Why do adults sometimes feel powerless with children when it comes to stopping them from doing something? Why is it so hard for some for us to say NO to a child? On the one hand we have instances of harsh disciplining that can sometimes become abusive, and on the other, over-indulgence. How does one find balance with a child when she is being “difficult”?
This week on Masala Chai, we bring you a write-up from Dipali Taneja, an author and blogger; a long-standing friend and college buddy. She writes about how children “crave approval, affirmation, love and closeness” and how important it is for us to provide boundaries and borders for what is and what is not acceptable.
Along with her essay, we bring you a commentary from two young mothers who present their experiences of handling their young children in moments when they may be acting difficult. As you read on, perhaps you will be able to see what was evident to us, that it is possible for the coexistence of several perspectives. Some issues are easier to deal with than others.
Things that stew in my mind
I read a post on the wall of my friend’s timeline on Facebook. She wrote “This has been stewing inside me for a while now. I keep meeting, every other day, the mother of a four-year old; just a couple of months short of five, but I don’t know if that makes a difference. The child falls ill every now and then, and the last time around, the doctor said (or so I was told) “Stop all toffees and Maggi noodles and other junk food”. For a week, yes, it was stopped. Then all of it came back, with the kid lugging around toffees all the time. “She finds them,” says the mother. “I can’t hide them well enough”.
The kid is badly behaved too. She hits; she doesn’t listen; she throws tantrums. The mother explains “You can’t say anything to her, at this age, you know”. “How can you scold her when she’s so small?”
She seems addicted to games on her mother’s cell phone. It’s so bad that the mother cribs that “She throws a tantrum if I try to take my cellphone back from her.”
The mother is constantly complaining, and I am tempted – oh, so tempted – to tell her that how a child turns out really does depend a lot on how the parents behave, at least to some extent. A four year old is certainly old enough to be told that some behaviours are just not acceptable. Why, can’t you do that even before four? With a child (oh, come on!- with anybody), keeping junk food around the house is a sure invitation to eating it, isn’t it? Why does the mother need to hide it? Why is it there at all? I have never understood people when they say a child doesn’t listen, why can’t a parent just say NO!
With a child that small, too, you should be ready to sacrifice at least some of your leisure to entertaining the kid, instead of leaving technology to do it for you, right? What surprises me the most is the relative incapacity of the mother when she speaks about not being able to “do anything when……”
Okay, rant over for now!”
Just this morning, my friend Madhulika Liddle posted this on her Facebook page, and it sparked a lively discussion on parenting. Madhulika has a four-year-old child, so she speaks from experience as a parent. Since I’ve recently been interacting a fair bit with my four-year-old granddaughter, tantrums sound familiar. How we deal with them is something we’ve had to work out for ourselves. (‘Us’ here means the spouse and I, when we are in sole charge of the child i.e. when she stays over with us for a weekend, say). Given that our parenting style (whatever that is) is very different from that of her parents, my son has wisely decreed: “Dadi’s house, Dadi’s rules”.
In the case of this neighbour, if the child is frequently falling ill, and has been advised to stay off sweets and junk food, it is common sense to ban those items from the home. In any case, isn’t there enough information about foods that are bad for us, not just children? I think the parents need to discipline themselves before they can dream of disciplining the child! In a home with children, some sacrifices (about food, entertainment, time-spent, conversations) are necessary. Given the bad press that junk food has been receiving in recent years, I’m actually quite surprised that the parents have allowed this much access. A young child is usually receptive to new concepts, and if the communication is effective, it is possible to reason, even with a four-year-old. I am not saying that it’s easy. You may have to reinforce them several times, remind them, and still be prepared for the child getting upset, but to simply give up and say “I can’t do anything” is something I just cannot understand, and it stews in my mind. As Madhulika responded to a comment on her post: “Whenever I’ve heard people complain that ‘Mera bachcha bigda hua hai (and I’ve heard a lot of this), I’m tempted to say, ‘Kisne bigaada?’” (Whenever I hear people say “My child is spoilt, I want to ask, “By who”).
