Their Feelings Matter

Recently, I heard a conversation between two mothers of grown up, married daughters. Both mothers are people that I know very, very well. One was telling the other about a few nights preceding her daughter’s wedding, when they sat down for a mom-daughter heart to heart. During this conversation, the daughter brought up some incidents when she had gone to her mother, rather hurt and sad. One instance being, when, as a child, she was being teased about her ‘dark complexion’ and other such. The mum, in an attempt to not let it become an issue in the daughter’s head, had brushed it off, saying it was just silly and shouldn’t affect her at all. But that pre-wedding night she told her mum that this and other times, when her mum had told her “not to take it seriously” or “be bold“, how in fact, she had only felt more lonely, sad and ashamed of her feelings instead.

And what makes this worse was the other mother listening to this. Since I also knew her well, I knew that if her own daughter had approached her with such a concern, she’d still just become defensive and brush off the concerns as exaggerated or non-existent. She wouldn’t hug and honestly apologize for not knowing how the child had felt, like the first mum did that night. And knowing that broke my heart a little.

So today, I’d like to discuss a very pertinent topic that has been rearing its head in many different forms around me these days — FEELINGS — children who are comfortable emoting and children who are not.

When we deal with a bunch of kids, we always find a few who have no qualms about sharing their feelings — be it joy, sadness, anger or frustration. And then there are some who are uncomfortable with their feelings and do not express anything at all.

So, it got me thinking that could it be that in an attempt to raise “well behaved”, “non-tantrum-throwing” kids, we could be, knowingly or unknowingly, raising them to suppress their own feelings — feel guilty about those feelings, even?

For instance, imagine your child waking up grumpy and when asked, starts giving a different reason every day, like a missing notebook or an upcoming exam. Over a few days, it is understandable that we start losing a little patience.

But we have two ways of dealing with this — either we let our irritation rule and tell the child to perk up and stop being cranky first thing in the morning, OR, we take a little time and patience, simply ask him what the concern is, address it and then move on to other happier topics like something fun they told you about school or from a favorite show or book.

The former is easy and quick, while the latter takes about five extra minutes.

But by taking those five minutes, we are constantly showing him/her that their feelings and concerns always matter and shall always get a patient hearing. Not that what they feel is futile and irritating and only “bad children throw tantrums”.

We must all have those friends who come across as ‘stoic’ and ‘brave’ in the face of adversity. It is admirable, that grit. But think of a parent who constantly worries about what is going on in a child’s head (at any age) because they do not share or express much. Because they are “brave”. Now, these are usually the same parents who have also told me how “easy” their kids were to bring up, how they never “threw any tantrums” or “had any demands”.

And what I have come to conclude now, is that these two attributes are two sides of the same coin.

The child who did not throw a tantrum about wanting anything, grows up to be an adult who still does not express a need or feeling about anything.

So, what I am saying is, what is perceived as “bravery”, in a lot of situations, could actually just be a person who believes that their feelings of “fear”, “sadness”, “wanting something different”, “humiliation”, “frustration” or “anger” are all wrong, that they don’t matter and shouldn’t even be felt —because these are as shameful as a public tantrum of a child. And so they just suppress or swallow these feelings and live with their problems.

Think about that friend who puts up with a really bad relationship or a completely unreasonable boss, for an inordinately long time through inordinately unacceptable situations without too many complaints. Perceive them “brave” or perceive them ‘cowardly’ for not taking a stance? Or, could it just be that they have been conditioned to not even acknowledge being ‘taken for granted’, unappreciated or unloved since only “brats” throw “tantrums” and “teenagers” act “difficult”?

