Why Your Child Stops Apologizing to You

“I’m sorry.” There are so many ways you use this phrase (or something like it):

̶            You say it when you haven’t heard or understood what the other person was saying.

̶            You say it to express disbelief – “What did you just say?”

̶            You say it when you bump into someone accidentally, or interrupt someone.

̶            You say it to apologize when you’ve made a mistake.

As a parent, you use it quite often with your child, at least when he is little. You do this so you can teach him that there are words and behaviors which are inappropriate, and when he does inappropriate things, he needs to catch himself, apologize for doing them, and try to make sure he doesn’t do them again.

He’s playing ball, and since his hand-eye coordination is not yet perfect, he accidentally knocks over and breaks a small flowerpot in the yard. “Sorry, Mom,” he says.

How do you react?  

You might say, “Be careful, son, you don’t want to keep knocking flowerpots and other things over. You need to aim better…” and then proceed to teach him how to improve his aim and his coordination. But he’s still little, so you can’t lay the blame fully at his doorstep.

Your daughter might accidentally knock over a vase as she’s putting on her jacket while running out the door to catch the school bus. “Sorry!” she yells as she disappears.

When you see her in the evening, you’re ready to ‘talk about’ the broken vase.

“You knocked over the vase this morning, and it shattered to bits.”

“Sorry, Dad,” she says, “I didn’t mean to, but I was pulling my jacket on as I rushed through the house, and I must’ve knocked it off by mistake. I’m sorry.”

How do you react?

Many, many parents I know would come back with something like this:

“Why were you trying to put on your jacket while racing through the house? You should get dressed quicker, or wake up quicker. You’re always rushing to make it to school on time. Today, you broke the vase. The other day, you forgot your lunch. Last week, you left the tap running. Why don’t you organize yourself better? (Or) Why don’t you sleep earlier? Why must you keep reading rubbish? Why must you watch so much TV? Why must you talk to your friends on the phone / chat or surf on the Internet till so late? Can’t you listen to music at a better time? Why don’t you play less in the evenings and finish your homework on time? Why don’t you stop mooching around and finish your work so you can sleep on time? Then you won’t be scrambling every morning… When you broke the vase, I had to pick up all the pieces. You were such a whirlwind that some shards of glass went right across the room. Your little brother/sister/ the dog/cat/… could have got hurt. I had to clean up and you know how little time there is in the morning… I got late for work… Can’t you just be more…?”

W-H-A-T in the world are you up to?

Your kid broke a vase and apologized. Say one sentence – if you must – and stop!

But it doesn’t stop here! Later that evening, you repeat your lecture. “Get to bed on time now, or you’ll wake up late tomorrow as well, and then rush and break or spill or forget something else…”

And the next morning, you say, “Get up now… Hurry up and get dressed, you’re getting late…”

I’m exhausted just writing this. Your kid is numb with frustration, annoyance, and the verbal barrage you’ve been subjecting her to.

But you haven’t run out of steam. 🙂 Mainly because you’re laboring under the mistaken notion that she’s listening to what you’re saying; because you feel that saying the same thing over and over again in twenty different ways (you’re creative!) will make sure she gets the message, and she won’t break or spill anything in the future.

But that’s not true, is it?

You keep on at your child, but he’s not listening. After some time, it reaches a point where even when you have something important to say to him (not as a reaction to something he may have said or done), he won’t listen. Your voice has become background music.

And of course, he’s not apologizing. What’s the point? You don’t seem to hear the apology. Instead, it acts like a spur, making you launch into an endless monologue. So he looks sullen and goes away; shuts the door in your face; doesn’t respond to your questions; doesn’t talk to you.

And you add a couple more worries to your ever-increasing list of worries:

1. Your parenting is not good enough – you’ve worked hard to teach her ‘good’ manners, and she seems to have forgotten them all.

2. Your child is turning into an uncivilized creature – she doesn’t apologize when she does the ‘wrong’ thing, she’s not acting like she’s sorry, she’s doesn’t change her upsetting behavior / attitude; instead, she acts as if she were the injured party!

3. Your child doesn’t respond to you – you seem to be losing your connection with him, and you’re frantic that he’s going to find other people to take your place in his life, if not in his heart as well.

None of these fears is even remotely true. On the contrary, your child is doing all he can to keep the connection alive.

He knows that if he listens to what you’re saying all the time, he will be enraged with you – he may even begin to dislike or ‘hate’ you. So he ignores you instead, tuning you out. This is the best thing that could happen, given the circumstances.

But it’s still your call, you know. You can turn the tide any moment you want. When she next apologizes, “I’m sorry, I forgot to give you the keys so you had to wait outside the house for two hours”, you can always say, “Okay, try and remember the next time around, and I’ll try and remember to take them from you too.”

Then stop.

You’ll find your child is still listening to you, and still talking to you – and that includes apologizing! 🙂

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Show Your Child You Care

You know your child has officially entered the tweens when you hear, “You just don’t care!” 🙂 The first time you hear it, you probably hasten to reassure your child.

“Of course I care,” you tell him. “It’s because I care that…”

Er – sorry to burst your bubble, but he’s already tuned you out. You’re going on, but he’s not even hearing the words. He’s just busy with the idea in his head that you don’t care.

As the ‘you-don’t-care’s’ multiply, you give up – first trying to explain, then defend, then even to present your point of view. At best, you counter with, “I do care”, and you stop. You and your child go your separate ways, each convinced that your point of view is correct, and the other just doesn’t get it!

I found an unexpected way out of this recently.

It started with my daughter saying, “… happened, and you just don’t care!” She’d been telling me about some incident at school that had upset her. I truly didn’t think it was such a big deal (in fact it was so trivial that I’d forgotten it by the next day, else I’d have shared it with you here. Something like one girl said something mean to another girl or bad-mouthed her or humiliated her or something, and my daughter was an onlooker and burning with the injustice of it all…), but I sympathized with her feeling bad.

(By the way, even if my daughter had been the person someone was being mean to – and which child hasn’t been in this position? – I wouldn’t have cared about the incident, because she has to learn to deal with people being mean. What I would care about is how she took it, how she dealt with it – with the other girl and onlookers –, and what it taught her about herself, people, and her relationship with the world.)

