On un-ambition, the bigness of small things and a love affair

I know. I meant for this to be a new year post, but looks like time has run ahead of me already.

Every year in December, WordPress  sends me  ‘my year in blog’. It’s a pat on the back that includes statistics: how often I had posted, how well the posts had done, how many  new visitors had there been, how many old ones had kept coming back, how many comments, shares, likes, reblogs, and all the things people do to show you virtual love.

This year, they sent me nothing. It’s the sort of thing we do when we don’t have much to say to a friend. We stay quiet, hoping they will understand.

Perhaps they were too embarrassed to point out that I had, indeed, had a more or less abysmal year in blog. At best, there were a few guest posts or travel blogs that I had committed to do. I didn’t post enough, I didn’t engage enough, I didn’t share enough.

Somewhere in the course of 2016, I decided I had nothing to declare.  I felt nothing. No bylines I wanted to flaunt, no articles I wanted to pitch; I was tired of having opinions, a point of view on everything. I was tired of trying to stay relevant. It was as though I wanted some time to be in a state of un-opinion.  I wanted to be the audience, the reader, the observer.  Perhaps after years of putting myself out there: columns, features, reviews, this blog…I felt depleted. It reached a point where I felt I was at the tipping point of social media, as though the boundaries between real life and virtual life were blurred. I had an epiphany when I read this article.

I had discontinued my column, stopped posting on my blog and decided to watch my life go by. It had been a while. I hadn’t given myself the time or the luxury to grieve all that had gone wrong with it. Yes, I was sad, but the tears just wouldn’t come. I was on autopilot mode. I was a get up and go girl, how could I stand still? Stillness was unimaginable. Movement kept me sane. Do this, fix that, plan this, post that.

Plus there was Re. His conversations, his wisdom, things he wanted to share, his energy, his enthusiasm, his never-ending desire to always collaborate with me for things.

But last year, I held his hand and allowed him to lead me. The world also seemed interesting through his lens. Sometimes we have to un-parent to become better parents.

He is an artist; I wanted to learn how to draw and paint too. I joined a small art class. I found joy in watercolor. I was always fascinated by it but too intimidated to try it. 2016 was about trying everything.Like this Shakira song, which Re and I often danced to whenever either one of us needed a pick-me-up.

I found that water was forgiving. And generous. And that even if you never ended up with what you envisioned, it always gave you something to smile about. And that when things dry up, they become different things.

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The earlier competitive me would have said: so when do I get really good at this, start selling my art, illustrating books and whatnot?

The me now said: Wow, I can make a hollyhock. Tomorrow, I’m going to try roses.

I also started taking violin lessons with the same teacher who teaches Re the piano.

The earlier-me would have wondered when would I be able to compose my own tunes, figure chords of songs.

The me now said: Lalli, as long as you don’t touch the second string while bowing on the first one, you are doing fine.

In another time, I wouldn’t have factored these in as victories or even milestones. But now they were big. They mattered.

I became diligent about homework. The earlier me was cocky. She didn’t believe in practice. She thought she was beyond homework. The new me couldn’t wait to get home and do her homework.

I think I like the new me more. I’m falling in love with her..

And there was Amma. When I was tired of being the parent, she let me be her child.

The universe was kind. Kindness came from lovely places. Old friends who I thought I had lost. New friends who I never knew I had. Strangers who wowed me with their generosity.

Whenever I was low or too clammed up to say so, someone always picked me up. Sometimes, all it took was a ping on my phone. A comment. A message in my inbox. Food. Tea. Silence. Words. A mosaic tiling workshop. An evening in a yacht. Goa.

And then there were letters. Postcards.  Books.

A friend sent me Brene Brown’s Gifts of Imperfection and it was perhaps the best gift of last year. It was a letting go of what I was supposed to be and an embracing of what I truly was. With all my glorious flaws and imperfections. I wrote more letters to my future self, in the delicious stationery a friend gifted. How did she know this is what I had to do?

