Battling Gender Stereotypes Outside the Home

harbigner_evolution_of_gender_rolesThis blog post has been reproduced with permission from ParentEdge, a leading Parenting magazine in India. The post is written by Ramya Rajesh, Editor of ParentEdge.

When my son wanted to apply nail polish on his toe-nails, the objection came from unexpected quarters – his older sister! And the reasons were rather unexpected too. She did not say “But only girls apply nail polish.” Instead she said, “Everyone in your school will say Girlie Girlie”. My son looked at her disbelievingly and wanted the nail polish anyway.

Off he went to school on Monday morning. At bed time, a little voice in the dark, ” I hate ….and ….They are so mean.” Turned out my daughter’s predictions were right and during assembly, four and five year olds had laughed at my son’s toe nails. I offered to remove the nail polish the next morning. But my son steadfastly refused. “Let them laugh, I don’t care.”

As parents who refuse to stereotype our children, my husband and I have came across many such situations. The world outside the home is so deeply into the boy-girl divide that the child needs to be prepared or in some situations, given a different point of view later. Or just given the space and time to question and think.

My son goes to a Montessori, and as part of the ‘daily life’ activities, children can sweep, knead atta, pound channa and so on. Last year, one day, both my son and a girl-peer wanted the broom at the same time, and the adult reportedly said, “Give the broom to her. Why do you want it, anyway, you are a boy.” When I heard this, I kept quiet for a few seconds, trying to frame a reply that would not bring the adult down in my child’s opinion, and yet set right the ‘damage’ that was done. I need not have bothered. My son said, “Amma, my teacher has not gone to …..uncle’s house. Remember, there, it is Ravi who cleans the house.” I thanked, in my mind, our friends, who had employed a man as domestic help (Rare, yes, but practical in their case as they live in a farmhouse)

When I look back, I feel that my daughter encountered far fewer situations – is it because it is now politically incorrect to be sexist with women and girls? What do you think?

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Freeing your Child from the ‘Me Too’ Trap

7fb20439bb92b8be3cc81ad7eaae707aGetting a child out of the ‘Me Too’ zone can be one of the most challenging tasks for a parent. It is a phase that perhaps most children get into when their need for belonging and social acceptance overrides their own sense of being. Before you know it, ‘I want that toy too’ turns into ‘I want a brother too’ and ‘I want a new house too’ and the list is endless. While each of us would have different ways of handling such demands and we might, on occasions offer no explanation but just say a ‘No’, it is important to realize that every time such an opportunity presents itself, we have a window to help a child think and make a decision.

When my daughter gets into this zone, I start by asking her a series of questions – ‘Why do you need it?’, ‘What will you do with it?’, ‘Do you think this is the best thing for you?’, ‘What will happen if you don’t have it?’ and then usually, our discussion turns towards listing a set of things – material and otherwise, which she has, which many others might not have. We start talking about what we like about those things and people who are present in our lives and it is usually enough to deter her from picking up the topic again.

The idea is not really to distract the child but more to offer the child a different perspective, that we, as parents are equipped to provide. Buying something for a child just because someone else has it, is reinforcing the belief ‘I must have what someone else has’. At every step, making the child think and then choose, is what a mindful parent might consider doing.

As a coach, one of the many tools I use with clients is that of ‘Gratitude’. There are studies to indicate that people who are grateful about the things they have in their lives (including people and relationships), are far happier than those who aren’t. With adults, the situation is no different, really. Many of us want everything that the other person might have – that which money can buy and that which money cannot. Expectation is often the root cause of disappointment. In contrast, if we replace expectation of things we don’t have with gratitude for things we have, a new world of happiness opens up.

If that does not work, encouraging a child to say a small prayer at bedtime to say thanks for the things that made him / her happy through the day is another wonderful way of initiating a child into gratitude. Another practice that might work better for older children is that of maintaining a ‘Gratitude Journal’.  Writing about the people and the things that made a positive difference every day or every week, can be very de-stressing and calming for any individual.

In essence, the key lesson is ‘Be thankful for what you have’.

This blog post is a reproduction of my blog written for Parent Edge, one of India’s leading parenting magazines.