So, what do we do?
Because, giving in is a definite and complete No-No in the face of a tantrum and a sure shot recipe for a spoilt and entitled individual.
From lots of reading, discussions and first-hand interactions, I think the only thing to do really, is to sit down, hear them out, understand why this frustration and help them understand it better too. Let’s see this through some steps.
The first and most important thing is to take a breath, swallow your own impatience and instead, show them that you are genuinely interested in their problems and that you are willing to talk. A comment on their attitude/tone at this moment would be, as we all know, a definite disaster.
A second good step might be to ask questions in an attempt to understand. This kind of forces them to calm down and explain things coherently.
Next step would be to word out their own issues back to them in a calm and precise fashion  — “you mean to say that ……………………….. is what upset you. Okay, let’s talk about this.”
And finally, once things have been talked out in a few statements (keep the matter short), you should quickly move on to some very unrelated and pleasant topic.

Of course, this all sounds good and easy in writing. And we are all as human as they come — tired, stressed, worried, busy, and hence, impatient.  So our first reaction, usually, is to snap back a “please stop throwing a tantrum!” or something in those lines. And guess what, once in a while it is okay, be human. Just not all the time. Most of the time, just show them HOW to deal with emotions instead.

Yes, it takes time, and patience, and parenting. It is tough to talk calmly when a child starts screaming in the toy store and when a teenager bangs a door in frustration. But, TALK. Keep the conversation channel open. Because that is the only way to ensure that they will always come to you.

(At least, this is what has been working for me while I deal with all the kids I do. However, with kids, you learn something new everyday.)

So, be firm.
Don’t give in.

But also do not dismiss their emotions entirely.

Because always remember, a 7-year-old’s missing math note is a 17-year-old’s best friend’s peer pressure into doing something wrong, is a 27-year-old’s emotionally absent marriage.


And if they are conditioned to feel, very early on in life, that feeling bad or wanting something else is being a “bad boy”, it is just a matter of extension of habit about how they would deal with any crisis in life. Stoic and brave? yes. But, also by putting themselves through a lot more guilt and pain and lonely torture too, don’t you think?

So, coming back to when I was listening to those two mothers conversing and reminiscing about their daughters, and from the current stage of my own life, I have come to acknowledge that all parents do what they believe is in the best interest of their child. And in that regard, they do everything they can, and beyond.

But in today’s times, times of instant gratification and strange online friends, it has become inevitable to stop and think things through, evaluate their impact and ensure that we are present.

Do let me know your thoughts and experiences?



Do we do Appreciation Right?

Appreciation is becoming a rare commodity in adults these days. Not enough of it going around. And not because we have all become mean and don’t want to say something nice. A bit of it is also because, and I’ve truly felt this, praise is just become undervalued. Not seen as necessary or of any significance.

In kids, on the other hand, I think there is a little too much of it doing the rounds. When every morsel of food eaten or every bath taken becomes an “exemplary achievement”, thoroughly praised, the kids soon become apathetic to praise. Also, a lot of constant appreciation is just becoming a substitute for quality time and effort. Kids are smart. They see this. And so, praise loses its value.
Probably why we don’t see much real praise going around when they grow up.

So am I saying we shouldn’t praise our kids? That we should reduce how much we praise them? No! Not that. I do praise Sid and the other kids that come to The Reading Room, as well. Constantly. What I am saying, exactly, is to watch what you praise them for.

And that brings me to the first point, which is, try and praise them for EFFORT and not RESULTS. Let them learn that it is important to try. Failure becomes of zero significance if true appreciation comes their way for trying real hard and giving their best.

I have children coming here every day reading stories, writing stories, playing word games, etc. And yes, I do praise them. But I make it a point to tell them that I am really glad they tried; then I continue with what I think they could do to make it even better. They don’t get easy praises for writing “once upon a time… now everything became alright… The end”, because I think, that is counterproductive and doesn’t make them try anything new the next time. On the other hand, no praise at all is also very harmful since it gives them no reason to try at all. What we are teaching them is that in the real world out there as well, they are only going to get praised if they work really really hard.