There were many more gifts and several random kindnesses. The universe opened its arms, big and wide, and welcomed me into its lap. It was a year of going back into the womb. Of submitting to the universe  that I needed nurturing, that the child in me wanted to look out the window because she was so tired of looking within, looking after.

One of the most valuable lessons I learned last year was from my friend Jo. I was sharing with her my concerns as a single mother – that I couldn’t orchestrate things beyond a point , that I was beside myself with constantly curating like-mindedness: whether it was friendships for  my child, or myself, that something felt wrong when friendship took so much work. And she said to me what will perhaps be the most valuable parenting advice anyone can ever receive “It’s not about like-mindedness or finding people-like-us. It’s the random kindnesses from people. And it’s mostly people you have nothing in common with.”

She was right. You can’t count on PLU. There is a demand-supply situation out there. What you can count on is the kindness of ordinary people. They may not get the books you read or the shows you watch or the movies you like, but you can count on them when you are trying to raise a child. They are your village.

Some invited me to their homes for a holiday. Some fed me food or words. Some played board games or had meaningful conversations with my child when I was too spent. Some listened. Some spoke. There were free EFT sessions. Inspiring podcasts.Videos. Cake. Jam.

My body was forgiving too. After years of inaction, it was delighted to be stretched,  twisted and contorted by yoga. It was forgiving when my backbends didn’t turn out as I had planned.

I often wondered why people posted shiny happy posts on instagram  while they were actually sad. I know now that they were sending affirmations. Or just expressing  gratitude. And there’s always plenty to be grateful for.

So dear 2016, thank you for all the small things. You deserve a hug. And some roses. Better late than never.

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Talking to kids: Why do adults suck at conversation starters?

It happens almost every single day. You meet someone you know and your child is with you. They make small talk while the child has slipped his hand in yours and is gently pulling you away. Suddenly they realize they have to ask the child something. And they unleash:

So what’s your name?

No name? You are shy? 

Why are you shy? Don’t want to talk to me?

They should have got the hint by now, but they don’t:

So are you being a good boy?

And this:

I know all about you. 

I have never understood this.

Of all the stupid questions adults ask, their conversation starters with kids are truly idiotic. Honestly would you walk up to someone in a bar and say “So what’s your name?” Then why would you do it to a kid?. Ditto for how old are you? Do you really care? Are you trying to test their Math? And what use is this information anyway?

Imagine if someone asked you, while you were drinking a cup of coffee. Ah, you are drinking coffee I see. You like coffee?

Same thing. Why would you ask a child eating an icecream: Ah, you are eating icecream?

Kids do not like small talk. They prefer being ignored than be asked : what’s your name, which school, which standard, how old are you?

How about asking kids what they like to do in their free time, what is their favorite color and why, do they like being indoors or outdoors, do they believe in magic, when was the last time they made a paper boat, do they like boats or ships, rivers or seas….

I asked some friends of this blog what were the most annoying questions their kids get asked and and here’s some of what they came up with (the list was huge, so I have only picked a few). Mind you, some of these questions have been asked post the stroking or pulling of child’s cheek, or worse, lifting them up bodily, or even worse – hoisting them in the air (as size may allow)

What if I take this TOY away..?

Look.. your Mommy is gone.. what will you do now?

Is that my toy?

What do you want to be when you grow up? 

Let’s see if you can give me a hi-five!

Why don’t you sing me a song?

Smile! Let’s take a selfie!

 Who is more naughty you or your brother?

Who does mummy love more you or your brother?

 Oh.. You’re only 8? But you’re SO BIG!

Will you please give me a kissie no. Please. Please. 

Who do YOU love more? Mum or dad?

 Want to come to my house, I have toys and chocolates

I feel like saying: GET OVER IT!

It’s a child. It’s not an alien just landed from a space ship.

It’s a smaller (and perhaps less stupid) version of you.

You are supposed to know this. You have a vocabulary. Years of experience in making conversation. You went to college. You have a job. Surely you can come up with something better.

