Parenting: The Basics, Revisited in 2012 – Explain

Explain what is going on.

Explain why you said or did what you said or did. Don’t hold it up as an example for your child to emulate. That is a different thing altogether; and one which will take you farther away from your child instead of allowing you to grow closer.

A friend always offered water to anyone visiting his home. He was training his children to do the same. One Saturday evening, his son opened the door to a couple armed with flowers and a huge gift bag. The college friends his parents had been awaiting had finally arrived.

As the child greeted them and ushered them in, his parents came out of their room, and there were effusive greetings on both sides. The boy disappeared into the kitchen. As he brought 2 glasses of water on a tray, his father entered the kitchen and said, “No water for them.” The boy was taken aback. For months now, his dad had been training him and his sister to seat guests, and offer them water. And he was now saying, “No water.”!

His parents got tea underway and he helped put out and serve the snacks. He sat for a while making polite conversation and then made himself scarce. The doorbell signaled the arrival of his sister from her tennis class. She walked into their room and he said, “Dad said not to give them any water.”

“Huh?” she asked, planning what to change into after her shower.  “I’m sure there’s a reason.”

The evening wore on. The children ate dinner and went to bed while the guests were still around. At the breakfast table the next morning, the dad said, “You must’ve wondered when I asked you not to serve them water. You see, they live in the UK, and they have just arrived. They need a few days to adjust to the drinking water in India. Till they do so, drinking even filtered water might make them sick. That’s why I asked you not to offer them water.”

The boy was at peace. He understood what was going on.

There are so many times when we tell our children to behave a certain way. And then, we seem to behave in the opposite way ourselves! There is always a reason for it. Share that reason with your child. Let her see that there is a method to your madness, a specific cause for your saying or doing something a particular way.

When you explain what is going on, you are helping your child in numerous ways:

1. Growing up – In childhood, all the world is in black and white. “This is good; that is bad.” “Do this; don’t do that.” “Be this way; don’t be that way.” But as your child grows, he realizes that these rules don’t apply beyond a point.

Telling a 3-year old not to talk to strangers is fine. Saying the same thing to your 10-year old before sending her off to camp is weird. You don’t want your 10-year old to talk to strangers either. But the definition of the word ‘stranger’ has changed enormously in the 7 years between the ages of 3 and 10. These changes are gradual and ongoing, and your child will be able to learn and deal with them only if you keep explaining the exceptions to her; if you keep adding the shades of grey.

This introduces her to the real world, and prepares her for a real life, where most things are uncertain and unknown, though we like to pretend that we have great control over things. (“If you are ‘good’, then ‘good’ things will happen to you.” Yeah, right! 🙂 )

Real life consists of hundreds of thousands of exceptions. Explain each one to your child as you come across them together.

2. Increasing his capacity to think – It is only when he learns that he needs to keep in mind many things that your child will be able to come up with appropriate responses; only then will he become response-able. Earlier, the rule was simple: guest, seat, offer water. Now, he needs to think about where this guest is from. That creates an acceptable variation in behavior: guest, seat, don’t offer water (if he knows they’ve just come to India from a foreign country).

Slowly, as more variables get added, he will learn to think of all the ifs-and-buts on his own. Is this someone who only drinks boiled water? Is this person recovering from a water-borne disease? Is it the dead of winter and the person is cold and sick, in which case, they’d prefer being offered a hot drink rather than water?…

But your child will think of other options, other factors, other responses only if you explain things to him.

3. Clear confusion – When you say one thing and seem to do another, your child is confused. This confusion will prevent her from following even the rules she ‘knows’. At every stage, if you can explain your reaction and behavior to her, she will be clear. She will appreciate that you are a person of integrity who follows your beliefs, even if they seem confusing to others at times. She will learn to be a thinking, considerate person, based on the example you set for her.

I have always been particular about speaking my mind to people. I won’t let them walk away with an ‘incorrect’ impression of me.

