On phonics, bullying, art and why Neil Gaiman always has the answers

Scene 1:

The other day, I was at the library with Re and I saw another mother and child, sitting beside each other. Libraries always make me think of this piece by Neil Gaiman and smile. So here, a mother was reading to her child. Correction: Child was reading and mother was facilitating. Correction: Child was trying to read and mother was interrupting him every second with, “Tell the sound of the word!”

Normally I have a warm, fuzzy feeling about libraries. Especially children’s libraries, like MCubed, which we are members of.The feeling gets even warmer and fuzzier when parents and children are reading together.

But I am intrigued and confused by phonics for kids. Ever since Re came home and said sh- am- poo one day. A word he surely knew before, but now was saying it in a weird way, I thought. How can breaking something that is whole help in making it a new whole?

Something happened between my childhood and Re’s childhood. Phonics happened. What was this strange way kids were learning these days, I wondered. I looked at his books for the first time. I felt dizzy. I called Maria. She said, “Stay out of it. You will thank me one day.”

I took her advice. She is one of those people I always listen to. No questions asked.

These days, Re and I are best friends. I never ask him about homework or school work or sounds of words. But we talk about everything and discover new words every day. I am just the cool mom who takes him swimming and to the library every week.  Sometimes we go on rainbow hunts and make cards for people and post them.

I am a new kind of hands-on and I love it.

Scene 2:

Re came home with a note one day. It said he had been chosen for an inter-school art competition. I jumped so high, I almost hit the fan. I immediately got on to the Whataspp mommy group that I had muted (for a year) and shared the news. Who else is in, I asked, excited, plotting future art play dates with artsy mommies.

Stunned silence. No reply. I rebooted my phone. Still no reply.

When I checked for the third time, the other conscientious mommies on the group were busy discussing Olympiad and Hindi homework and other such ‘more important’ stuff.

I felt like a badass who was excited about art. I suddenly felt like a bit of an activist about art being considered a ‘co-curricular’ activity and vented on social media.

Many moms and dads jumped in saying, “Of course they do art in school; they also do plays and sing songs and what not. What are you saying?” A mother of a toddler informed me it is part of ICSE. (No less, mind you)

They obviously hadn’t heard me screaming, “But why is it called co-curricular?” And yes, I know that bit about art being the choice for sixth subject in class nine, because I taught in a school. It still doesn’t say much about the state of our curricula.

It’s very hard to make parents think about why they do what they do. So I give up, and celebrate the child and his art and we draw ten more ‘wainbows’

Scene 3:

Re tells me about being hit regularly by a boy in his class. This is not new. It is not the first time he has been hit/bullied and I am a bit depressed and sad.  I tell him to say he doesn’t like it the next time it happens or inform the teacher. What else is one to do, I wonder. Hitting back has never been an option for Re and I don’t want to be the one to suggest it. 

I peep once again into the (still muted) Whatsapp mommy group conversations so see if I can pick up a thread from there. Perhaps they are also discussing behaviour and other issues? No. They are busy sending cheesy Raksha Bandhan forwards or discussing lost and found Math books. And more homework. I run. 

Scene 4:

Re tells me once again about being hit by the same boy and now my maternal instinct takes over strongly. I track down the mother of the boy who starts out being all understanding although intrigued by my concern, because “no one has ever complained about Y before”. I mumble something about how there is always a first time which doesn’t make sense even to me. A few minutes later, she texts to say her son has denied doing any such thing. I then do the unmentionable of saying perhaps he is not speaking the truth because he has been cornered. All hell breaks loose. She then sends me a long list of things I am doing wrong (thankfully encouraging my child to make art is not one of them). I shudder. I write a note to the teacher asking her to change Re’s place of seating, and she obliges. I have learned the art of “this will do for now.” Re teaches me how to make dresses from playdoh. 

make good art

Art is the answer

Scene 5:

My first PTM meeting at Re’s big school and I don’t have a list of question or concerns as I wait my turn and overhear another mother going over the progress of her daughter subject by subject and thinking about how little I know about what he is ‘learning’ in school. Then I think about the art we made and the laps we swam and the books we read and castles and rainbows we drew and feel better.