And the worst questions are usually asked by people who already have kids, so there can be no excuses technically of not knowing what to say. And why bother saying anything at all? I am sure my child won’t mind and I will be spared writing such posts.

Some day, I will make a list of questions to ask a child or make Re carry them as flash cards. I will. I wish I didn’t have to do this, but it’s been year seven for Re, and I have hardly come across people who can initiate good conversations with him. He in the meanwhile has mastered the art of ignoring stupid questions or just shrugging his shoulders and refusing to answer them or sometimes telling the said person exactly what he thought of the question.

My approach to kids (even before I had one) has always been simple. I approach them as I would an animal. In that I try and make myself as unobtrusive, yet watch what they are doing, make eye contact when I have a chance and then wait for the child (or animal) to make their move.

They always do.

For everything else, there’s always peekaboo.

 

 

Thoughts on Teacher’s Day: What I learnt from my students

BY INDU HARIKUMAR

When I think of my school teachers, I think most were real ‘halkats’ ,(colloquial for meanie; has more gravitas) to the point of scarring young minds. Comparing, telling children off, telling them how to bend to authority –these were common. As a mini person, what you said, thought and wanted didn’t matter because you had to mold to fit into the world. You were shown the way to get that job, learn English at the cost of never knowing to write in your mother tongue.

And if you brought any part of who you were to school, like a language or flowers in your hair, you’d be shamed. A remark would appear in your diary: “Please don’t put flowers in your child’s hair. This is a school.”

Any sort of anomaly would be questioned. My sister’s class teacher actually called my mother to find out if we had a father because we all have my mother’s name.(So I was Indu Lalitha  but at some point, I dropped my mother’s name and chose to go with my father’s.) Dissent would be shouted at, called out, made fun of, so that you find the holy route to the right marks, to learn what your text books teach, never question and be a cog in the wheel.

Despite the adults who ran school, I really enjoyed school. But most of my life, I didn’t know what I wanted to do, maybe I just didn’t want to fit in and yet wanted acceptance. I did many things: studied fashion, worked on the web, studied animation, got my bachelor’s degree, enrolled for my master’s, looked at schools abroad. And desperately  tried to fit in. Then one of my web jobs took me to Chandamama where I started drawing again and did a lot of craft. From there to a publishing house, as assistant editor – children’s books then to freelancing.

While freelancing, I signed up to volunteer with Mumbai Mobile Creches. I was to teach a class on a construction site. Mostly craft. We had no budget and very eager children. For the first class I picked up leaves, I was nervous, the children were very well behaved. Over the next few classes, I asked them what they wanted to do. Mostly because I was so clueless, some would say – “Didi, Aeroplane banate hein.” We’d go with popular choice, the materials were all picked up on walks.

Since, there was no agenda except to have fun, new ideas were always welcome. The children came from different parts of India and spoke various languages. Most  could not read but they would pick up  books, look at pictures and tell stories. One of the stories:

Ek Tote ko bhook lagi thi. Woh Udh kar ek mirchi ke pedh ki taraf gaya. hai, kitni saari mirchi! phir usne teekhi teekhi mirchi khayi. bahut saari mirchi khayee. phir jungli janwaar neeche aaye. unhone kaha humko bhi thoda mirchi do. tota bola, yeh mera hein, mein kyun doon. Janwaron ko gussa aaya. unhone Haathi ko bulaya. Haathi ne pedh ko jadh se ukhaad diya. Saari Mirchi neche aa gayee. Sab ko Mirchi mili aur Tota bhi Udh gaya.

(story of a parrot who ate too many chillies and got the whole animal kingdom into a tizzy)

Often the adult in me would want to intervene and correct the child. Slowly, I learned to let go of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ and how tos, had to tell myself, the children will pick their own lessons, learn what they were ready to.

My next big teaching experience was in 2012 in a village school in Haryana. Around the time I was really depressed and we had  a new child in school. Six years old, a runaway. She’d walk with her head held high and do what she pleased with the confidence of knowing that she would get her own way.