One day, I’d taken my daughter along with me to work. As we sat down to lunch, the client’s father, a gentleman in his 70s, joined us. He asked after my family, and when he learnt that I had only the one child, he told me, “That is why you women put on so much weight. (! 🙂 ) Women are made for child-bearing. Unless you have at least 4 children, there is no hope for you. Stop working. Go back home. Have a few more children…”

At 6, my daughter understood what he was saying. I’m blessed to have a tactful child, who barely paused in the act of eating as the old man spouted all this. Lunch got over and I got busy with the rest of my work.

I’d barely turned the key in the ignition to go back home when my daughter burst out, “That man was so rude! He was crazy – imagine saying things like that to you! Why didn’t you say anything back to him? Why were you quiet?”

She’s right. In most instances, I’d have taken issue with what he’d said, so it was inexplicable to her how I ‘took it’ lying down – all the junk the gentleman was pushing at me.

“He’s really old, and that is the way he’s been brought up. He’s never going to change the way he thinks. There would be no point in my saying anything. He would merely have felt hurt and insulted that I ‘talked back’ to him, so I let him say his piece. At no point did I nod or indicate any kind of agreement. He realized that I didn’t agree, but I’m sure he appreciated that I was courteous enough to hear him out.”

I continued: “The funniest thing is that his daughter-in-law (my client’s wife) has only 2 children, and he knows that, and knows that I know it too! It would have been the easiest thing in the world for me to raise the fact saying he hadn’t even been able to influence his own daughter-in-law so why was he trying to give me his take on women’s health, but his age and lack of education shielded him from any such reaction on my part.”

She wasn’t happy that I had let it pass, but she understood my point. Sometimes, we let things go out of consideration for others. In my book, such consideration doesn’t make me less honest. In someone else’s book, it might do so. Each person has to decide for himself and herself, given the specific situation.

4. Avoid misunderstandings – If you explain things to your child, you minimize the possibility of misunderstandings. This keeps your relationship strong. It keeps you talking to each other through all the storms, troubles and alarms. It keeps you communicating through the hormonal rushes, the hot flushes and the mid-life crises. Not a bad thing, eh? 🙂

So simple! Explain what is going on.

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Raising Children: Teaching Responsibility

 The dictionary defines responsibility as (among other things): the state or fact of being responsible; reliability or dependability.

Responsible, according to the dictionary, means: answerable or accountable; having a capacity for moral decisions and therefore accountable; capable of rational thought or action.

Here’s a different take on the word. Responsibility = response + ability; the ability to respond (appropriately).

You want to raise a responsible child, so you tell her what to do in every situation. You feel you know the appropriate response, and she will be well taken care of if only she follows your instructions to the letter. But you cannot predict every situation.

I was to pick my daughter up from school after a performance that got over late in the evening. I went to the room from which I was to pick her up. She wasn’t there. I went to the office. Not there. I went to the rehearsal room. Not there. I went to the auditorium. Not there.

By now, I was getting frantic. The school had begun to empty, with most parents and children having left, and only a handful of teachers still there. I was going from room to room asking teachers if they’d seen my daughter.

The teacher who dismissed them from the rehearsal room after the performance said, “They were to get their make-up off and then go to the rooms from which you were to collect them.”

I went back to the room from which I had to collect her. “She hasn’t come in. Her stuff is not here,” the teacher told me. She gestured for me to take a look at the few bags that were still on the tables – my daughter’s bag wasn’t there.  

I didn’t know what to do, and was beginning to panic. The school grounds are large, most of the lights had been extinguished, and she was nowhere to be found. A few children who’d seen me rushing hither and yon were kind enough to say, “We saw her some time ago, but we don’t know where she is now.”

I went back in a real tizzy to the room from which I was to collect her, to find her standing calmly next to the teacher. I sagged onto a chair in relief. “Where were you?”

“Mom, my friend took ill. When we went to take our make-up off, she began vomiting. I stayed with her, and then handed her over to her parents. Then I came here, and I’ve been waiting for you ever since. You’re late.” (This last in true parental-displeasure style. 🙂 ) I made my explanations, and we declared peace. I collected her (officially 🙂 ), and we did the rounds, visiting all the rooms and teachers I’d been to, to tell them that I’d found her.

