Author Archive | Vinita Zutshi

Why Your Child is Afraid: Nightmares, Darkness and Ghosts

Your child has just begun to sleep the night through (without any bed-wetting incidents) and you’re looking forward to doing the same after years of disturbed-sleep nights. A ear-piercing scream shatters your illusions. Your child has had a nightmare, and you are back in the nightmarish world of waking up again and again in the middle of the night to soothe your child.

Apparently, of all human beings, children in the age group 5 – 9 are the ones most prone to nightmares. Also, the incidence of nightmares amongst children in this age group is very high – often more than once a week.

Nightmares leave a child feeling insecure, scared, and sometimes paralyzed with fear. As your child begins to understand fear, he begins to fear the feeling of fear.

Franklin D. Roosevelt put it well when he said in his first inaugural address in 1933: “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself – nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes…”

Where does this fear come from? I believe it comes from two sources.

The first is that your child begins to realize in a practical manner that you (the parent) are a separate person from him.  Not only are you a separate body, but you have a separate heart and a separate mind. He realizes that you think, feel and respond differently to people and situations than he does. He wonders if he has sufficient ‘hold’ on you; he wonders whether some day the differences may not become so great that you separate from each other.

Till today, your presence meant food, security, shelter, love; his whole life is wrapped up in you. Since he has associated so closely and deeply with you, he finds it hard to believe that he can live separately from you. So he begins to fear separation from you. This is one kind (and source) of fear.

The other is the fear that you put into your child. Oh yes, you do! As you try to civilize your child, prepare him for socialization, teach him the ‘rules’ of polite society, you use fear as a tool. In some cases, it may be as obvious as: “If you don’t eat your food and get into bed quickly, the Scary Monster will come and get you!” You may think this is a bit of a joke. Your child doesn’t. He is too young to understand the difference between reality and fantasy. Every experience is new and fantastic to him (fantastic in the sense of fantasy-like). You are jaded and blasé about bath showers and dogs on the street and blowing bubbles and clouds and raindrops and shiny toys and sticky mud; he is not. It is all new, all exciting, and all fantasy to him.

So your joke of a Scary Monster is a real-life Scary Monster to him. The Monster may be so scary that you don’t even want to describe him! This creates yet another problem. If you say the Scary Monster has green teeth, then any person or animal or creature that does not have green teeth is automatically not the Scary Monster. But if there is no clarity on what makes the Scary Monster scary, then anyone and anything could be the Scary Monster!

You can also induce fear in your child using subtle means. As he grows, you want to control and channel his excitement into the ‘right’ paths. You don’t really want him looking at cloud shapes for hours every day – unless it helps his artistic skills. You don’t want her poking around in messy mud – unless she’s showing signs of becoming a sculptor.

So you manipulate your child’s behavior. You say, “If you keep looking at the clouds, you will ‘waste’ so much time! Instead, you could be doing ‘fun’ things, like playing in the park, solving a jigsaw, reading a book.” If he listens, well and good. If not, you begin to withdraw from him. You frown. You clearly express your displeasure, you withdraw or withhold your approval of him. More separation – more fear.

You may disagree with me. You may say, “At times, you have to teach a child to feel some fear.” I understand what you’re saying.

 At first, your child is not afraid of anything. She will happily climb onto the balcony railing and jump off the fourth storey – down to the ground. She would do this because she simply doesn’t know enough to be afraid of how many bones she will break when she falls. In order to keep her safe, you feel you have to teach her the feeling of fear.

How will you stop her running across a busy road? You need to tell her that if she does that, some vehicle may hit her. She will hurt herself and it will cause her physical pain. You can’t explain to her that running across the road might kill her because she won’t understand the concept of death.

So you start teaching her fear.

As your child gets on with the business of living and growing, as he meets other people (children and parents), watches, listens, reads, plays, thinks, imagines and understands, he begins to knit together different thoughts and sensations. The worst ones come together as fears, and they are expressed in nightmares.

So your child is screaming with fear, and you’ve rushed to attend to him. You hold him, pat him or caress him, and say, “It’s nothing. Don’t worry. Everything is fine. You’re safe. There are no monsters, there’s nothing to be afraid of – it’s only darkness.”

This is a meaningless string of words, but you will always say this – without fail. 🙂 (I know, because this was my first reaction for so many years!)

I ask you: if you are unwell and you feel you have all the symptoms of some dreaded disease and you’re sharing your fears with me and I say to you, “Don’t worry. Everything’s fine. You’ll be okay.”