On my granddaughter’s visit last weekend, my daughters came over with chocolate pastries for our tea. The little girl absolutely refused to eat any chocolate pastry, because she was convinced that her teeth would get cavities. (On Friday evening she had very happily, and messily, devoured chocolate ice cream in a cone, so this rejection was a little surprising. Also, I did offer to help her brush her teeth after having some, but she was adamant). When her parents came over the next day, we told them about this. They were most amused and said that this was the school’s doing. I served the pastries to the parents, and then of course the little girl gobbled up most of her mother’s share! (Truly, monkey see, monkey do!)
She hits. She doesn’t listen. She throws tantrums
“You can’t say anything to her at this age, you know,” says her mother. “How can you scold her when she’s so small?”
It is often difficult to deal with a young child mid-tantrum, but it helps if you can recognize the signs of an impending meltdown and I do believe that there are many ways that we can come up to avert it. Distraction is one, but I find that holding the child close and soothing her is a good way to calm her down. Once she is calm and somewhat receptive, she is able to deal with explanations. If our little one starts whining, we insist that she speak clearly and say what she wants. Hitting (by the child, but also by the adult) is an absolute no-no! Here the explanation is, “How would you like it if X hit you?” Empathy needs to be taught for it to be learned. It can take tremendous patience to deal with a frustrated child, but patience is the only way to go. The young child experiences many frustrations during the course of the day, which an adult caregiver needs to recognize and act upon. But this requires the caregiver to be keenly tuned into the child, and that takes time, energy and focus.
By not saying anything to the child because she is “small”, the mother is paving the way to further problems. Saying something to the child is the way to go. I believe that more than anything else, a young child craves approval, affirmation, love and closeness. They also understand boundaries, and sometimes I feel they even long for restrictions. Both science and wisdom about child development points to the fact that giving in to children for their every demand is a recipe for disaster. At four it may even look somewhat ‘cute’ (I don’t think so, but some do, perhaps), but the same child at 14, 24………34? Without the exposure to reasonable amounts of impulse control, I worry about how the child will develop. Of course, one can go too far in controlling the child, and the outcome of that too can be counterproductive. But communicating being “ineffective” in managing the child? That can be a huge problem.
Fortunately, young children are often easily distracted, and crises can be averted with loving attention.
She’s addicted to games on the cellphone. It’s so bad that the mother cribs that “she throws a tantrum if I try to take my cell phone back.”
The child needs real-life games that engage her mind. Sensible creative toys like blocks and builder sets, crayons and paints, anything that stimulates her imagination, but toys are no substitute for an engaged partner. There are some moments when a child is happy to play alone, and some when she longs for companionship. Sometimes an odd piece of junk is transformed into something wonderful by a child’s imagination. The mother (or other) needs to perhaps conveniently lose her cellphone for a while. Perhaps the child’s keen interest in the phone is learnt by how much the adult hangs on to it. Once again, a sacrifice. It is the same story with screen-time. It is hard for us to imagine a life without our phones at our fingertips, but it is possible. We also need to be aware that extended, early exposure to digital technology has not been found to be good for children.
Responding to a comment on her post, Madhulika says, “I feel sorry for the little kid. It’s not even as if her mother works or has no domestic help and so cannot afford the time to pay attention to the child. She just prefers to spend all her time socializing and on WhatsApp.”
Jaya Bhattacharya Rose, also the mother of a young child, responds to this by agreeing: “This is not the first time I have heard or seen this kind of parenting. It distresses me a LOT. Parenting has always been and will always be a responsibility that has to be faced and borne willingly. This is irrespective of the explosion of choice of electronic gadgets and other material goods that exist by way of distraction. Those are just the trimmings. Children are the unfortunate victims in this. They are new to the world and need to be introduced to it in phases. Electronic addiction and putting the child on a sugar high will cause long term damage and it has already begun judging by the ill-health and tantrums.”
