Is your reality getting in the way of your child’s imagination?

child's imagination

Mermaids are just the beginning of a child’s imagination

I have always believed that a child’s imagination is a place where anything can and must be allowed to happen. But earlier last week, Re came home one day and said, “Mamma, teacher said that there are no fairies. And no mermaids also.”

My heart sank. I cried a little. I was angry, disappointed, depressed and sad at the same time. A revelation of this kind can only make a six-year-old’s world come crashing down. I found her words not just insensitive, but also dangerous. But I had to do something about the damage, although I could sense that Re’s voice was incredulous even as he said it.

“May be she hasn’t met a fairy called Imagination,” I said.

Re has never asked me if fairies, unicorns, mermaids exist. He just believes they do, and I have never, for the purpose of “letting him know the truth”, told him that things like that are only fantasy. I hope he never loses his sense of wonder, his inner fairy, and most importantly, his ability to fantasise. Because I don’t believe one must take fantasy lightly. And I don’t really know what the “truth’ is. 

Exchanging stories with your child is a key part of parenting; Re tells me his, I tell him mine, we read some together and nurture our little world of wonder. And how can we tell good stories if we don’t believe in fantasy? It’s our prop, our muse, something that comes to our rescue each time, even after we are all grown up. 

Oh, the things a child’s imagination can do!

When we discovered rainbows, Re began finding rainbows everywhere. In bubbles we blew. In petrol trails drenched with water. In doors, windows, streams, elevators. He found them in different shapes. Triangles, squares. octopus-shaped. Even a circle rainbow (we spotted a sundog last year from our school campus). For months, he only drew rainbows. It opened up a whole new world for him. It made our home a happier place. We are still looking for our pot of gold and we believe it exists.

C.S. Lewis once wrote a letter to his granddaughter about The Chronicles of Narnia that began:

My Dear Lucy,

I wrote this story for you, but when I began it I had not realised that girls grow quicker than books. As a result you are already too old for fairy tales, and by the time it is printed and bound you will be older still. But someday you will be old enough to start reading fairy tales again…

I think I am. I had reached that point where I felt too old to believe in miracles. Growing up with Re has made me believe in fairies all over again. And for that, I am thankful. He is six now, and I have already started to feel that he is growing up too fast. Very soon, he will be “too old” to build his dream castles, wear his mermaid suit, make Playdoh dresses and picnic with his princesses and fairies. He will soon be too grown up for his own good. He will soon morph into a person that says, “I’m-too-old-for-fairies!’. And yes, he will lose some of his wonder. But as a mother, I don’t want to be the person who led him there. I don’t want to be his fantasy-squasher. If that makes me an over-indulgent, removed-from-reality mother, so be it.

The gift of wonder and imagination is the right of every child and we have no business to deny them that. Because our thoughts, ideas and more importantly, our imagination are just another dimension of who we are. And whenever I lose hope, I remember this by Roald Dahl:

“And above all, watch with glittering eyes the whole world around you because the greatest secrets are always hidden in the most unlikely places. Those who don’t believe in magic will never find it.”

For all those who told me to not read happily-ever-after stories to my child, including teachers at school, I have this to say: Sometimes our reality hinders us from believing in love and wonder, but that doesn’t mean we stop our children from believing in it. The fact that we have started listening to TEDtalks on how to dream and how to imagine explains that we are already bankrupt in our minds as a race.

So I am going to allow him to dream for as long as his heart will allow him. If we believe that things don’t exist just because we haven’t seen them, that’s bordering on arrogance. I really worry for us as people. I worry for his teacher too. As a start, I wrote her a note:

“Dear teacher. I know you don’t believe in mermaids or fairies, but we do. And maybe you should give it a shot as well. Because the world would be such a boring place if we didn’t believe in magic.”

She hasn’t replied to it. But if she says, “I don’t believe in fairies,” one more time, I am going to unleash some bad pixie dust on her. And introduce her to a certain Miss Tinkerbell.

Meanwhile, Re and I are working on spreading pixie dust all over the world. And we need all the help we can get.

(A version of this post appeared as my column in Pune Mirror on 16th August, 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)

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)

 

Dear Amma. Happy Teacher’s Day!

For me teacher’s day is as much about teachers as it is about my mother. My mother was a teacher for 38 years. She loved her job and never tired of narrating anecdotes from her class or school to us on a daily basis. Two open heart surgeries later, she is still the most enthu cutlet I have ever known, and her stories never end.

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At 4 feet 10 inches, she could barely scale half the black board, yet she stood tall, and commanded pin-drop silence (a much abused term in our school days)

She treated all her students equally and never played favorites, unlike other teachers I knew who only favored the ‘bright ones’. Her heart was always where the underdog was, and I still remember one instance towards the close of her career when I returned from work and she wanted my advice on something.

They had a fancy dress competition that day, and the boy who won (by popular votes) had performed an elaborate KBC gig. But she felt there was another boy who did a Kader Khan as beggar gig and he was outstanding, yet didn’t even make it to runner-up. She felt it was her duty, as a teacher, to celebrate him. “Should I give him a prize on my own anyway?,” she wondered. “But then that wouldn’t look good, as it would seem I am not supportive of the school’s judgement,” she answered herself. When Amma asked questions, you never supplied answers. She knew them, but she just had to say them aloud, so they sounded right. I learned this about her pretty soon. I am like that too.

So she decided to celebrate him the next day. She asked him to stand in front of the class and asked the class to clap for him as he had given a really good performance, and so what if he didn’t win a prize? The boy surprised her by saying, “I never did it for the prize teacher, I did it because I like to do it.”

She cried a little that night when she told us about this boy. She was so proud of him.  Sometimes we were even jealous of how much she cared for her students.