Would you believe me? I doubt it. I don’t think you’d even listen till I reach the end of the words. You’d have switched off, because the very fact that I was responding this way meant I wasn’t listening when you were sharing your fears.

Your child’s fears are real. As far as she is concerned, the darkness is a real entity that she is actively scared of. She’s telling you she’s frightened of it, and you react by saying there is nothing to be scared of! This is a ridiculous reaction on your part. Natural, but no less ridiculous for being natural.

So stifle your natural reaction for a while. Your child is scared. Indulge her.

Here’s a possible scenario between a child and a parent:

Child: I’m scared!

Parent: What scared you?

Child: The dark! I woke up and couldn’t see anything!

Parent (instead of saying “There’s nothing to be afraid of in the darkness”): You were scared because you couldn’t see?

Child: Because it was dark.

Parent: But at night, before you went to bed, it was dark outside! You weren’t scared then.

Child: I wasn’t scared because I could see things – even if it was dark outside.

Parent: When we play peek-a-boo, or hide-and-seek, or blind-man’s-buff, you need to close your eyes for a while. Do you feel scared then? After all, you can’t see anything if your eyes are closed.

Your child will respond. Carry the conversation forward – step by step. Don’t force your point of view. Listen and respond to what your child is saying. As you engage your child in conversation, you will show him a logical way of looking at things. This will not remove the fear, but it will move the focus of the conversation away from the fear. Your child will begin to calm down.

As you keep talking calmly to your child, the sound of your voice will further soothe him. If you have switched the light on, the removal of darkness will dispel the ghosts or monsters or other things he fears. Keep holding him. If he doesn’t want to leave you, either get into his bed or take him into bed with you.

Don’t worry that you’re encouraging indiscipline. Unless he’s at peace, he won’t go back to sleep, and you won’t be able to go back to sleep either. In which case, it hardly matters whether he’s awake in his bed or in yours. 

Let him drift back to sleep. Now it’s your call whether you want to put him back in his bed or stay with him.

In the next post, I’ll share tips on what you can do over the long haul to help your child get over these fears.

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What Kind of Parent Are You?

If someone were to ask parents this question, they’d get a range of answers:

“I’m a strict parent.”

“I’m easy-going.”

“I’m more of a friend than a parent to my children.”

“I just leave them alone unless they are wildly out of line.”

“I like to know exactly what’s going on in their lives.”

There is no ‘best’ kind of parent. It is merely your idea of what kind of parent you are. And yet, this very idea becomes your burden – and your child’s burden.

Let’s take the idea of “I’m a strict parent.” You say this with some pride. You are a no-nonsense parent who is bringing up ‘good’ children who will grow up to become ‘good’ and ‘worthy’ human-beings. You have your rules which you explain, clarify, and  enforce consistently. You believe this is a ‘good’ kind of parent to be, so you have worked towards being this kind of parent: a ‘strict’ parent. 

But by labeling yourself a ‘strict’ parent, you create a prison for yourself – you want to work always inside the boundaries of ‘strictness’ which you believe is ‘good’ in a parent.

Never mind that there are many occasions when your heart is melting. Just as you begin to respond with how you truly feel, you are reminded of how important you believe it is to be ‘strict’ and instead of giving your natural response, you give your ‘strict’ response, keeping up your image of yourself as a ‘good’ parent (all this image-building and maintenance is happening only inside your head! 🙂 )

Your child has just had a nightmare. You want to hold him close till you calm his fears and his trembling body. But you are very aware that you are a ‘strict’ parent, and no ‘strict’ parent would be so indulgent of what is, after all, only a bad dream. So you hold back, tell him “it is only a bad dream, there is nothing to worry about. Now go to sleep”, and force yourself to turn around and leave his room. Neither you nor your child is at peace. His fears are not assuaged, and your peace of mind is gone – because your response was based upon your idea of the kind of parent you are, instead of the parent you actually were at that moment – the one who wanted to gather her child close in her arms to make him feel safe and secure.

You’ve kept up your image, but at what cost to yourself? And to your child?

The ‘easy-going’ parent has the opposite kind of issues. There will be many situations which shock or appall you, which make you want to put your foot down and say “NO”. But you are mindful of your image as an ‘easy-going’ parent. And ‘No’ is not a word found too often in an easy-going parent’s vocabulary, so you watch your child go haywire in all kinds of ways, but you say nothing, do nothing. You bite your tongue, steel your nerves, and remain an ‘easy-going’ parent.

No matter what your self-image as a parent, no matter what kind of parent you think you are, the real you cannot take the strain beyond a point. When you reach that point, you become irritable, worried, anxious, adding further stress to an already strained situation.

