Archive | November, 2011

The Trouble with Raising Disciplined Children

I was 8 years old when we moved to a big city. As my sister and I went down in the evening and began to make friends, we got to know a 6 year old boy. After a few days, we learnt that his parents and ours worked at the same place, but in different divisions. He must have told his parents, just as we told ours. They invited us to spend Saturday with them.

After lunch the dads sloped off to talk shop, the mums talked of getting trained household help, and we kids played some board game. After a bit, my mother complimented the lady on her son, “He seems so settled – not noisy or destructive. He’s so polite and well-behaved. Really, it is difficult to believe he’s only 6!” Since we’d already been there for about 5 hours, there was a point to what she was saying.

The lady smiled her acknowledgement. “Yes, he’s really very well-behaved. We are so proud of him. He does his chores around the house without being reminded, he’s very particular about doing his home work on time, he is polite, and always offers to help his dad or me with stuff. He’s quite extraordinary, really.”

As the afternoon wore on, the dads went to our house to open a few cans of beer (the lady didn’t like serving alcohol at home) and the mothers decided to go grocery shopping together. That left the three of us at home. And what a time we had!

No sooner had the moms left the house than the boy upset the board game, started shouting at the top of his voice, and pulled and pushed and punched me and my sister all over. He pulled our hair and kicked at us and in general, completely lost it. Initially, we were too shocked at the Mr. Hyde transformation to react, but we caught on quickly, and moved rapidly through the stages of trying to talk to him, avoiding his arms and legs, defending ourselves, using our own arms and legs, and finally, just opening the door and running out.

We didn’t go straight to our place. We walked around for a while, trying to settle ourselves emotionally and get our hair back in order and so on. Then we headed home. The boy’s dad was almost leaving, and my dad was fiddling with the TV to put on the news. “You played together?” my father asked. We nodded, and went to our room.

When Mom eventually got in, she couldn’t stop singing the boy’s praises. “…even our girls are not as well-behaved as he is…” My sister and I rolled our eyes mentally, and told my mother at bedtime how he had actually behaved when there were no adults around.

My parents never doubted our word, but as both my sister and I were beginning to develop bruises on our arms and legs from being his punching bags, there was not even a smidgen of disbelief my mother could indulge in. “This is awful! I will speak with his mother tomorrow – she must know how badly he behaved…”

We agreed, full of righteousness at being wronged (how human beings love to be ‘right’! 🙂 ). When my mom called the lady the next day, she encountered total disbelief. “No, no – there must be some misunderstanding. You saw how well he behaves, you complimented him yourself, the girls must have misconstrued something he said (! and got bruises from it?!)…”

Seeing that there was no way the lady would believe what she was hearing, my mother wisely stopped.  That was the end of that playmate!

Over the years, I have seen innumerable children who are ‘ruled with an iron hand’ by their parents. These parents have rules – strict rules, lots of them, for every situation and person, for every time of the day – they have long lists of do-s and don’t-s that cover every imaginable circumstance. And if ever a new circumstance comes along, one or more items are added to the DO-s and DON’T-s lists.

They want their children to be perfect – all day, every day.

Children love attention and approval – two things that most people confuse with love – so they obey as many rules as possible to the best of their ability. And their ability to obey is formidable. It looks like everyone is happy – the parents because their rules are being obeyed, and the children because they actively solicit and bask in their parents’ approval (‘love’!) by obeying the rules.

At some point, however, nature begins to assert herself. The child has a mind of his own. He finds his parents themselves don’t abide by their own rules. He finds that they enforce their rules arbitrarily. He begins to question his parents’ rules – all of them.

The child looks around at other children who are not so obedient, not so ‘good’, not so ‘loved’ – and finds that these other kids aren’t doing too badly! Quite the contrary, in fact: they are enjoying themselves, doing whatever they feel like whenever they feel like it, living life ‘their’ way, and if they aren’t getting any approval or ‘love’ from their parents, they don’t seem too bothered by it!

And he? He is stuck spending every moment of his life trying to please his parents.

Do you wonder that when this child breaks free of his parents’ rules, the break is spectacular, violent, over-the-top, subversive, dangerous? It has to be! He has spent so many years toeing the line; he has to make up for all those hundreds of thousands of moments of not asserting himself – his will, and he has to make up for it all at once.

The child goes ballistic – loses control altogether.

A girl I’ve known for 4 years was teased mercilessly by her classmates for being Miss-Goody-Two-Shoes. But behind the teasing, she was well-liked: she was fun to be around, even though she lived in deadly fear of offending authority in the slightest way (authority represented by her parents and teachers.) Her acquiescence of authority was so extreme that if an adult (I, for instance) had told her in all seriousness that I was sure the sun rose in the west, it would not cross her mind to smile at my words or smirk or utter a single word of disagreement. She would just look down, avoiding my eye. If I were to insist on her agreeing with me, she would even manage to nod (and this is a smart, knowledgeable, ‘truthful’ child!).

I know the child’s mother slightly, and I always wondered why she pushed her lovely daughter so hard. As my daughter would tell me things that she and her friends sometimes talked about, she always wondered why the girl’s mother was such a harsh parent.

“Why? It’s not fair! She (the friend) has no freedom to do anything her way!” my daughter would agonize.

“Who knows? But it’s not good. And it’s not natural the way the girl behaves. Some day all this repression will burst out of her – and that will be a very terrible day for the family. They probably won’t realize it – she’ll manage to disguise it from them, but you will know, because she is unguarded around her friends. She will need some really mature person to be there for her when that time comes,” was my response.

Today, sadly, that time has come. At an age when all children are willing to indulge in experimental speech and behavior of all kinds, she has become so out-of-control that she is shunned by her peers. She has no one to hang out with, and any group she joins mysteriously melts away. She is finding it difficult to work on group projects because the other children hasten to create their own groups to avoid having to include her.

I’m sure she feels the pain of being shunned, but the resentment and pain, the force of all the discipline she was needlessly subjected to is too strong for her to resist. And so her tongue and mind and heart have run away with her, till she’s running downhill at a catastrophic speed – running not because she wants to run, but because the slope is too much for her to resist any longer.

Let him please himself. Let him let off steam. Let him vent. Let him be. Let him talk about girls, and boys, if he so wishes it! Let him share his thoughts freely with you. The more NO-s he hears from you, the less you will know him.

Don’t be under the mistaken notion that what you see and hear is the reality. What you see and hear is what your child thinks you want to see and hear; it is your illusion – that you mistake for reality.

Relax, and let your child breathe, and be herself. If she can’t be herself even with you, her parent, whom will she go to? She will go to someone someday, but will that person be as safe as you? It is heartbreaking to say it, but your child may actually feel safer being himself with somebody (anybody? everybody?) other than you. And you have only yourself to thank (blame?) for this state of affairs.

Think about this before you push him to the wall with your demands, your rules, your discipline.

Personally, I’d rather have my child behave abysmally at home and reasonably well outside than the other way around (if there has to be a choice of where your child will lose control of herself). Let YOU be the person she tries out her craziness on. Let her get it out of her system, her head. She will feel safe. She will be protected. She will know she is loved – not ‘loved’, but loved.