Aligned Parenting

aligned-parenting-1080x675Gone are the days when one would say, ‘there is no school which teaches parenting’ because there are such schools that are functional and in demand now. However, not all of us might be inclined to learn about parenting and we might want to discover things along the way. Well, to each their own. Parenting is a unique journey which each of us must traverse for ourselves. Then, of course, there is the child – a result of the parenting that is doled out. If the child is a result of the parenting received, I often wonder how a child processes information that he / she receives which might sometimes be contradictory. For instance, one parent likes to binge on junk food while the other is on a health trip or one parent believes academics are the way to success in life while the other might think academics are really quite irrelevant in the long run. So what does the child believe? Research has proven that when presented with two scenarios, human beings are more likely to pick the one which presents an easier path. The easier path that gets chosen, may not necessarily be the best path for the child. Does one parent work on undoing the path that he / she does not want the child to follow? It can all become quite a mesh and at the end of it all, can leave the child unsure about his / her choices in life and have a lasting impact on his / her self-confidence.

So what does one do? The answer is similar to what organizations resort to when they want to cascade a certain culture – ‘Alignment’. Well, it might sound unrealistic, but think of it this way. Culture Alignment, in an organization, is meant to get employees to align their own objectives with the organization’s objectives. Similarly, parenting needs alignment too. Communication is key to any kind of alignment. If parents end up arguing about how they do things differently, the child is at a loss. If, on the other hand, parents are able to discuss about how to handle a particular situation and how to provide the child with consistent messaging, the child would be clear about what is acceptable and what is not.

There are certainly divergent views that exist. More often than not, I would say. In such cases, agreeing on dividing up roles and responsibilities helps, with the agreement that messaging would remain consistent. It is like being a leader in an organization. At any point in time, one needs to uphold the organization’s interest. One cannot promote one’s own beliefs over an organization’s culture. The organization in this case, is the child.

Making time to reconnect as a couple is important, especially after having a child. Making time to discuss parenting is equally important too. There is, after all, a human being each of us parents are responsible for; someone who will soon grow up and mirror everything that he / she believes the parents stand for.  Are we aligned on what we stand for, together?

This blog post is a reproduction of my blog written for Parent Edge, one of India’s leading parenting magazines.

The Birthday Deal

birthdayfreebie1_11112011114449Over the last few years, I have had the opportunity to be a part of many birthday celebrations for kids of all ages and have come to realize what a birthday means to the parents and the child; more so, since I have been celebrating my own daughter’s birthday of late.

On a typical birthday celebration, friends and relatives of the parents are invited along with some friends of the birthday baby. But wait a minute…what is the objective of a birthday celebration? I mean, why do we celebrate a child’s birthday? Broadly defined, it is an occasion for the parents to be happy and for it to be a special day for the child when he / she has fun. If that is the objective, then why would we want to make it such a big deal and make it a cause for worry and a social status symbol? Why would we worry so much about what the child wears, who all are invited, what the menu would be, what activities would we organize, where would we get a cake fancier than the last one we saw and not to forget, what party favors would be doled out to all attendees.

Many times, we tend to think about the last few birthday parties we attended as our benchmark and think about ways in which we can top that and provide our guests with a ‘newer’ experience. Let us say we do all that.

What happens on that day? We are unable to attend to all our guests and many of them do not even know each other. While there are activities for the kids, the parents, and nowadays, more often the maids, are hanging around, waiting for the food to be served. As for the food, while we do take the high ground with our own kids most times, on birthdays, for some reason, we propagate junk food, which the adults have no choice but to have. There is loud music, the activity coordinator is  yelling, while the birthday baby is showered with gifts, mostly passed on from what the attendees had received on their birthdays.

So, at the end of the day, what is the outcome? We have the parents of the birthday baby, awfully exhausted with the effort and expense and the hullabaloo. We have the kids who attended the birthday bash, loaded with junk food and some more gifts which their mothers would now wonder what to do with. We have the accompanying adults who are thankful that one more such party is over and they now have one less to attend. And let us not forget, we have the birthday baby, loaded with gifts of all kinds, which he / she probably does not know what to do with and who has got the following messages: ‘fun means junk food, noise and an excess of things which we do not need’. So let’s take a step back again. What was the objective of the birthday celebration again? A fun day for the child? Your being happy that the child has crossed yet another year in good health and that you are proud of him / her? Is it?