Not content with creating your own prison in the form of labeling yourself as a particular kind of parent, you have been working actively to reduce the size of your prison, till you are stifled.

As your niggling dissatisfaction turns to active discontent, you look for reasons all around you, outside you – the kids are pushing your buttons, you haven’t been getting enough rest exercise sleep food, there are too many demands on you… You are so busy looking for a situation/person you can hold responsible (blame!) that it doesn’t even occur to you that you are the source of your problem. Heck, you are the problem!

You might think your consistent responses as a particular kind of parent are creating a firm set of rules for your child to follow, but in all probability, they confuse the hell out of her. Your child always knows when ‘you mean it’ and when ‘you don’t really mean it’. So when your authentic response matches your self-image, the message she’s getting is ‘Dad means it’. But when the two are not in line with each other, she doesn’t know whether you mean it or not, she doesn’t know what to make of your reaction. How can she? You yourself don’t know what to make of your response! You are acting from a mind and heart torn by conflicting responses.

All you end up doing is confusing your child and yourself, and laying the foundation for ‘not telling the truth’. After all, if you feel one way and you act another, and you do this regularly, you’re being dishonest. You are breaking (or at least loosening) the bond of trust between yourself and your child.

Your child will learn to make inauthentic responses – she will learn from you. You will be unhappy about it, you will urge her to tell you how he ‘really’ feels, but she won’t be able to; not unless you have broken out of your self-imposed ‘image’ as a parent, and are telling her how you ‘really’ feel.

Don’t worry about what kind of parent you are. Don’t worry about what kind of parent you want to be. Just make the response that comes naturally to you in a given situation. It will be the best response you can make. Simply be the parent that you ARE in that moment, and enjoy the freedom it brings you! 🙂

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How to Make Your Child Do What’s Good for Her

“She won’t eat.”

“He doesn’t brush his teeth/hair!”

“He won’t make his bed.”

“She won’t wash properly – the back of her neck is caked with dirt, and she will neither clean it nor let me do it.”

“He hits his little sister all the time.”

As parents, we are all sailing in the same boat. Each of us has some statement to contribute to the above litany.

There is at least one thing that your child does / doesn’t do that bothers you – because he shouldn’t / should be doing it. And you request, remind, ignore it, harangue, nag, plead, shout to no avail. You just cannot reach your child. But you don’t give up, though you come close to doing so innumerable times. Your love for your child keeps you going, hoping against hope that things will change. The point of disagreement becomes an issue before you know it. Over time, you despair of ever resolving this issue.

“She won’t eat.” – You’ve told her she won’t grow tall/strong; she’ll have no energy to do the things she enjoys doing; she’ll have poor immunity, get sick frequently, suffer through the illness and miss having a regular life… but – (shrug).

She understands what you’re saying, but she doesn’t care enough about these benefits of eating. Maybe because they seem so remote (she has to eat 3 times a day for months to see herself 1 inch taller), or she can’t connect with them (she’s got by alright thus far ‘without eating’, and hasn’t fallen ill or had less energy, so she doesn’t take your doomsday forecasts seriously).

There is a way out. It’s a time-tested, world-renowned concept called WIIFM: What’s In It For Me. Marketers use it, motivation coaches use it, people in all walks of life use it professionally. It’s time to bring it into the home, into the family.

You need to think from your child’s point of view – What’s In It For Her. You need to find a benefit your child cares about – and then you need to find a hook. Maybe beauty is the benefit she can connect with. Tell her how important food is for good skin, teeth and hair, for sparkling eyes. Maybe you could find interviews of a celebrity she idealizes and show your child what a vital role food plays in the beauty queen’s regimen.

The WIIFM, the benefit, will be relatively easy to identify. The hook will be more difficult, but it’s doable.

I was conducting a workshop on English as part of an integrated summer program for children. The program included soccer, photography, yoga, and a few other activities. 90% of them loved soccer. I got creative writing essays based on soccer; innumerable photographs related to soccer were offered as project work in photography. In fact, we loved it best when soccer was scheduled before our session so the kids would be done with it, and could settle down. Else, it was always: “How much longer before we can go for soccer?” 🙂

Most children found yoga boring. The yoga and soccer instructors spent a lot of time motivating the children to do yoga: “It will give you greater flexibility – you can play better soccer.” “It will strengthen your muscles – help you to breathe deeply – give you more oxygen and stamina to run faster for longer, to kick harder”… The children got it, but not one ‘bought’ it.