Before I knew it, I said, “You’re right, I don’t care.”

That was so unexpected it took the wind right out of her sails. “I don’t care at all that this happened. It’s irrelevant – like if you bumped your elbow against the table, you wouldn’t even notice it, right? Well, that’s how unimportant the incident itself is to me.”

She couldn’t believe I’d finally conceded. “See? You DON’T care. You’ve admitted it!”

“Yes, I don’t care about what happened. But I do care about how you feel. I care that you’re upset by it. But being upset won’t help the matter. And you’re too upset just now to listen to reason, so there’s no point my telling you that there’s no need to get so worked up about what is essentially a non-issue.”

Another weapon handed to her! 🙂 “Everything is a non-issue for you! You only care about your own stuff…”

It was so funny, I started laughing. She was fuming. I did the only prudent thing I could and made myself scarce.

A while later we met in the kitchen.

“Really, Mom, how could you laugh? You’re so weird – just crazy. I’m upset – and you’re laughing! Obviously I’d think you don’t care. Any sane person would think that.”

“Fine, but I really found the whole thing so funny, I couldn’t help it. I shouldn’t have laughed, but I couldn’t stop myself. Want to talk about it?”

She nodded, and we sat down together.

“Listen, this kind of incident will never be important to me. That’s the way I’m made. Even when I was a child at school, if this had happened, it wouldn’t have meant anything to me; forget about it upsetting me as much as it has upset you. That’s how I think. So yes, I don’t care that the incident happened. But I do feel bad that you feel so bad. Mind you, I still don’t see any reason for you to feel this way, but I understand and sympathize with the fact that you feel bad.”

“How can you not feel bad? They were awful to her and she took it from them. I was boiling mad. I told her, let’s go and tell the teacher. And you know she was afraid to? She said they’d be even more mean to her if she complained about their behavior! I asked her if she liked being treated that way, and she said no, but she didn’t see any way out of it. And it has been going on for months, she says. How can she take it?” her voice trembled with rage and pain, my brave heart rushing to the rescue with flaming sword.

“She has to decide for herself. No one else can do that for her. If and when she gets sick enough of being treated this way, she’ll do something about it, and it will stop. But until she makes that decision, no one can do anything about it. If you think you can step in and help her, you’re wrong. You could do it once, or twice, or maybe even a hundred times. But what will she do when you aren’t there? Also, it is her battle, and as her friend, you should let her deal with it. The best thing you can do as a friend is to support her. There’s nothing else you can DO for her.”

“Also, no matter what you think, the truth is that you don’t know everything that has gone on between her and the other girls. You may end up harming the girl’s interest or making the situation worse.” I gave her other instances when things were not as they appeared to be, when she (or I) had intervened, and made things worse than they otherwise would have been.

She saw the point. “Why didn’t you tell me earlier?” she demanded. (?! 🙂 )

I learnt that day that it’s fine if I don’t care about things that are important to my child. And she’s fine with it too! Just as there are things I care about that she doesn’t! (Things like putting things back, sleeping on time, drinking enough water – ring a bell? 😉 )

What she wants is the reassurance that I care about how she feels, which I can always give her – because I DO care.

 
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Know Your NO-s

Alright, let’s be the loving, logical, practical adults we want everyone to believe we are.

You want the best for your child, and you want your child to be the best – in at least one area of achievement. You’d like to help her take the correct path and avoid obstacles. This means a formidable list of Do-s and Don’t-s (creative grammar, I know 🙂 ).

What if you got just one option – your child can go with either the Do-s or the Don’t-s? Hmmm.

Lots of parents would choose the Don’t-s. For instance, if you’re talking about food and nutrition, it is probably easier (and definitely more valuable!) to say “Don’t do drugs, don’t smoke, don’t have more than 2 pegs of alcohol a day (if this is what you want to say)” than it is to say “Be sure to eat 5 servings of fruit and vegetables (these should include all color families…, eat both raw and cooked vegetables except for … which should not be cooked and … which should not be eaten raw, remember tomato is technically a fruit, avocados can’t be included in greens, and…), 3 servings of dairy,…”.

You know your child won’t remember a tenth of what you’re going to tell him. Might as well make it short, so you decide to stick with the Don’t-s.

Great! Why don’t you begin making a list right now?

If you’re anything like me, you’d probably have 50 things on your list in less than 10 minutes.

My daughter would faint if she read the above sentence. She’d faint, because she and all her friends believe I am one of the most easy-going parents around. I agree with her (and them). 🙂 I can make the list, but I’m also very good at editing this list down to one or two things.

These one or two things are my NO-s. I have them down pat, and every time I’m tempted to say NO (or “Don’t!”), I go back to my list and cross-check:

–          Has been eating sugar through the meal, and is looking to overdose on chocolate for dessert. Asking for permission. Say NO? (Does it go against my NO?) No. “Sure – go ahead!”

“Oh, Mom, you’re the best!” (I’m rolling my eyes.)

–          Has gone ballistic over some ridiculous detail. Screaming so loudly I can’t hear myself think. Follows me so she can vent fully (and I can’t get away!). Give her a piece of my mind? No point – she ain’t listening anyway. So I duck till the storm has passed. In a bit, she’ll calm down, come over and apologize. And I’ll tell her she doesn’t need to be sorry.

I really think she doesn’t need to apologize, and here’s why I think it:

1. I’m her mom – if she can’t acknowledge and give in to how she’s feeling even when she’s with me, what’s the point of being family? If I don’t give her the space and time to vent, where will she get it? This time and space is what makes a bunch of people in a house a family.

2. Venting is good for health – she’s letting it all out safely and she will feel better after having done so. Suppressing how you really feel creates all kinds of physical and mental problems – simply not worth it. And if I’m listening, I’ll get a chance to understand what she’s thinking and feeling.