This blog post is a reproduction of my blog written for Parent Edge, one of India’s leading parenting magazines.

The Power of Family Meals

family-meals-logoThis blog post has been reproduced with permission from ParentEdge, a leading Parenting magazine in India. The post is written by Meera Srinivasan, nutritionist and food technologist.

Being a nutritionist I have always paid attention to what my family eats. But until recently, I was not aware that how they eat is equally important. Research has shown that eating together as a family is key to inculcating healthy eating habits in children.

Researchers at Rutgers University have looked at 68 studies that have examined relationship between family meals, eating habits and children’s health. Amazingly all studies pointed to a similar trend – families who had “meals together” during the growing years had children and teens who ate more fruits and vegetables, other nutrient rich foods and less of soft drinks. The research also indicated that they had a lower BMI (body mass index) than kids whose families did not eat together! Of course, this is not a magic bullet but with so many studies confirming this trend it will be good to pay attention to these findings.

So you may wonder about relevance in India – well the situation in urban households is no longer different, with both parents working long hours and juggling work and children’s schedules. Sitting down together for dinner in most homes is becoming increasingly rare and eating together has become a weekend activity and invariably not at home …

Along with healthier eating habits and lower instances of obesity, there are other significant benefits of family meals:

  • Dinner together serves as an anchor for the family, nurtures the sense of belonging. It is a time for everyone to share and reflect about their day
  • Conversations around meal time help increase children’s vocabulary making them better readers.
  • Children actually do better in school/academics!
  • Children become aware of current events and have better social skills. They learn to make conversations and also become good listeners!
  • Teens who eat dinners at home regularly are less likely to smoke, drink alcohol or use drugs!
  • As mentioned in the January 2013 issue of ParentEdge children learn by observing and experiencing and not by being instructed. If parents have healthy eating habits children tend to have similar eating habits!

How do we make it work?

  • Meal time has to be a priority for everyone – make your family understand and once they start doing it, the benefits will ensure that there is no turning back!
  • If dinner is not possible, explore breakfast and to start, target a minimum of three meals during the week.
  • Make the meals interesting, get the family involved in menu planning and if possible even cooking. Many children these days are showing an interest in cooking and we can be thankful to the Master Chef programmes!
  • Turn off mobiles, television during meals, so children understand you are making meal times a priority.
  • Conversation starters can be as simple as “what was the best part of your day”, “what went well for you today and what did not?” – and before you realize children are talking and telling you things which may be difficult to get out from them otherwise!

At our home we have dinner together and I find this the most gratifying time of the day!

To Push or Not to Push!

594971-7428-48This blog post has been reproduced with permission from ParentEdge, a leading Parenting magazine in India. The post is written by Aparna Karthikeyan, writer and beleaguered mother of a smart teenager.

Parenting is all about pushing; it begins with labour, and after that, there’s really no getting away from it. Initially, it’s all about the little things – push in one more spoonful of food, make the child sleep, potty-train, that sort of thing. And of course, you tell yourself that you’re so not going to be a pushy parent; that once the child can understand reason, you will make him/her come around to your way of thinking without resorting to parental pressure and authority. All because you don’t want to be a pushy parent; all because there isn’t a word with more negative connotations than ‘pushy parent’, is there?

