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)

When The Happy Child meets the Big Yellow Bus

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“What’s my spelling mamma?” Re asked me a few weeks ago. I remember him asking me the same thing last year, but I didn’t want him to think of letters as mere symbols; besides I didn’t think there was any rush for him to learn the alphabet (and I still don’t). I was enjoying him being a child –singing, dancing, doing things with his hands, painting, pretend-cooking, building stuff.

School made me nervous. It still does. Of course, children love numbers and letters, but we don’t know what they are thinking when they play with them. We are all too eager to box them as “Knows 1-100” or “Can read five-letter words” or some such. We love it when we outsource our kids to the ‘big yellow bus’ or the ‘big school’. It’s as though we are eager to homogenize our kids.

Re eventually learnt to write his name on his own, perhaps from his teacher, and every once in a while, he writes and shows it to me. Now he can count numbers, recognize letters and each time he does it, he looks at me for approval. Slowly, but insidiously, he was becoming part of the system. The system that trains kids to look for affirmation and productizes children, pretending to teach them, so that they all fit into neat little boxes and stay like that until they fit into society.

Coincidentally, Re’s first year of formal ‘learning’ also coincided with my first year of formal ‘teaching’. Much as I love working with my teenaged kids and treating them to new literary experiences, words and ideas, I still flinch when I am asked what I teach.  Every time I enter a class, I wonder, “Am I really teaching them something? Or am I just holding their hand while they are learning?” I prefer to think it’s the latter, and I hope my students think the same too. A few were concerned that I wasn’t talking about ‘important’ things like ‘grammar’ and ‘tenses’ and various terms they thought they needed to know about. At the end of the term, I asked them how they felt. “Awesome, Akka, we had fun!” they said. My heart was full.

Once a week, I also take a class with the preschoolers and it’s a whole different experience from the older kids I work with. They are more open to telling me what they want to do and directing me to do it. Last week, they wanted to fly. We spoke about wings and flying and soon, they wanted to make their own planes. I asked them to draw theirs on the board. The drawings were amazing, but what startled me was that each child wrote their name correctly in the plane they drew. They were almost proud of it.

Perhaps writing one’s name is a signifier of the fact that you are on the road to education, that you are climbing the first steps of literacy, that you are trying to fit into the world of grown-ups,  that you are trying to belong. It made me sad. I could see the natural child in them diminishing already. And this was not even a mainstream school!

I thought I was going cuckoo, but I found the articulation for what I felt when I started reading The Happy Child: Changing The Heart Of Education. In this thought-provoking  book,  Steve Harrison ventures outside the box of traditional thinking about education. His idea is: Children naturally want to learn, so let them direct their own education in democratic learning communities where they can interact seamlessly with their neighborhoods, their towns, and the world at large. ‘The Happy Child’ suggests that a self-motivated child who is interdependent within a community can develop the full human potential to live a creative and fulfilling life.

I was recently on a parenting talk show on television where one mother proudly declared that she had enrolled her son in playgroup at 10 months; another said learning the alphabet was the most natural thing that happened to her children.  I felt out of place for crying hoarse that children have no business to learn the alphabet at age 4. Something was seriously wrong with the world, I thought.

I asked my students what they would really want to learn if they could choose. I got some delicious answers. Life-hacking. Doodling. Carpentry. Water-color. Origami. Ballet. Ventriloquism.  Cooking. Astronomy. Designing a room. Being a performance artist. Stand-up comedy. Story-telling. Writing (ah, at least I am somewhat relevant, I thought)

One of the necessary evils of teaching is that sooner or later, you have to put children in boxes and label them. Writing reports makes me uncomfortable. Putting a child in one box just ensures that unless they do something drastic, they are stuck there, and even when they do, it is always for the parents or their teachers, never for themselves. I wonder why aren’t children ever asked to rate teachers? If learning is a direct result of all teaching, why are we rating the learners and not the teachers? It’s the same feeling I used to have whenever some prospective employer asked me for my resume. I used to think, “Well, you want me to work for you, so may I have your resume too?”

But in the end, if children truly want to learn, there is no teaching, as Steve Harrison points out. When there are enough questions, the answers are not important.  If only we as adults learn how not to choreograph our child’s learning. Because every child, if left to explore can discover his/her passion May be that’s the only way to create a happy child.

Please email me on mommygolightly@gmail.com if you’d like to share your thoughts.