For the umpteenth time, I was grateful to have a responsible child.

Unforeseen situations arise all the time. If you want your child to develop the ability to respond appropriately (responsibility), you need to follow only one rule.

Let him respond.

Don’t keep making rules for every situation: “If this happens, you should do that.” You will make hundreds, if not thousands of rules, which will only confuse your child.

Instead, give him a few general, standing instructions. You might say, “Try and get to a phone and call me or another responsible adult (your partner, parent, a family member), don’t go with strangers, don’t ride with anyone unless you have my (or your partner’s) express permission to do so, don’t take food/drink offered by people you don’t know, don’t try to help someone who seems in distress (so many of these are scams, and your child may get into trouble from trying to help)…”

You cannot dot every ‘i’ and cross every ‘t’. Let your child respond. Let him know that you have confidence in his ability to handle a situation. Obviously, he will not do what you would have done in his place. But you have 20 or more years on him! You’d probably have done much worse than him if you were confronted with the same situation when you were his age.

If his response doesn’t yield the desired result or creates a problem, talk about it. Instead of scolding him for his ‘wrong’ (not as effective as you/he would have liked it to be, actually) response, talk about what why his response was less than ideal. Remember, he may still think his response was perfect, while you might be the one thinking it could have been improved! 🙂

If he too, feels less than satisfied with his response, discuss it. He will learn to consider more things while making a response. He will learn to come up with more possible responses. He will learn to evaluate those responses better. He will get the opportunity to practice making appropriate responses.

All of this will enormously increase his ability to respond to a situation.

And you will be raising a responsible child. 🙂

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Communicating With Your Child in an Impossible Situation

“Umm – Vinita, can I speak with you privately?”

I was teaching a course on fashion, and one of my students walked up to me at the end of class. (This wasn’t in India, where it is not done to call your teacher by his / her name.)

 “Sure – go ahead,” I replied. I was slightly taken aback because this girl had shown no particular inclination to have private conversations with me over the 15 months that I had been teaching her various courses.

But she seemed to want to do so now. We found an empty classroom, and sat down.

“What’s the matter?” I asked her.

She was curiously reluctant to begin. Eventually, “You know, what I’m telling you is in confidence. I don’t want it to get about. I had earlier confided in one of the other staff members and she went and told so many people.” She squinted at me, “Did she tell you anything about me?”

“No, I haven’t heard anything about you or about anyone else, for that matter. And before you go any further, I must say that I will respect your confidence, but if you have the slightest doubt about it, please don’t tell me anything.”

“No, no, I know you won’t tell anyone. That’s why I decided to speak with you.” She stopped again, and I waited.

“I had an abortion yesterday.”

I didn’t know how to respond, so I kept quiet. She looked at me, and when she saw the lack of either condemnation or inquisitiveness, she went on.

“It was my third abortion.”

“Oh, no!” burst out of me. “Don’t you use protection?”

“Well, he doesn’t like to, and I forget to take the pill sometimes.”

“How are you feeling? Should you even be at school today? How did you manage? Did you have a friend with you?” the questions poured out of me.

“My mother went with me,” she said.

Suddenly, I was struck by a thought. “How old are you?”

“16, but I turn 17 next week.” Thus far, she had sounded like an adult trying to discuss an issue with another adult. But at the mention of her birthday, her teen enthusiasm took over, and she preened.

I couldn’t hide my concern. “Do you know that having so many abortions could seriously impact your having a baby later on? You might not be able to conceive, or the baby might be harmed by all the abortions you’ve had.” I couldn’t have given her the slightest technical details of what I was saying if my life depended on it, but I knew that she was taking a real risk with her health.

I didn’t really understand why we were having this conversation. Her mother seemed to know what was going on. She’d even accompanied the girl to her third abortion. I was thinking: If the mum is okay with her having sex at 16, why doesn’t the lady just remind her daughter to pop the birth-control pill? (The girl lived at home, and even if she’d lived elsewhere, all it took was a phone call to remind her…) That would solve the problem.