3. She learns – each time she blows something out of proportion, I am matter-of-fact about it. I don’t ask her to stop throwing a tantrum, I don’t yell back at her… As a result, when she cools down, she herself thinks about what happened and why it happened. We might talk about it or not. And the next time around, she has more perspective. The result is delightful and twofold: if she freaks about the same thing, the intensity is lower than it was earlier; and she freaks about bigger, more important things. Either way, she’s growing, and growing well. Oh, joy! 🙂

4. Love in action – It’s easy to be loving and accepting when things are going well. If you can be loving and accepting even when your instinct is to run screaming from him, he’s experiencing love in action. He will notice this. And it will give him the confidence to be who he is – assured that he is no less worthy of love because he is not all ‘good’. He will be less vulnerable to manipulation by people and circumstances. That’s what I want for my child. I’m sure that is precisely what you want for your child.

5. Someday, somewhere, it will out – If your child doesn’t vent at home, he will vent somewhere with someone. Who knows what might come of this?

6. Risk avoidance – I have seen so many children – and adults – leading heavily controlled lives: always making the right noises, having the right reaction in the right proportion, doing what is expected of them. Till one day, the smallest trigger completely derails them, and then it takes a good long while for them to get back on track – if at all they do. Better by far to let off steam as one goes along, and chug along the track of your own choice.  

So she doesn’t need to apologize for losing her temper. For the longest time, she didn’t believe me when I said it. But over the years, as we’ve lived the reality of it, she’s beginning to get it.

I gain in innumerable ways from having very little on my NO list:

I. The list is easy to remember – and abide by! 🙂

II. She shares freely with me – her thoughts, ideas and what goes on in her life, because she doesn’t need to worry about which NOs she has transgressed. Our communication is based in reality.  

III. When I say NO, she listens – no, not obeys, but it’s enough that she listens! 🙂 (She must make her own mistakes and learn from them – one of the hardest lessons for a parent.)

IV. We share a great relationship – both of us actively choosing to spend time with each other. And we enjoy ourselves!  

V. I can go up in smoke too! 🙂 And I do.

Well, what are you waiting for? Make your list of NO-s, edit it, communicate it, and then sit back and be a carefree parent…

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Teaching Your Child the Meaning of NO

I was in high school, having a conversation with my English teacher on parents hitting their children. She had two kids, the younger of whom was 2 years old.

“I would never, ever hit my kids,” I said, sure of my stand. (I was a teenager, so it’s obvious I knew it all! 🙂 )

“Vinita, when your child is putting her finger in a live electrical socket, and doesn’t heed your warnings to be cautious, the only way to get through to her is to smack her hard. Do it a few times, and she’ll learn.”

I still disagreed.

“Well, how would you go about ensuring she doesn’t get an electric shock?” my teacher asked.

“I don’t know exactly how, but I will never, ever raise my hand to my child,” I reiterated.

She wasn’t convinced that I’d be able to get through to my child, and I was adamant that I’d find a way that didn’t involve hitting.

About a dozen years later, I’d just put a mug of piping hot tea on the living room table for my husband, who hadn’t yet entered the room. My 8-month old was trying to pull herself off the floor into a standing position using the table as support. Yes, the same table that held the piping hot mug of tea. She stood up, and reached a hand out towards the mug from which the steam curled enticingly upwards.

I don’t think any parent I know would do what I did next. I held her hand, and dipped the tip of one of her fingers into the hot liquid – just for a split second. As I did it, I said, “Hot! NO!”

Her hand was out of the tea and she was in my arms as I rushed her towards a cold water faucet before she even realized the pain fully. She looked into my eyes, hers wide with unshed tears. “That was HOT tea,” I repeated. “We don’t touch hot things. NO!”

I think she was fine after I’d put enough cold water on her finger. At any rate, I don’t remember any ill-effects after the event.

But there were numerous ‘good’ effects. Madam (thus respectfully do I allude to my almost-teenager who checks out my posts and is overwhelmingly generous with her comments 😉 ; which are mostly some variation of “Mom, you’re crazy!” 🙂 I told you – she knows everything! 🙂 ) never tried to fling herself off staircases, windows and balconies, or insert various parts of herself into electrical sockets or gadgets (microwave, toaster, vacuum cleaner etc.).

I didn’t child-proof my house. I had delicate crystal all over the place, and it stayed there. She learnt that there were places to play and places not to play. Some people feel that this might be because she is a girl (“Girls listen, but boys are so naughty! They simply run wild, you know!…”), but I’ve discovered that’s not true.

I have friends, men, who were as athletic and devil-may-care in their childhood as any boy could be, whose parents even today proudly display delicate china and crystal they have collected over decades – just as they did when the kids were little. All because they managed to teach their children the meaning of NO. 🙂

I thought of my conversation with the English teacher years after the hot tea incident. I’m not so sure any longer whether I proved my point or not. I certainly did not hit my daughter, but dunking her finger in hot tea is also violence of a kind, so I don’t know what to think.

But I am sure about 2 things: I feel bad that she had to suffer that momentary pain, and I am convinced I did the right thing. You may wonder at my ability to reconcile these apparently conflicting ideas, but it makes perfect sense to me. I saved myself – and her – a lot of trouble, heartache and conflict by getting her to understand NO so simply and directly.

I have no guilt about it; quite the contrary – I’m rather pleased I solved a potential problem before it even arose! I am not rationalizing the incident saying, “I did it for her – so that she wouldn’t hurt or injure herself in the future…” That was a side-benefit.

I did it for me. I did it because there was no way I could parent one kid and one puppy, cook, clean, run a household for us, and stay married to a husband with health issues and insane hours at work. But even if I’d been having a cushy life with ‘nothing’ to do, I’d still have chosen to do what I did. It was short, simple, direct, and effective.

If you’re still reading this, you might be appalled, and trying to come up with your own way of teaching your child the meaning of NO. That’s great! 🙂 The only way that will work with your child is the way that comes naturally to you – the way that you feel is right for you.

The ‘hot tea’ kind of one-time teaching obviously works when your child is really young, too young even to remember such an incident.

But what if your child is past that age? How can you teach him the meaning of NO?

The best time to start is now.

The best way to start is to pick only one NO. Suppose you want to cure your child of 15 ‘bad’ habits he has. Add to these 6 ways to ‘improve’ him or the way he does things. (Look at yourself! And you expect your child to listen to you! Get real 🙂 ) Of these 21 possible projects, pick only 1. That is your NO.