Bringing up a child involves sacrifices and a lot of hard work. Most of all, the child needs our time. Time with a parent (or other adult) who isn’t constantly distracted by something else. It is true that many children grow up without being closely watched by adults, but in these communities, children have other children to play with. In modern day city life, safe outdoor areas have shrunk, and family size too. A child in such a setting needs time along with attention. Someone who listens, sincerely, to what the child says. A child can easily recognise and react to distracted attention. Someone who recognizes that idyllic though it may seem in retrospect, childhood isn’t all fun and games. There are tremendous frustrations for the developing ego, which need to be tackled with empathy and patience. Let your time with the child, however much or little it is, be your exclusive time with the child. Enjoy your child, and let your child feel that enjoyment! That is what will nourish her heart and soul.
When we read Dipali’s perspective, we are convinced about the need for keeping a firm hold on what children and we ourselves do when we are around them. The echoes of Truman’s well-used advice can be heard “If you can’t stand the heat, stay out of the kitchen.” Vigilance is necessary from a very early age and no child is too young for the cultural regulation of her life. In fact, culture enters into the picture as soon as the idea of a child is conceived. In order to get other perspectives on these issues, we sought out some of our advisors who have young children about how they handle difficult situations. All three comments here are from team members who have professional degrees in Child Development. They fully agree with the principles outlined in the essay. However, they sometimes consciously, sometimes not, land up compromising on these in actual situations, giving up, giving in, or simply letting something go, allowing a bit of play (in the sense of gentle movement, flexibility, the absence of rigidity), relaxing a bit. What we can discern is that when families live in multiple generation households, the dynamics gets a bit muddy, and negotiations a bit more complex. Please read on for their perspectives. Of course there are some things that we can identify as harmful and hurtful for children, but is there scope for greater flexibility? After all, resilience is one of the most profound qualities of being human, and children can and do develop and flourish under seriously diverse circumstances.
A grandmother’s perspective? Here is mine
Dipali’s essay raises an important issue that also emerges in the book referenced above, maintaining a balance, providing guidance and keeping boundaries in dealing in the care of children is key to family life. Although this sounds simple when we read her essay, in actual dynamics, finding balance is much, much harder. At least that is what I feel. As a mother I have to deal with a young child (who is, as children often are) difficult sometimes. I feel a subtle pressure from the essay that places an expectation on me to be a ‘perfect parent’, something that I am clearly falling short of being. Something that came to my mind was thus: “The same generation that let their children enjoy Coca Cola now looks down at ours when we indulge, even if it is occasional”. A lot of advice is offered about doing this, doing that, from the point of view of the child, and I became instantly defensive as a parent in confrontation with a grandparent! Quite inadvertently. I am reacting here not only to Dipali’s essay, but to the community of older people who often feel quite free to advise me about how I should be bringing up my child.
In principle I agree wholeheartedly with what Dipali writes, I’m just saying that when I am in the playing-field, I tend to make some compromises knowing fully well that this is a decision I am making and what it will ‘cost’. Recently, I met this grandmother of some pretty teens who saw my kids sipping on glasses of a soda (Limca) and fruit juice being served at a party. She remarked, rather superciliously, I thought, that she has several grandkids around this age (12) who have never even tasted soft drinks. I looked at the obvious signs of a great deal of wealth and couldn’t help thinking nasty thoughts in my mind. The teenagers were quite a handful. I know my negativity was unwarranted, for all I know they may be the most ideal children ever born, but her sense of superiority and her instant dismissal of what she concluded as my “style of parenting” irked me. I often feel defensive in such situations. In my experience, our parent generation tends to become too preachy about how children should be cared for.
