Keeping calm while mommying on

BOOK REVIEW

I have been allergic to How to be a better parent.. kinda books for a while, especially  after realizing that no matter what you do, the universe (read: your child) has another plan. One book that put me off completely was How to talk so kids listen which almost reduced children to a scientific experiment at best. Although I remember I was quite taken in in the early days and even tried to implement bits like: “Would you like to tidy your play area before lunch or after it?”

At some point, I felt like my child wrote the book and had the last laugh.

And then the truth finally dawned on me: Your kids are not listening to your words. They are watching what you do.

So when Duckbill sent me a copy of Keep Calm and Mommy On, by Tanu Shree Singh, I stared at it for a long time, trying to make up my mind whether I really wanted to read (and review) it.

Like most mothers, I have my shouty days and then I have my super Zen and creative days when the child and I are a magical unit. This book is for the shouty days when I say things like, “Breakfast! Now!” Or “Clean up this mess. Chop chop!” and the child stares at me like I were something the TV spewed out if you changed the source from HDMI2  to Component or some such

The book deals with a variety of issues: diversity, sex education, religion, discipline, sibling rivalry, bullying, lying, exams, money (needs and wants) and of course, a large section on reading, given Tanu Shree’s love for books. I wish there was a chapter about the role of the father or anomalies in households, like single-parent households (since she has otherwise covered most ground, including death, which is a conversation we have to prepare for at some stage with our children)

She illustrates her theories with anecdotes from her life raising two teenage boys. I was also pleased that she looked at a few issues from a boy’s lens, because I’m trying to raise a boy too and I believe that raising decent, sensitive, curious boys is what will redeem the world eventually.

Although it reads like a How to…manual for the most part, you cannot fault her checklists. It takes a lot of work to develop a rationale for things that are so intangible, like parenting. Tanu Shree manages that quite well, without ever getting dull or boring.

It’s written in a manner of an expert (which Tanushree is, with a PhD in Positive Psychology): Outlining strategies, presenting options, evaluating them with their pros and cons and finally coming up with an optimal solution that is largely based on listening to your child.

She had me at  Yours sincerely, Santa Claus, a chapter which describes  email exchanges set up between her kids and Santa, that among other things, encourages them to make gratitude lists for the things they have and having open dialogues about life and their ups and downs, all of which is shared with Santa. The point she is driving at is that gifting (or Christmas) is not just about receiving and if we encourage introspection and sharing in our children at the end of the year, Christmas takes on a whole new meaning. I love how they celebrate the Christmas spirit and how her boys (and she) still believe in Santa, despite all the cynicism of the world around them.

Another thing that got me really excited (and moving from chapter to chapter) is the list of books she recommends to tide through a particular issue: like homosexuality, diversity, etc. If I was not such a book purist, I would have ripped off those pages and stuck them on my book shelf as: “Books to buy. Now!”

I think we all make fairly good mothers (or good enough mothers) for the most part, but what we struggle with most often is consistency. At least I do.  This book is just about how to wing that: through openness, respect, comfort and trust – all two way streets and I could not agree with her more. This is a parenting book that doesn’t make you want to climb walls. That doesn’t make you feel that you have just been fumbling around all this while (even though you think you have)

The bottom line of course is: “Talk to your kids”. So while she’s written the book, it’s still your job to do the talking.

And you don’t have to wait until Christmas, which is my favorite chapter.

 

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How Eskimoes Keep Their Babies Warm

It is good to read a book which articulates theories that you always internalised but seldom vocalised in a world of over-scheduled babies and over-zealous parenting. For instance, a lot of my initial parenting seemed to involve integrating our social life with that of the child, and wondering how all of us could have fun while still being together. I knew I had cracked it when, at age eight months, my son was dipping baguettes in tzatziki and making a meal of it, swaying to Black Eyed Peas, while we passed around margarita pitchers at a home brunch. It just felt so democratic.

The first chapter of Mei-Ling Hopgood’s book on parenting wisdom from around the world addresses just this. The case in point is the children in Buenos Aires (where the author lives with her husband and two children), who are allowed to stay up while their parents socialise till hours most of us would frown upon.

The book is an insightful, and often hilarious, account of how parents in different corners of the universe, from Argentina to Tanzania raise their children and there are plenty of ideas that are worth trying (although it’s too late for me to try the Chinese split-crotch trousers for potty-training). By studying ways in which children from different parts of the world eat, sleep, play, fight and work (yes!), Hopgood often makes you want to drop your guard in parenting and adopt tradition and culture as at times the more organic and least invasive way of raising a child.

Another nod moment was my utter scorn for baby food and the resulting empathy for babies who will spit it out because it is so yucky, which leads to my philosophy of “what looks good, tastes good,” a sentiment that resonated in her chapter on ‘How the French teach their children to eat healthy food.’

Apart from her researcher’s thoroughness about the cultures and traditions she has examined, Hopgood rings true because of her voice of self-deprecation and her non-judgemental stand. In her chapter ‘How Aka Pygmies are the best fathers in the world’, she examines stereotypes about where, when and how a father interacts with his children and how a lot of it has to do with biology and environment. She explains how in urban scenarios, very often, women leave very little for the father to do, because they believe they can do it the best. She writes, “From the day of Sofia’s birth, I commanded a slow and steady takeover of her life. I’d interact with the nanny daily, plan out the baby’s diet and do our daughter’s hair. It’s easier, I reasoned.”

Hopgood reveals these ideas through observation, interviews, and experience. And although frequently opposing, each of these child-rearing methods has something you wouldn’t mind trying at least once. Like the idea of four/five-year-old Mayan babies caring for their siblings (something that rang true, as I was an unsuspecting candidate at age four when I was handed twin siblings to look after).

Or how Polynesian children always play without adult involvement and how playing with children is not normal in most cultures. She writes, “I was surprised at the number of cultures in which mum and dad don’t play much — if at all — with their children.”

I found myself making several notes to self through the book. “Must try Japanese method of letting children fight and resolve their own conflicts.” Or “Must try the Mayan method of finding my son a chore that is uniquely his.”

In a world where one-size-fits-all parental advice is still fostered, although it doesn’t work, Hopgood’s analysis on cosmopolitan cultures at least gets you started on thinking out of the baby book box. Because far from the world of diapers and scheduling is another way to parent, which very often is worth trying.

Now to find my four-year-old a job. Mayan style.

Author: Mei-Ling Hopgood

Publisher: Macmillan

Price: Rs 499

Pages: 292

 

(This review was first published in the Indian Express on 23rd March, 2013)