Maybe you pick ‘NO TV at dinnertime’. It has to be iron-clad; it has to be repeated and reinforced endlessly; you have to live it; you have to be the role model – no exceptions. Oscar Awards live on TV? Move dinner time so you’re done before the telecast begins. Wimbledon finals? Move dinner time. Not possible? Switch off the TV when a commercial break starts, serve and eat dinner, and begin watching after dinner is done.

They’re showing a documentary you’ve been trying to get hold of for years? Record it; or do dinner at a different time. No exceptions. Not if someone is ill. Not if there are guests over. (What kind of host are you anyway to have people over for dinner and then plonk them in front of the TV while you all eat? 🙂 )

After all, you’re teaching your child the meaning of the word NO. You’d better demonstrate that you know the meaning yourself!

An open secret about the word NO: the more sparingly you use it, the more effective it is. More tomorrow…

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Dangerous Games You Might be Playing With Your Child

R-O-A-R! You growl, a ferocious frown on your face, your expression fierce, your fingers imitating claws, as you advance menacingly towards your child. She shrieks and runs away, and you give chase to capture her. Once you capture her, you can imprison her in your arms, or ‘eat her up’.

As you keep playing, one fine day, instead of running away, she will retaliate. She will glower at you, unsheathe her claws, and roar to frighten you out of your skin. You will drop your claws (and your false bravado! 🙂 ) and run for your life as she chases you. Eventually you will give up, and acknowledge her as big, powerful, scary, and the winner of the game – at which point, you will both collapse into giggles or into each other’s arms or both.

This is a game we have all played with our children, or will play in the future; if not this exact game, then some variation of it.

You are careful not to start playing this game too early in your child’s life. You want him to be accustomed to your presence, the varying expressions on your face, in your voice. Then, when he is comfortable, you can try some play-acting, ready to stop the game the moment you see the slightest sign that he is truly scared or uncomfortable.

As he gets used to the game, he actively asks to play this game; he wants you to frighten him, and devises strategies to deal with the threatening animal you turn into. There comes a time when you realize that there are overtones of real menace in his play-acting. He really wants to win.

He is now old enough to understand competition, no longer worships the ground you walk on, and wants to exert the force of his personality, the force of his SELF. So he really tries to scare you; his punches and kicks hit hard enough to hurt, and he’s putting all his might into getting the better of you. This is true, whether your child is a boy or girl. This is true whether you are the mother or the father.

At some level, you both realize this is a game. Neither of you is a predator, and neither of you is prey. But it has stopped being a game. Your child is actively pitting herself against you, and is straining with all her might to win – more accurately, to defeat you. It is only one of the ways in which she is trying to assert her independence, her identity as a person separate from you.

But it is still only a game, and a harmless one, at that.

Recently, I happened to have meetings very close to my daughter’s school. The meetings would get over about the time school lets out, and I was contemplating whether or not it was a good idea for me to collect her from school so we could have a day out in town. (My picking her up is a sort of treat for both of us, since it happens so rarely.) After thinking it through and talking it over with her, I decided against picking her up. She should take the bus home, and I’d drive home as and when my work got done.

“But why can’t you pick me up? You haven’t done it even once this academic year!” (And the year was almost halfway through then.)

I told her it was not convenient – I wanted the flexibility to get other work done, if I could manage it.

But she’d set her heart on my picking her up. “I so rarely ask you to get me from school. And now that I’m asking, your work – which is not even set up yet! – is more important than your picking me up! If you really loved me, you’d pick me up from school tomorrow.”

Right then and there, I dropped what I was doing, and asked her to follow me into her room. “What did you just say?” I asked her, in a no-nonsense tone I rarely use (even more effective because it is softly spoken 🙂 ).

She stumbled over the words as she repeated them, her eyes glued to my face.

 “What do you mean by saying that?” I asked her.

No answer. She’s still looking at me, as if I were a cobra about to bury my fangs into her.

Listen to me, and listen carefully, because I will not say this again. Are you listening?”

She nods.

“Okay. My picking you up or not, from school or wherever, tomorrow or on any other day, when you are 12 or 22 or 42 or 62, does not say anything about whether I love you or not. Have you understood that?”

She nods again.

“Did you really think that if I didn’t pick you up it would mean that I don’t love you?”

A nervous shake of the head. I waited. She said, “No, I didn’t really think that. I mean, I don’t think that.”

“Then why did you say it?” I persisted.

“Just like that,” she said. I waited.

“I said it because I thought if I said it, you would pick me up from school tomorrow.”

That is when I relaxed, and became my ‘normal’ self again.

“This kind of behavior is called playing games”, I explained to her, “and these are not good games to play. They mess with your head and my head and make us unhappy and suspicious. These games put poison in our heads and our hearts and make us destroy the love and happiness we have – inside ourselves, as well as what we share with each other. Do you understand what I’m saying?”

“Yes, I do.”

“You and I have never played these games with each other, and I don’t want us to start now. Yell at me, shout, throw a tantrum – whatever, but don’t play games with me. I’d say don’t play them with anyone, ever, but definitely do not play them with me, because I won’t let you. If ever you try such a thing with me, I will point it out and stop the ‘game’ immediately – because I’m not interested in playing these games – with you or with anyone else. I’ve played them in the past, and they are not my cup of tea. You can play them if you want, but not with me. Get it?”

“Yes, Ma. I’m sorry,” she came to hug me.

A really lovely hug followed. 🙂

“You don’t need to be sorry. I’m glad it came up, because at least now, you know the kind of games that people play with each other, and how meaningless they are, and what kind of harm they can do.”

Yes, we made it over a big speed bump that day, my daughter and I.

Your child may start such a game, and you may let him get away with it, till the game is on autopilot, and your relationship has deteriorated. Worse, you may be playing such games with your child (“Won’t you do this for me, please?” “It will make me so happy.” “You did as I asked? You are a ‘good’ boy!”), till one day you look at the tatters of your relationship and wonder what happened.

You know, don’t you, that this is a game that nobody wins – because nobody can win it. All you can do is lose. And you do.  

Take a good, hard look at the games you play with your child. Then dismantle them – right away. What you have with your child is too precious to be lost to a game.