For my child, for instance, although I (mostly) do not allow sugar and salt on a regular basis, I have no problems about breaking these rules when they are with their grandparents. I wholeheartedly agree with Dipali’s son “Dadi’s house, Dadi’s rules”! Furthermore, although I do not encourage him to take his meals before a screen, I know that his grandparents do, and I’m okay with it. I think it works for him. Expecting a frisky 3-year old to be a mindful and discerning eater seems like a tough task to me. At least one that I find myself often failing with, in spite of being conscious about it. At least I cannot forget what a pleasure it used to be for us as kids to run to our grandparents for things that our parents would discourage us from eating, sweets and savouries and not cucumbers and carrots! My son always digs into his grandmother’s bag for goodies like mints, sometimes goes for walks with her to get an occasional chocolate. The trip to the shop around the corner is punctuated with stories and conversations. I also find that he seems obsessed with salt shakers, and is always turning them over, even breaking them, licking off the salt as he plays. I also remember with great warmth how much he enjoyed chai as a young child. Whenever we would eat out, the one or two sips of forbidden chai would give him much excitement. Oh, at the club, his favourite foods are samosa, Maggi noodles with chai, singing along “Dum, Dum diga diga……mausam bhiga bhiga”, something he picked up one of these trips to samosa-land!
I think I have different priorities, when I compare myself with our parent generation
Another team member who lives in an extended family writes, I agree with both Dipali and my friend above. I cannot help feeling that the world that we are raising our children in is different from when we were growing up. I don’t mean to imply that our time is more difficult and our parents had it easy; on the contrary. BUT challenges that we are faced with and what our parents faced are hard to compare and comprehend. When I hear my parents judging me, I listen carefully, but I sometimes overlook their advice because I feel they are overly concerned about nourishment and mannerisms, these are not my highest priorities. Of course I care what the children eat and how they behave, but these are not the only things on my mind, I am eager to know more about how my girls think and what they did at play school and what their opinions are about something. I want to and do engage with them differently, I am unable to help it. As a parent, I have to struggle with issues about making communication more effective with my girls, I want to ensure that there is a balance in what they do and how they spend their time. My concerns relate to developing confidence, kindness, politeness, self-awareness and so many other dimensions. We need to make space for having one’s own unique way to raise our children and there are many ways to raise a child well. This is what I believe.
I feel that when a child is being difficult, we should decide how critical the behavior is, if it is life-threatening or morally threatening, we MUST be firm. If a child is running across the road, there is NO negotiation, we have to pull the child back, also if a child is about to burn her hand on something hot, we need to act instantly, no negotiations, no discussions. If however, it is a softer issue, like which dress to wear to a birthday party, I suppose one can easily give in. Sometimes, simple classifications can help and the division of parenting styles into Brick-wall, Jelly-fish and Backbone is one such grouping that can make an interesting reading. Between Parent and Child by Ham G. Ginott is also a useful guide that we mentioned in an earlier post. My point here is that it is okay to be flexible and use different strategies for different kinds of situations. Certainly children need decisive and principled handling, also, they will emulate the ways in which parents conduct themselves. As young parents today, we feel compelled to be more “reasoning” in our approach to children, and that may sometimes appear as if there is a role -reversal, where the child seems in control, perhaps too much control. This is sometimes distasteful to the grandparent generation. Furthermore, sometimes, if we are firm with children, grandparents tend to take the view that we are being too harsh. Between parents and grandparents, several differences can crop up and that is quite natural, even inevitable. In families where these generations live together, as in Indian families, these issues can range between being matters of discussion or difference, even conflict. In my view, these issues are complex and serious, and I believe the more discussions we have about them, the closer we will be to gaining a better understanding of our role in our children’s lives.
From my large joint family
This is a topic very close to my heart as I am always in a dilemma about ‘yes’, go ahead, or ‘no’ stop doing that with my three-year-old daughter. Somewhere between these yesses and no’s, she is growing up.
I don’t really have clarity about exactly when to say which, because when I am about to say No, I always stop to think about whether I am curbing her exploring, her learning, her self-expression etc. Or, will a ‘yes’ from me affect her moral character, her discipline, self-control? What if I land up doing something that will be unfavourable? Perhaps I think too much about this.