So the trick is to remember to praise for the effort, for trying something new, for being brave in doing something they haven’t tried before, for taking a suggestion/instruction from earlier and implementing it into their work. Put some effort into the praise and explain what you are appreciating. Don’t just look at every drawing of a sun rising from in between two mountains with an exaggerated “Fantastic!” What are you telling your kids? That they don’t really need to put more effort to be fantastic? And that if they spend more time, try something new and it doesn’t give the same results, they wouldn’t be fantastic? They would always only draw the mountains and the sun that way. Think about it.

Enjoy their efforts. Don’t make them seek approval on results.

And that brings me to the second point. Approval.
I have seen a lot of kids flourish under the right kind of appreciation. Appreciation, when not overdone and when given for the right reasons, is something the kids learn to value. It shows them that if they try hard and do something new, it brings pleasure and wonder to others.
Appreciation from us is “Wow, you tried that new technique today and your drawing is not a stick figure anymore. It is great that you tried!” You can even add a “Will you show me how?” They will love it. And they will want to try newer things.

But then there is the dangerous step brother — approval.
Approval from us is “hmmm good. Keep it up”. On the out, still sounds positive. But it has this negative undertone — “nothing less is expected of you. This has brought the expected results”. It puts pressure on the kids. There is the pressure of bringing the expected results to get approval.

This means that, in appreciation, the kid is trying to do something fun and he is proud of what he did and is sharing it with you. Your joining in to enjoy his/her effort and sharing it with him/her is an added bonus.

However, in seeking approval, the child has now stopped doing anything for themselves. They are not taking much pleasure out of their work. It is “work” and it is done under the pressure of having to be approved by you.Appreciation-Quotes-18

So, appreciation for the child is “Yay! I did something new and they noticed it too” — Double joy.

And approval is “Will this turn out good enough for them to like it?” — Only stress.

Parents, teachers and most of the authority figures in the lives of these kids would bring much better results and develop much better attitudes, just by appreciating right — Right amount, for the right things and in the right manner.

On the other hand, bringing up kids who spend their entire life only seeking approval from authority figures – who work their whole lives to please their bosses, aimed at the next salary hike or next promotion – while deriving no fun or joy from life, not really a very fulfilling existence.

So, what I am trying to say here is, let us all appreciate each other more.
Not just for the sake of saying “gorgeous” or “fantastic”, but actually look, analyse and appreciate.
So that, the effort by others feels validated and worthwhile.
So that, we have happy children who grow up to be individuals who don’t just work under the stress of approval but do ‘fantastic‘ things that attract genuine appreciation.
And so that, they grow up to be individuals who genuinely and keenly appreciate others and are a pleasure to be with.

Of Pink, Blue and Respect…

Once again, I am taking a lesson out of the book of actual, casual interaction with kids of all ages.

This is based on the HUGE boy-girl rift we have these days when it comes to just about everything. From toys they can play with to colours they are “allowed to” like based on their genders, kids these days don’t seem to be making choices based on, well, choices. All choices are mostly predetermined at birth based on whether they were to be received in a blue towel or a pink towel.

During one of the reading sessions, we started a discussion on their favourite toys. The second one of the boys mentioned “dolls,” the whole class came crashing down because “boys don’t play with dolls.” I just looked at them calmly and asked: “why not?” They didn’t seem to have a response other than “Dolls are girl’s toys.”

My next question was to the girls, “How many of you play with cars?”
A few hands went up.
And weapon things like guns, bows & arrows, etc.?
A few more.

So I asked them how it was fair that they were allowed to play with all sorts of available toys with no restrictions, while boys couldn’t play with certain toys. From this point, the kids took off on a heated conversation on equality and fairness, because it looks like we are surrounded by a bunch of young feminists these days. 😀

Now, this post could go on a lengthy discussion about gender discrimination in toys, colours, cartoon characters and other such social conditioning forever, but that is not what this particular post is meant to be about.

This is about where the discussion headed next.