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Introducing a Rather Amazing Person

A bunch of parents are standing around at the school social, discussing their tots. Listening to them, you’d think there was a competition on to identify the most troublesome child. One dad complains of how long his daughter takes to eat a sandwich. As he finishes, a mother pipes up saying he should count his blessings, because she can’t even get her son to sit at the table! As each parent contributes his / her story, they seem to be vying for the gold medal called “Parent of the Most Demanding Child”.

Into this conversation steps another parent, who says, “I’m very lucky. My son is so caring – the other day I had a headache, and he let me have a quiet lie-in. He even remembered not to play his new drums so that I could rest”.

Immediately, the tide turns. Each parent starts narrating how their child is so kind, helpful, loving, generous, talented, wonderful… Now the parents are competing for the title ‘Parent of the Best Child’!

 It makes me wonder: are these the same parents with the same children? How come their assessment of their child changes like quicksilver? How does the child switch from being the devil incarnate to a being of sweetness and light in the space of a millisecond?

You too probably have this kind of schizophrenic reaction to your child. I think this happens because we are so used to thinking of the small-sized (at least earlier, if not any longer! 🙂  ) people that live in our homes as ‘our’ children. Of course, in one sense, they are our children; not other people’s. But when we think of them as ours, we treat them as if they were our arms, beds, clothes, ideas etc. In other words, we treat them as if they were our belongings, things that belong to us the way our possessions do.

But they don’t belong to us: they are individuals in their own right.

When you look at your child and think “This is my child”, you are missing the individual that he is: the traits, quirks, attitudes, thoughts and reactions that make him unique. Instead, you look at some kind of clone-like creature, who resembles you in some ways, your partner in others, and people from the family in yet other ways. When you notice a facial feature, expression, behavior pattern, attitude that you can’t immediately trace to someone in the family, you think “I wonder who / where he got that from!”

Never do you think: “He is who he is – himself.”

How many times has someone made a comment on your child’s behavior or paid her a compliment, and you’ve been taken aback?

“I didn’t know she was so imaginative,” you think, when you read the short story she wrote in English class.

“I didn’t know he could be so thoughtful and hospitable,” you think, when your mother praises how well your son looked after her in your absence.

Sure she has her faults and foibles, but she has some phenomenal attributes too, which you tend to miss because you think she is ‘yours’, and you look upon her as an ‘improvement project’.

I’ve heard so many parents say:

“Sure, he’s a great guy, but so careless! If only I could teach him to be slightly more careful…”

“She’s wonderful, but if only she studied on her own. I have to sit with her everyday…”

You see what I mean by ‘improvement project’?

How many times, when someone has complimented you or your child, have you accepted the comment gracefully? Hardly ever, I’m guessing. Usually, you feel compelled to qualify it by pointing out some ‘negative’ quality / feature of your child that you are focused upon at that time.

Why not just say:

“Yes, he’s really a great guy!”

“She’s wonderful – I’m blessed to have her!”

Or simply, “Thanks.” 🙂

My daughter’s 7th birthday was round the corner. I was calling parents to invite their kids to the party. I dialed one number: “Hi! This is …’s mom. I’d like to speak with your mom, please.”

“Good evening, Aunty,” said my daughter’s friend (in India, ‘Aunty’ is the accepted way to address a friend’s mother), “Mummy is traveling, and she’ll be back next week. May I take a message?”

“I’d like to invite you to … Would it be possible to speak to your dad?”

“He’s not home yet, Aunty, but he’ll be back in an hour or so. If you’d like to speak with him right away, I could give you his cell phone number. Or, can he call you back when he’s home?”

By this time, I wanted to run across and give this child the biggest bear hug possible. Here’s someone not yet 7, who is having an amazingly intelligent and polite conversation on the phone with an adult she hasn’t exchanged ten sentences with in her whole life!

I asked for her dad’s number and called the gentleman. After extending my invitation, I told him how tremendously impressed I was with his daughter, how she conducted herself and the entire conversation over the phone.

At the party, I complimented him again when he came to pick her up. He was amazed: “I didn’t know she had it in her!”

That day, he was introduced to a rather amazing person – the girl who happened to be his daughter.

How wonderful it would be if you could step back from ‘your’ child and look at her as a person! The way you would look at anyone else you met…

You’d really look at her – into her eyes. You’d listen to her; give her your attention and a fair hearing. You’d be interested, and make an effort to understand her point of view, especially when it was radically different from your own. You’d wait till she finished speaking, instead of interrupting her.

You’d request him to do things instead of being peremptory and issuing orders (“I’m the parent, so you do as I say – because I say so!”). You’d give him a break – maybe he’s going through stuff you don’t know about. You’d be polite, and respect the choices he makes, even if you disagreed with him.

You’d treat him the way you’d treat anyone else who is not ‘your’ child. And that is what he needs – a chance to show you that he is a rather amazing person! 🙂

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Questions It’s Okay Not to Answer

The days of old-school parenting are long gone, when children were seen and not heard. Today’s children ensure that it is their parents who are (barely) seen and not heard, at least by the kids themselves! 😉

A vital cornerstone of new-age parenting is the willingness of the parent to answer questions. As parents, we’ve had it dunned into our heads: encouraging children to ask questions will ensure they know more, retain their curiosity, and therefore study and achieve more (there isn’t necessarily a very high correlation between having knowledge and achieving more, but that’s what we’ve been brought up to believe)…

So we let them ask all kinds of questions and try and find suitable answers to those questions.

But there comes a point when the questions begin to bother you. The questions will usually bother you for only 2 reasons: either they are uncomfortable questions, dealing with issues you’re trying to ignore, or they are intrusive questions, which infringe on your privacy.

Uncomfortable questions make you think about your life, your beliefs and your relationships. They highlight the lack of congruence between what you say or show on the one hand, and what you think and feel on the other. The greater the discrepancy, the more discomfort you experience, and the more you want to sweep the issue(s) under the carpet. You don’t want to deal with it, and here’s your child, asking you questions. What can you do?

If you’re avoiding answering a question to duck the discomfort, think before you do so. Your child won’t know the answer to her question, but she will certainly know if you are trying to avoid answering it. When you do this, without meaning to, you teach your child to be dishonest. She sees you make an excuse to avoid an answer, and files the incident away as one way of dealing with unpleasant issues in her life. When something sufficiently uncomfortable comes along, she’ll repeat your response. Not because she thinks it’s the best response, but because this is what she has seen and learnt from the beginning – from you.