“How can I help?”

“You see, my mother is very worried. She is upset and unhappy and forcing me to leave this man, but I love him and I can’t live without him!” ( 🙂  Oh, the agonies of teen love!)

“Don’t your parents like him?

“My dad doesn’t know, but my mum is not in favor of this relationship. You see, he’s 41 and married, with 3 children.”

I was completely tongue-tied – physically, and mentally. I didn’t even know what to think, let alone what to say. Me, a woman married for over a year, and I feel like a new-born babe in front of this 17-year old who’s talking to me of love and abortions and a man who is committed to his wife and children, but also claims to ‘love’ her.

“I want to ask you what I should do. I know it’s not good for me to have any more abortions. Every time, I think this is the last time I will have an abortion, but then I forget to take the pill again… I love him too much to let him go.”

“What does he say?”

“He will not leave his wife and kids, but that’s alright with me.”

I groped carefully to find words that might reach her. “You know there’s no future in this for you. You are a lovely girl with a great enthusiasm for life, and you have all of that life ahead of you. You are lucky to have a mother who is so supportive of you. Though she is against your relationship with this man, the love you both share is strong enough for her to be there for you whenever you need her. She is asking you to leave the man. Why don’t you try doing that?”

“I have tried,” she sounded desperately close to tears. “Especially after every abortion – I hate that I have to go through these abortions. He won’t come with me; my mother does. I want to have babies later on, and every abortion will make it more difficult. But then he calls me again, and I can’t stay away. And my mother is heart-broken about it. I love her so much I would do anything for her. I hate giving her so much pain, so much trouble, but I just can’t stop loving this man.”

I still didn’t see what she wanted from me. “Listen, maybe you want me to say that it will all turn out okay with this man, that it is okay for you to be in this relationship. That might make you feel better about your decision to continue seeing the guy. Because you have made that decision, haven’t you?” She nodded unwillingly. “But I can’t say it, because I don’t believe it to be true.”

We sat in silence for some time. Then she got up. “Thank you for listening. It has made me feel a lot better. And please don’t tell anyone – I know you won’t, but I still need to say it.”

I nodded. “Take care of yourself and your mother. Bless you.”

This incident took place about 15 years ago, and I’m sharing it because this could be true of any child, anywhere in the world. Then, or now, it probably IS true of some children in many parts of the world.

There is so much to learn from this:

Sending the girl somewhere else was not an option – the family did not have the wherewithal. And then the man could well have traveled and continued the relationship on an off-and-on basis.

Besides, you can’t run away from your life. If she had gone to some far-flung place, she would still have been vulnerable and might have gotten into a similar or worse situation from being on the rebound, or feeling the lack of romantic love in her life, or feeling that she was over the earlier relationship and ready for a new one.

Whoever you are, whatever your situation, running away doesn’t solve it. You merely take it with you, though you might take some time to realize this. 🙂

I deeply admire the mother for sticking by her child. She realized what so many parents do not.

 Condemning the girl, blaming her, scolding her, blackmailing her (“How could you do this to me, your mother, who loves you so well? How can you hurt me like this? What have I done to deserve such treatment from you / to have such a fate? I brought you up so well…/I have failed as a mother…”) – all of which she must have done – would only serve to make the mother feel better by giving vent to her feelings.

It would not help the girl or the situation. Revisiting the mistakes that were made by either the parents or the girl would also be futile. The mother realized that just continuing to communicate with her daughter was vital. At least the lady knew what was going on; she could prevent things from being worse than they already were.

If she had not accompanied her daughter to the abortions, how would the girl, as a minor, have accessed a hospital to have the procedure done? Where would she have got the money? How would she get the post-operative care – physical mental and emotional?

Certainly the girl was conscious of and vocal about her mother’s support despite the latter’s deep disapproval (to put it mildly). That in itself was a huge anchor for her.