One day, a boy who had weak hamstrings was doing a yoga pose. This group had soccer right after yoga. And the child found that he succeeded in his first attempt at making a particular kind of soccer move – one he had not been able to make thus far. The soccer teacher pointed out: “See? You’ve been doing that yoga pose to make your hamstrings stronger, so you could do this soccer move today.” (Hook!)

The next day onwards, the children were raving about yoga. Not for itself, but because doing specific poses allowed them to move their legs higher, or gave them greater stability while attempting a particular kind of kick etc. The hook had been found! 🙂

Understandably, a few children who were not into physical activity of any kind still avoided both yoga and soccer, while others who were very advanced in one or the other were dissatisfied because they felt the program was too basic, but these exceptions are only to be expected.

As a parent, you need to cater to just one person – your child. Even if you have more than one child, you need to figure out WIIFM for each one separately. Maybe the benefit is the same, but you may need to find different hooks for each child.

 Some issues will still persist. Sometimes, children will continue to be who they are, never mind your best attempts to get them to do what you want. WIIFM won’t work every time, but it will definitely resolve some disagreements.

Why don’t you try it? I’d love to hear what problem you solved. Good luck! 🙂

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Ensure Your Child Speaks Well: 5 Tips

As a parent, you know that effective communication is one of the essential skills of modern life. Success, whether at school or in a profession; whether in personal or social relationships, depends on your ability to communicate well. Communication means speaking well and listening well. Both are equally important. I’ve written earlier about listening, though a lot more needs to be said in that area. Today, let’s see how you can help your child to speak well.

Many parents believe that children start learning language when they begin to speak. Because of this belief, they start speaking to their child only when the child begins to babble or verbalize. These parents have lost valuable time during which their child could have learnt a lot about language.

Children begin learning from the moment they are born. And the rate of learning slows down with each passing year after they are about 4-5 years old. Yes, as young as that! Check any parenting or child development website or book – the earlier you start, the better for your child. In fact, children already know (recognize and understand the meaning of) hundreds of words before their mouths, tongues, palate and teeth are developed enough to formulate the sounds required to say those words.

So speak to your child as soon as you can. I started when I was three months pregnant – really! 🙂  Here’s a story I’ve written that might give you an idea of what I mean when I say “talk to your infant”.

So – here are the 5 tips that will ensure your child speaks well:

1. Speak to her as you would like her to speak – “Cho chweet” “Shay ‘I love you’”, “Shumbody’s looking very naa-ish today” “Belly good baby”… Don’t go this route. “So sweet” “Say ‘I love you”, “Somebody’s looking very nice today”, “Very good baby”. If she doesn’t hear the correct thing from the very beginning, she will not learn how to speak correctly. You will then have to go through the needless and painful additional task of making her un-learn the wrong thing she has already learned, and re-learn the correct thing. Utter waste of time and energy.

 2. Correct him – Even if he is just beginning to string words together to form the most basic of sentences, interrupt him to correct his pronunciation, grammar, intonation – anything and everything that needs to be corrected. Correct him every time, making him repeat the correct way to say it. As you keep on at it and he keeps on at it, he will learn to speak correctly.

Pronunciation: “Not ‘appil’; say ‘apple’.”

Grammar: “Don’t say ‘You did not knew’; say ‘You did not know’.”

Intonation: “If you are asking a question, your voice should end on a higher note. Then people will know it’s a question. See how different the same thing sounds: ‘You are going.’ “You are going?’”

 3. Speak naturally – Especially when your child is young, you tend to simplify (or maybe even over-simplify) your vocabulary so that she can understand every word you say. You keep saying the same 20 things over and over again. By doing this, you impose arbitrary and artifical limits on your child’s speech and vocabulary.

If you would naturally use the word ‘astonished’, don’t keep replacing it with ‘surprised’ because you feel your child is ‘too young’ to understand ‘astonished’. In fact, use: taken aback, amazed, bewildered, flabbergasted, shocked, jolted, revealed, marveled, wondered, and as many more as you can think of. Consider using also: environment, inflation, morality, precipice, domineering… 🙂  Your child will learn the nuances of the language, and will learn many more concepts and ideas than he otherwise would. Do yourself a favor and stop censoring your speech – unless you need to, I mean. 🙂 

 4. Read – Before you rush out and grab a book to read to your child, I must tell you that this will work only if you read – for yourself. Your child must see you reading – books, magazines, the newspaper, your tablet, whatever. Now you can begin to build your child a library at home, though it’s fine to borrow books from one too! The important thing is to read to your child. And when he starts reading, let him read aloud – to you.  