And you do love your child, don’t you?

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When Do You Stop Being a Parent?

No matter how much you love your child, this question would definitely have crossed your mind if you’ve been a parent for a few years. There will be days when your child drives you up-the-wall, round-the-bend, over-the-top crazy, and unbidden, the thought comes to your mind: “When can I get off this parenting rollercoaster? When can I be me again? When can I get my life back again?”

I’m sharing 3 stories by way of an answer.

A friend of mine has 2 children: a boy and a girl, who often scrap with each other. She is the kids’ first and last court of appeal, and they keep badgering her till they feel the other has got his / her comeuppance. My friend’s mother, who lives with the family, tries to restore peace. She does this for one reason only. In her words, “I love my daughter. Of course, I love my grandchildren too, but they trouble her so much, that I can’t bear to see her going through this nonsense for hours every day. I’m sure I’d be able to get them to stop, if only she’d allow me to spank them, but she doesn’t!”

This lady has an adult daughter who is herself a parent, but she still feels for my friend – her child. She hasn’t stopped being a parent.

***

On www.getorganizednow.com, a reader sent in an organizing idea. She wrote: “My handicapped son was in his wheelchair ready for the bus to arrive. I had his jacket on and tried to zip it up when the zipper pull broke off. Not having time to take the coat off and put another on, my husband asked for a plastic bag tie. He slipped it through the hole where the zipper pull had been pushed it in half way then twisted it to make a great temporary pull. I pulled the zipper up just as the bus arrived.

My husband and I are in our early 70’s. Our son is 57 and attends a day center for 5 hours every day. This is our respite time. We visit friends, shop, and sometimes we have lunch out. We have to be home every day at 2:45 to get our son off the bus.”

***

A friend who quit the corporate world to pursue his childhood passion for photography had his first solo exhibition recently. At the launch, I was speaking with his father. “What awesome photographs!” I said.

My friend’s dad who is in his 70s, replied, “Yes, he’s really good” – and stopped.

I was incredulous. “Good? He’s way better than good!”

The gentleman seemed to be struggling for words. Then, “You see, he’s my son, so I don’t want to say too much.”

“Why not? I have a daughter, and if I feel she’s doing a great job, I have no compunction saying so to anyone, including herself.”

“If that’s how you feel, let me tell you what I think. I am amazed, bowled over, and so, so proud to see his work. I always knew he was talented, but seeing his work exhibited like this – solo, at a gallery – has simply blown me away. And he’s following his heart, his passion – what more could a father ask?”

***

There are times – many times – when your children get on your nerves, and you wish you could get a break from them. But that’s really all you want – a little break, a breather.

You never stop being a parent – and that’s just the way you (and I!) like it. 🙂

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Give Your Child the Gift of Distance

He was 13 when I first met him, a boy suffering from both shyness and acne. I tried to draw him out in conversation. He was polite, but not forthcoming. After we’d met a few times, he became friendly in his own quiet, understated way. As he opened up, I found out that his entire social circle consisted of his parents.

I was a teenager myself, and knew many introverts; but I failed to understand how a person’s only friends could be his parents.

“Someone at school you get on with? A friend who comes over for your birthday? Someone you play with – like tennis or video games or something? Someone you meet for lunch or dinner or the occasional movie? Someone you chat with on the phone?…” I persisted, trying to find out who else he was friendly with.

“Well, there’s you guys,” he said. I think I succeeded in hiding my surprise. He’d met me and my sister not even half a dozen times, when his parents had come over home with him, and we were the only friends he could think of, aside from his parents? Didn’t he need any distance from them? If he hung around with them all the time, he would only be ‘their son’. How would he know who he was when he was on his own? How would he know who he was when he was with a friend? (Of course, he had to have a friend in the first place before he could know this, which brings me right back to where I started!)

His mother sat there, beaming at us. When he’d gone to another room to look at some books, she confided in me. “You know, we had him after almost 20 years of marriage. We had almost given up on ever having a child, and then we were blessed with him. I can’t thank god enough. Such a wonderful boy! He’s so caring! He won’t eat lunch without me. When he gets home from school, if I’m not home for some reason (though I try my best to be there), he’ll wait till I get back so we can eat together. As a result, we sometimes end up having lunch at 4pm! With a son like him, I feel I have the best of both worlds – the joys of having both a son, and a daughter who is close to me. God bless him!”

Over various meetings, the parents echoed their fervent love for and delight with the boy. He too, seemed perfectly happy – at peace with his studies, his interest in music and movies (which he indulged by attending performances and shows with his parents) – enjoying life with his parents.

They didn’t force him to do anything against his will. They didn’t manipulate him. It just seemed that his wishes and theirs naturally coincided, so there was no conflict whatsoever. It was quite amazing to see, and a lesson in loving people, I used to think.

As the years went by, we continued to meet them. Every now and then, I would try and tell the boy he should cultivate some friends outside the family circle. He said he didn’t feel the need for it. I even told his mother that she should encourage him to have some friends – she said they had suggested it every now and then, but he negated the idea. All of them were content.

The day came when he left school and went to college in a city that was a significant distance away.  They were all apprehensive about his moving. In the weeks before he moved, he spent even more time with them, and concentrated on reassuring them that he would manage fine without them, as would they without him. Distance would make the heart grow fonder, he assured them.  

Many years passed, during which I married and moved away. I met the parents 10 years later. They happened to drop in. Quite obviously, I asked after their son. A curious restraint seemed to come over both husband and wife. Since I had asked the question of the gentleman, I was looking at him. He seemed uncomfortable, but replied that the son was doing very well. He was happy and settled in a great job.

Before I could continue the conversation, someone else said something, and the topic was dropped. I had two children (a toddler and a dog) to take care of, so I was in and out of the conversation, and then they left.

Later that evening, I asked my father what I’d done wrong by asking after their son. He said, “I forgot to tell you – they haven’t had any contact with him for a few years now. The lady is terribly upset about it –they both are, but she can’t bear to be reminded of it. I was supposed to warn everyone at home to stay off the topic. But you came unexpectedly, and what with the children and everything, it completely slipped my mind to tell you.”

I was shocked. How could this be? Apparently, when the boy moved to another city, he got to know other people his age. He was plunged into the world of young people with their normal friendships, hobbies, pursuits, interests, loves and hates. He discovered he liked hanging out with people his own age, gossiping about people movies books teachers crushes boyfriends girlfriends ideas over innumerable cups of tea and coffee, a few sodas or a pitcher of beer.

As he was drawn to people his own age, he contrasted it with his own life at home till then – a life he had consciously chosen. He blamed his parents for not letting him have any ‘fun’ while he lived with them, for keeping him tied to their apron-strings, for not letting him lead his own life, for “wasting my teenage years – which should be the most fun years of a person’s life”. (?!)

It was utterly unfair to his parents, besides being utterly untrue. But that was his perception, his ‘truth’, and he wasn’t willing to see any other ‘truth’.

He decided to ‘punish’ his parents by expunging them from his life. They took some time to understand the situation. Initially, he stopped writing to them (email was still nascent in India) or calling them. When his parents went to visit him, he was always ‘busy’ and couldn’t spend time with them. His mother he avoided meeting altogether.