So among other things like ‘girls can also be policewomen and pilots and soldiers’ to girls are ‘just as strong as boys’ they started to discuss fights. Here, one of the most important points that came up was how boys were taught never to hit girls. One boy, and a very clever one I think, said, “If boys are just as strong as girls, why are boys asked never to hit girls and that all girls need to be protected?”. That got quite a few little feminists silent for a bit. Tough one to come up with a decent counter-argument, that one. So once again, I tried to mildly step in with another question to this smart boy.
My question was, “Why is it okay to hit boys?”
Now there was another little pause till the little women folk jumped in with shouts of “It is not! It is not!”

So my point is, I know that it is with really great intentions that we teach our sons to “not hit girls”. I am raising a boy as well, and it is a constant thought as to how to teach them to treat women with love and respect. And, what I have come to believe is, no matter how good our intentions, if we bring up our boys with the thought that “you should always protect girls and you should never hit a girl,” we are being seriously counter-productive to the cause of teaching them that women are equals. Instead, can we just tell them to treat EVERYONE with equal respect and regard? And that they should not hit a girl or a boy or anyone else for that matter. On the other hand, if provoked and hurt, they are allowed to defend themselves from everyone alike, irrespective of the person’s gender.

My point is can we not tell our boys that women need protection and tell them that they should be given respect instead.
The moment I asked the boy the question about why it was okay to hit a boy, there were definite murmurs about ‘because he is a boy’ and ‘he can hit back’ and ‘he is just as strong as me’ etc. SO, my point is, a very well-meaning, modern age parent, wanting to bring up a caring and compassionate boy, taught him that women should be protected and treated differently. And the child naturally interpreted women as the weaker gender.

I know it is a fine line to walk. And I walk that line every day answering these and many other such questions, not just to my 7-year-old boy but having these discussions with all the children who come to The Reading Room. In fact in the latter case, that line becomes finer since I need to answer questions staying true to my beliefs and conscience and still without directly appearing to contradict what they have been told!

It was in the midst of this same discussion that a boy asked me if it was okay for boys to cry. My response was “Why not? Don’t boys feel sad? Don’t boys get hurt? How do you express these feelings?”

Me: Okay, imagine one of the little boys falls and hurts his leg. But he doesn’t cry or appear like he is in a lot of pain. Everyone thinks it is just a small injury. What would you prefer that he cry and get immediate attention or have a fractured leg?

Him: “But teacher said in class one day that boys don’t cry.”

Me: (In a little fix now) Maybe the teacher just said that because this boy was not stopping and she had to make him stop. In that regards, even girls should not cry for unnecessary things and tantrums.

My basic point is, IT IS the need of the hour to bring up our sons well. It is a pressing need. But, we need to clarify if by “well” we mean to teach them that women need ‘protection’ or that everyone is equal and everyone should be respected. That no one is allowed to hurt anyone else but, on the other hand, you are allowed to protect yourself from anyone and everyone.
That respect, help and compassion for ALL, go a longer way in life. And that, protecting is necessary, but let us reserve it for the younger, or much older, or the sick and helpless. Let’s maybe not categorise women into that, even out of good intentions.

Do let me know your views on the same.

Recreating a Real Vacation

As we are on the verge of launching into a new summer camp of sorts at The Reading Room, the thought of what vacations really meant and how to incorporate the spirit of fun, freedom and friendship to our kids here has constantly been on my mind.

Of course, these days, Summer Camps have become the need of the hour. And, the topic of pros and cons of sending kids off to a class ‘even on their vacations‘ has had its share of debates and controversies. Where, on the one hand, there are strong advocates against vacation classes, on the other side, we have flustered parents with no option but to keep them busy in classes and camps while they go to work.

And it’s not just about work but also the fact that kids do get extremely bored lazing around the house day after day for two whole months. And, thus begins the search for the most interesting, fun, yet useful sessions to keep them busy.

Now, if I were to be very honest, I am not entirely in favour of sending off kids from one classroom to another typically regimented structured classroom even on vacations. I mean, it is great to use this time to pick up skills like swimming, start some focused sport or artistic classes and so on. But a 9-4 type regimented structure with various sessions/periods in a day just like school, with the only difference that the subjects may not be purely academic, that wouldn’t be something I would like for a vacation experience for my kid.