She couldn’t be cajoled, she couldn’t be bribed, she couldn’t be threatened.

Once, fed up with trying to get her to listen, I asked her what she’d do if we punished her with no lunch. She looked me straight in the eye and announced, “I will eat mud.”

That look she gave me was the turning point. I was willing to bend so much in my personal life, beg and plead to get some love in return. But with that something started to change. 

To go back to her, when she learned the ABC, it would be “H for hen, I for ice cream,” and then with great seriousness, “J for Jai Prabhu”, no matter how much I tried showing her “J for Jug”. I could only laugh and accept and say, “Yes, J for Jai Prabhu.” 

Another very unique teaching experience was at the German school in New Delhi in 2013 – 14. We were culturally so different, we didn’t speak a common language and I didn’t know the dynamics which made me a little nervous. It took us a few classes  to warm up. I often paid extra attention to see what was happening, to find out if any one was being mean. And my questions were very direct, often I would ask, “Is someone being mean to you?” In no time, someone would come sobbing, telling their part of the story, looking for comfort. And soon the next person  would complain saying, “I was being partial” and start crying.

I would look forward to Wednesdays when I took class. It was relaxing, engaging and very entertaining. We read stories, made drawings, celebrated festivals, they told me about their travels and would be sure I could recreate their vacations on paper.

For Christmas, I took colored handmade pendants for the children. I anticipated them fighting and complaining saying – Oh you gave the best one to her. And to avoid such a situation, I told them – “Look, I have something for you, I don’t know who is going to get which color but I can only give you these if you agree not to fight.” They’d usually keep their promises.

On my last day of class there, the youngest boy who’d keep making rockets, gave a me a book of his drawings. He said, “Mrs Indue, do you know why I like you?” I said I didn’t. “Because you never ask me sit down all the time, you let me run, I like that.” I just smiled, I didn’t how to get him to stop so I never tried.

This year, I haven’t worked with children much but it is something I love going back to. Working with children has taught me that if you don’t ask, you will never receive. 

It taught me a way to distance myself from the negativity of social media.

It taught me to step out of the moulds that we use to define ourselves with – things we like and dislike, what’s wrong and right, dirty, clean, beautiful.

It taught me that it is possible for someone to spend the whole day giggling and saying nothing but “poop poop POOP poop” over and over and over. It taught me that a tight hug and encouraging word  can change many things. 

The art of the matter the language of childhood

About the author: 

Indu Harikumar is an Indian children’s writer, illustrator and art teacher. She likes to turn everyday things into objects of art. She’s recently done a colouring book for adults – Beauty needs space https://www.facebook.com/Induviduality

What happens to friendships after baby ?

It was Friendship Day recently and although I am not the kind of person who subscribes to such things, I found myself thinking about and examining my friendships after baby, since that’s what my life stage is right now, and feeling grateful for the ones I have still managed to hold on to.

Friendships after baby

Dawn tea on Kovalam beach

What we perhaps give very little credit to is the rites of passage in friendship: Your politics. Your feminism. Your taste in books, cinema, people. Other friends. Bad boyfriends. Good boyfriends. Marriage. Babies. Friends after babies. Social media behavior.

Although it’s not on the top of the list, marriage does get a bad name for ruining many friendships. Various friendship tests had to be passed in ours and he had to be voted either ‘really nice’ or ‘really fun’ by my friends. Somehow, the husband managed one or both. As for his, all you had to do was pretend you liked football and tequila shots, hug like you’re long-lost buddies who’ve met after years, and you passed muster.

Friendships after baby

Having a child changes the ecosystem of your life in several ways; friendship is perhaps one of the things that is often affected. Pre-baby friendships usually suffer during the transition, but the ones that hang in there are the ones to hold on to. When you are single and snazzy, kids are usually fun as long as they are someone else’s. At least I used to have an immense capacity (and resilience) to bond with children of my friends of assorted ages and sizes. I don’t know why. May be it had something to do with the fact that people then seldom talked about their children like they do now, so they were always what I made of them. And that always gave me a fresh slate to work on.

