to destroy.

A 4-year old classmate told my daughter, “I’m bad, and I’m stupid.”

Three years later, my daughter asks me, “Why does he say this about himself? Every time we ask him to come up with ideas for group work, he says he’s too stupid – his ideas will be no good. And you know, Ma, he comes up with great ideas all the time. He had a wonderful idea the other day. We built the entire project around it, and we did so well! But still, he says he’s stupid. I keep telling him he’s not, but he won’t listen!” (She meant he wouldn’t believe her.)

I told her maybe he was having a bad day.

“He’s been this way for years now, ever since we began to go to school,” she said. “But how can he say that about himself? It isn’t even true!”

The boy was an enfant terrible, and I wondered if ever he would think well of himself. Happily, he was given a position of great responsibility at school, and that was the beginning of his transformation. Today he is hardly recognizable as the wild child he used to be. Today, he believes in his intrinsic worth. 🙂

But what a colossal waste – of time, of possibilities! How much pain he has endured! How much more fun he would have had, how much more he could have explored his potential, if only he hadn’t started with the idea that he was bad and stupid.

I was at my daughter’s school to pick her up. I was surrounded by a bunch of her 5-year old classmates. One girl with a wistful expression came up to me, and I said, “Hello, beautiful!” It’s not like I didn’t know her name, but I sometimes address children this way.

She looked up into my face and said simply, “I am not beautiful.”

My heart missed a beat.

With most other children, such a statement would mean they were angling for more compliments – a sort of teasing, laughing game.

But the way she said it, I couldn’t say another word to contradict her. I genuinely felt she was beautiful. And she genuinely felt she wasn’t. There was nothing more to be said – at least, not at that moment. I held her to me in a hug, which she fervently returned, and told her, “You’re a wonderful, special girl, and I think you’re lovely.”

Over the next seven years that I have known this child, I have tried to tell her at odd moments, overtly and covertly, that she is beautiful. One fine day, recently, she said to me, “You may think so, but I know I’m not.” It took seven whole years for her to believe that one person thought her beautiful! And this: a child who would leave her ‘friends’ and be with me every time she saw me!

In those seven years, I have seen her systematically destroy relationships with children. I have seen her strike out blindly at anyone who was happy or contented. I have seen her being underhanded, cruel and unbelievably vindictive when she did not get her way.

Even as I counseled other children with how to deal with the trouble she was creating for them, I could not bring myself to denounce her. Instead, I tried to explain to the others that she was coming from a place of pain (where she was supposed to conform to some specific idea of beauty – but did not, though I didn’t share this with the other children). And this lack of acceptance colored her entire life.

Imagine explaining this to 6-, 7- and 8- year olds! Understandably, they weren’t interested. “She has no right to behave this way! Why can’t someone talk to her parents? Why are they not told what she’s doing – how she is (mis)behaving?”

Her parents… Trust a child to hit the nail on the head!

I ask you – where do you think she got the idea she wasn’t beautiful? Right first time – at home, from her parents.

An idea is a scary thing.

Don’t worry about watching your words around your children. Don’t try to hide from them what you really think. Doing so is a waste of time and energy. Instead, revisit your ideas about them.

Because no matter how careful you are, your ideas will color your attitude, your body language, your mannerisms, your words, your expectation, your tone… – your ideas will create (or destroy) your relationship with your child.

And since the human mind focuses more on what ‘is not’, the idea you focus on will invariably be a negative, destructive one.

So you think she’s lazy. I’m not saying you’re wrong. Maybe she is lazy (according to you! :-)). Well, is that all there is to your daughter? Is that the only thing you can say to yourself about her? That she is lazy? There must be something else to her. Some quality of mind or heart that you believe is desirable?

Why let the negative (lazy) idea take over your mind? And hers too!

In any case, who are you to decide what lazy is? A snail might look lazy (slow) to you, but it is probably going as fast as it can! Who are you to judge?

Maybe she’s an early riser. Why not pick that up as an idea? Maybe she’s caring, well-mannered, an achiever, a sportsperson, an artist, neat and orderly. There has to be something.

Don’t do this when you’re tired or irritated. Do it when you’re overjoyed with her. What about her has you elated? What do you celebrate about her?

I have met some parents who, over more than a decade, have been unable to find a single positive thing about their child. To them I say, if you were to write your child’s obituary, what would you write? Identify a positive idea.

And stick with it.

An idea is a powerful thing – wield the power cautiously, wisely.

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Are You KISSing Your Child Enough?

KISS = Keep It Short and Simple

As an adult, you know the value of preparation. Whether it is an exam, a presentation, a job interview, a new project, an athletic endeavor – whatever you want to do, it will go off better if you prepare for it.