On one visit, the father pleaded with him, trying to explain the parents’ position. The son was unmoved. “You didn’t let me live my life,” he accused. “Now, you have to pay the price. I hate the thought of you both – I hate to think of how you took over my life for almost 2 decades. I can’t forgive you – either of you. As for Mom, she is my mother – how could she do this to me? I never want to see her or hear from her again. In fact, I might as well tell you – I have no intentions of ever again meeting you either. This is our last meeting.”

The father came away broken-hearted.

I learnt all this from my father. Some months after this evening, I met the gentleman. I didn’t mention their son at all. He broached the topic himself. I apologized for my gaffe at our previous meeting, and he was gracious enough to accept my apology. “You obviously didn’t know,” he said.

“Any news of him?” I ventured.

“No. None at all. After he stopped speaking to us, we managed to get some news of him through friends of his whose phone numbers we had. But he found out. He didn’t want us to know anything about him or his life, so he dropped those friends, moved jobs, moved house, changed his phone number … We don’t know anything about him – where he is, what he’s doing.” His eyes filled with tears, and I looked away.

“Do you know he turned so virulently against us that after the first year of college, he actually approached a friend’s father for a loan to cover tuition fees and living expenses? All the checks I sent him went uncashed…  It’s killing my wife – any reference to him puts her in depression for weeks. We’ve almost stopped meeting people, and everyone we meet, I tell them in advance not to mention our son.”

I apologized once again for having done so. He waved it aside. “I wonder how he is. Wherever he is, I just hope he’s happy, healthy, safe, at peace. It’s a relief talking to you – I can’t talk to anyone else; definitely not my wife. People keep asking for details, keep asking if they should try and locate him – it feels like they’re gouging out my heart…”

What a terrible, terrible waste! And it came from nowhere, for no reason.

Wait – I believe there was a reason. Perfect amity is unnatural – you have to be god-like to always get along equally well with everyone. The regular individual will always feel the stresses and strains of her interactions with people, even loved ones. Make that ‘especially with loved ones’. 🙂

In the wildest of my dreams I wouldn’t have predicted such a future scenario for the happy self-contained family, but the parents should have encouraged him to go out and mix with people his age. They encouraged him, but it was more like making mild suggestions, which he shot down every time.

They could have sent him to camp during the holidays. They could have enrolled him in music classes or workshops. Sure he’d have rebelled. He might even have said something like, “How can you say you love me if you send me away?” (Yes, you know this – kids have a peculiar penchant for turning everything around to suit their own point of view. But then, so do adults! 🙂 )

But that little ‘hurt’ of sending him away would have faded in the light of his experiences. He would have gotten to know people his own age, he would have enjoyed (or not, and that is fine too!) varied experiences with them. He would eventually have got over the ‘pain’ of his parents forcing him to do his own thing. He would have become a more balanced person, able to build and sustain relationships with people other than his parents – a skill absolutely vital for a happy life.

If your child is to grow into a fully functioning worthwhile adult, make sure you have some difference of opinion with her. Give her many opportunities to experience different slices of life, different kinds of people, different activities, different ways of being; because love needs distance to be real, to be felt. Justlikeyouneedspacesandpunctuationbetweenwordssothatyoucanmakesenseofthemenjoythem. 🙂

‘Force’ her, if you need to. (Take this last with a pinch of salt – no point sending your low-energy arty child to a heavy-duty trek.) Choose appropriate activities, and some not-so-appropriate ones. Too shy? Maybe drama class will jolt him out of it. Too dependent? You might want to pick a summer camp where she stays away from home for a few days and learns to rely on herself.

 Your child is her own person and needs to live her own life, distinct from yours. The sooner the both of you realize this, the happier you’ll be.

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Setting Fear Aside to Parent from Love

I was going through a messy divorce, and lived in daily fear that my daughter would be ‘snatched’ from me. I don’t think this fear had any basis in reality, but fears are often like that – they come from nowhere and completely take over your life. In those days, I must have said and done many things that my daughter must have found incomprehensible or weird (because fear held me captive – I was parenting from fear – a literal fear, different from the kind of fear I spoke about yesterday, but fear all the same), but I don’t remember them now. Neither does she.

Thus far, I had managed to prevent my daughter being summoned in court, but that was at an end now. Tomorrow was the day she had to meet the judge. I trembled at the thought that my 4-year old would have to wait outside the judge’s chambers with the lowest of the criminal classes till our case was called. She would be exposed to crass looks, talk and behavior, and there was nothing I could do about it. The big fear, of course, was the possibility that she’d be kidnapped from the court itself, where my soon-to-be-ex-husband might have hired goons waiting for the opportunity to do so. (Ridiculous, isn’t it? 🙂  Today I can smile, but let me tell you, I couldn’t then. Fear is utterly illogical. And it is scary. You have your own fears, so you know exactly what I mean.) By late evening, I was hyperventilating.

My family kept telling me to get a hold of myself. I had to stay in control, else how would I keep things ‘normal’ for her? But sometimes you are beyond the reach of the most obvious, commonsense, loving logic. I was beyond it then.

Somehow, I got through the night and the court appearance. I was limp with relief as we drove back home. When a few days had elapsed, I thought about the entire episode.

Why was I so scared? What was the worst that could happen?

As various dire scenarios flashed through my head, I pondered each of them. If A were to happen, what could I do? If B were to happen, what could I do? Let’s say there’s an outbreak of meningitis. What can you do? Maybe you’ve inoculated your child, but she might still get it.

You can’t prevent things from happening. You can do your best to protect, secure, preempt the negative, but you can’t fool-proof your child’s life against troubles. When a situation arises, you will deal with it to the best of your ability. And that’s the best that you can do. It is the best that anyone can do!

Bad things will happen. To everyone. Including your child. Including my child. Good things will also happen. That is all there is to it.

Everyday there are accidents, natural disasters, earthquakes, quarrels, fights, misunderstandings. Innumerable bystanders get caught in them because they are in the wrong place at the wrong time – ‘collateral damage’ is the hi-tech name for it. What can you do?

Nothing.

When once you truly accept that there is absolutely nothing you can do beyond a point – to influence anything, the fear begins to loosen its hold on you.

You can’t fight fear with logic – not if the fear is deeply ingrained. You have to approach it from another direction. “What if my worst fear comes true?” Well, what if it does?

Most parents would say they can’t live without their children. But some parents have lost their children – lost them to illness (when the child is alive but doesn’t recognize its parents), to death, to the vagaries of life (being unable to meet your child because you are in the middle of a divorce, for instance, and your partner has custody and ‘prevents’ your meeting the kid), to uncertainty. Their fear has come true.

But the parents continue to live. Not only do they continue to live, they learn to smile again, to take an interest in life, to be alive. As they should! Getting back to life doesn’t make you a ‘less good’ parent. It doesn’t mean you don’t (or didn’t) love your child, it doesn’t mean you don’t (or didn’t) do your best for your child.  

You are a parent, yes. But you were a person long before you became a parent. Heartbreak will always be a part of life, but denying that you are alive is not the way to deal with a broken heart.