Now I am in a situation where I either have to be friends with mothers whose children are friends with Re, or just hope that he will like some of my friends’ children. The latter is much easier, as the children in question are much older, so have less turf issues. But for the most part, I am stuck with mothers who can’t stop beaming at the fact that their children know continents or can read at six and other such, but who never bat an eyelid when the said child is being unduly aggressive, rude, petty or unkind towards your child. Along with selective hearing, they seem to have developed selective vision. On one play date, I pointed out to a mother (who I also like) about the incessant bullying of her son towards Re. She stared at me vacantly. It was not the first time, and I am sure it won’t be the last. In this age of ‘likes’ and popularity contests, kindness is not a virtue that seems to have much equity.

I do hope Re goes on to have more friends and I hope they are kind and loving, but for now, it seems to be in short supply. I explained my dilemma to a single friend, hoping she would understand. She threw me completely by saying that there is something is wrong with bringing up sanitized children. And that eventually they will all even out. But even as a teacher to adolescents, I saw that they don’t. Behavior goes deeper than phonics. I wish we focused on that in kindergarten.

I hope I am wrong, but I think my ability to wing motherhood so late in my life also alienated some of my friends. It was like I caught a bus they were hoping to be on, or that I betrayed the sisterhood and I felt punished for doing that. The optimist in me, who doesn’t like to give up, most of all on friendships, kept trying. Many texts and emails later, I came to terms with it, but I still haven’t had closure. I wish there was a way to do friendship breakups formally.

As Re grew up, I was, of course, concerned that he find (and keep) a few good friends. Somehow the rolling stone that is a tenant’s life in Bombay made it difficult to keep an address (or a friend) for a long time. But the Gemini side of me acted breezy and said, so what? He can always make new ones. And he did. But when I ask him for a wish list every year on his birthday of the people he wants to have over, I find new people in it, and I miss the old ones. But then, I don’t know what is happening in his mind, do I? Somehow I felt responsible for not giving him a permanent address (read ‘permanent’ friends), but then, I consoled myself that he had a shot at making new friends so often, something that I never did.

I don’t ‘add’ friends easily in the manner of Facebook, but I do get drawn to newness, and somehow a new friend makes me indulge in a friendship courtship dance I often miss, and therefore find myself giving into. Some of my old friends understand this, and understand that it makes me, me. But some don’t and begrudge it. I know we need to clear clutter as we go on, and there are some things not worth holding on to, but I will always have a soft spot for the friends who dumped me unceremoniously. In the end, I guess the friends that are worth holding on to will stay either way.

An English teacher’s ode to Bollywood

I am just back from a class excursion with 50 adolescents. We went rappelling, rock-climbing, jungle cooking, bird watching, star-gazing, zip lining, trust-walking, obstacle clearing, bonfire singing and dancing, tree-climbing and strawberry picking, among other things. It was my first excursion as a teacher. The kids’ hormones were on overdrive, their responses to everything was hugely exaggerated and their ability to talk endlessly often tired me out. But what was interesting is despite our age gap, we had plenty of common ground.

On the onward bus journey which lasted five hours, there were the usually medley of jokes, knock- knocks and smart one liners doing the rounds. I watched, curious, not knowing how entertainment in today’s generation would unfold. Eventually they began singing, and in a few minutes, the verdict was clear. Bollywood won. They were singing my songs, although they were singing the remix versions. I was warned about the power of One Direction in today’s adolescents, but I am sorry to report, you-cute-in-a-monochromatic-way-boys, that you are nothing in comparison to Bollywood. Within minutes, One Direction was out and “Badtameez dil” was in.

I felt a sense of excitement when I sang the lyrics of the original “Bachna ae haseeno” with Rishi Kapoor while they belted the opening bars of the Ranbir Kapoor version. I thought back and realised our excursions were the same. It’s just that our songs were different, our stars were different. It’s Ranbir, Ranveer, Varun, Arjun, Deepika, Alia, Priyanka, Katrina (they only refer to their ikons by their first name) for them. It was Dharmendra, Amitabh Bachchan, Vinod Khanna, Rishi Kapoor, Neetu Singh, Rekha, Hema Malini, Reena Roy and the gang for us.