 5. Listen – When your child speaks, listen. Pay attention to everything she is saying. You might find she’s using a word inappropriately – tell her the correct word to use. You might find she is looking for a word she doesn’t know – supply her with the word. You might hear her say something unacceptable – correct her!

When my daughter was 4, she met the word ‘rascal’ used in the sense of ‘scamp’ in a story book. After 2 days, her grandfather was teasing her about something, and she said to him, “You rascal!” We both jumped and I had to tell her that this was not a word she could use for her grandparents. 🙂 

 Try these tips – the earlier, the better – and tell me how it goes with you. Even if ‘trying it earlier’ is no longer an option for you, it’s never too late to begin.

Of course, you always get the exception that proves the rule. A friend was telling me how her daughter didn’t speak a single word – not Mama or Daddy or Book or Come or Bye or Ta Ta or Hi – till she was 18 months old. The concerned parents consulted the pediatrician who sent them to a children’s speech specialist and so on. Many tests were conducted, all of which declared that there was nothing wrong with the child. She could vocalize, so she could verbalize, so she should verbalize – but did not. Her behavior and other developmental milestones were normal for a child her age, so it was difficult to attribute the lack of speech to any sort of psychological trauma.

And still the child didn’t speak. This continued till she was 30 months old. No speech. More doctors who pronounced: she could speak, so she should speak. But she wasn’t speaking. My friend and her husband began to worry.

One day, as they sat in front of the TV eating lunch, they were absorbed in the program being broadcast. Their daughter must not have liked their absorption, because in the midst of the meal, they heard her say, “Mom, could you please pass me the vegetables?” 🙂 

Just like that! And she was speaking as well as any other child her age – right from the time she ‘started’ speaking – at over 30 months. A few days later, when they’d got used to the ‘miracle’, her parents asked her why she hadn’t said a word before that landmark day.

“There was no need – you understood everything I wanted without my saying it, so why bother?” the minx replied! 🙂

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What I Would Tell My Child if I Could Only Say One Thing

In an earlier post, I had posed the question: “What would you tell your child if you could only say one thing?” Only one reader posted a response: “Let your inner voice be your guide. I love you.”

My last message to my child would be (and you never know when this might happen!): Do everything you want to do – and nothing you don’t.”

I’m digressing to share an anecdote. Eleanor was a loving daughter. When her mother died, she decided to read aloud at the funeral her mother’s last words to her. And so she took out a manuscript titled: “Mother’s Last Words, in 206 verses”. 🙂 🙂

In the spirit (but only the spirit!) of the above anecdote, I would like to elaborate on my own ‘last words’. I would tell my daughter:

  1. Don’t worry about whether the thing you want to do is the ‘right’ thing to do or not. If you want to do it, go ahead and do it. Don’t worry about what people will say. This is your life, not other people’s. Do what you want.
  2. Love yourself best – nobody else but yourself. Everyone else comes second – or third – or tenth – or isn’t on the list… 🙂
  3. Life is an adventure. Things not working out the way you’d like them to is part of the adventure. If everything in life were how we’d like it to be, human beings would be suicidal – there would be no impetus to do anything. It would be b-o-r-i-n-g.
  4. You will feel hurt – by people and circumstances. It’s part of the adventure. People don’t always mean to hurt you. Move on.
  5. Bless you! Have a great life! 🙂

I’m still waiting to hear what you would tell your child…

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How to Get Along with Your Child – Like, not Love

LIKE – such a lukewarm word, so tame; not strong, like LOVE.

You love your child; more precisely, you LOVE your child. Love comes naturally to a parent. Nature ensures it – your helpless infant needs you! He depends on you for everything – he can’t make it without you. And you (we all) love to be needed (there’s that ‘love’ word again!) – it makes you feel special.

Besides, after a short while, the helpless infant begins to respond, to engage with you, to smile and laugh and play with you, to connect with you. Love for your child comes easily to you as a parent, and once it comes, it stays right through your life.

But do you LIKE your child?

“Umm – what kind of question is that? I mean, I love my child – that is the main thing, right? What do you mean ‘like’ my child? Like is unimportant, it’s a small word. People like all kinds of things and people, but they love (LOVE) only a few things and people, and I’m telling you, I LOVE my child,” you say.

I agree – Love is the big one. But I believe LIKE is far more important, especially if you want to live happily with your child.

