Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Let’s make a mess…. Mess is good.

His little boy was flailing around on the floor, arms and legs moving frantically, when a curious Atul asked his son, ‘Pablo, what’re you doing?’  ‘Dada, I’m shwimming,’ he said, his eyes happier than chocolate.
His clothes, as you’d expect, were a mess.  His creased t-shirt hanging out of his waistband, his white pants, a pleasing shade of brown.  
Atul wasn’t sure if he should grumble or laugh.
He grinned, and good for him!

Luckily that day, ‘shwimming in an imaginary sea’ won over a possibly stern ‘Get up right now… look at your clothes!’
But making a mess isn’t so bad, or is it?

Making a mess is associated with creativity, and play. Both of which require some upside down, some rearranging our brain cells like Lego bits, the discovery of new ideas – ‘Look mum, I’m a walrus’, as he holds breadsticks  under his nose at a ‘proper’ sit-down dinner. But most importantly it involves imagination and self-expression.

Imagine if Picasso’s mum said, ‘Don’t make a mess. Get your pieces of coal out of here’.  

Aah, kids will make a mess.  Rewind, and you’ll remember making mud cakes (or playdough ones )and feeding them to your dolls, or happily rolling in freshly-washed  clothes just taken off the line,  or running up a mudstorm on the playground.

Yes, I know, not too many playgrounds in the city, but we got floors. Grin grin… and our kids are using their imagination. And as Einstein said “Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited to all we now know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world, and all there ever will be to know and understand.”  Yes, the same guy who developed the special and general theories of relativity, and won the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1921. Not too bad huh?

Now, some parents insist, ‘Kids shouldn’t waste their time making a mess. They should either be studying or playing some good educational games.’
 True they have homework and classes… and unfortunately, more classes. But what will really carry them through this world that’s changing so quickly, help them find their own solutions, and help them shine, will be their own Imagination.  

Mess – I’m not recommending pudding on the carpet, and do trust you to know the difference - brings new self-knowledge (‘Aah! I can create something!’), self-confidence, relieves emotional distress (Oh yes! If you watched an angry child create beautiful paper mache birds from newspaper pulp, you’d agree), and helps discover the creativity waiting within.

In their book , A Perfect Mess: The Hidden Benefits of Disorder - How Crammed Closets, Cluttered Offices, and on-the-Fly Planning Make the World a Better Place, Eric Abrahamson and David Freedman  talk about , the bias towards neatness programmed into most of us. Noting that "organizations can be messy in highly useful ways," they urge companies to be more flexible and relinquish control over some processes. See? They’re advising it in the boardrooms.

Yes, I understand. Our parents and teachers taught us to be neat, and disciplined. And it got us brownie points. (I’m sure we can hear our mothers’ voices saying, ‘Put that shirt away right now.’)  But while neatness and order have their place, we need to find more space for the ‘mess’ that lets us be Us. And therefore, let our kids be who they really are.

Allowing some mess allow kids to relax and be themselves. To let their imagination go for a walk in the open sky… to escape day-to-day realities and into places that are wonderful and magic.
So let her pull out the bed-sheets and pretend they are parachutes, or swings. Let her use the cardboard box your computer came in to take off to another galaxy, or be a caveman. Let her turn over the chair to make it a horse or chariot. Let her use the spoons to make music (please do this on a day when you won’t possibly fling them out at 300 kmph). Let her tear up newspaper and imagine they’re clouds.
They don’t need fancy play stations or expensive toys. (Well, till they’re told that they’re ‘cool’ if they do).

Oh yes, I haven’t forgotten that mess involves cleaning. And yes, mommy/ daddy dearest, it can be backbreaking… but if you give them a corner, and teach them to clean up after themselves  - which by the way teaches them self-reliance and discipline, it gets easier.

And in case you’re worried he’ll catch an infection, or fall ill, as ironic as it sounds,  the more he is exposed to a messy environment the stronger he’ll become. Of course, we’re not saying throw him into an oil slick sea at Juhu. But let him roll on the floor… let him know what mud tastes like.
Play transports them to a fabulous world, where anything is possible. And if it involves a mess, why deny them that? They will ultimately grow up and face the larger realities… but for now. Let them roll. 

At chocolaterie I know, the paper napkin has a line: ‘It’s better to have enjoyed and made a mess, than to have not enjoyed at all’.  I couldn’t agree more.

Read what Dr Michel Borba has to say on the benefits of play.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Her first teacher? You.

‘Why did you say ‘Shut up? ‘the four year old asked softly, as I got off the phone after a casual conversation  with a friend, and an ‘Oh shuddd uppp chuckle’ before I hung up.
I was the one who taught her that saying ‘Shut up’ could hurt. Hmm. 

So I really had no big answer to her question just then. (Our brains do tend to turn Paleolithic when kids ask certain questions, don’t they?).  Well, being shown the error of my ways, I did the wise thing – I apologized, explaining that it’s a habit I have. Not a good one, but that’s no excuse.  That I would watch myself, and not use it again.  She seemed satisfied, and went back to her doll.

Funny how easily we say, ‘Don’t do this. Don’t do that’, how we want our kids to turn into perfect  human specimens (of course, that is as improbable as finding the perfect maid). But strangely, they don’t learn from what we say, but learn mostly, from what we DO.
From the moment it’s born, your child instinctively looks to you. By default, you’re her role model. Her hero.  Her Lara Croft or Salman Khan (insert name of choice), till adolescence happens. 