My sister who has two daughters, one exactly the same age as mine, has no such issues, she is quite clear about her instructions and doesn’t fret about it at all. Both cousins attend the same school and the girls also have very different temperaments. I, on the other hand, am often consumed by doubt. I want her to make her own choices, what if it is a part of her personality, and I am trying to mould her too much?
Sometimes even small things become an issue. Let me give an example of what I mean: She does not like to tie-up her hair, and my whole extended family keeps telling me to pull her hair back. I agree that the hair falls all over her face, but I want to respect her choice also, I want her to feel good about the way she chooses to be. Everyone tells me that I am giving in to her ‘irrational demand’ of not tying up her hair, and it must be troubling her. I am always confused about this.
I agree that we do give in at times and we find easy ways out by allowing children to do what they want to do, but this is not for that reason; I do want her to make her own choices. Sometimes I also admit that I give in to avoid a tantrum and endless crying and stress and the outcome of that. Especially living in a joint family, such episodes bring too much discussion. But I also believe that parents intuitively know how to handle their children, they know the tricks and it is not necessary that everyone will be able to understand their unique way of bringing up their children.
Let me cite another example. I know what my daughter is fussy about and I know the ways to get that thing done. She is fussy about ‘not washing her hair with shampoo’ (again it’s about her hair! She never liked foam on her face), so she never lets anyone wash her hair, and can get hard to handle. Everyone tells me I have spoilt her, you needn’t listen to a child, her hair will get spoilt, “tune bigaad rakha hai, bacche ki baat kyon sunti hai, baal kharab ho jayenge” and so on. But what they do not know is that when I have to wash her hair, I tell her the night before and prepare her, and that her hair needs cleaning and that she is a great kid. With this she is prepared and let me wash her hair next morning without fuss. But my extended family members can’t see that she wants to be prepared for something she just hates, and they think I am indulging in her whims too much. I think all these issues become more entangled when we live in multiple generation families.
When it comes to parenting, I believe that the child strongly influences us. Something we don’t always accept. My niece and daughter are exactly the same age, and they are so, so different in the ways in which they conduct themselves. What works on one just doesn’t on the other, we sisters see them as poles apart.
I agree that we shouldn’t give in to their tantrums and wrong choices but, yes, the ways of dealing is different for different people, and that’s okay.
Also I feel that parents are always new to parenting, they do make a lot of mistakes in bringing up the children, but what I feel is important and enduring is that they want to do the best by the children. All they require is guidance, discussion, reading and reasoning. Every generation of parents is new to the experience, though they may have had great parents and grandparents; for them the experience is brand new, so mistakes are inevitable, all we need is willingness to learn the best practices (which will be different for everyone, even siblings).
The Wild Child!
About boundaries, we found an interesting book about children of the counter-culture from the sixties in America. Here is a brief extract.
In the book Wild Child: Girlhoods in thecounterculture by Moon Unit Zappa (Frank Zappa’s daughter) and Chelsea Cain, define the lives of the children of the hippy movement. Of their childhood Chelsea Cain writes: “I am a child of the hippies. I sent my plump, naked girlhood frolicking through the vegetable garden and spinning on the porch to crazed hippie, banjo music. I called my parents by their first names till I was nine and knew who John Lennon was before I had heard of Jesus Christ. ……Until I was six I insisted on wearing a different sock on each foot. I ran with the dogs, I buried my dolls. My mother told me I was an artist, my father taught me to sing. I didn’t take baths, I believed Richard Nixon was lying and I believed I could grow up to do anything. For my parents, the heart of the counterculture was simple: Rejection”. The authors speculate, in hindsight, what the futures of children growing up without boundaries would be like. “….certainly such children were unprepared for life in ‘normal society” she argues. The book is a commentary on the lives of these children growing up and entering the mainstream. Certainly a great read for those of us who lived in those times, witnessing the ongoing and the consequences from a distance. Many people from this generation grew up yearning for boundaries and struggling both with their own identity and their relationship with the outer world. Read more here: https://www.amazon.com/Wild-Child-Moon-Unit-Zappa/dp/158005031X