When you are gone, your child will be sad (hopefully! 🙂 ). Would you want her to mope and lose interest in life and becoming a living corpse? NO! She is still alive! And she should live her life with all the verve and gusto at her command! Isn’t that what you would want? After all, she only gets one chance at life!

Why should the rules be different for you?

You are now beginning to deal with your worst fears.

Come back to your daily fear – the one you’re parenting from: what will people think/say?

They will think and say exactly what they want – no matter what you do! There’s no way you can please everyone all the time. It is a waste of time and effort even to try doing so. The only person you can be certain you are pleasing or not is – yourself, so you might as well go ahead and please yourself.

If you’ve got this, you have already lightened fear’s grip on you. You can now parent from love. You can now evaluate: how much of your fear is concern for the child, and how much of it is fear of what others will say / think.

You might still be concerned that being a sculptor or teaching English is not the ‘best’ career option for your child, but you won’t withhold your love or approval if he chooses either of them. So when you ask him to evaluate other, more conventional careers, your motivation will be concern for his future; the driving force will be love, not fear.

And because the driving force will be love, your child will listen to what you have to say, whether or not he goes by it. You will continue to enjoy a loving relationship with your child.

If you are parenting from love, you will be more concerned that your child be true to herself than that she behave like a hypocrite. If someone in the extended family has died (someone she didn’t even know), what’s wrong with her chatting quietly with someone or reading a book at the wake? Who cares if people think she should behave ‘suitably’, sitting mournfully in a corner sniffing into a handkerchief? Not you!

In the abstract, parenting from love involves two people: your child and yourself. In reality, parenting from love focuses on just one person: your child. 🙂

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Are You Parenting from Love or its Opposite?

For much of my life, I thought that the opposite of ‘love’ was ‘hate’. And then, I discovered that these two words were opposites only in English grammar quizzes.  

Love is an energizing force – it gives you the energy to move towards some things and people, and away from other things and people. Hate is energizing too! It gives you the energy to move towards some things and people, and away from other things and people.

That is why I say: hate is not the opposite of love. Of course, one seems to be a positive force and the other negative, but that is only a matter of how you interpret the words themselves.

Love may give you the energy to care for a sick child when you are completely exhausted; while hatred for a bad habit may help you rid yourself of it – both positive outcomes.

Reverse the interpretation, and another picture emerges. You may ‘love’ your body image a certain way, leading you towards anorexia (a negative outcome); while ‘hating’ your parents might motivate you to study hard and go away to a good college, making a good life for yourself away from them. 

So what is the opposite of love? I think fear is. Love energizes, but fear paralyzes. Fear grips you and doesn’t let go. You don’t know what to think, what to do, which way to turn. Every option seems unsafe, fraught with danger. You are unable to take any action – either to run away from the fear or to confront it, deal with it. You do the only thing you can do – you give in to it.

So I’m saying fear is the opposite of love.

You can parent from love – but how can you parent from fear?

I’ll show you how you parent from fear.

Your son doesn’t like guns, he’s not aggressive, he doesn’t like sports, he’s not into technology (Bill Gates and Steve Jobs have made ‘nerd’ and ‘geek’ acceptable – even fashionable!); instead, he is always reading. And no, he’s not reading the Hardy boys series or Biggles or Percy Jackson: he’s reading poetry, classical English literature, mythology; he enjoys sculpture and painting. He is your son and you love him – no doubt whatsoever about it. But you’re uncomfortable with the idea of him being such a ‘sissy’ – no boyish pastimes, no macho stuff, he’s every girl’s best friend and knows no boys (if he does, you haven’t seen any evidence of it). At every turn, you ‘encourage’ him to go out and play cricket or football or baseball. You buy him War of the Worlds games. You enroll him (or try to) into adventure sports activities. You ask him to be a boy (or a man).

You wonder what is wrong with him. You wonder what your friends think – you wonder what his friends think – of him and of you! You wonder what successful career he could possibly have – become a sculptor? Teach English or mythology? Nothing wrong with these options, but they’re not what you had in mind when you thought of him reaching the pinnacle of success at work…

You wonder if he’s gay. You watch his every move with a hawk’s eye, ready to pounce on the slightest ‘symptom’ of homosexuality. You read obsessively about closet gays. You see a counselor or doctor. You find out how you can influence his sexuality, his interests, his career choices – so these are more acceptable to the world at large.

If your child does not fit the ‘norm’, you lose your joy in her, your enjoyment of her. The only thing that drives you – relentlessly – is that she should be more middle-of-the-road. This is parenting from fear.

She’s outspoken, and refuses to pretend a grief she doesn’t feel at a grand-aunt’s death. She’s not behaving inappropriately – she just wants to sit and make conversation with a cousin, or read a book or watch TV. You tell her, “No chatting; don’t read or watch TV. Aunt… has just died. You should behave more funereally.” (!)

It’s immaterial that your child didn’t know the lady who died; you are more concerned about what people will say if they see her doing ‘normal’ stuff when there’s just been a death in the family. You force her to behave in a manner untrue to herself. Even you, who knew the lady, do not feel much grief, but you have perfected the art of showing the expected reaction, doing the expected thing, however disconnected it might be from what you are really feeling. And now you’re forcing your child to do the same.

This is parenting from fear. If you think for a bit, you’ll find that you parent from fear much more often than you realize. Fear of what people will say. Fear of what kind of life your son will build for himself if he goes so much against the ‘masculine’ mode. Fear of what people will say about you as a parent – that you did not raise him to be more ‘normal’. Fear that you did not teach your child how to ‘behave’ in social situations. Fear that she will not be a ‘success’. Fear that she will be singled out, ridiculed, left out in the cold, not find friends or acceptance

You, her loving parent, who is so anxious for your child to find acceptance and love, end up withholding both from her. Yes, you yourself! Supremely ironic, don’t you think?

You are so afraid of what others will think and say and feel about this unconventional boy of yours, that all your parenting becomes focused on making him more conventional. You send him clear signals that he will have your approval if he fits the mold.

Your child understands what’s going on. In essence, you are telling him, “I love you, but I will love you more if you are this way/ do this thing/ be this thing …” You are telling him that he is not okay as he is, that you do not accept him for who he is.

You jeopardize your relationship with your child. She may or may not ‘change’ herself to fit the norm, but you’ll definitely find her moving away from you. This only increases your frantic desperation. Fear has you in its thrall, and there seems to be no way out.

Identify exactly how you parent from fear, and I’ll tell you tomorrow how you can break the stranglehold of fear to enjoy parenting your child as you would like to – from love. 🙂

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Why Your Child ‘Listens’ to You Sometimes

The complete title of this post is: Why Your Child Listens to You Sometimes and How to Ensure This Happens More Often. 🙂

I must clarify that the word ‘listen’ in the title has been used according to your definition of the word, not mine. When I say ‘listen’, I mean pay heed to an idea or thought, consider it. The listener is then free to embrace the idea partially or wholly, or to reject it.

When you use the word ‘listen’, you mean ‘do as I say’ or ‘obey’. So this post is about why your children do as you ask them to do sometimes, and how to make sure they obey you more often.