There’s nothing wrong with dishonesty. It has its rightful place in the world, just as honesty does. The problem is that any value perpetuates itself as you practice it. If you give in to dishonesty once, it is that much easier to do so the next time around, and that much more difficult to make the honest response the next time around. As you keep responding the dishonest way, you might end up looking around yourself and realizing that you’re living a false life.

So there’s your child’s question, staring you in the face: “Mom, why did you tell Dad that the bottle of whisky broke when actually you and your friend drank it all one afternoon?” There could be any number of reasons why you did what you did. The question has been asked, and it needs to be dealt with.

You need to make up your mind about a few things:

Do you want to answer the question? If not, tell him, “I don’t want to answer this question.” But be prepared for him to come right back at you with, “Why not?” If you want him to keep talking to you, if you want to retain his trust, you’d better come up with a better answer than either, “Because I don’t want to”, or “because I’m your Mom and I’m telling you so”. The first answer has you behaving in a stubborn, childish way, while with the second, you’re pulling rank. No fair – your child deserves better.

If you want to answer the question but can’t figure out the best way to do so, ask for time. Simply say, “I’m thinking about why I did what I did, and when I’m clear about the answer myself, I’ll let you know.” Commit to a specific time. “I’ll let you know by Sunday / by 10th November / before you go on the school picnic”. And then get back to him with the answer.

If you have a great relationship with your child, she may actually ask you a question like, “Dad / Mom, when did you first have sex?”

Uh-oh!

Maybe you were in your early teens when you did, the same age she is now, and you don’t want to tell her the truth because you’re afraid she’ll treat it as a green signal for her to go ahead and have her first experience with sex – something you know she is not ready for, and which you’d like to help her avoid.

You might choose to tell her a lie – that you first had sex in your twenties, or after you were married (if this applies), or whatever. But know that she will carry the answer in her head, and in an unguarded moment in the future, you will give the truth away, and she will note the difference in both answers. Once she does, she will re-visit every single thing you’ve told her, and wonder if it is true or not. Not the best thing to happen, which is why I’d suggest you avoid it.

Maybe you first had sex when you were 22, and are comfortable sharing this information with her.

Whether you want to answer the question or not, the truth is that this information is personal to you. No matter how much you love her, this is your personal life, and she really has no right to expect an answer to this question from you.

Tell her so. You don’t need to be apologetic or defensive about it; just matter-of-fact.

Believe it or not, I learnt about not answering questions from my daughter. One day (she was then 6), her teacher and I met at school. I’d been through a grueling divorce, lasting 3 years of courtroom drama, and was just beginning to emerge from its shadow.

The teacher accosted me: Hi! I am so impressed with your daughter!

Me (smiling): Why?

Teacher: The other day, I heard a classmate ask her, “How come we never see your dad; only your mom?” And your young lady turns to the child and says, “It’s personal”. I was so impressed! Really an amazing response! I must compliment you – you’ve raised her so well!

My head was in a whirl.

I disclaimed all responsibility for my daughter’s response. In all the years I’d been going through the break-up of my marriage, it had never struck me to answer people’s intrusive questions with a crisp “It’s personal”.

“What happened?” “Was he bad?” “Did he hit you?” “Was he having an affair?” “What went wrong?”

To each of these questions from some well-meaning people and mostly prying gossip-mongers, I would make various responses, but it never struck me not to respond, not to answer the question.

And here’s my daughter’s response coming to me through her teacher. Talk about learning from your child!

I waited impatiently for her to get back from school (she was on the bus).

“Did you say…?” I asked her.

“Yes,” she said.

“Where did you learn to say it?”

“Oh! I heard someone ask the teacher about something, and she said it was personal. That’s where I learnt it.”

Well, I don’t use those words at all – not even now. But I certainly do give that response – and I learnt it from my daughter! 🙂

Most of us are blessed with near and dear ones, and because they are so near and so dear, the lines separating them and us are often blurred. But there are many places where the line needs to be drawn.

The line that defines your right to your life, to your thoughts, to your SELF.

Don’t jump to answer the next time your son asks, “What were you thinking, Dad, just now? You had such a strange expression on your face!” Maybe the answer is innocuous, but it is vital that your child learn that he cannot enter your head on demand and tumble around in it. Tell him, “You don’t need to know what’s going through my head every moment of every day. Stay in your own head; live your own life”.

Needless to say, not answering some questions will teach your child to be her own person. And it will take away from you the right to ask her questions like, “Are you in a physical relationship with someone?”

Because she has the right to her own life too! 🙂

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Wasting Time

When I was a child, we got up in the morning, got dressed, went to school, came back, played with our friends, did homework, spent time with our parents in the evening, listened to the radio or watched TV, and got into bed. We got 3 meals a day; we got enough exercise, enough sleep, enough entertainment, enough social activity, and enough family time.

Our parents managed pretty well too. They did their own work, spent time with us, and never seemed to rush from one person / place / activity to another.

The idea that there ‘wasn’t enough time’ – for anything – had not yet been invented, apparently! 🙂

By the time I reached teenage, time began to acquire focus. I heard my parents tell me not to ‘waste’ time: on the phone, meeting people incessantly, watching TV all evening, day dreaming…

Today, our children hear it from birth: Don’t Waste Time.

I’m sure you’ve said it to your child at least once (not if you are a newly-minted parent, obviously): “Don’t waste time! There’s so much to do – get on with things…”

One day, my irritated daughter shot back at me, “I’m NOT wasting time, okay? I want to read this book.”

“But you’ve read it at least fourteen times already!” I protested.

“Twelve,” she smirked, “but what difference does that make to you? It’s my book. I’ll read it two hundred times, if I wish it. It’s none of your business! I don’t say anything about the books you read; you don’t interfere with my reading.” (Topsy-turvy logic, I agree. After all, I’m the parent, and parents have the ‘right’ to comment on what their kids are doing, whereas the reverse is pretty off-the-wall. But I have always given her equal rights. If this is kind of conversation is what equality entails, so be it, I say.  Sometimes I think I let her get away with a bit too much in the name of equality, but there are some lessons only time can teach. And time needs time…)

I would normally have dismissed this outburst as another of the crazy, inexplicable things she does (that’s one of the ways we keep peace: we agree that the other is ‘simply nuts’! And then we place statements, incidents and outbursts in the ‘simply-nuts behavior box’ and put it aside 🙂 ), but I was in ‘listening‘ mode.

