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?

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Selective Aging

My mother is 72. Or is it 73? In any case, the point is that we don't remember her age because she doesn't act it. She is fit as a fiddle, lives alone in a small town in Himachal, walks 10 Km in the mountains everyday, eats healthy, keeps her weight in check, does Pranayam daily and is at most bothered by sneezing every now and then. The only thing that gives out her real age is her white hair, which she has never dyed. I am sure if she were to go to one of those television shows where they find your "real age", she won't be more than 50.


Last year, we spent a week in Lhasa. On our way back, our plane out of Lhasa was delayed by an hour, leaving us with less than an hour to catch the connecting flight out of Chengdu. In this one hour, we had to collect our bags, rush to the international wing of Chengdu airport, check in and board the flight. Nearly impossible, but we won't take no for an answer. We split the responsibilities. While I waited for our luggage to arrive, mom went to the international check in to do the paper work. The luggage took forever to come and by the time I reached the international terminal, we had less than 10 minutes left to reach the gate.

There, I found mom sitting on a stool near the counter, sipping a glass of water slowly. This was unusual because typically she would be all business and ready to put everything in order. Another thing I noticed immediately was the coolness in the airline staff's attitude. Though nothing was said, I was being given killer looks as if I was personally responsible for the delay. My passport was hurriedly checked and then we were asked to rush to the gate, our bags in tow- it was too late to send the bags the usual way. I grabbed one and an airline staff took the other and the whole entourage began to run. There was tremendous tension, compounded by the language barrier, and none of us were having a good time. There was certainly no sympathy for us, even though we were the real victims here.

Suddenly I noticed mom slowing down. She was breathing heavily and I could hear her say "hai, hai" with every breath. Her face looked very pained. I was very alarmed. I offered to take her hand bag and hold her hand, but she refused and muttered something. By now, I was freaking out. Was mom having a heart attack? Should we stop? Should we forget about this darn flight and let her rest? Before I could panic fully, I heard her say to me under her breath "There's nothing wrong. Keep going."

By now, the airline staff had paid notice to this old woman, who seemed very tired from all the running. They all slowed down a bit and their expressions softened. The tension and passive anger that was so palpable a few minutes earlier dissipated. By the time we arrived at the gate, there were some smiles too.

Once inside the plane, still concerned about mom, I asked her if she was feeling better. She laughed and said it was all a pretence. When I looked puzzled, she pointed out the change in the attitude of the staff after she "became" tired.

Only then did I get it. Her "acting" her age had brought out the human instinct of care that most people have for the elderly and the very young. While it didn't get us any tangible help from anyone, it changed the entire atmosphere from one of hostility to that of sympathy. Smart no?

While she doesn't look or behave like your typical 72 (or 73) year old, she certainly hasn't missed out on the wisdom of those years!

Friday, January 13, 2012

If wishes were horses...

...I would write for a living.
...I would take care of neglected kids.
...I would cook using vegetables grown in my own backyard.
...I would have cows in my own cowshed.
...I would dance and teach others to dance.
...I would target one mountain and grow a forest on it.

Gallop gallop!

Image from:

Saturday, January 7, 2012

New Hire B'orientation!

When it comes to New Hire orientation/induction training, I see a sense of desperation in many organizations. So much to tell, so little time. It's a classic case of "we know a lot of it won't make sense and they won't remember, but let's tell it anyway"- reminiscent of school teachers focused on completing the syllabus. I am not talking of one to two organizations here- I have seen this happening in many and believe it is a common problem.

I sort of get it, this need to tell all, especially if you are a large organization with many divisions and accomplishments, and an audience base that's varied. New hires need to get a sense of how big and varied the company they have joined is. There is a need to build ownership and pride. And of course, to break walls between divisions that tend to work in silos.

But really, there has to be a better way. Just moving the verbal diarrhea from classroom to online can't be the solution. Just dumping content in pages after online pages, and hiding a lot more in audio narration, can't be the solution. Just getting some in-love-with-his-own-voice trainer to go through hours of PPTs day after day in a real or virtual environment can't be the solution.

Why does this happen? Surely not because L&D folks don't know their stuff.  Maybe there are constraints of budget, time, resources or management buy-in. Perhaps there is some history of past failures and lessons that people are not ready to unlearn. Perhaps there is a diversion of design talent towards the all time favorite topic- Leadership Development. Maybe ROI doesn't justify the expense. Or perhaps, the likeliest, new hires don't complain about quality of their learning experience as much as other employees do.

As a designer and business manager, I get all this. But as a learner, the situation sucks. Who will speak for the learner?