But I was overwhelmed that Bollywood music has the same power to unify, irrespective of how the world has changed and how technology has taken over. The more things change, the more they stay the same, I thought to myself, and smiled.

When I was in grade 4, my English teacher, Mrs Ferns asked us to make sentences with a few words she wrote on the board. One of the words was ‘favourite’. I had just watched Chupke Chupke (or was it Charas?) and I wrote, “Dharmendra is my favourite actor.” I knew it was considered ballsy in my time, but I liked him so much, I had to immortalize him on paper. Some of my classmates saw what I was writing and rolled their eyes. “They seemed to say, “I hope you are not going to turn this in!” They were the “good girls” and “good boys”, the ones who were not tarnished by Bollywood. I was the outsider who went for matinees with my dad.

Thankfully, Mrs Ferns didn’t judge me. “Oh, Dharmendra?” she said. “I prefer Vinod Khanna.” It was the first time I realised that liking the movies had nothing to do with doing well at the exams. I always cracked exams, especially English and Math.

For the music vocal exams in grade 4, while most of my class sang bhajans and patriotic songs, I sang “Na jaane kyun” from Chhoti si baat. Thankfully, there was a boy who sang “Maine tere liye” from Anand and so we sort of neutralized each other. I still remember thinking it was cool of him to wear his heart on his sleeve, and the funny thing is, I still like boys who do.

Now I teach kids of grade 7 and 8, and one of my students is high on Bollywood. She told me her role model was Alia Bhat and the only reason she wants to get through school and college is so that she can be more articulate in interviews later in life when she becomes a movie star. To that end, she really wants to get her English right and so that makes her one of my most committed students. I loved her clarity of thought. And thanks to Mrs Ferns, I didn’t judge her.

When I moved to Filmfare magazine as Managing Editor a few years ago, I could sense much speculation about my ‘shocking’ career move among my peers. “Are you sure? Bollywood?”, a few asked. I of course shrugged and said that I would try anything. Now I am a teacher, but my students never wonder about my non-linear career path. They love backstories, and the more I tell them, the more boundaries dissolve in their heads. To them, it’s a big deal that an English teacher comes from a Bollywood lineage, who thinks conversations about the movies and movie stars are also learning. It ups my cool quotient significantly, added to the fact that I have met some of their crushes, even interviewed some.

I think Bollywood is as much a part of our growing up as is Science and Math and the reason it connects with the youth is the possibility that if you are willing to put yourself out, anything can happen. And of course there are other things that Bollywood  teaches you:

  1.  You are only as old as you feel. So yes, you can be in your fifties and shimmy away (and contrary to what you may think, Madhuri Dixit is still a huge hit with the kids as is Shahrukh) if you dare enough.
  2. If there are hobbies or interests that you’ve dismissed as unattainable, it’s time to tackle them head on.
  3. If you can dream big, there is nothing that is truly challenging, scary, or nerve-wracking.
  4. If the boy or the girl rejects you, there is always a song to celebrate your pain.
  5. Thinking out of your league (boy, girl, career, profession, destination) is a risk we must all take.
  6. Never underestimate the power of a great dialog.

(This post first appeared as my column in Pune Mirror on Feb 23, 2015)

Next time you push your children, push yourself a little bit too

So this is going to hurt a little. But often, I find that the most problematic thing about teaching children is their parents.

They come in all shades. The over-protective parent. The helicopter parent. The pushy parent. The lazy but ambitious parent. They may request special attention, feel their children need to be challenged more, give teachers pointers on their teaching, make excuses for their children not completing their assignments, advise house parents on communication skills, want their children to be more competitive, expect school staff to respond to e-mails within the hour, the list goes on.