When my turn comes, I quickly rush through the interaction, while mentioning concerns of the alleged bullying. The teacher explains that Re is an extremely ‘well-behaved” child and the other child is a very “vibrant and expressive” child and so there is a clash of personalities.

It makes sense to me for 30 seconds and then I wonder. Is a well-behaved child really a cause for concern? When did it start being the exception and not the norm? And when did ‘vibrant’ become a euphemism for ‘aggressive’?

I don’t seek answers to these questions. Instead I quickly ask for directions to the art room so I can meet the art teacher.

As Neil Gaiman would say, when everything fails, Make Good Art.

(A version of this post appeared as my column in Pune Mirror on 31st August, 2015)

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Is anyone teaching kindness?

I have been there before. I am at the play area watching Re bake a fresh mudcake, lace it with leaves and petals, when in marches a tiny bully. I almost see an evil gleam in his eye as he stomps all over Re’s creation, kicking some sand in his face. Re doesn’t know whether he is crying because of the sand in his eyes or the fact that his creation has been destroyed. The meltdown that ensues is entirely my problem of course, because the other child’s parent is just looking blank-faced, as if to suggest this is what children do.

Re has always been a softie, he never attacks or hits back, and perhaps his innate gentleness has something to do with growing up around animals. He has however regularly got bullied, from as early as nine months. His kindness seems old-fashioned when I see other kids around him, and I am supposedly living in what one could call utopia. I often feel tempted to ask Re to fight back, but then I realize he would really wonder what was wrong with me.

I have often wondered whether a child is inherently good-natured or whether it is a trait that can be developed. What makes little kids mean, and why are some meaner than others? Is it inherited, is it what they are watching or eating, is it their home environment? I don’t really have the answers, but I do know that kindness needs to be taught as much as survival skills.

However, teaching children to care about others is not simple. Kindness also needs practice. It doesn’t come from nowhere. Kindness is more show than tell. Our children are always watching us, and most of what they learn is by observing. I realize I need to pay special attention to how I interact with family members, friends, the invisible people and the world at large. Re is quick to point at my “angry voice” or “shouty voice” from time to time. I guess I am the shrew he was born to tame.

If you linger long enough around kids, inevitably someone ends up being teased, left out of a game, or bossed around. It’s as if children are constantly testing out being nice, mean, or silly to see how their peers react. Preschool, the stage where Re is at, is a time when kids begin to figure out group dynamics. When I watch them, it’s obvious that a lot of the insults, grabbing, and put-downs are part of this experimentation. If I do x, will my friend do y? And if a child gets his way by intimidating, he/she may just raise the bar.

Very often, children display complete disregard for the feelings of others and unless the other person displays overt signs of hurt, don’t even notice it. On the other hand, I often see parents monitoring their kids’ moods all the time. Why are you sad today? Are you upset about something? This obsession with their feelings makes children think about themselves constantly, and not about that new kid in their class who is lonely, or that one who is being bullied.

When we focus too much on our children’s feelings and too little on their behavior towards others, we are also telling them that we value their feelings over others’ and that is a dangerous situation.

There has been a steady but palpable bullying movement in the school where I teach. Yes, things are still camouflaged as groupism and not very overt or malignant, but there are sure signs. Whenever I meet student parents, they are all eager to know about their children – how well they are doing, how much have they progressed, what can they do to get even better at their work. No one is asking about their behaviour. I recently met the mother of a bully who was in complete denial that her son could even be one. It’s as though everything right about him was his doing and everything wrong with him was always someone else’s fault.

Parenting is a long ride and each of our kids will encounter (sometimes even be) the meanies of the world. It’s tempting to jump in and save our kids from every negative encounter. But if we even vaguely understand where the meanness is coming from, maybe we can make sense of it in our own minds, treat it as a part of growing up, and ultimately help them to be kind and compassionate people.

Last week, Re came to me with yet another dilemma:

“Mamma, sometimes M hugs me so tight, I feel I am going to fall.”

“So tell her not to.”

“I did, but she doesn’t listen.”

“So try and push her away gently.”

“But pushing is not a nice thing, no?”

The beautiful thing about parenting is that sometimes, your children show you how to be the person you wish you were.

(This post first appeared as my column in Pune Mirror on 19th January, 2015. You can email me on mommygolightly@gmail.com if you wish to share your thoughts)