Think of your friends – people you want to spend time with. Chances are, you don’t love them; but you most certainly like them. Being with them, around them makes you feel good. Maybe because they are amusing, or agreeable, or ‘nice’, or warm, or friendly, or sympathetic – whatever the reason(s), being with them is something you look forward to.

It is very likely that the people you like like you right back. (Not on facebook – in real life. 🙂 ) For at least a couple of reasons. First, who doesn’t like to be liked? If you know that someone likes you, you tend to like them. Second, you are more agreeable, more amenable, more open to people you like than you are with those you may not like as much. This makes you more likeable.  

Essentially, you get along well with people you like. Of course there are differences of opinion – but the very fact of your liking each other gives each of you the space to air those differences without shaking the foundations of your friendship.

Back to your child. You LOVE your child, but most of the time, your love gets in the way of your getting along with your child. You have your own agenda “for the ‘good’ of your child”. 🙂 ! And your child has her own agenda (who knows what that is?), and love is buried deep, if not thrown by the wayside, as both your wills clash from morning to night.

Ah, but if you LIKE your child – what a difference that makes! Here’s a person you enjoy being with – never mind that she is your child. You like her for who she is, for the way she looks at the world, the way she speaks thinks feels. You appreciate many qualities about her – you forget that she is your child – you meet her and spend time with her as you would with anyone else that you like.

Of course your child loves you! He has no choice – children know no other way to be than to love their parents. It is we – the parents – who teach our children non-loving ways of relating to us. But does your child like you? (Does this sound like blasphemy? I bet this question hasn’t struck you before! 🙂 )

If you find things to LIKE about your child, your child will be able to like you right back! He will accept you as you are – he will appreciate many things about you – things he may or may not have in common with you.

He will talk to you and you will listen, because you enjoy spending time with him. You will speak and he will pay attention, because he enjoys being with you. You will find things to do that you both enjoy. And you will also agree to disagree on many issues without your making heavy weather of them (in the sense of pulling rank: “I’m your Mom/Dad and I say so, therefore you have to…”). You will look forward to spending time together.

You will get along with each other – and be able to live in relative happiness from one day to the next.

Figure out what you like about your child. Identify the qualities you appreciate and enjoy no matter who you find them in. You like honest people? People who make you laugh? People who are enthusiastic? People who are creative? People who are active? Well, your child has some of these qualities too! Forget that he is your child. Focus on the qualities that you like in him.

If you don’t LIKE your child already, teach yourself to do so. And as you begin to like your child, you will find that life goes much more smoothly for you. Here’s to carefree parenting – by you! 🙂


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I Have Become an I-Don’t-Know Parent

“Dad! I can ride a bicycle on my own! Look! Look!” Your daughter is screaming, and you’re grinning, bursting with pride.

“Wonderful!” you say as you scoop her into a bear hug.

“Mom! I made soup and sandwiches for dinner,” your son says, and your heart swells with pride at his thoughtfulness.

‘Good’ things have happened: your daughter can now ride a bike, and your son can put together a meal, however basic.

“I didn’t get selected for the dance!” he wails.

A pang goes through you. Your child is hurting. “That’s terrible…” You want to help your child live through this ‘bad’ incident.

Your child learns to label things events people as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ early in life – and keeps applying these labels to every event person situation throughout his and her life. I want to add a third option. Things might also be ‘I-don’t-know’.

So here is the choice of labels: the good, the bad and the I-don’t-know. For years, I would label things as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ (Where do you think kids learn to label? From their parents. 🙂 ) And then, to my daughter’s frustration, I became an ‘I-don’t-know’ parent.

“It’s awful, isn’t it?” she’d ask about something.

Maybe, I don’t know.” I’d say.

The turning point was a Sufi story I read many years ago. Here it is:

An old man lived in a cave in the mountains. There was a village close to the foothills, whose villagers visited the silent old man from time to time. As far as anyone knew, he had never come down the mountain. Nobody knew how he lived, where he found his food or what he did all day, but he seemed content in his cave. Over time, the old man acquired a holy patina, and people began to visit him to ‘get their desires fulfilled’. The old man never said anything, but the villagers left his cave satisfied.

So a man might visit the old man with a loaf of bread, asking for a good job. He would sit with the old man in silence for a while and descend the mountain, feeling his wish had been granted. In some time, he would perhaps find some work, and feel that the old man had been instrumental in his gaining employment.

In this manner, the old man began to gain a reputation.

One day, an old woman who had a young able-bodied son went to visit the old man. She was bemoaning the fact that her son had broken his leg and would not be able to till their field. This had happened at a very inopportune time, because they would miss the planting season and would not have a harvest, meaning near-starvation for them in the future. “Find some way out,” she said to the old man.