I don’t know how it all turned out. I respected her confidence by never again referring to the matter, even privately, even with her. I figured if she ever wanted to speak with me, she would raise the topic herself.

The point is that sometimes, despite our best effort as parents, things don’t turn out the way we’d like them to. In this particular instance, they turned out horribly wrong.

If your daughter doesn’t join law school (a dream you have cherished for her since she was conceived – ! – ), it’s not the end of the world, but if she decides to beg for money, live in the street and eat out of soup kitchens, that is another level of pain altogether.

If things go horribly wrong, what can you do as a loving parent?  Unfortunately, there are no right answers here.

You know your child. You know how far gone the situation is. Some children realize things quicker when they are left alone. Others need to be helped out of situations. Yet others need to be bullied out of them.

Whatever you decide to do, you might want to consider the ideas below:

1. Keep the communication lines open – Agree not to talk about the area of conflict, but keep things as ‘normal’ as possible otherwise. Don’t raise the topic every time there is a difference of opinion with him. Try not to blackmail him with it. Avoid the attitude: ‘we’ve let you get away with the one BIG thing, but you’d better toe the line on all other counts’.

If you can do this, your child will keep you in the loop, and you will still be a part of his life; you may still have some influence on him. If nothing else, he will appreciate your not withholding your SELF and your love because he is going against your wishes in one area of life.

2. Do not blame yourself – It is natural to keep going over the problem, wondering what you did wrong, what mistake you made that allowed this awful thing to happen. You keep wondering what you could have done to prevent its happening: you should have noticed it earlier, you should have nipped it in the bud, you should have… There is no end to this.

You have a lot of power as a parent, but you have no control. That is the truth, and as you continue parenting, you come to know that even the power is more a figment of your imagination than reality. 🙂

3. Keep perspective – So many things seem like they are the ultimately awful thing that could happen to you, but with time, you might find that they were the making of you. Besides, life is pretty long, and memories are pretty short. Life goes on.

My student might have been 15, or perhaps even younger (“oh, no!” says the parent in me) when she got into the relationship. I’m sure that in another few years, the man would have aged considerably. By the time she was in her early 20s, she would be working, and find many more congenial men, which would naturally break up the relationship. She might get very busy at work, and the relationship would die a natural death.

And she would still have the rest of her life ahead of her. (However, it still beats me how between mother and daughter they did not manage to ensure the girl took her birth-control pills regularly.) Scarred, perhaps, by her earlier experiences, but still, free of the situation.

4. Do not allow your child to get away with blaming you – Children do this when they are scared. However old they are, they will revert to early childhood and tell you, “If only you had… / you had not…, I would not have….” Don’t let them get away with it.

 You might choose to say: “I hear what you are saying and I understand that you feel this way, but I disagree. I don’t think I am to blame for the decision you made. You may blame me, but I don’t blame myself. I don’t accept the blame you are trying to lay on me. You don’t like it, but that’s the way it is.”

5. Figure out with your child how you will treat the issue in public – If your child is in a homosexual relationship (and that is an impossible situation for you), someone you know will know about it – someday, somehow. Discuss ahead of time with your child how will treat the topic when it comes up. Are you to feign ignorance? Are you to say you know about it and are okay with it? Are you to say you know about it and respect your child’s right to lead his life his way? Decide upon something you are both comfortable with.

This is much better than either hiding it or flaunting it. If you hide it, your child may think you are ashamed of the issue or of her, and may stop communicating with you. If you flaunt it, that might not go down well either. She might feel that though you actually dislike the situation, you are putting on a show of being proud of her, or putting on a show of being a lot more liberated than you really are (you want people to think you’re ‘the coolest Dad/Mom’ in the world).

Either way, you’re not being honest with her. She has been straight with you – she has told you about the horrible situation. If you want to keep communicating with her, you need to be honest with her too. If you’re straight with her, you’ll manage to get through to her – always. Even in the most impossible situation.

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Wasting Time

When I was a child, we got up in the morning, got dressed, went to school, came back, played with our friends, did homework, spent time with our parents in the evening, listened to the radio or watched TV, and got into bed. We got 3 meals a day; we got enough exercise, enough sleep, enough entertainment, enough social activity, and enough family time.