I believe there are 2 laws at work which make a child obey its parent(s). One is the law of expectation, which I have talked about earlier. If you truly expect a child to do as you have said, you will usually find very little (if any) opposition to your will.

The other law, which unfortunately comes into play a lot more often, is the law of desperation. Most of the time, you are desperate that your child obey you. And how can you not be desperate?

My daughter rarely remembers to apply lip balm. When she was little, years ago, I would do it for her. When I got her her own lip balm (at 6 or 7), I said if she was old enough to choose the flavor and brand of her lip balm, she was old enough to apply it, so all I would do was remind her to do so. Like so many other things, the novelty of having her own lip balm ensured that for the first few days, it was applied many times a day. Then, it became just another chore. One had to wash one’s hands (she had the balm in a little pot)…, and there were so many other, more interesting things to do – so the lip balm application fell by the wayside.

Her lips dried up, started peeling, started cracking so badly that she had blood oozing from them. Sometimes, dried blood was caked on them, and smiling, eating, drinking, talking became painful. “It hurts!” I was told, as if I personally had taken a hatchet to her!

“Well, you don’t remember to put on the lip balm,” I pointed out.

“It’s too much work! It’s cold and I have to keep washing my hands to put it on. There has to be a simpler way.”

“Okay. Shall we get one of those lip balm applicators that works like a lipstick? You just roll it up, apply it, roll it back down, and you’re done.”

I heard an enthusiastic yes. We went shopping and bought something. History repeated itself. For the first few days, all was well. Then some days it got left behind at home when she went to school, and she wasn’t able to reapply it in school and her lips bled and the blood caked up and…

We bought another stick of lip balm. One to keep in the school bag; one at home, so she would always have access to something.

One got lost. We bought another. She changed her mind about the flavor – she didn’t like it any more. We bought another.

Years down the line, I still come across one or two of those ancient lip balms on sticks and toss them into the bin. But the point is: she just did not apply it.

Let me tell you, it hurt to see her with lips either bleeding or caked with blood over 50% of the time. I once told her even the beggars on the streets didn’t have such dry lips. “Mom, give me a break, okay? Don’t get after me all the time. I know what to do, and I’ll do it if I want to” was the response I got, along with all kinds of dire looks. (Sigh! :-))

On various occasions, members of my family took me aside saying I should do something about it, because besides looking terrible, she was in real pain – unable to smile or talk, eat or drink. I told them I reminded her every now and then, and they were welcome to join me in doing so (which they wisely refrained from! 🙂 ), but beyond a point, she had to look after herself.

Once it got so bad that I actually applied some Vaseline to her lips after she had fallen asleep.  This happened for two consecutive nights. Then I thought, “What the heck! Into every life some rain must fall. If this is the trouble she chooses for herself, so be it.”

And that’s where we are today.

I once asked her how come she ‘forgot’ to apply the balm despite the pain. “There are so many other things…,” she said. I smiled my understanding. How could I not? There are a million billion things that are so little, so simple, that I can do for myself, which will make my life easier, simpler. More importantly, these are things I actively want to do for myself. But I don’t do them – because there are so many other things… 🙂

So when I say the law of desperation, I know what I’m talking about.

You know what I’m talking about too! Your child is low on iron, but won’t eat any proteins or green leafy vegetables, and won’t pop that iron pill either. He is sleepy but won’t stop playing that computer game so he can get enough zzzs. He can cure his 19/20 eyesight by doing eye exercises, but won’t. (And he says he doesn’t want to wear spectacles!) All he needs is 15 minutes of Math practice a day, and he’ll be a whiz – but he doesn’t find the time…

As a parent, there are innumerable times you are desperate – often for a very good cause. But the point is, the more desperate you are, the lower the chances that your child will ‘listen’ to you.

When you care about an outcome beyond a point, you build failure into it. Read that once more. When you care about an outcome beyond a point, you build failure into it.

Think about all the times you ‘won’ at something, all the times you succeeded. You were ‘cool’ about it, not desperate. And now think of all the times you were ‘desperate’ to have things your way (people, situations, results) – rarely did the chips fall in your favor.

I don’t know why this is so, but I have found it to be always true.

The funny thing is, the few times I have succeeded despite the desperation, I have found that once I’d got the outcome, I didn’t want it! I’m sure you can relate to this one too. 🙂

If you can drop the desperation, and have the expectation, there’s a good chance that your children will ‘obey’ you more often than they do right now.

And for the occasions they don’t, remember: into every life, some rain must fall.

When I was a child, an aunt told me, “It is up to you to get your father to stop smoking.”

I was fired with enthusiasm, and confronted him right away. “You’ve got to stop smoking! You know what it does to your lungs, your health, your life. Just stop, okay?”

My father, a very wise man, replied, “You know we all have to die one day, in some way or other. Maybe I’ve decided to choose this way.”

Nothing more to be said, is there?

P.S. I am anti-smoking personally, but it is every person’s right to choose for themselves at every point in their lives.

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Getting a Perspective on Your Child’s Misbehavior

A man got on a bus with three children. They must have been about 11, 7, and 5. All of them found seats. The children were noisy and boisterous. They insisted on shouting and jumping around the bus whenever it stopped, heedless of whom they elbowed or whose body they banged against or whose toes they stepped on. After about 5 minutes, everyone on board the bus was disgusted. Two old ladies who were sitting in the seat immediately ahead of the children were bearing the brunt of their misbehavior.

The man accompanying the children seemed lost in some faraway world – unaware of both the children’s unacceptable behavior, and the disapproving looks and muttering of the passengers.

Initially, the old ladies grumbled to each other about the father’s (they assumed he was the father of the children) lack of awareness at how badly his children were conducting themselves. When they found no response from him, they increased their volume, till, during a sudden lull, their penetrating tones were clearly heard by everyone on the bus, “Just look at that man! Can’t he do anything to control those monstrous children of his?”

When the man didn’t twitch a muscle even at this, one of the old ladies tapped him smartly on the arm. He jumped. “Excuse me, Sir. Your children are making a nuisance of themselves. Can’t you do anything to subdue them?” she demanded.

He looked at her a moment. “Ma’am, I’m so sorry. Their mother just died and we’re getting back home from the funeral. They don’t quite know what to make of it all, and I’m wondering how I’m going to raise them all by myself and hold down a job as well.”

“Oh, you poor things!” the lady exclaimed. She immediately turned to the youngest child, inviting him into her lap so he could see better out of the bus, while her friend began looking in her handbag for some candy for the children.

In those few sentences, the mood of sullen resentment and dislike that had hung heavy in the back of the bus dissipated, leaving a feeling of fellowship and caring. The other passengers wanted to pitch in too. In a few minutes, order was restored, with the younger child pointing happily at colored things he could see through the window, and the elder two children engaged in conversations with other passengers.

The father looked at the lady who had tapped him with tears in his eyes. “Thank you, Ma’am.”

The lady found her own eyes wet with tears. “No. Thank you. At my age, I should have known better than to presume I know what is going on. Thank you for reminding me that I don’t. And don’t worry about your children. They are fine kids. They will do you proud.”

 Every now and then, your child will go off the rails. Out of the blue, he will behave so ‘badly’ that you wouldn’t believe it unless you’d seen it yourself.

