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)

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Walking the parenting talk

Parenting is perhaps the only job in the world that you figure out as you go along. For everything else, you would need some kind of training, a degree or at least abundant knowledge.

It’s no wonder then, that we are often at a loss for what to say or do in a particular situation (and there are thousands of them) with children. Yes, even those of us who write parenting columns, blogs or books usually have no clue. Unlike marriage and relationships, of which we read a fair bit before going to the deep end, we dive straight in with parenting, knowing fully well that there are no life vests.

When we find ourselves fumbling, we reach out to social media, parenting fora, facebook groups, blogs, books and such like. I believe there’s money to be made from parenting workshops these days too.

I have done my fair share of reading up whenever I have had situations at home, and they continue with alarming consistency as the years go by.

It took me five years, but I finally figured out what is wrong with books like “How to talk so kids listen” and other such. Like every other parent looking for answers and afraid to ask questions, I read the book, cover to cover. I also tried a few exercises from the book diligently. I followed instructions and waited for results.

It seemed like Re had read it before me; sometimes it even felt like he wrote it.

And then the truth finally dawned on me.

Fact #1 Children are not listening to your words. They are listening to your actions.

Sometimes, your actions and your words are in two entirely different orbits. When you are not walking the parenting talk, your child can see right through it. Parenting is show, not tell.

I have been meeting quite a few parents of students, ever since I became a teacher and some conversations are deeply insightful while others leave me wondering how parents can expect their children to be a certain way when they are creating an environment for the exact opposite. Like expecting them to read when they don’t or expecting them to excel in a sport or instrument when they haven’t as much as lifted their buttocks to do so themselves. Or expecting them not to watch television when they are self-proclaimed couch potatoes.

They all seem to have different stories with similar subtexts. “They don’t listen,” is a common peeve of parents about their children. The ones with kids who don’t read want them to read. The ones who read are expected to read something else, something classic, something ‘cerebral’.

Fact #2.: Children pay more attention to what adults say to each other, than what we say to them.

We constantly expect our children to make good choices and do the “right thing,” but they need to hear us talk it out, getting a sense of the way we think or reason and see us follow our own words. When parents are ambivalent about themselves, they induce children to disregard verbal messages entirely. If you are constantly whining about your life or your job but are doing nothing to change your universe, the child is bound to feel that whining is an acceptable state to be in, and may often use it as a strategy to get things done.

 

Fact #3 Children are always watching us.

While we are trying hard to camouflage our anger through strategy, they are watching us; while we play the one-upmanship game in parenting with our partners, they are watching; while we mutter curses under our breath at raging drivers, they are watching; and while we chat with our friends on the phone, dissing this or that, they are watching us.

In fact, every time we “tell” our kids to do something, we are really showing them how to do something else. When we yell at them in anger, we are showing them how to get someone to listen to us.

A few days back, I tried to shoo away a stray cat who broke into my house and got into a fight with our house cat, Bravo.
Re saw this and was confused. “Why did you use shouty voice at that cat?”, he asked.
“Because he was being mean to Bravo,” I blurted, without much thought.
Re thought for a bit and then said, “Mamma, I think if we give some food to the mean cat, it won’t be a mean cat any more.”

We think parenting is a set of things we do or don’t do in order to produce children who do/don’t do a set of things. But most of the time, our children give us the cues and lead the way. I think we can be better parents by learning to grow down instead of helping our kids grow up. It has worked for me.

 

(This post first appeared as my column in Pune Mirror on 18th August, 2014)