He kept silent as usual. For some reason, the woman wanted a verbal assurance from him, which he wouldn’t give. “What a terrible thing he broke his leg, isn’t it?” she repeated again and again. The old man realized that she wouldn’t go away unless he said something. The next time she repeated, “What a terrible thing he broke his leg, isn’t it?” he spoke.

“Maybe, maybe not,” he said.

The woman was so taken aback and horrified at this unsympathetic reaction that she left immediately. She told all the villagers that the old man had lost his head. People stopped visiting him.

Ten days later, the kingdom was attacked by a neighboring ruler. The king sent his men to round up every able-bodied man to join the army. The old woman’s son had a broken leg, so he was left behind.

Full of joy (and contrition), the old woman took a jug of milk to the old man at the top of the mountain. “Now I see what you meant. We will manage somehow for one season with less food. But if my son had been sent to fight, he would surely have died, because he knows nothing of fighting –he is a farmer. It is good that he broke his leg. At least his life has been spared.”

Again she insisted the old man agree that it was good that her son had broken his leg.

Eventually, the old man responded, “Maybe, maybe not.”

The woman was enraged again. She swept down the mountain in a fury.

When a sudden storm swept through the village, the old woman’s son couldn’t seek shelter in time because of his broken leg. As a result, he suffered further injuries from the house falling down around him.

The woman went back up the mountain: “My son could not even seek shelter in time, and now he has even more injuries all over his body. Isn’t it so bad that he broke his leg?”

The old man said, “Maybe, maybe not.”

The woman couldn’t believe her ears, and left, promising herself that she would never again visit the crazy old man.

Then a miracle medicine man passed through the village. He said he had only one dose of his miracle cure, and out of common humanity, he would give it to the person who was suffering the most. That person was the old woman’s son. He took the miracle dose and was instantaneously restored to full health.

The woman ran up the mountain, her heart full of gratitude. “Thank you,” she said to the old man in the cave. “Had my son not broken his leg and then been injured in the storm, he would not have been a candidate for the miracle drug. Now he’s fine! Isn’t that a good thing?”

The old man’s response was characteristic: “Maybe, maybe not.”


And so I became an ‘I-don’t-know’ parent. I believe it is one of the most valuable and enduring gifts I can give my child – the recognition that there is a third option to ‘good’ and ‘bad’.

As an I-don’t-know parent, I am more balanced emotionally, more accepting, more at peace, more content.

You might want to try it – just once – as an experiment, and see how it goes. Will it work? I don’t know! Maybe, maybe not! 🙂

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When You Break Your Glass Comb and Your Child Loses His Candy

I must have been 5 or 6 years old. It was the summer holidays, and my maternal grandparents were visiting us. Their visit meant being regaled by fantastic stories, and spoiled with fancy meals, treats and unexpected gifts.

One day, my grandmother called me to their room and gifted me a comb made of glass. It was a real comb, not a toy. I was enchanted – still am, truth be told (though the adult in me wonders who would be foolish enough to manufacture a comb made of glass, how they sold it, and why my grandmother gave it to me when I was so little and could easily have injured myself or someone else with it). It had belonged to my mother when she was little. That set the seal on it. I didn’t have an altar, but had I had one, the glass comb would have been on it! 🙂

My grandmother told me that she had preserved it over so many years so she could give it to her eldest grandchild (me). She handed it over almost ceremonially, and I promised solemnly to take care of it, to preserve it so it could be handed to my child.

Granny smiled her approval.

My sister woke up from her nap to find me brandishing the glass comb. I told her all about it. She doesn’t have a jealous bone in her body (didn’t even then), and was delighted with my acquisition. I decided I would do my hair and hers with it – just to mark the day as a special one, after which we’d put it away carefully and ensure it stayed safe.

You know what happened next. One of the teeth broke off. We were lucky neither of us was hurt; we weren’t physically injured, but I was inconsolable. Firstly, I’d damaged something that my mother had had in her childhood. Secondly, it was irreplaceable. Thirdly, I’d damaged it despite my best intentions to keep it in pristine condition to be handed down to my progeny. Fourthly, I’d broken it the very day I’d got it, not even two hours after it had been gifted to me! A worse fate could not be imagined. ( 🙂 )

My grandmother took me aside and into her arms. “Why are you so upset?” I told her all the above, and perhaps more.

And then she said something which has stayed with me forever. “When even human beings don’t last forever, why cry over a comb?”