The first time she was diagnosed with a heart complication (her mitral valve had degenerated to 80% and she needed immediate surgery), the cardiologist who performed her Color Doppler (a scan) turned out to be her student. He was so moved, that he was getting to treat his own teacher. She was so proud that someone she taught was now treating her. She told him she was okay with the surgery as long as she didn’t have to wear a silly hospital gown.  They laughed. I cried.

I once found my “Black Beauty” copy missing when I was in class four and when probed, she told me she had gifted it to one of her students. “She writes so well. She wrote a poem about a horse that was beautiful. I know the school doesn’t award prizes for poetry, but I thought she would really appreciate a book about a brave horse.”

But like most of the great teachers in the world, she never stopped being a student. My mother learned to make the most elegant, free-of-lumps sabudana khichdi from her student Prasanna. She also learned to bake her trademark sponge cake from him. She learnt to make torans with beads from another student. That year, enough torans were made for the entire family.

She was gregarious and easy-going, but when she meant business, everyone knew. Once she couldn’t find the duster in the classroom and wanted to erase what was written on the board. She sounded off the entire class, telling them how they ought to be responsible not just for their own things, but the space around them, and treat the classroom as their own and look after it. The entire class heard her in silence. They had seen the duster in her hand, underneath the book she was holding. One girl piped up and muttered softly, “But teacher, the duster is in your hand”.  She laughed a lot that day.

A few years back, to ease her into retired life, I got her into writing. She would write for HT Café,  a paper I used to work for, and I often had dry days when there were pages to fill and not enough content. I began to give her assignments. She was thrilled that someone would actually read what she wrote.  She would eagerly wait for the next assignment, and one day, they dried up, as the paper cut down pages drastically.

Every time Re returns from my mother’s house, he has learnt a new mantra, or how to clean methi or how to string flowers into a garland. She in turn is learning about the adventures of Maya the Bee and Winnie the Pooh from him, things that were never part of her childhood. And I watch fondly as teacher and student trade places with such ease.

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Love letter to a school

lovelettertoschoolphotoI did a little jig when Re started school a year ago. There was no separation anxiety. There was the settling in of course, but I was more than happy to take it slow.  “The smoother the transition, the more long-term it is” they told me. Yes, there were tears — sometimes his, sometimes mine, but I knew it would pass, because I so badly wanted it to.

When I left him and got out the gate after a week of hand-holding, I smiled to myself and walked out, not turning back. I had to celebrate. I had got a child school-ready. To me, that was big. I went out and got myself a coffee and a doughnut. I read 53 pages of a book at a stretch. I watched a movie alone. It was like a part of me had made a comeback.

And then one day, just when I thought it was all sorted, he woke up and told me, “I don’t want to go to school. I want to be with you.” I was putty all over again. And that’s the trouble with parenting. It doesn’t have an expiry date.

Being a stay-at-home mommy is often lonely. But being alone is still a luxury. Sometimes you wish the child would sleep, so you could read. Or write. Or that the child would be quiet so you could talk. Or just listen to something other than his voice. Or that the child would not ask you to supervise every bit of artwork he did. Or read every book in the shelf. Or ask you to push his jhoola in the park. Over and over again (for me that is still a low point).

The thing about love is that too much of it can be claustrophobic. People need to go away so they can come back. We need to not talk for a while so we still have enough for a conversation later. We need silence so that there is room for words.

School absolves you of some of the dirty work. It makes me look like less of a bad guy. “We must not eat lollipop, othewise our teeth will get dirtttty,” Re said one day. I smiled. Someone else had taken over, even if it was for a short time.

There are rituals of course. The thing about the uniform. “I want to wear clothes,” Re would say. “I don’t want to wear unaaaform.” The thing about hair. And grooming. The thing about shoes. The thing about regimentation.

School talks about germs, habits, manners and cleanliness, the importance of order and repetition and discipline and all those dark, dingy areas. The importance of “No.”

School also addresses issues of jurisdiction, which are too black and white for me. It makes the trivial look important. Like putting stuff away, getting in line, listening. It is about finiteness, beginnings and endings. It is like something that fits into a box. A box I so badly needed when I was struggling to be my own person again.

Teachers have a peek into a universe that perhaps you don’t. When you are too close, your universe collides and sometimes it’s hard to see beyond the intersection. My mother was a school teacher for 36 years before he retired. She would talk fondly about her students, they would discuss recipes, trees and fantasies – things perhaps the children never discussed with their parents.  She never had a dull day in her job. But as a mother, I would be debilitated if I had to do everything the teachers have to do. I am not brave enough to homeschool.

Every hour you spend away from your child is an hour for self-renewal. You need to deconstruct. Reconstruct. Reclaim your space. You need to become whole again, because motherhood sometimes makes you fall to pieces. There is also marriage, which suddenly, is not as invisible as it used to be.

When he started taking the school bus six months ago, I did an even bigger jig. No more hanging out with sad mommies always complaining about maids and other demons in their life. I began to get good at incentives. First there was the bus cookie. A cookie that only children who make it on time to the bus got. Then there was Sheroo and Sher Khan, the local resident strays, one or both of whom would hang around Re, waiting for the bus. There were leaves to be picked up, autos to count, birds to spot.

The last time we missed the bus and I dropped him to school, I found his hand loosen in my grip the minute we entered the gate. Two seconds later, he was gone. “Please turn, please turn,” I said to myself. He did, and blew me a kiss. And that’s when I realised that he was just not in school. School was in him. And so yes, I don’t miss him when he is away, and I do look forward to seeing him go away every day.

 

This piece first appeared as my column in the Indian Express on 10th February 2013. For older columns, click here