And what is preparation? It is anticipating what might happen in the future, and working towards a result accordingly. You know you would like to drive, so you apply for a learner’s licence, learn how to drive, memorize road rules, and then appear for a driving test. In short, you prepare for it, because at some point in the future, you want to drive.

Same goes for a career. You want to work as a doctor. You find out what you need to do to become one, and then you do it. Even at work, when someone joins your team, the first thing you do is get to know them, and tell them what they need to do, how, and so on. You prepare them.

All your life, you prepare for events, people, and situations (fire drills and so on).

As a parent concerned about your children, you prepare them too. “Study hard,” you say. “You need to develop good work habits.” “You must cultivate discipline – without it, you won’t get anywhere.” “If you think this is too much homework, wait till you get to college! There won’t be enough hours in the day for the work you have to do.”

We try to Keep It Short and Simple. Well, simple at any rate. (Ask the kids – not one will say we keep it short 😉 )

But I’m convinced we could do a lot better. With KISSing, I mean. We draw grim pictures of the future, issue dire warnings about what will happen if they don’t do as we say or take our advice. But we don’t KISS in the most elemental ways.

What is the one thing we can ALL successfully predict? Change. Good or bad, it will all pass.

And yet, we don’t prepare our children for Change. When they are little, and think the world of us, we know that it is a mere phase. They will soon begin to question us. But do we ever let ourselves realize it? Do we prepare ourselves for it? More importantly, do we prepare them for it?

When my daughter was 3, we were very lovey-dovey with each other. Kissing (not KISSing 😉 ), hugging, playing – we had a lot of fun together. And I’d tell her occasionally that she would dislike many things about me when she grew up a bit. She was always nonplussed when I said this. “No, I won’t ever dislike anything about you. I really like you!” she would protest vehemently.

Let’s move forward to about 4 years later. For some reason I couldn’t put my finger on, she was becoming very difficult to be with. Things we did together earlier didn’t satisfy her, and she seemed to want something from me that neither of us could figure out. We were scrapping a lot. A normally cheerful child, she’d become a walking, talking complaint book. As I got into the car to drive her to a birthday party, she was being her fractious self, when it struck me between the eyes.

This was exactly what I’d been predicting! The only problem was, she was too young to know it, and I’d forgotten I’d predicted it. I smiled to myself. My daughter, in the middle of a litany of complaints, caught that smile and stopped mid-sentence. “What? Why did you smile? What’s so funny about what I’m saying?”

My response: “Remember how I used to say you’d not like me so much when you grew up? That you’d be upset with me and we’d argue and fight about things? Well, that’s what is happening now.”

It disarmed her completely. And me too.

She smiled into my eyes, “Oh! This is what you were talking about? I didn’t know…”

Those few sentences allowed us to find new ground on which to build a new kind of relationship. A much stronger one, if you ask me, because now we were also dealing with the reality of two different individuals who felt and thought and reacted differently to the world around them – but still managed to live with love and respect. Bonus: it bolstered the trust between us.

Teenage is the big one! Again, tell them what to expect. Let them know that it’s normal for them to feel that you don’t love them, that you don’t understand them, that the main purpose of your life is to make theirs a living hell. (Normal? It’s practically a rite of passage! 🙂 )

Do you think I’m exaggerating? If you don’t have a teenager, you might think so. In which case, think back to when you were a teenager. All these emotions might have been felt or buried; they might have been shared or not – but they definitely existed in some measure.

Because teenage is a time of growing up – more accurately, a time of growing away – from one’s parents. It is a time when your child will begin actively to search for his own identity. He will try on different personalities, depending on what he’s reading and watching, and who he’s spending time with.

It is a fantastic time for you to be a loving parent – by letting him know that his repudiation of you and everything you stand for is not ‘wrong’; that he is not ‘bad’ or ‘immoral’ or ‘ungrateful’ or ‘wicked’ or ‘worthless’ if he feels rebellious. Take away the guilt and shame of these emotions.

It is a gift only you can give your child. It is reassurance that will work only if it comes from you.

Tell her that things will swing back into perspective by the end of teenage, when she has a better sense of who she is. She’ll probably snort at that too. 🙂 Tell her that ‘growing’ is a lifelong process: a sapling becomes a plant and then a tree and then an older tree. Growth is ongoing – it is we who close ourselves to it.

Try KISSing – another way to enjoy your child. 🙂

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Where are YOU in Your Priority List?

You are a loving parent. You may not be the perfect parent you want to be, but you’re certainly trying your best. At least, you think so.