Initially, you grit your teeth and try and ignore it, or bear with it, but after a while, you blow your top too, and then there’s a slanging match between you two or there’s nagging or sullen silences.

The next time, you might want to keep the above anecdote in mind. Something must have happened to make your child behave so uncharacteristically. Why not try and find out what it might be?

See, she’s expecting you to blow up at her, so when you don’t (not when you’re pretending that you’ve got your temper in hand, but when you genuinely can set aside your emotional reaction to her misbehavior and be concerned about what is causing it), she will be astonished.

I was driving some of my daughter’s friends to a party, and after a bit, they forgot about me and began chatting in earnest. One voice rose above the others. “Isn’t he awful? Everybody hates him. We’ve complained to the teachers and they’ve given him a talking-to, but this guy just doesn’t understand!”

Another voice pitched in, “You know, he was even sent to the Principal? He still refuses to get it – he just can’t behave this way!”

 “He’s troubling people all the time, disrupts classes and gets us grounded for no fault of ours. We haven’t had PE or Games in a month! Why should we suffer because he can’t control himself?”

“I think they should just send him out of the school – expel him!” said yet somebody else.

I was startled at the universality, vehemence and virulence of feeling against this child.

When we got back home, I asked my daughter who they’d been talking about. “Oh! …, you know. I’ve told you about him – he’s simply incorrigible!”

I knew from this child’s mother that things had not been going well between his parents for the past year or so. I had been expecting some out-of-control behavior from the boy, but I didn’t know that everyone at school had turned against him. I had promised the mother I wouldn’t tell anyone about the situation at their house, yet this child was being vilified beyond belief, made more lonely, with nobody to share in his pain.

Without telling my daughter the details, I said, “He’s going through some problems at home. He’s not getting enough attention, and things are difficult for him right now. Maybe that’s why he’s acting this way. When all of you gang up against him, it probably brings out the worst in him. He might feel, ‘All my ‘friends’ don’t like me anyway, so what do I have to lose by being mean? At least they are all focused on me – I have their attention, even if it is negative.’”

My daughter was adamant, “But this has to stop. I mean, nobody is going to give him a chance unless he changes his ways.”

“Quite the reverse, my dear. He won’t change unless somebody gives him a chance. See what you can do – if you want to do something about it. And you can’t tell anyone anything about his situation at home. I wasn’t supposed to tell you even this, but I did because I know you can keep it to yourself, and so that you can understand that sometimes, when we’re going through difficult times, we all behave a little crazily. And at such times, it’s nice if our friends cut us a little slack.”

“I do want to do something about it – not for his sake, but for our own – we don’t get to do any fun stuff at school now. We’re perpetually grounded!”

The next day, my daughter co-opted a couple of others saying, “We’ve tried scolding him, explaining to him, shouting at him, not talking to him and it hasn’t worked; let’s try being friendly.”

A small group ate lunch with the boy. Not a word was said about missing the 3 ‘fun’ periods of the day because of his shenanigans. They shared their food and made conversation about the latest movies they’d watched, the funny way one teacher spoke, the awesome way another one taught…

As the group continued their friendly ways over the next few days, the group grew larger and the boy calmer. He was always a hell-raiser, but the nastiness had seeped out of him.

An unexpected bonus: I was in the middle of a blistering tirade about someone. I turned to my daughter, looking for understanding. She coolly said, “Well, maybe they were having a bad day.”

Like the old lady on the bus, I said to her: “Thanks for reminding me!” 🙂

Sure, you know your child. But you’d be surprised at how much you don’t know. The child you meet in the evening is not the same child you sent to school in the morning. There has been incredible (truly frightening) amount of growth and learning during the day. It is this evening child who’s misbehaving. And there is a reason for it.

All you need is enough love to look beyond the misbehavior. And if you have enough love, you will know more about him. You will be able to teach him (be honest, aren’t you skipping with joy? You can ‘teach’ him something! 😉 ) that we unwittingly misread people and situations, causing so much grief to others, but most of all to ourselves. You will strengthen your relationship with your child. You will be happier together.

A lesson in happiness! Encore, I say! 🙂

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Communicating With Your Child in an Impossible Situation

“Umm – Vinita, can I speak with you privately?”

I was teaching a course on fashion, and one of my students walked up to me at the end of class. (This wasn’t in India, where it is not done to call your teacher by his / her name.)

 “Sure – go ahead,” I replied. I was slightly taken aback because this girl had shown no particular inclination to have private conversations with me over the 15 months that I had been teaching her various courses.

But she seemed to want to do so now. We found an empty classroom, and sat down.

“What’s the matter?” I asked her.

She was curiously reluctant to begin. Eventually, “You know, what I’m telling you is in confidence. I don’t want it to get about. I had earlier confided in one of the other staff members and she went and told so many people.” She squinted at me, “Did she tell you anything about me?”

“No, I haven’t heard anything about you or about anyone else, for that matter. And before you go any further, I must say that I will respect your confidence, but if you have the slightest doubt about it, please don’t tell me anything.”

“No, no, I know you won’t tell anyone. That’s why I decided to speak with you.” She stopped again, and I waited.

“I had an abortion yesterday.”

I didn’t know how to respond, so I kept quiet. She looked at me, and when she saw the lack of either condemnation or inquisitiveness, she went on.

“It was my third abortion.”

“Oh, no!” burst out of me. “Don’t you use protection?”

“Well, he doesn’t like to, and I forget to take the pill sometimes.”

“How are you feeling? Should you even be at school today? How did you manage? Did you have a friend with you?” the questions poured out of me.

“My mother went with me,” she said.

Suddenly, I was struck by a thought. “How old are you?”

“16, but I turn 17 next week.” Thus far, she had sounded like an adult trying to discuss an issue with another adult. But at the mention of her birthday, her teen enthusiasm took over, and she preened.

I couldn’t hide my concern. “Do you know that having so many abortions could seriously impact your having a baby later on? You might not be able to conceive, or the baby might be harmed by all the abortions you’ve had.” I couldn’t have given her the slightest technical details of what I was saying if my life depended on it, but I knew that she was taking a real risk with her health.

I didn’t really understand why we were having this conversation. Her mother seemed to know what was going on. She’d even accompanied the girl to her third abortion. I was thinking: If the mum is okay with her having sex at 16, why doesn’t the lady just remind her daughter to pop the birth-control pill? (The girl lived at home, and even if she’d lived elsewhere, all it took was a phone call to remind her…) That would solve the problem.

“How can I help?”

“You see, my mother is very worried. She is upset and unhappy and forcing me to leave this man, but I love him and I can’t live without him!” ( 🙂  Oh, the agonies of teen love!)

“Don’t your parents like him?

“My dad doesn’t know, but my mum is not in favor of this relationship. You see, he’s 41 and married, with 3 children.”

I was completely tongue-tied – physically, and mentally. I didn’t even know what to think, let alone what to say. Me, a woman married for over a year, and I feel like a new-born babe in front of this 17-year old who’s talking to me of love and abortions and a man who is committed to his wife and children, but also claims to ‘love’ her.