When I stopped to think about what she’d said, this is what I realized:

1. Much as I love her, it is her life, and her time. One way or another, that time will be spent.

2. I have very little control over how she (or anyone else, for that matter) spends her time. If at all I have any control, it is over how I spend my time. But here, I duck my responsibility, and say, “I have so much work, so many things to do, so much to handle, so many responsibilities, that I simply don’t get any time for myself!” Big-time responsibility-avoidance! 🙂

3. I can choose to ignore the reality of how little control I have over how she spends her time, and (i) worry about it, or (ii) explain to her, nag her, plead with her, and hound her to spend her time the way I believe is best for her, or (iii) both. This will create conflict between us, and that conflict will spill over into all areas of our lives. And there is no way to resolve this kind of conflict, because it is based on one of us being ‘right’ and the other one ‘wrong’.

4. Since it is her life, she has first dibs on choosing how she spends it. While she may or may not please anyone else with her choice; the one person she can definitely please is herself. She might as well make choices that please her. At least she will be happy, if nobody else will…  

5. She can be an independent, worthwhile adult (the goal of parenting, in my view) only if she makes her own choices and accepts the consequences of those choices. Choosing how to spend time is also a choice. And the earlier you let your child begin to make this choice, the quicker and better he will learn what works for him and what doesn’t.

6. Time cannot be wasted; just like money cannot be wasted. ‘Waste’ is an opinion or a judgment of someone. If she wants to be word-perfect on five hundred novels, re-reading them for the nth time is a ‘good’ investment of time for her.

7. Everyone’s ‘good use’ of time is a ‘waste’ of time for someone else.

If you stop to think about it, I’m sure you’ll realize exactly the same thing about how your child ‘wastes’ time!

You wasted time too, you know, in the past. You probably still do. Celebrate the fact that you ‘waste’ time. A life in which time is always spent towards the achievement of one goal or another, is ultimately, a life devoid of spontaneity, enjoyment, and joy. Incredibly sad, don’t you think? What’s worse, it’s unnecessarily sad.

The next time your child ‘wastes’ time, let him. Either you will learn that he wasn’t wasting it, or he will feel he could use it differently. Either way, you will still have time with your child – because you both realize that your time is your own, and you will choose, happily, to spend some of it with each other!

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Listen!

Your baby is born! Some kind friend has gifted you a Baby Book to record all her ‘firsts’ – if you haven’t already bought such a book yourself. You keep the Baby Book open, with the pen ready in it, to record her very first ‘first’.

Nothing happens. The first time you see her smile at you, you’re thrilled and you’re heading for the Baby Book when you realize that she’s not smiling; she’s filling her diaper with all her might! 🙂

You listen eagerly for her first word. When she begins to vocalize, you’re listening like a hawk – you catch every sound, every inflection of her vocal cords. You hear her crying, and you’re listening with so much attention that you understand what her cries mean at different times.

All this while, you talk carefully to her: enunciating every syllable, exaggerating the expression in your voice so that she can learn words properly. Slowly, she learns to speak. And you’re still listening. When she starts expressing herself in sentences, you feel great! She can say pretty much what she wants to, and she understands what you are saying to her. Hallelujah! Communication is happening!

She talks mainly ‘business’ with you: asking or answering questions, saying what she wants and doesn’t want – stuff like that. She doesn’t initiate conversation; she’s not sharing ideas. Obviously not – she’s too young!

Then she starts spending time away from you – at the daycare, with a caregiver at home, on a play date, at school. When she’s back home, you ask her, “Did you have a good time? What did you do? What did your friend say? What did you eat?”

She begins slowly to put sentences together, searching for words to tell you her experience. You’re still listening carefully, prompting her to use the correct words, the correct tense, to pronounce words properly, and of course, listening to what she did when she was away from you. You do this so you can help her make sense of the experience.

She may say, “I ate beans for the first time – it was yummy.” Or “my friend did not give me her favorite teddy bear”. Or “one boy fell down on the stairs”. Whatever she says, you will carry the topic forward. In this way, she understands what it means to have a conversation.  

She enjoys the attention with which you listen. She enjoys the entire experience of her speaking and telling you her thoughts, and your response to them. Slowly, she will want to share her ideas as well. She will want to tell you in ever-greater-detail what happened in her day while you were away.

This is when you stop listening.

Not because you’re not interested! But because the events themselves are so trivial, so repetitive, and she takes so much time to string together a single sentence (she hesitates, stumbles over a word or phrase, goes back to it to correct herself – maybe a second or third time, even –, looks for a word, gets sidetracked by another thought, comes back to what she was saying, forgets some detail, starts over, takes so many breaths between phrases), – and the entire incident is narrated as a single sentence! – that your mind has wandered far from what she’s saying, even as your eyes are glued to her face, and you’re making the right facial expressions and sounds and nodding your head at the right times. (Did you actually read and follow the last sentence? Kudos to you! 🙂 But that’s what it’s like – somewhat… 🙂  )

And this whole story is just to tell you that when her friend poured water out from a jug into a glass, some of it spilled out! You’re not listening. You’re hearing the words on autopilot. But you are so tuned to your child that she gets the impression that you’re listening with rapt attention.

It takes time for your child to become a fluent speaker, and in the time it takes, you get used to hearing on ‘autopilot’. Believe me, he will realize long before you know he knows it, that you’re not listening to him. And he will stop speaking to you.

As his fluency increases, and there are others to listen to him – friends, teachers, perhaps other adults – he will stop telling you things in detail. He will revert back to ‘business’ talk. He remembers subconsciously that you were very attentive in the days when you both talked only about essentials, so he goes back to that kind of talking with you.

But he’s grown up now, maybe 6 or 7 or older, and you suddenly realize that you want to have a real conversation with him. So you initiate it, but he won’t respond. He’s not playing, because when he was trying to make conversation, you were busy elsewhere (mentally). You’ve done it too many times, and he’s had enough.

