Thursday, January 26, 2012

My Top Five Parenting Techniques

In year 2000, when I was newly single, I worried a lot about the effect of the divorce on Atreya, then just seven. I had read enough horror stories about children growing up disturbed and single moms having a tough time dealing with them. But I was in for a surprise- a pleasant one! Being a single parent actually turned out to be a boon in my case. I could decide what kind of parent I wanted to be, and more importantly, I could be that kind of parent consistently. Years later, when Aloka arrived in our family, I had another occasion of thinking about what type of family I wanted us to be and how I wanted to raise her.
So what type of childhood did I want my kids to have? To answer this, I looked back at my own childhood. What caused me to be lonely and fearful? What gave me joy? What empowered me? What weakened me? Which skills would have helped me cope better as a teen and which habits I could have done without? The answers to these questions helped form my principles of parenting, which perhaps are not much different from those expounded in parenting books.

But parenting is more than principles- it is an active ongoing set of behaviors and interactions with one’s kids. With experience, I translated most of the principles into doable recallable techniques that have now become so ingrained that they are habits. Here are my top five techniques that I put into practice with Atreya and Aloka and will confidently recommend to any parent.
1.       High-Point Low-Point
I started this activity with Atreya when we had just arrived in Singapore. Every night before sleeping, we would share what made us happiest and saddest that day. We could not have responses like “nothing” or “the same”. Both of us had to share. It sounds simple, but it is not an easy activity. Try it just now and you will know how hard it is.

(Years later, I saw a similar techniue being used by another family in the movie The story of us!)
I can’t begin to tell how useful this particular technique has been. For me, it was a great way to get a peek into his new life in a new environment, priceless for the busy mother struggling to cope with her own problems at that time. It also gave me great insights into his feelings about the divorce, which was so much more useful than statistics I had been reading about. For Atreya, it was an exercise in self awareness and reflection, something I personally didn’t learn until much later in life. He grew up into a young man fully in touch with his feelings and emotions. I believe that this technique did more for him than all others put together.
Lately, I have started using it to direct sleep-time conversations with Aloka. Since she likes to talk a lot, all I need is her attention to start the activity. Since I started this, I have learned about Aloka’s unusual need to be liked and accepted by a few select kids in her class. I have also learned that she is not fond of one of the junior teachers because her tone is rather rough. Believe me, if I didn’t use this technique to structure the conversation, my little chatter box would talk about everything under the sun except these things.
2.       Food Issues
Having seen, and still seeing, parents fretting over how much their kids have eaten and making food the biggest stress factor in families (anti-fun), I decided long ago that food will be a non-issue in my family. No doubt I was influenced by baby books I had read when I was carrying Atreya, but my conviction became stronger over the years. Now I see the absurdity of it even more clearly than ever as I deal with my own weight issues and read about adults and teens struggling with eating disorders. Childhood spent refusing eating and mom running after you to eat, and adulthood spent eating too much or battling other eating disorders- could anything be more ridiculous?
So what techniques have I used for putting this principle in action? First, food is always to be eaten sitting down. If the child gets up to do anything, the adult keeps sitting and waits for the child to return. Second, the moment the child says no, stop feeding (ok a bit of cajoling is allowed but nothing more). Third, the child has to handle the food in one way or another when being fed. This means that as a baby, there must be some finger food that the baby handles herself while the adult feeds the more messy stuff. It also means that the child becomes an independent eater as early as possible. For example, nowadays, Aloka sits down to eat her meals all by herself and is allowed to stop when she feels full.
(No award given for guessing who had a harder time adjusting to these rules- Aloka or Mallika!).
It is my belief that food issues arise because of adults, not kids. We derive too much pleasure from seeing the last bit of food go down the child’s throat. Of course, once the destructive cycle has begun, and habits set, the lines blur and it gets harder to differentiate between the cause and its effects. My mother once told me that babies are wired for survival. Even in the mother’s womb, they are wired to derive nutrition even when the mother doesn’t have enough. Likewise, as babies, they are better judges of how much they want to eat than the all knowing adults around them. If adults can trust this instinct in them, most of the eating problems will resolve sooner or later. I lived by this motto with Atreya (who at 11 months, went without food for three days in a row while I almost lost my mind trying to keep faith) and now with Aloka, and have seen wonderful results.
3.       Never too much Self Esteem
All kids are different. Just because you were a certain type doesn’t mean your kids will be the same. Just because a sibling is a certain way, one can’t assume others are alike. But there is one thing that is common across all kids- they are not born with boundaries and self esteem. These are built, or destroyed, over years. We, and other adults in their lives, wield a huge power over these little people and it is our job to use it responsibly.
The technique I use to help build my kids’ self esteem is very simple- I praise them genuinely and often. I think we all know this, so what’s special about my technique? Just that I have made it a habit. Every time I talk to Aloka about any incident that I didn’t like, such as a tantrum, I make it a point to talk about things I like about her. I don’t let her forget that she is a delightful girl who makes her mama very happy, even on days when she was a handful. Likewise, Atreya knows for a fact that his mother appreciates his acts of kindness and consideration towards people around him, among other things. These don’t happen as a rare afterthought, but as directed and frequent conversations.
The best thing about making a habit of praising is that I do it even on my worst days. A couple of months ago, I was down and out and finding it hard to be positive about anything. But because we had bed-time and bath-time rituals and I had the habit of highlighting the positive, my interactions with Aloka didn’t change much even during those very hard days. 
4.       Keeping a Balance
Last year, mom, Aloka and I visited Jogjakarta in Indonesia. After visiting many beautiful temples, we went inside a shop to cool off and buy some local handicrafts. On our way out, mom noted something that I hadn’t paid much attention to- Aloka had been most cooperative and well behaved during the time we shopped. No tantrums and no impatience. The reason was also noted by mom- I had bought Aloka a wood necklace and matching bracelet within 10 minutes of entering the shop, before we had bought anything else for ourselves. Point to note is that the day before, I had firmly refused her requests to buy some toys from shops lining the temple entrance.
Balance is key for happiness. It’s true for kids as much as it is for us. If I were to say No to every demand, she will grow up wanting and hungry. If I succumb to every demand, she will grow up careless and callous. Of course, what I choose to give in to and what I refuse depends a lot on what I value. She doesn’t have to understand the logic affecting my decisions, as long as she understands that there is fairness involved. The knowledge of fairness in turn takes the tantrums out of the picture. With Atreya, this principle was put in action when he was much older and the technique was simply giving him a monthly budget, which he managed himself.
The same principle of balance applies to other problem areas such as junk food and TV. Instead of these becoming reasons of stress and battles in daily life, Mallika and I have figured out balances that work both for the kids and the adults. Candies are eaten (mostly) in moderation, favorite TV shows are watched in set routines and some rules are allowed to be broken now and then. In return, Aloka does her side of the bargain- she eats proper meals independently, takes an afternoon nap and goes down to skate or play at set times every evening.
The result is what I value the most in life- harmony in the house!
5.       Chores = Fun
A lot of the time I spend with Aloka is spent doing everyday activities like brushing teeth, bathing, dressing up (or down) and studying. It is only on weekends that we find dedicated game time.
But we play all the time. Chores are games. Brushing teeth is the game of invisible germ bashing, bath time is for swimming like a fish and study time is for making sure no letters do yoga by mistake. When I cook treats for the kids, Aloka also does her thing in the kitchen. When I clean the house, she cleans her things. And when the music is on, she and I dance together.
Any guesses who has more fun doing these- mom or daughter?

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