It’s as though parents send their kids to alternate schools for the right reasons, and then start expecting the wrong things. They think about success. They think in comparisons. They think about milestones, achievements and shiny trophies. It’s like they have already scripted their children’s lives and whatever the child says or feels is irrelevant. Needless to say, children are confused.

I meet them every weekend. I can smell them from a distance.

“Can you give me a list of phrases he can use so his language can become better?” asks one mother. The father is busy looking at the sky, as if to say, “I don’t know how I got here.”

“I am still looking for those,” I say. “Besides, it’s not Math. There is no formula to good writing.”

“But his spellings are so bad! I read his emails and he makes so many mistakes.” She seems flustered by now. She turns to the father.

“It doesn’t matter, as long as he is still writing you long emails and telling you what he feels,” I reply.

They stare at me. “An English teacher who doesn’t care about spellings! That’s weird,” they seem to be thinking.

Another one asks, “So how’s K doing?”

“He’s having fun,” I say. Another stare.

“Give him more work. Tell him what to read. Make him read,” she tells me.

I often wonder, would you tell a doctor or a chef how to do her job? Then why does it become okay to tell teachers?

A third says, “She doesn’t read!  During the holidays, she watches TV all the time or is on Facebook!

“Oh! What do you read?” I ask him.

“Me?”

“Yes. Do you read?”

“Well, I want to, but I hardly get the time with my work,” he says. He seems offended. I have my answer though.

It goes on.

“How’s H doing?”, asks his father.

“I think he has really opened up, and is writing without inhibitions these days. He used to shy from putting words on paper, so this is big,” I say, beaming.

“But his grammar is bad, no?”

When I moved to be an English teacher at a residential school, I came to a bunch of students, even the best of who didn’t know the difference between its and it’s and to whom, books were either fiction or non-fiction.

I could choose to do one of two things: tell them all that was wrong with them, their spellings, their punctuation, their grammar, their sentence construction. Or I could teach them to find their voice, to write without inhibitions, to express their thoughts without the fear of making mistakes.

I chose the latter. I chose well. There was a time when a paragraph would make them groan. Now I give them 500 words and they go, “What? That’s it?”

Here’s the thing. We read words visually. If a child has put a word out there, he/she knows what it means and how to use it. If children are corrected or reprimanded each time they use a wrong spelling, they may fall out of love with words very soon.

To every parent that is constantly dissatisfied with their child, I want to ask this: When was the last time you tried something that scared you? When was the last time you taught yourself how to make a Dragon’s Egg? When did you last read a genre that intimidated you? When did you last tell yourself, ‘I am not very good at X or Y, so let me take an online course.’? When did you last do something knowing fully well that you would get it wrong?

So take some risks. Break some barriers. And don’t tell your children what to do. The best thing you can do for your child is to set them free. Allow them some control over their lives. Ask them what classes they want to take. Give them the opportunity to make some decisions and watch them smile in return.

And above all, listen. Listen when your children speak. When kids feel like their parents truly listen to them (about spotting a nightjar near the art room to the 100 metre race they almost won), they feel more connected. This increases their self-confidence and increases their overall happiness. They are more likely to take healthy risks. They are confident and secure in their decisions. They learn that sometimes people make mistakes, but there is always a chance to right a wrong.

I know that in the age of social media, conversations are old fashioned. But have them. They will last longer than your smartphone.

 (This first appeared as my column in Pune Mirror on 2nd February, 2015. If you have something to share, mail me on mommygolightly@gmail.com)

Kneading. Proving. Waiting. Proving: Of raising loaves and children

My first loaf of bread

I’m the kind of person who will seldom say no to any kind of new experience. I have, in the past, tried several things which may have seemed scary on the surface, but turned out to be fun nevertheless. However I consciously stayed away from baking bread. I’d done my share of cakes, cookies, loaves, cupcakes, muffins, biscuits, pies and crumbles, but always stopped short of bread.