I disagree. You are busting a gut trying to set a good example to your children, but in a very important way, you are failing them. Yes, you’re failing – failing to set them perhaps the most important example of all: the example of loving yourself.

When your children are tired, you feed them, bathe them, and hustle them into bed. You let them sleep late on weekends to make up sleep deficit accumulated over the week; you let them take the day off school if they’re sick. You let them get away with some ‘bad’ behavior if you know they are stressed. Their activities are sacrosanct – you ensure they get to practices and events. You ensure they have access to nutritious food on time.

Of course you do all this and more. You love them!

And what about yourself? You probably don’t do all this for yourself, which means you don’t love yourself. Don’t deny it! And this lack of love for yourself causes all kinds of problems for you.

You’re perpetually rushing around doing things for others. You are in self-sacrificing mode (why??), which means over a period of time, your nerves are on edge. You are tired (exhausted is more like it), frustrated, stressed, and trying to juggle all the demands on your time and energy. Eventually, you begin snapping at the least provocation or even without any provocation at all.

Your children are left wondering what they’ve done to get an over-the-top reaction from you. They are confused. You end up feeling guilty, and then swing between overcompensating to manage the guilt, and letting off steam. You feel worse about yourself so you do even more to make yourself feel better. Life swings more out of control.

This is only one fall-out of ignoring your OWN needs – for time, rest, fulfillment, quiet, nutrition, exercise – whatever does it for you.

There is a much deeper malaise it creates with our children. This malaise takes root at two levels.

Firstly, it teaches your child not to value your needs. Children learn by copying speech, behavior, mannerisms. After all, if you yourself don’t value your needs, why should your child? But you continue to value his needs, so he does too! As you do this over months and years, the attitude of valuing himself, and under-valuing or not valuing you becomes ingrained. You know what happens next. You complain. You protest. You accuse him of being selfish, of not caring for you. “After ALL I’ve done for you!” 🙂 In short, you even stoop to blackmail. But to no avail.

How can you blame him? You are the one who has taught him this attitude. Think back to the number of times your son told you over the years, “Why don’t you go to bed if you’re not feeling well?” He was just echoing what you said to him. And in all those years, how many times did you actually go to bed? Try and think. Did you? Or did you say, “I should go to bed, but then who will do all the work…” Of course he’ll treat you like a drudge later on. You’ve taught him to do so!

Look at what this does to your relationship with your child. You feel ill-used, under-appreciated, and resentful. Your child, meanwhile, is mystified by all the fuss. He can’t understand why you suddenly want things to be different from how you’ve wanted them all these years.

Since he’s going through (or almost going through) puberty by this time, he has enough to deal with already. And your behavior has him convinced you’re going through a mid-life crisis. (At the very least – most of them think we’re completely gaga [and that’s not Lady Gaga ;-)] by this time.)

Your relationship with your child goes into a tailspin at the very time you need it to be strong so he can be relatively grounded through the turbulent times ahead.

The other level at which putting yourself last affects your child is that it teaches her that ‘good’ people (adults) don’t value their own needs; that they put others’ needs before their own. It teaches her that this destructive relationship with oneself is called ‘loving someone’. Obviously, someone other than oneself!

When you put yourself last all the time, you are teaching her to shortchange herself for the rest of her life. It prepares her for a life of less joy and fulfillment than she is capable of, and definitely less of it than she deserves.

She will be manipulated by people all through her life. “If you love me, you would… / you wouldn’t…” Once again, I must specify that this is as true of men as of women, though on average, women tend to be less respectful of their own needs than men do. Must be the nurturing gene…

Do you want this for your child? Why not empower her to live a free, fulfilling life?

So why do you do it? No, don’t say “who else will take care of things?” You mean if you take the day off sick the office will close down? Really? If you ask your child to be responsible for his own breakfast on Sundays so you can sleep in, will he think Dad and Mom don’t love him anymore? That you are selfish? Nonsense! Who taught you all this? Look back. Where did you learn this? Revisit your childhood. Do you see how you got to this point?

Do you see what a terrible legacy you are handing down to the child you love?

I don’t know your child personally, but I’m sure of one thing: your child is smart. Actually, that’s SMART in capital letters. As you go about your life putting yourself last, and trying hard to convince her you are happy, the only one you are fooling is yourself. She knows at all times when you are really feeling something, and when you are only pretending to an emotion you do not feel.

If you are not at peace, your child will not be at peace. Your pretending will only make things worse between you. Take the time and space you need to be yourSELF.

Put yourself right at the top of your priority list – yes, No. 1!  And your child will find she has the best parent ever! 🙂

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When the Boredom Bug Bites

You are a busy person. You have multiple responsibilities and obligations. There are many days when you feel you haven’t had a moment to yourself. But finally, you have some leisure. Ah!