Our parents managed pretty well too. They did their own work, spent time with us, and never seemed to rush from one person / place / activity to another.

The idea that there ‘wasn’t enough time’ – for anything – had not yet been invented, apparently! 🙂

By the time I reached teenage, time began to acquire focus. I heard my parents tell me not to ‘waste’ time: on the phone, meeting people incessantly, watching TV all evening, day dreaming…

Today, our children hear it from birth: Don’t Waste Time.

I’m sure you’ve said it to your child at least once (not if you are a newly-minted parent, obviously): “Don’t waste time! There’s so much to do – get on with things…”

One day, my irritated daughter shot back at me, “I’m NOT wasting time, okay? I want to read this book.”

“But you’ve read it at least fourteen times already!” I protested.

“Twelve,” she smirked, “but what difference does that make to you? It’s my book. I’ll read it two hundred times, if I wish it. It’s none of your business! I don’t say anything about the books you read; you don’t interfere with my reading.” (Topsy-turvy logic, I agree. After all, I’m the parent, and parents have the ‘right’ to comment on what their kids are doing, whereas the reverse is pretty off-the-wall. But I have always given her equal rights. If this is kind of conversation is what equality entails, so be it, I say.  Sometimes I think I let her get away with a bit too much in the name of equality, but there are some lessons only time can teach. And time needs time…)

I would normally have dismissed this outburst as another of the crazy, inexplicable things she does (that’s one of the ways we keep peace: we agree that the other is ‘simply nuts’! And then we place statements, incidents and outbursts in the ‘simply-nuts behavior box’ and put it aside 🙂 ), but I was in ‘listening‘ mode.

When I stopped to think about what she’d said, this is what I realized:

1. Much as I love her, it is her life, and her time. One way or another, that time will be spent.

2. I have very little control over how she (or anyone else, for that matter) spends her time. If at all I have any control, it is over how I spend my time. But here, I duck my responsibility, and say, “I have so much work, so many things to do, so much to handle, so many responsibilities, that I simply don’t get any time for myself!” Big-time responsibility-avoidance! 🙂

3. I can choose to ignore the reality of how little control I have over how she spends her time, and (i) worry about it, or (ii) explain to her, nag her, plead with her, and hound her to spend her time the way I believe is best for her, or (iii) both. This will create conflict between us, and that conflict will spill over into all areas of our lives. And there is no way to resolve this kind of conflict, because it is based on one of us being ‘right’ and the other one ‘wrong’.

4. Since it is her life, she has first dibs on choosing how she spends it. While she may or may not please anyone else with her choice; the one person she can definitely please is herself. She might as well make choices that please her. At least she will be happy, if nobody else will…  

5. She can be an independent, worthwhile adult (the goal of parenting, in my view) only if she makes her own choices and accepts the consequences of those choices. Choosing how to spend time is also a choice. And the earlier you let your child begin to make this choice, the quicker and better he will learn what works for him and what doesn’t.

6. Time cannot be wasted; just like money cannot be wasted. ‘Waste’ is an opinion or a judgment of someone. If she wants to be word-perfect on five hundred novels, re-reading them for the nth time is a ‘good’ investment of time for her.

7. Everyone’s ‘good use’ of time is a ‘waste’ of time for someone else.

If you stop to think about it, I’m sure you’ll realize exactly the same thing about how your child ‘wastes’ time!

You wasted time too, you know, in the past. You probably still do. Celebrate the fact that you ‘waste’ time. A life in which time is always spent towards the achievement of one goal or another, is ultimately, a life devoid of spontaneity, enjoyment, and joy. Incredibly sad, don’t you think? What’s worse, it’s unnecessarily sad.

The next time your child ‘wastes’ time, let him. Either you will learn that he wasn’t wasting it, or he will feel he could use it differently. Either way, you will still have time with your child – because you both realize that your time is your own, and you will choose, happily, to spend some of it with each other!

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