Having said that, we really cannot exactly replicate the vacations from our childhood, can we? I mean, for me, summer vacations was a world away from my usual world. This was the time when we left behind our house and our cantonment wherever my parents were transferred at the moment, to visit our hometown, Trivandrum.

And so, the first part of the vacation was marked by a long long journey — either a 3–4-day long train journey with, sometimes, overnight halts at railway stations. Or, an equally lengthy road trip with nights spent in various Army Officer’s mess along the route. These completely adventurous road trips, some 25+ years back, featured halts at roadside dhabas. Imagine the scare of driving through the Chambal valley or the forests near Mysore or Bangalore while approaching Trivandrum, when we did not have any of the modern day amenities including the car AC or cell phones… This was only the tip of the vacation iceberg.

Once we arrived at Trivandrum, that’s when the primary phase of this adventure began — Cousins. So this would be the time when all of the cousins… first, second, third and every other degree… would get together at the grandparents’. We would reacquaint ourselves with each other after a whole year in different cities. And then, we begin two whole months of unstructured, almost unsupervised playtime!

Since all the homes were mostly located within a block, we could all just jump around from house to house playing with whatever we found there. And we literally just jumped, climbing walls to get everywhere. Basically, the day started with assembling at one place after breakfast and then planning the rest of the day. Or well, not planning at all but just playing. Simple, purposeless, not-necessary-to-academically-benefit kind of play.

The biggest part of our play was outdoors. We played games like Seven-tiles, chor-police, SAT,  badminton, etc. And by evenings, the fathers and mothers would also sometimes join in for a much more aggressive version of Seven-tiles. On the days of summer rains, we would take turns to stand under the eaves of the traditional sloping roofs, where water fell down in great gushes like a waterfall. Soon after, we would all transfer indoors to play some board games, or do some random crafts and DIYs, that we could teach each other and that could be executed with things salvaged from junk.

We also had a couple of cousins who were good dancers. And summer vacation was when they would select whatever was the “in” song of the time and choreograph steps for them. Then there would be fervent practice and on the last few days of vacation wear pretty clothes and present the dance. Not for a performance or prizes, but just for the fun of it.

Since my parents were mostly posted in the north, this was also the time I picked up reading and writing Malayalam from a few older cousins. Again, unlike doing it in a regimented classroom, this was a lot of fun for everyone involved — no pressure and no tests — and so, whether I may or may not read or write big, tough passages from major classics, I can manage to read and write enough. And that is what finally matters.

Then there was the time later in the evenings. This was when we shared stories, sometimes from our own lives and schools, at times scary stories and sometimes from books. And then at night, when we were all back home (if were all back home and not sleeping over), was the time we would curl up in a corner reading loads of adventure books.

What I am trying to say is… we were left pretty much to our devices and hence, I think, this is the time we did a lot of growing up. This was the time when we learned most of the other things — things that we didn’t learn just from school or even from parents… we learned how to be children, we learned to hold ourselves amongst our peers, we learned to find imaginative options to fight boredom, we learned to make plans, to decide what games to play that day, we learned to be a team, we learned to fight and how not to fight, we learned to make up, we learned to agree and how to disagree, we learned to try and convince others to do something we want, and we also learned to get convinced amicably and be a sport.

We also learned a dance, we learned the rules of a new sport, we learned some crafts and techniques, we even learned languages… just not in a structured classroom. We learned just the same way that little babies learn languages and everything else. We learned by doing and by practice and, most importantly, with great fun. So at the end of it, we learned to be young people.

Kids reading.jpgSo, I can’t emphasise enough on the importance of unstructured play time among children in character development — when they have to discover who they are and how they react to situations even when their folks are not around to help them through tough times or when they don’t get a toy they want.