(This post first appeared as my column in Pune Mirror on 12th January, 2015)

 

All I needed to know about children, I learnt from cats

photo(13)I had mothered several cats by the time I had a child and I can now say with full confidence that it did help me understand children — who they are, what they think, how they feel and how we, as adults often don’t get them at all. To explain this further, I have come up with 21 things a child (or a cat) would tell an adult if it could.

1) Do not talk about me like I’m not in the room. Even if you are saying something praise-worthy or applauding me for always finishing the food on my plate. It’s very annoying and makes me feel inconsequential.

2) There is no need to say “Good job!” or “Good boy!” to every little thing I do. It’s patronizing. Plus, I’m not a dog.

3) Do not keep staring at me while I’m asleep or taking photos of my thighs and other body parts and posting on social media. It’s embarrassing.

4) There is no need to constantly engage in talk with me. When I need to talk to you, I will make it amply clear.

5) While on the subject of talking. Baby talk is for babies. When adults do it, it sounds downright ridiculous.

6) I know what crows, cows, pigeons look like. So stop pointing at every neighborhood species and calling out to them.

7) I may be clingy sometimes, and when I do, I make it amply known, so please don’t pick me up every time. I feel incompetent when you do that.

8) Don’t expect me to be polite to your moronic friends. Especially those who pull my cheeks and ask me inane questions like what did I learn in school and what songs do I know.

9) Tell the same moronic friends not to ask me if I want a chocolate each time they see me. Heavens! One would think I have never seen a chocolate in my life.

10) When I’m in a bad mood, leave me alone.

11) Try and not compare me with anyone else. What they say or do, how much they read or write, or what they eat or don’t. I am me. I am me-er than me.

12) Never ever try to wake me up just to announce that you have arrived. I haven’t missed much.

13) When I say something, I mean it, so try not to confuse me.

14) Do not move my stuff. There is careful thought and planning behind how I keep my things.

15) Stop taking selfies with me. I know I make you look good, but have some self-respect.

16) There is no need to speak so slowly each time you address me. I have moved to 20 word sentences and know what seven plus three is.

17) Don’t give me choices which are the same thing. I know your tricks. I read that silly book too.

18) Don’t try and convert a chore into an adventure. I can tell the difference. I wasn’t born yesterday.

19) Stop being so chirpy around me. It makes me nervous and puts undue pressure.

20) When you introduce me to a relative, please tell them I bite. Even if I don’t.

21) Always look at me when I’m talking to you. Not at the television. Not at your dumb smart phone!

(The above post first appeared as my column in Pune Mirror on 24th November, 2014)

 

Mix-and-match rhymes and other toddler pleasures

Just when I was thinking that the nursery rhymes of yore need a serious bit of overhauling, Re comes up with a remix version. Actually, I didn’t even realise it was a remix until I paid careful attention to the words and realised how he had been a Bappi Lahiri (or is it Anu Malik) and done it so as to make it look like his own. Here is one sample:

Ba  ba  black sheep

Eeyah eeyah oh!

Eating sugar?

Eeyah eeyah oh!

Husha husha, all fall down!

The OPU suggested we break his bubble and tell him what belongs where, so he knows his nursery rhymes right. I disagreed. “He will soon grow up and do things as they are meant to be done. How about enjoying his mind, unadulterated as it is now?”

Silence.

To tell you the truth, the mix-up gives me the kicks. I took a really long time to think out-of-the-box. I am glad Re has started much earlier.

Today is Janmasthami (his favourite icon Krishna’s birthday), and his play school wanted him to come traditionally dressed. Now, much as he loves his dhoti-kurta on any given day, it was tantrum time today. It was either dhoti and a t-shirt or nothing at all. The maid looked like she was hit by a thundercloud. “How can he dress like this when everyone else will come dressed traditional?” She whined.

“He can,” I said.

He did.

I wish I had broken the rules much earlier than I did.

How a sheep turned into a cow

Re and I are doing our Lift-the-flap routine as we do every morning. He quizzes me by lifting each flap in one such book and asking me what it is.

Re: Mamma, dis dis.. (points to a sheep)

Me: Sheep sheep

Re (annoyed): No mamma, dis dis. Mamma, say!!!

Me: Sheep sheep, Re. It’s a sheep!

Re (now convinced his mother is a moron): Mamma!!!! Sayyyy! Cow cow!

And thus a sheep turns into a cow. Or a rhinoceros into a hippo. Or a hippo into a pig.