Bread intimidated me. It was too precise, too scientific, too complicated a way of consuming something really simple. There was too much measuring and waiting, kneading and waiting, proving and waiting, thumping and waiting, more proving and waiting. It was too confusing, too much to remember, too long a way to the end of the tunnel. The worst thing was, it was unfixable for the most part if things didn’t turn out the way they were supposed to.

I mean, I could get a cake together from start to finish in half hour. And it was cake at the end of the day! I always got points for it. But bread? It was at best a carrier for something else. Forget it, I thought.

But each time I saw pictures of freshly baked bread on Instagram, it took me to a warm and fuzzy place that cake and cookies couldn’t. It took me home.

But end of last year, I told myself I was too chicken not to try bread and that I had to overcome my bread virginity. I had recipes from friends, but they took too much for granted, I thought. This was a big deal for me. I just buried my head in websites and blogs all day. I typed “bread making for people who are scared of bread” in my search field. I was careful to find really precise instructions. Like sprinkling the yeast on the water as opposed to adding the water to the yeast. I found Aunt B on a budget, a blog that doesn’t make beginners feel left out.

I learnt that yeast is a big deal, and it’s moody, quite unlike baking powder that always does its job. Yeast requires a little thought, a little finesse. After all, it is a living organism; it demands some sensitivity. It has a lot of power, though, causing things to rise and multiply and making all those yummy holes that breathe and look so heavenly in pictures of bread.

But yeast is also powerless without sugar. It can take a while for yeast to wake up and get going, and it’s the sugar that helps the yeast proliferate. If you feed the yeast sugar directly, it can become more active, more quickly.

And just when I thought I learnt a deep truth, I found out that the French have been baking bread without sugar.

I also felt quite clumsy while kneading. There was too much volume, too little hands, I was flustered, sweaty, there was flour on my hair and face, and I wasn’t even in a movie and there was no hunk ringing my doorbell! Finally, after a few hair-splitting minutes which seemed like hours, the dough came together nicely. It sprang back when I made a dent, just as she said it would. I left it to prove. It rose to twice its size, just as she said it would. I punched it and it collapsed. Just as she said it would. Then I made a few slits, sprinkled some water, proved it again, and then shoved it into the oven.

It came out looking like the most divine thing on earth.

I shouted from the rooftop. I took a picture. I shared it. Hell, I can do bread I thought. It was a moment. I mentally ticked off a block that I had in my head and felt lighter, headier.

Now I wanted to raise the bar. I didn’t want to be the harried woman who had flour in her hair. I wanted to look elegant, like my friend Maria always does while baking. I wanted clean hands, an unruffled face. I wanted poise and Zen. I wanted it all.

Make a hole in the flour. Pour the yeast mixture and a tablespoonful of oil and mix it all with a fork, she said. No hands. She looked so effortless doing it. And her hair was all in place.

Next, I wanted to try cinnamon rolls.

Everything that had to go wrong went wrong. As I kneaded, the dough kept multiplying like some demon on drugs and flying in all directions. I began to wonder if it would ever come together. At some point, I wanted to fling the dough into the garbage. I thought of all the yummy, buttery, cinnamon sugary goodness that went into it, and the best King Arthur’s bread flour and Fleishman’s yeast I had carted all the way from the U.S on my last trip. Finally, in disgust, I just rolled the dough into four balls and dunked it in the oven. I gave it some brutal slits. Half an hour later, it smelt divine. An hour later, I opened the oven with much trepidation. It looked good to me. It was edible. I just had to call it something else.

Re rejected it. “How can it be a bun when it tastes like biscuit?” he said.

Okay, call it a bread biscuit, I said.

The next day, I had some students over. I put my Cinnamon Rocks in front of them. They polished it, no questions asked.

That’s the thing about parenting. You know a little each time, but you never know enough. And sometimes, things don’t rise, or come together. And just when you think you’ve cracked it, you have to go back to the drawing board.

(This post first appeared as my column in Pune Mirror on 26th January, 2015. If you see more connections between bread and raising kids, email me on mommygolightly@gmail.com)