Sadly, we cannot completely recreate the magic of summer vacations like we had during our childhood. However, the effort will always be to share and create experiences with these little ones that can help take them as close to such playtime routines all in a complete fun yet developmentally helpful manner. And to make beautiful vacation memories of the kind I mentioned above…


Make Reading Fun Again

I have a little boy who is 6.5 years old. And he reads. Not because it is forced on him, or requested or because he is showered with too many books every day in a hope that he would start (I think this is the most counterproductive of all).

He reads because he has learned to love it. More importantly, he thinks it is a normal option to ward off “boredom”, in addition to playing with toys or playing outdoors or drawing and coloring or even, very rarely, watching a video or two on Youtube. Reading is just another option of things to do. Neither too special or considered above the others nor too boring to be even on the list, like is the case in many households these days.

Another thing you may have noticed is that Television is not on the list of things he does when bored. No. I haven’t restricted it and neither are we one of those households that just do not have a TV. He somehow just never thought of it as an option of things to do to fill time. He watches a little bit when he has dinner sometime, and when he has had enough of food, he seems to have had enough of TV as well.

A lot of mothers, when they come to drop their little ones for Storyhour for the first time, ask me questions like “what more can we do to make him/her read” OR “how do you make them love books?” OR even the very straightforward “How did you teach your son to read like that?”.

I have two extremely simple points to answer those and all other variants of those questions:

The first would be to make reading fun again.
And the second, to make it the most natural thing in the world. Normal. Something everyone around them does.

The first – To Make Reading Fun – is what I do at Storyhour, day in and day out at The Reading Room. But, I’d like to leave the accounts of our Storyhour activities for another post. For now, I shall try and talk about what happened at home that made reading a fun option for my boy.

I read with him.

Yes. It is as simple as that. The emphasis being on “I”, his mother. There were other people who he would go to for reading stories. But the times that I read to him was the most special for both of us, especially our bedtime stories. Even before he could understand the words and I would need to explain the story in Malayalam (our mother tongue), we would read without fail, every night. And this was the time we cuddled, we laughed together, we shared our own stories of the day, when he would remember to tell me about something that happened in the school, we laughed some more and so on till he was nodding away.

What happens here is, first of all, the very obvious fact that there is no pressure on him, no one is forcing him to read and no one is making reading a strict to-do activity. Instead, we have already made it a warm, lovely, happy and fun thing to do. In addition to that, more than the story itself, he has started relating the love, warmth, care, fun and laughter he feels at that moment with books in general.

Sid reading.jpg

So, even if I am not around, picking up a book, especially one among a few favorite ones, brings him a lot of joy and comfort. And that, I feel, is an answer to another question a lot of moms of tiny ones have asked me, which is, no matter how many new books they are given, why is it that the kids get attracted to the same two or three books all the time. The answer being, they are relating to much more than just the story there. They are relating to a whole gamut of positivity they first felt in the moments you shared when you read that story to them.

The second thing is to make reading normal. Not a To-do. Not a task. Not something he feels obliged because you’ve bought him books. But normal. And how do we do that? By being readers ourselves. That one was easy at our home. The boy is surrounded by grandparents who read whenever they get some free time and a mom who is a total bookworm such that he has barely seen her without a book. (To the extent that she left her job and got into the business of reading!) And a father who is a journalist. (Enough said? :D) So for him, picking up a book when you are sitting down was as natural as, well, sitting down. He started off as a little baby copying us and pretending to seriously read, and that just became a habit.

And then there is a third thing that I started recently, inspired by all these steps and some more. I decided that the best way for them to understand how fun books can be is for them to see other kids read and enjoy and make structured, yet unstructured fun and games out of reading.

So, with the intention of making them love reading and to take it to the next level of better imagination, better creativity in writing, better grasping and better communication, I decided to read to a group of children together. Here they shared their experiences and feelings of a story all together, loudly, boisterously and in a total fun manner, all in the context of the story of the day. But that is again going back to my Storyhour. For which we shall get back another day.