What do you do with your leisure time? Do you slow down and savor the change of pace? Spend time on a hobby? Do things you’d like to do but normally don’t get around to doing? Take a nap? Watch a film? Meet friends? Explore a subject of interest?

Or do you pull out a few more things from your list of Things to Do, and try and accomplish them?

Or do you sit in front of the TV?

There’s nothing wrong with television. It is a convenience which offers us wonderful opportunities to rediscover the wonder of our lives – if we choose to do so. There are hundreds of hours of programming that will open your eyes and mind and heart, that will enrich your life. But do they?

It’s not the TV: it is us. We decide how to engage with the TV. We decide to sit in front of it for hours every day, not knowing what else to do with ourselves. We don’t acknowledge this as leisure time – maybe because we multi-task as we watch TV. But mostly, we don’t consider it leisure because our brains are still in ‘work’ mode. We are thinking or worrying about various things that need to be ‘done’. Do you ever really switch off?

You’re meeting someone at a café or bar, and the person is late. This is an unexpected gift of time. What do you do with it? You’re outside, so you can’t work (though many of you will whip out your iPhones, Blackberrys and Tablets). You can’t catch up with people on the phone, because it’s noisy. What do you do?

And therein lies the rub. This is the real reason our children are able to manipulate us with “I’m bored”. You try, desperately, to fill this free time.

Stop for a moment to think why. What is wrong with just sitting there doing nothing? Why don’t you deserve to ‘do nothing’? Especially considering your kids often ‘do nothing’ and get away with it? 😉

You do have the answer to this question. If you’re doing ‘nothing’, you will be spending time with yourself. And that means looking at your life: what works in it and what doesn’t, why things don’t work in your life (we are more oriented towards the negative, so you will typically look at the ‘not working’ part of your life, not the ‘this works great! :-)’ part of it), who is responsible for things not working, and so on.

These are tremendously uncomfortable thoughts to have. It is far better to be busy ‘doing something’.  It is also much more comfortable.

What thoughts are you trying to push to the back of your awareness? Why can’t you spend time with yourself without any external aids like your i-whatever, cellphone, tablet, laptop, book, magazine?

At the café where you’re waiting for your friend, try to just sit there. Keep sitting there, doing ‘nothing’. No, you won’t cut a ridiculous figure. Nobody is going to spare you a thought – while you are worried about what others think of you as you just sit there, they, in turn, are worried about what you think of them.

If you can be at peace with yourself, if your child can see you sometimes just be-ing, he will learn – almost by himself – how to spend time with himself.

Your son has just finished something, and comes to you saying, “I don’t know what to do now.” (A polite way of saying “I’m bored”. 🙂 Lucky you!)

Don’t give him options, ideas of what he can do. Just let his statement dangle in mid-air. He might want to join you in what you are doing (if he can). He might hang around while you do whatever you’re busy with. He might wander away and find something to do. Or he might choose to just sit.

And he will choose this if he has seen you choosing it. Children are eternally curious. “What are you doing, Dad?” “Mom, what are you doing just sitting there?”

If you can answer “Nothing” and not explain further, he will accept that ‘doing nothing’ is yet another way of spending time. And if he can’t think of anything to do, then he will simply choose to do ‘nothing’! And once he learns this, he will never be bored. There’s a blissful thought for you! 🙂

But there is so much more to doing nothing. Look at the possibilities: you are doing nothing and your daughter joins you. As you sit together silently, each perhaps absorbed in your own thoughts, you create a special space to communicate with each other beyond the mundane. She might share an idea she has, or ask you about something that’s been troubling her. You might get a peek into something that happened at school.

You might be equally surprised to find yourself sharing parts of yourself or your life that she doesn’t know.

This is conversation, a place where you both connect with each other. This is time spent together where neither of you has an agenda. You are not trying to teach or advise or moralize or explain or inspire or make an example of anything. She is not trying to cajole or coax or defy or shock or rebel against or prepare you for anything.

You are both there – doing nothing. It is time that doesn’t count, in one sense. And because there is nothing at stake, nothing either of you is trying to achieve, it can create many meaningful moments. And you get closer to your child. Both of you can just BE with each other.

I urge you to give it a shot. It is tough to disconnect from the endless “To Do’s” we’ve created for ourselves. But if you have ever done it (and I’m sure you have, even if just for a moment!), you know the value of doing nothing.

In fact, there is a word for it. A ‘good’ word – one which makes ‘doing nothing’ a desirable thing, a goal to work towards, an achievement to aspire for. Yes, ‘doing nothing’ is also called r-e-l-a-x-a-t-i-o-n. 🙂

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