Ever since Amy Chua’s ‘Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother’ created a stir, we’ve debated on the concept of parents making the kids perform – be it in the arts, sports or academics. And in India, this debate, in many ways is pretty one-sided. Not because all Indian parents are pushy – far from it, but because most parents value super-achieving kids. Even if it is at the cost of childhood. I do not exaggerate; I see all around me kids as young as 4 or 5 going from one class to another – the weekday given over to more than three activities, so that the child gets ‘exposed’ to the arts, sports and academics at a young age. But which child of 4 or 5 enjoys it? Naturally, the child baulks at the idea of no-free-time and a string of extra-curricular activities. The parent, however, has water-tight explanations. ‘No, no, at that age they’re too young to decide’; ‘only if he/she tries it for a year, they will know if they like it or not’. And so on. But the same parents, however, find that the going gets harder as the child gets older, mostly because the child learns to resist. Mind maths? But why?Tennis class? Oh god, why? Dance class? Why can’t I skip and watch TV? Everything becomes a row; some escalate into wars; things turn ugly. Punitive measures are imposed; parental authority is exercised but often disregarded. And then the introspection starts – should we have done something differently? Are we ‘forcing’ the child to do something he/she is really averse to? But isn’t it for their own good? Won’t they be thankful we made them do this when they’re older? There are, of course, no easy answers.

What works for one parent-child, won’t work for another. In our household, for instance, things have always been very laissez-faire; so easy going that the daughter herself begged for extra-curricular lessons. At 12. And she enjoys her lessons (ballet and debate) and thrives in them. (That actually made me wonder if I shouldn’t have started her off earlier. But never mind.) But I also know of kids who took to sports at a very early age; found that they were passionate about singing/ dancing only because their parents wouldn’t let them stop music/ dance lessons even when they refused to go for them as 7-year-olds. I also know of cases when the child rebelled – and rebelled quite vigorously – that the parent-child relationship was messed up because they forced the activities on the child. And when it comes to academics, the line gets even more hazy. Are marks everything? But then, don’t they count towards college admissions? Except, 4th standard marks never do. So why are parents cracking the whip on a 9-year-old? To get them into the habit of hard-work? Isn’t it sufficient if they put their nose to the proverbial grind-stone in the years that count? I really don’t have the answers. And I don’t know which bunch of parents are right – the ones who decide their child should be a super-achiever/ perform to the best of their ability; or the ones who will sit back and watch the child learn by him/herself. I wish I had the answer. Do you?

Talk to me

father-talking-to-child-9122229With the rise in episodes of children being kidnapped, sexually abused, taking to drugs, turning anorexic etc., parents find themselves at a loss as to ways to address the situation. Before we find ourselves amidst such undesirable circumstances, it might be worth thinking about what we can do to pre-empt the situation now.

So, what do we do? In most of these situations, the answer is really simple as it is in any relationship in the world – building a culture of communication. Yes, communication is a culture that one can nurture within a house. There are a few elements that go into building this as a culture.

The first, of course, is a no-brainer – being present. Are you already thinking about how hectic your work is at office and at home and how you would love to but are not able to be present for your child? Well, think again. Being present is about being able to demonstrate your intention to be there. Try making time during meals or at bedtime or in the morning. Many times, presence needs to be scheduled. Schedule it on your calendar if that is what it takes. Do you call from work or when you are traveling and make it a point to talk to your child, irrespective of your child’s age? Afraid they might miss you more? Don’t be. Take the risk. Your being there means more to them than your not being there for sure. At least once a day, for just a few minutes, are you able to be present for your child? If not, perhaps it might be worth a think as to what gets in the way?

The second part of building a culture of communication is to talk. Yes, sure, talk about yourself. Talk about your day. How was it? What did you do? What did you learn? Did something funny happen? Did you miss your child at work? Are you planning a vacation? When you talk, you are opening the door to sharing. If you expect your child to report everything that happens every day without setting the precedent by sharing some bits of your day with your child, think again. So, yes, start talking yourself first.

The third element of a culture of communication as we all know is, listening. It is, however, not as simple as it sounds. You might be responding in monosyllables or say ‘hmm’ while you are busy with your laptop or phone or newspaper and you might like to believe that you are listening. Well, not quite. Listening, many times, is also about listening to what your child is not saying. It might start with your observing their body language, drooping face or an upcoming tantrum and might mean that you need to sit down and ask you child a question. ‘What happened’?

Speak words and you will get words. Ask questions and you will get answers. Keep waiting for a child to initiate a conversation and opportunities for communication will fly by, walls will be built, which may only grow higher as time passes by. Be purposeful about building a culture of communication at home. Just start talking!

This blog post is a reproduction of my blog written for Parent Edge, one of India’s leading parenting magazines.