So love it or not, thanks to a bunch of neurons in the brain, she will copy you. Your behaviour and your habits. It’s called Mirroring. And that will significantly shape her future behavior, her values, and finally her character. 

Consider this: A three-year-old placed a plastic zebra out on the balcony of her doll house. When asked why she him outside, she said plainly, ‘Oh he’s having a smoke.’ She’d seen her own father do that.  
So, if you curse, they’ll learn to curse. You don’t care of yourself, they won’t take care of themselves either. You don’t stand up for yourself. Later in life, they will allow people to walk over them. You little son will beat the doll, if he’s seen his father do something similar. You lie. They lie. Even the simple ones. ‘Tell them mummy’s not at home’, will set the pattern.

Researchers at Columbia University say that if a child is hit by their parents, or witness violence – verbal or physical - they were much more likely to see violence as a way of resolving problems as adults. Also, it creates the risk of a person becoming  the victim of an abusive partner as an adult.
But wait, wait. Before you go on a guilt trip for all the things you didn’t do/ did (as we so easily do :), there is a happy side to this. (Of course there is one). Using that very same ‘Mirroring’ you can teach your child how to handle conflict, respond to stress or fear, or interact with others. 

Yes, though it is a big responsibility, it is also a big fat Blessing.
You, have been given, or have chosen to take on the power,  to mould a big part of her early life….to create a human being that is strong and secure. To give her the tools, and values to go out and face the world.
While it’s not exactly comfortable, we can begin to be honest with ourselves. Of course, we’re human, and we will pass on our best and worst behaviors to our children. But we can begin to question what we do… what we teach them by our words and actions, how we live our life.. whether it’s using a cuss word, being kind to ourselves, or choosing not to use a plastic bag.  We can be careful to practice, more often, the good ones, and become conscious of the ones that will harm them.

And you’ll see it in their behavior, and yes, you’ll be proud of what you did.
Now, give yourself a pat on the back for all the times you’ve been there for them, and all the good you’ve taught your children. Then celebrate it. (Yes, they’ll learn to celebrate their good, and their achievements too. So simple, see?) Happy (belated) Teacher’s Day. 

Friday, September 2, 2011

Vitamin H, and how hugs can reinvent your child.

When I saw the ‘Hugs’ video for the first time.. all I wanted to do was see it again.
It brought so much warmth to my heart, and a truth to face.

We all need hugs. Those warm embraces that show us that we are loved and cared for. Those little cocoons of warmth and peace. I don’t know what the coding in our brain is that guides us to reach out to another human being with open arms, but it’s a natural, instinctive way of showing love, of communicating.

Open arms say, Come to me... I’m here for you. You stubbed your toe? Daddy is here for you. You feel sad your friend was mean? Mummy is here. 

We’ve been hugged when in pain - when people go away, when you meet long lost friends, or say goodbye at the airport... Hugs.. for when the words are short... and the arms are long. When you cannot write poems or speeches.. and let the heart... beating softly against another, do the talking.

And sometimes,a heart may be thundering loudly. Like when we are afraid of something, and need comforting, or if hugging just seems scary to us.

Yup, many of us haven’t learned how to. Maybe because of culture, or because of taboos, and true stories*. Or because we’ve been wounded before and are afraid to be vulnerable, to trust. (Y’know when a dog lies on its back, asking to be rubbed, it is completely open to attack, showing you that it trusts you.) Hugs are similar. Beginning with open arms.

And yes, many of us just don’t know how. My dad didn’t for a long time and it took several painful attempts to get him to hug back. (Imagine putting your arms around a cupboard, and expecting it to hug you back. Grin grin. He will not win the champions trophy for it yet, but baby, it’s a good beginning.)

Kids who haven’t been hugged, find it difficult to reciprocate, and please know this, will lose out on some profound loving. Yes, it’s not the easiest thing to be vulnerable. To put down the barriers and allow people. or another human being into your space, but it’s time we surrendered those fears, and conditioning for some 22K love. And the easiest place to begin, is with our kids... who trust us with all of their being. Even trusting us to feed the toy camel his tea snack while they are at school. 

They need your hugs, so hug them.
After the war in Bosnia, orphan kids that were hugged, and sung to, responded far better that those in other facilities that didn’t get much attention.
Newborns reach for the warmth of their mothers, the moment they are born.
To express our love through touch is in our DNA.
Yes, some of us, shy away from it...but its the essential vitamins our kids needs, a million times more important that the ‘fortified’ stuff you add to their milk.

Oh, I could read you all the research on how a hug will make a child more confident, happier, loving, emotionally strong, will use his brain far better..., but I won’t. You can simply shut your eyes and remember the times that you felt wanted and loved, and safe in a hug... and you’ll nod, knowing the strength it brings.  

What’s more, hugs will teach you to love better. Case 1: Curly haired waif says to her parents,  after their little argument, ‘Hug and make up’, and, who can not but obey a darling 4 year old.

So when it comes to hugging your own child, don’t be stingy.
Make it two hugs a day for your kids. That’s the minimum. One on your way out (or when you wake). One when you return (or before you sleep). Upper limit? You decide. Because at the end of day, you’re just getting back all the lovin’ that you give. and you need it too. You need it too.

*(child sexual abuse. Yes, we need to be careful. We will talk more about that in another post.) 

Note - Don’t hug kids that don’t want to be hugged. That’s simply not respecting their space. Remember how you hated it when some aunt you didn’t like insisted on grabbing you? Many boys usually over 8 years - don’t want to be hugged. Let them be.