“I want to ask you what I should do. I know it’s not good for me to have any more abortions. Every time, I think this is the last time I will have an abortion, but then I forget to take the pill again… I love him too much to let him go.”

“What does he say?”

“He will not leave his wife and kids, but that’s alright with me.”

I groped carefully to find words that might reach her. “You know there’s no future in this for you. You are a lovely girl with a great enthusiasm for life, and you have all of that life ahead of you. You are lucky to have a mother who is so supportive of you. Though she is against your relationship with this man, the love you both share is strong enough for her to be there for you whenever you need her. She is asking you to leave the man. Why don’t you try doing that?”

“I have tried,” she sounded desperately close to tears. “Especially after every abortion – I hate that I have to go through these abortions. He won’t come with me; my mother does. I want to have babies later on, and every abortion will make it more difficult. But then he calls me again, and I can’t stay away. And my mother is heart-broken about it. I love her so much I would do anything for her. I hate giving her so much pain, so much trouble, but I just can’t stop loving this man.”

I still didn’t see what she wanted from me. “Listen, maybe you want me to say that it will all turn out okay with this man, that it is okay for you to be in this relationship. That might make you feel better about your decision to continue seeing the guy. Because you have made that decision, haven’t you?” She nodded unwillingly. “But I can’t say it, because I don’t believe it to be true.”

We sat in silence for some time. Then she got up. “Thank you for listening. It has made me feel a lot better. And please don’t tell anyone – I know you won’t, but I still need to say it.”

I nodded. “Take care of yourself and your mother. Bless you.”

This incident took place about 15 years ago, and I’m sharing it because this could be true of any child, anywhere in the world. Then, or now, it probably IS true of some children in many parts of the world.

There is so much to learn from this:

Sending the girl somewhere else was not an option – the family did not have the wherewithal. And then the man could well have traveled and continued the relationship on an off-and-on basis.

Besides, you can’t run away from your life. If she had gone to some far-flung place, she would still have been vulnerable and might have gotten into a similar or worse situation from being on the rebound, or feeling the lack of romantic love in her life, or feeling that she was over the earlier relationship and ready for a new one.

Whoever you are, whatever your situation, running away doesn’t solve it. You merely take it with you, though you might take some time to realize this. 🙂

I deeply admire the mother for sticking by her child. She realized what so many parents do not.

 Condemning the girl, blaming her, scolding her, blackmailing her (“How could you do this to me, your mother, who loves you so well? How can you hurt me like this? What have I done to deserve such treatment from you / to have such a fate? I brought you up so well…/I have failed as a mother…”) – all of which she must have done – would only serve to make the mother feel better by giving vent to her feelings.

It would not help the girl or the situation. Revisiting the mistakes that were made by either the parents or the girl would also be futile. The mother realized that just continuing to communicate with her daughter was vital. At least the lady knew what was going on; she could prevent things from being worse than they already were.

If she had not accompanied her daughter to the abortions, how would the girl, as a minor, have accessed a hospital to have the procedure done? Where would she have got the money? How would she get the post-operative care – physical mental and emotional?

Certainly the girl was conscious of and vocal about her mother’s support despite the latter’s deep disapproval (to put it mildly). That in itself was a huge anchor for her.

I don’t know how it all turned out. I respected her confidence by never again referring to the matter, even privately, even with her. I figured if she ever wanted to speak with me, she would raise the topic herself.

The point is that sometimes, despite our best effort as parents, things don’t turn out the way we’d like them to. In this particular instance, they turned out horribly wrong.

If your daughter doesn’t join law school (a dream you have cherished for her since she was conceived – ! – ), it’s not the end of the world, but if she decides to beg for money, live in the street and eat out of soup kitchens, that is another level of pain altogether.

If things go horribly wrong, what can you do as a loving parent?  Unfortunately, there are no right answers here.

You know your child. You know how far gone the situation is. Some children realize things quicker when they are left alone. Others need to be helped out of situations. Yet others need to be bullied out of them.

Whatever you decide to do, you might want to consider the ideas below:

1. Keep the communication lines open – Agree not to talk about the area of conflict, but keep things as ‘normal’ as possible otherwise. Don’t raise the topic every time there is a difference of opinion with him. Try not to blackmail him with it. Avoid the attitude: ‘we’ve let you get away with the one BIG thing, but you’d better toe the line on all other counts’.

If you can do this, your child will keep you in the loop, and you will still be a part of his life; you may still have some influence on him. If nothing else, he will appreciate your not withholding your SELF and your love because he is going against your wishes in one area of life.

2. Do not blame yourself – It is natural to keep going over the problem, wondering what you did wrong, what mistake you made that allowed this awful thing to happen. You keep wondering what you could have done to prevent its happening: you should have noticed it earlier, you should have nipped it in the bud, you should have… There is no end to this.

You have a lot of power as a parent, but you have no control. That is the truth, and as you continue parenting, you come to know that even the power is more a figment of your imagination than reality. 🙂

3. Keep perspective – So many things seem like they are the ultimately awful thing that could happen to you, but with time, you might find that they were the making of you. Besides, life is pretty long, and memories are pretty short. Life goes on.

My student might have been 15, or perhaps even younger (“oh, no!” says the parent in me) when she got into the relationship. I’m sure that in another few years, the man would have aged considerably. By the time she was in her early 20s, she would be working, and find many more congenial men, which would naturally break up the relationship. She might get very busy at work, and the relationship would die a natural death.

And she would still have the rest of her life ahead of her. (However, it still beats me how between mother and daughter they did not manage to ensure the girl took her birth-control pills regularly.) Scarred, perhaps, by her earlier experiences, but still, free of the situation.

4. Do not allow your child to get away with blaming you – Children do this when they are scared. However old they are, they will revert to early childhood and tell you, “If only you had… / you had not…, I would not have….” Don’t let them get away with it.

 You might choose to say: “I hear what you are saying and I understand that you feel this way, but I disagree. I don’t think I am to blame for the decision you made. You may blame me, but I don’t blame myself. I don’t accept the blame you are trying to lay on me. You don’t like it, but that’s the way it is.”

5. Figure out with your child how you will treat the issue in public – If your child is in a homosexual relationship (and that is an impossible situation for you), someone you know will know about it – someday, somehow. Discuss ahead of time with your child how will treat the topic when it comes up. Are you to feign ignorance? Are you to say you know about it and are okay with it? Are you to say you know about it and respect your child’s right to lead his life his way? Decide upon something you are both comfortable with.

This is much better than either hiding it or flaunting it. If you hide it, your child may think you are ashamed of the issue or of her, and may stop communicating with you. If you flaunt it, that might not go down well either. She might feel that though you actually dislike the situation, you are putting on a show of being proud of her, or putting on a show of being a lot more liberated than you really are (you want people to think you’re ‘the coolest Dad/Mom’ in the world).

Either way, you’re not being honest with her. She has been straight with you – she has told you about the horrible situation. If you want to keep communicating with her, you need to be honest with her too. If you’re straight with her, you’ll manage to get through to her – always. Even in the most impossible situation.

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How Your Child Feels About You

Many years ago, I was talking to a friend about my daughter: “I can’t tell you how much I love her – she means so much to me…” (as if any other parent feels less about their child! The Romeo-Juliet syndrome in parenthood 🙂 ).