My tears stopped instantly – as if they’d dried up at the source. This was a new idea. I’d heard about death before. I knew about death and what it meant. But this was the first time death had assumed immediacy, a direct application to lifemy life; me, who had never till then experienced death even at second hand!  

Of course, in the decades since that day, I have ‘lost it’ and ‘cried over’ innumerable things people circumstances feelings movies books incidents, but increasingly, this idea has become more present to me, and I am calmer and less inclined to fly off the handle than before.

Recently, a video on Youtube went viral. A TV host asked some parents to tell their children that they’d eaten all the kids’ Halloween candy and record the kids’ reaction. I imagine everyone who watched the video was ‘rolling on the floor laughing’ (ROFL in Facebook, IM, PM and text lingo), but mainly because (i) they knew it was made up (the candy wasn’t all finished), and (ii) it wasn’t their kid howling for the lost candy.

If you were actually confronted by your child screaming for candy he had lost, I think you’d be shuddering with horror rather than laughing. “It’s only candy,” you plead, “we’ll get some more. We’ll get some the next time we go to the store. I know it was special candy. I’ll find out where it’s sold and we’ll buy it from there. Okay, we’ll go get some tomorrow, when the stores open, but stop crying. It’s okay, it’s only candy.”

But he keeps repeating how he wants ‘those’ candies – the ones his friend/sibling took or that fell by the wayside or the dog ate up or got washed in the laundry or… “It’s only candy,” you repeat, your energy ebbing, your will bludgeoned into submission. Sorry, he’s not buying it.

“It’s CANDY!” he tells you, since you haven’t yet got it. 🙂

Over the next few years, he learns ‘it’s only candy’. But other things replace ‘candy’. As more years go by, he learns for those things as well, that ‘it’s only candy’.

The point is: we all have our candy. What’s yours?

That she should fill the ice-cube tray up to a particular point? That his cupboard should be arranged a certain way? That she should / should not wear hotpants? That he should wake up at 5am and study for an hour because research reveals morning hours are the best to concentrate and retain what you’re learning? That her waist should measure 23”? That he must get at least 95% in every test, project, exam?  

Your child will be gone – to study, to work, to live his/her own life. Whether or not you realize it, the time you have together is short (though it seems like eons, sometimes! 🙂 ). And you’re screaming about candy, and she’s telling you “it’s only candy”, and you’re not getting it. 🙂

But sometimes, a glass comb breaks. Your child meets a special thing, the opportunity of a lifetime, a fork in the road, and you’re afraid he’s making (or has made) the wrong choice.

You’re convinced he should be an artist, when he wants set up and run a business.

You know this girl is wrong for him (is any girl/boy ever good enough for your precious son/daughter? NO! 🙂  At least, not for long. Now that you know this, bite the bullet and be gracious.) – she’s a terrible influence on him, she’s taking him away from his family, friends and hobbies – but he’s serious enough to talk to you about getting engaged to her.

She wants to go camping with a bunch of friends, one of whom is on drugs while another is known for her promiscuity, and nothing you say, nothing you promise her makes any difference. She’s determined to go with them.

You’re getting divorced, and your daughter, out of a (you feel) misplaced sense of loyalty, decides to go with your partner, because her sibling chooses to stay with you. You’re convinced that without you to act as a buffer, she will suffer terrible physical and emotional neglect at your partner’s hands, but she won’t change her mind.

These are the big ones – the glass combs. They can change the course of your child’s life, and you get palpitations if you let yourself think too deeply about such decisions.

Alright, take a break from thinking about your child. Think about yourself, instead, about your life. You’ve had such ‘glass combs’, haven’t you? Some of the choices you made turned out alright. Others didn’t. But on the whole, you’re muddling along alright, aren’t you?

If you think you’re not alright, well, step up and change things! You’re an adult, after all, with more sense, experience, knowledge, maturity (all the stuff you keep throwing at your child! 🙂 ) than your child. Get out there and change things for yourself!

Sure you’ve broken some glass combs! Pick a glass comb you broke a long time back. It seemed awful at the time I’m sure, like the end of the world. But out of that ‘end’ came a beginning, out of which came other endings and other beginnings.

This is a serpent whose tail you can’t reach – as time goes by and your life circumstances change and you change, what seemed awful can turn out to be one of the best things that could have happened to you (I should know – I’m divorced! 😉 ). In similar fashion, something that was awesome at the time is a nuisance now (you know this one – when you get something you wish for only to discover you don’t want it 🙂 ).

If you look closely, candy or glass comb, ‘it’s only candy’. And there’s always more candy! 🙂

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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, 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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