The kids are okay. The parents need some happiness shots.

I see them, sulking into the distance, or staring vacantly at the heap of energy that is their child in the pool. Sometimes I see them not even looking up once from their smartphones while the child is at play. Once in a while, I see them peering into a book, catching up on their reading, as their child builds sand castles, skates or free-plays in the park. They have this look of ‘why me?” that I cannot understand.

I used to see this at the Montessori when I went to drop Re. It was touch and go at the gate for some of them, while the child still wanted to wave a slow good bye, be held for just a little longer, be kissed just one more time. But no. They were in a rush to get to their offices and gyms and accomplish nobler tasks.

Why do parents look so grumpy? Why does it always appear that they want to fast-forward childhood? After all, they are young as long as the kids are young, aren’t they? How does growing up make anything easier? I know every child is work on loop, some more than the others, but then it’s not the neighbour’s child. It’s yours. And then one day you will say they shouldn’t have grown up so soon.

I have been a stay-at-home mother for four of Re’s almost six years and I know it’s hard. I know it’s several tasks on autopilot. I know that even if you have help, it doesn’t make it easier. I know that even if you have your mother around, there are still negotiations on a daily basis. I know that outsourcing is easier said than done. But still. When my child is out there, having fun, the least I can do is not look like I have been punished.

The strange part is, these are activities that the parent has clearly chosen for their child, whether it is a summer camp, or an activity class or a hobby class or whatever they call it these days. So why do parents look so miserable and bored when they accompany their children to these things, whether it’s swimming, dancing, skating, music or tennis? In all these years, I have rarely seen a parent who is there, in the moment (I go back to the power of now, I know) while their child is indulging in something he/she is having fun with. I see them taking photos, yes, but I rarely see undiluted joy or eagerness or even mild curiosity. And when I do, it is the most heartwarming sight.

Some look like they have been hit by a thundercloud. Some look like, “Let me just strike this off my list and get on to more, real stuff.” Some look like ‘Well, if I didn’t bring him here, I would have to figure out what to do with him.” Most look like they’d rather be some place else.

I know it’s that time of the year when school, the primary outsourcing model for all parents is closed or on the verge of closing (can’t factor in all the boards, so sorry, you IB fellows). Some of you may have planned your holidays or summer camps or ‘activities’, but most of you may be saddled with ‘what to do with the kids?” Every day, at the pool, I see mothers exchanging notes on where they want to ‘send their kids’. They look at me vacantly. It helps that they don’t know I’m going to write about them.

Of course you can take a vacation, but holidays are easier said than done, given that summers are often a bad time for travelling in India and how far ‘up north’ can you go really? And for how long? And not every one can afford foreign vacations.Two months is a long time (and that’s the average summer break a child gets in India, some get even more) And besides, when you work at an office, ‘privilege leave’ of a grand 21 days hardly seems like a privilege, given that most people have to break it up (for other, important causes like weddings, funerals) and spread it across the year. That means the best it can get is roughly two weeks. Parents who plan their lives better usually have longer holidays together. I didn’t realize my father was investing in us when he was taking us to all those far-out, obscure places every year. Now it all makes sense.

But this summer, I am going to try my hand at some magic. I am going to ask Re to make me a potion (by now, he has mastered the art of making potions from all the witches and dragons that are a part of his universe). The only difference is, it will be a potion of joy and happiness and will have no evil hidden inside. Then I am going to offer it to all the parents that accompany their kids to various activities in summer and say, “Drink up, and smile!”

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When did vacations become such a production?

I am not so sure parents like vacations that much.

For that matter, I don’t think children like them either.

My school just closed for term break and the kids left for their homes last weekend, most of them more lost than excited about the holidays. They know their parents have planned camps and activities for them, and all is they want is to do nothing.

For a few parent-child combinations, where the channels of communication are always open, it is indeed an exciting time of sharing, growth and exploration. More than anything, vacations are time to talk, to connect, to fill in the details that parents or children don’t seem to have the time for in schooldays. But for the majority, it is a time of “What to do with my child/parent?”.

I’m a first-time teacher, so naturally, the thought of vacations brought back memories of my childhood – grandma’s stories, pranks with cousins and train trips to strange places my father always picked. I asked my students what their plans were. A handful of them said they would visit their grandparents, fewer sounded excited about it. Most of them said they would be “Chilling at home” and Facebooking or watching television. It made me shudder. I have already received 12 friend requests on Facebook from students and I am not quite sure what to do with them.

“I hope you have given enough holiday homework,” said a parent, when picking up their child. “Homework? I have given them reading lists, if it helps,” I said.

Call me uninitiated, radical, or plain bohemian, but the words holiday and homework have no business to be in the same sentence. But when I asked around, most teachers had given elaborate homework exercises. A Math teacher said, “It’s better to give them homework, else the parents will send them for tuitions and they will come back learning all the wrong things.” Another one said, “I don’t like it, but the parents ask for it.” A third had drawn up an elaborate excel sheet that looked busier than the school time-table.

Actually it’s less about the homework and more about the parental exasperation of what to do with the child. When did holidays become so dreary? When did children become such a baggage on parents?

I recently unearthed a book from my childhood called “365 games to make and play“. No, my parents didn’t buy it for us, neither did they make a single craft from it with us. The book was gifted by my uncle in his single days, and although I didn’t realise it then, I think it was very far-sighted of him to gift something like that to us. The book lasted us most of our childhood. Last I saw, Re was flipping through its pages, asking me if I would make a bus with him.

During our vacations, we played. All the time. With neighborhood kids, sometimes cousins who came over, anyone. When it was too hot, we stayed indoors and made tents with sheets and umbrellas. We listened to the radio. We couldn’t afford a television until much later. We slid down the stairs or banisters on pillows or old mattresses. Our parents were not responsible for scheduling us during our holidays. And I don’t remember getting holiday homework ever.

Times have changed now. Vacations have turned into a grand production. And so has life. Our children are the audience and they keep raising the bar for entertainment. Parents are constantly looking for every sliver of opportunity to outsource their children, make them someone else’s problem. More often than not, they end up outsourcing them to a screen. And then they complain that the children don’t talk, or tell them anything, or make friends.

Our childhood vacations was about allowing boredom to happen to you. My mother was a teacher, so would be home for the holidays, but she was industrious enough to pack it with things she wanted to learn . Sometimes it was baking, sometimes sewing, sometimes patchwork, sometimes etching. Whenever we said we had nothing to do, my mother would be prompt in handing us a chore. “Here, cut these flower shapes out for my patchwork,” she would say. Or better still, “Want to twist a murukku?” Or the scary, “How about cleaning the cobwebs?”

I look back on those times and smile. I can still recall what it felt like to have carefree fun. But very few parents actually believe in allowing kids to play freely – and allowing them to be bored and figure out what to do with that boredom. Are we creating a generation of children who cannot find beauty in the mundane? Joy in the ordinary? I think there is something to be said for balancing the knowledge children acquire 8-9 months of the year with some downtime to help their minds relax and function better. To that end, holiday homework is counter-productive.

So this vacation, try not to fill your child’s life with ‘things to do’. Be there for them – even if it’s for a few hours a day, in a manner that involves not jumping to check that ping on your Whatsapp. Allow them some old-fashioned boredom. You never know where it will take them.

 

(This post first appeared as my column in Pune Mirror on 20th Oct, 2014)