My friend heard me out patiently. Then she said something startling. “You love her, yes. We all love our children; they mean the world to us. But have you ever thought of what you mean to her? You are her entire universe – you can’t even begin to imagine what you mean to your child. That is the love she has for you.”

Recalling that conversation gives me gooseflesh even today. Till then, I had always been focused on showing my daughter how much I loved her (in my own peculiar way 🙂 ), doing my best to understand what she was saying feeling thinking about things and so on. It had never struck me to wonder what I meant to her.

For a few days after this conversation, I was ‘nice’ to her, ‘careful’ around her. Eventually, this artificial behavior dropped off, and I became my usual self with her. But the realization of what I meant to her stayed with me. It didn’t change anything about my style of parenting, but I became conscious of that thought.

Today, on Children’s Day (in India), think for a moment, of what you mean to your children. Not what they think of you, because that changes all the time :-), but of what you are to them in their lives. If you find it difficult to do so, think for a moment of your own parents.  

You love being praised – we all do – but that praise has a special heart-warming quality when it comes from your parents. All your life, no matter how old you are, somewhere deep inside, you continue to seek validation, approval, appreciation from your parents. There is no acknowledgement, no recognition that is not improved by your parents adding their voice to it. It is a contentment that no words can express adequately.  

We all feel this way. So do our children.

I think of parenting as a privilege. I am conscious of it as a privilege even during the tears and tantrums, the sulks and stormy scenes. And that is what probably makes it all go easier on both me and my child.

Just think of it! Here’s this little person who adores you. When you’ve done nothing more than bring him into the world (at least initially). The baby is not conscious of who is doing what for him; he does not understand ‘loving’ or ‘caring’ as an idea. Everything and everyone is just a new experience for the newborn. But as you ride the roller-coaster of being a parent (while concurrently riding the roller-coasters of being yourself and maintaining all your other relationships), you are still the rock of his existence (though he may not show it! :-)).

It is a deeply humbling thought.

Parenting is a privilege. No matter what your child is like, no matter what your relationship with her, no matter what the circumstances. No other relationship can give you the range of experiences, the depth of emotion that parenting can. And that’s what life is about, isn’t it?

Being a parent is the most alive thing you can do. You want the adventure and the peace, the quiet and the noise, the highs and the lows, the pride and the desperation; you have it all, because you are a parent.  

You are privileged – because you are a parent. Let your child be privileged too – to have you as a parent. Every day is Children’s Day – and Parents’ Day too! 🙂

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Knowing Your Child

Here’s a scenario you would have lived through as a parent:

Your friend has called to invite you over for a meal. “What will the little one eat?” they ask.

“She eats most things, but is particularly fond of spinach, beans and rice. She’s not very fond of meat,” you say.

At dinnertime, when you serve your child the spinach salad, rice and beans, she refuses to touch the food. “I don’t want it. I don’t like it.” Instead, she gorges on the shish kebabs served to the adults as starters.

You’re embarrassed, wondering what your friend thinks of you (you don’t even know what your 4-year old eats!), trying to avoid making eye contact with your friend (you’ve just ruined her appetizer course!).

“Ahem! I don’t know what happened to her! I mean, normally, she wouldn’t touch the kebabs…” you begin to apologize. Somehow, you struggle through the evening, wondering how she could have behaved in such an out-of-character fashion. Of course, you remember to give her a talking-to later on! 🙂

The next time someone asks you what she eats / doesn’t eat, you might remember this incident, and add a disclaimer right away. “Normally she’s fond of…, but on a given day, she might / might not eat anything.”

The same goes for gift ideas. “What would he like for his birthday?” people ask you.

“He loves Spiderman,” you say, “and collects Spidey merchandise and books.”

When it comes time to unwrap the gifts, your son, who forced you to buy 3 almost-identical blue Spiderman t-shirts last week and was bemoaning not having a red one, holds up the red Spidey tee he’s been gifted and says, “I HATE Spiderman tees!”

If you’ve been unfortunate enough to open the gift in front of the gift-giver, this is the time you want to be able to disappear at will. 🙂

Over time, you learn to be slightly less certain about your child’s likes and dislikes – at least in public. But in private, you’re still struggling.

“You LOVE eating boiled eggs – you’ve eaten them every day for years! I keep telling you to try eating an omelet or fried egg, but you never listen. And now you say you won’t eat boiled-egg sandwiches! We’ll be driving for the next 2 hours, and there’s no place to buy any food. This is all there is for lunch. I made it especially for you, because it’s your favorite kind of sandwich…”

Your child sits stony-faced, unmoved by your entreaties. He’s starving, sulky and blaming you for ‘not bringing any decent food along’. 🙂

What’s wrong?

No prizes for guessing: YOU are what’s wrong.

You treat your child as if he were the alphabet, or a sweater, or a door. Once you know your ABC, you know it forever, and it won’t change – at least, not in English, and not in the foreseeable future. 🙂 Once you buy a sweater and know how to care for it, you just go on caring for it in the way you know how, and it will keep behaving the same way. Once you have a door and know how to operate it, it will just keep opening and closing, bolting and unbolting, locking and unlocking in the same way (until it’s bolt/lock gets stuck – but that’s illness – , or its hinges get rusty – that’s aging).

But your child isn’t any of these things! Your child is a living, evolving being. He’s changing all the time – his body rhythms, ideas, moods, likes and dislikes. Why do you get stuck with thinking of your child one way and one way alone?

You have the luxury of changing your mind – you call it flexibility. But when your child does it, it becomes caprice?

Let’s face facts: you barely know yourself – why kid yourself that you know your child? And why do you want to know your child anyway? But knowing your child is not really the point, is it?

It is not as important to you that you know your child as it is that others should feel that you know your child. Why? So that they think of you as a good parent? Suppose they do think of you as a good parent. So what? And if they think of you as a bad parent; well, so what?

Like I’ve said so often before, it doesn’t really matter what others think of you as a parent (or even otherwise, most of the time, but that is a topic for another post!). Second, what they think of you depends upon how they’re feeling at that time. Lastly, most people are too preoccupied with themselves to really think about you. So your being a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ parent is just a dim sideline in someone else’s life.

And you’re twisting yourself into pretzels trying to get the ‘good’ parent tag! Ironic, innit? The only tag you need to think about is the one your child hangs on you, and even that you can happily ignore most of the time! 🙂

It doesn’t make you a better or more loving parent to ‘know’ your child better.

Sometimes, you know your child better than you want to know her (maybe she has a cruel streak, which you avoid acknowledging, even to yourself). At other times, you look at your child and wonder if you know anything at all about the person in front of you. (When your pacifist son gets in a fist fight, gives his friend a bloody nose and comes home thrilled with himself!)

You child just is who he is at that moment. And that is your magic opportunity!

If you can get out of the ‘knowing’-your-child trap, you can keep getting to know your child anew every day! You can enjoy being with the person your child is at that time, rather than trying to locate and have fun with the person she was yesterday, or a week ago, or a decade ago! This is one of the secrets to enjoying a great relationship with your child every day of your lives. 🙂

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