This is how communication stops between parents and children. It is always and only because parents stop listening.

It’s tempting not to listen, and I’ve been guilty of it too – more times than I care to remember. But the important thing is to catch yourself, and bring your attention back. No matter how young or old your child is, when you realize your attention has wandered and you haven’t been listening, interrupt your child: “Sorry, I was thinking of something else. I missed what you said. Can you tell me again?” Or it might be, “I need to do something right now, but can you tell me this when I’ve finished my work? I’ll be able to listen to you properly then.” (He may be busy then, or have forgotten, or not be in the mood to tell you. That is a risk you’re taking, but better to take the risk than to wing it and pretend to be listening when you’re not.)

He knows you’ve not been paying attention, and when you acknowledge this to him, he starts paying attention. He starts noticing that you try your best to give him your fullest attention. He feels acknowledged, appreciated, reaffirmed. He learns what it feels like to be listened to; he learns what listening means. He learns to listen to you. And he keeps speaking to you. You will not be one of the many parents who complain: “My kid doesn’t tell me anything!”

Of course, there will be times when you’re speaking and your child’s attention wanders. At times like this, I hear my daughter say, “Hey, Mom! I wasn’t listening. Can you replay?”

You bet I can! 🙂

 

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Are You Encouraging Your Child to be Sick?

There are few times when you feel as helpless as when your child is sick. You probably feel most powerless if he is too young to verbalize and (according to you) too young to understand what you are saying. You would do anything to make him feel better, but there isn’t much you can do beyond follow the doctor’s instructions and soothe him as best you can.

Even if your child can speak and understand what you say, it is very hard to see your child fretful and suffering due to illness. Something as mundane as the common cold can unman you.

More serious illnesses and diseases obviously take a lot more out of you. There is the heartbreak of seeing your child suffer, your powerlessness to do anything to alleviate his suffering beyond a point, the stress of ensuring he stays on his food and medication schedule, ensuring others in the family are as little disrupted by his illness as possible (including preventing your other child/children from catching the infection, if it is an infectious illness), urgent and important professional household and personal tasks that need to be postponed or completely given up, the financial strain of his treatment (if this is applicable), rescheduling your and others’ routines, and so on.

And there is the guilt. Were you too harsh with him when he showed you the assignment on which he got a ‘B’ and you were sure he could have got an ‘A’? (If only he’d worked towards it instead of handing in the scrappy effort he’d put in at the last minute…) When he was irritable the day before yesterday and you read him the riot act for misbehaving, was he already down with the flu bug but you didn’t recognize the symptoms? When he said he was very tired and asked to be excused from doing his chores, and you refused because you were sure he was just making an excuse to avoid doing them, was he already sick and you ‘helped’ him get more sick (!)because you insisted he complete his chores?

As a parent, you already feel that you don’t do enough for your child – you’d like to do more, spend more time, give more… (Of course, you are also sure that you do too much for this same child, who is completely spoilt and doesn’t appreciate – or deserve! – what you do for him 🙂  ).

So when she is ill, you set the rest of your life aside. Your guilt spurs you to do so – you don’t spend enough time with her when she’s well; the least you can do is be around for her when she’s sick. Societal expectations encourage you to do so – what kind of parent would go merrily on with his/her own life when their child is sick? Your child demands it – she is restless and constantly wants you around: to sit with her, talk to her, amuse her, cajole her to eat, bathe her, help her to/in the loo (obviously, some of this depends on the specific illness, its virulence, and the age of the child), hold her hand, pat her back, sing to her, give her a drink of water…

And you do it all with good grace and as much patience as you can muster up: you are, above all, a loving parent.

I don’t do all this when my child is sick. Am I heartless? You might think so. When my child is sick, I keep things as ‘normal’ as possible. I expect her to be sensible – ill or not. Let me give you some instances.

She must have been 3, and had a blocked nose. She was very good at blowing her nose, but woke up one night, crying, because both her nostrils were blocked, and she didn’t like the feeling (who does?!). I told her to stop crying, and she said she was crying because she was very uncomfortable because of her blocked nose. I said she had to stop crying because it would make her nose more blocked. She had to bear the discomfort quietly: she couldn’t give in to tears, sobs or wailing. She had to be calm – it was the best and the only way to feel instantly better. Of course I held her while telling her all this, but I told her in a no-nonsense manner; I didn’t plead with her, or baby-talk her. She got it, and it’s stayed with her.

Another time, she had chicken pox. “Don’t scratch the boils.”

“But it itches, Ma.”

“I know. But if you scratch, it’ll get worse, and it’ll leave marks. Let’s think of other things you can do with your hands, which will keep your hands and mind distracted.” Reading on her own was no good, because it is the easiest thing in the world to unconsciously scratch an itch while you’re engrossed in a book. She did fine, and I am blessed, above all, to have her for a child.

With allergic asthma, or any other illness, for that matter, I don’t mollycoddle her. She must get out of bed, get herself water (and maybe breakfast too), make me coffee (I love the coffee she makes me! 🙂 ), finish pending school work (from the last day she went to school, if she’s sick enough to stay home), do her chores (those that don’t make the condition worse), and live her normal, regular life as far as possible.

I continue to go to meetings, work from home without checking on her (as I would any other time she was not sick and I was working on something) – I carry on with my normal, regular life.

It might seem monstrous, but I believe this way, she has the least incentive to stay sick, and the maximum incentive to get well soon.

Most parents do the opposite.

You are at your nicest, kindest, most helpful, most understanding, most solicitous, most loving, most indulgent when your child is sick. You spend the maximum time with your child when he is sick. You give in to any and every whim and fancy of his (so long as it doesn’t affect his health).

“I can’t bear to eat food, Dad, but I could manage some chips.”

“I’m so bored, could I please watch the movie …?”

“Could you read me the entire set of Roald Dahl stories? Not all at once, but little by little…?”

“Can you sit with me and hold my hand?”

Your child milks this illness for all it is worth; for everything he can get out of it – and you! 🙂  And the next time around, he’ll be a little quicker to say he has a fever, or his head aches, or he has a stomach ache…

Are you encouraging your child to be sick?

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