Children can be our biggest teachers, even sometimes our saviours. Their unconditional love, innocence and dependency not just cause us to reach out for the best in us, but can teach us our biggest lessons, says Radha R Biswas
|Mamlu Chatterjee with her daughter Kiki|
In Silas Marner, the 19th century classic by George Eliot, a curmudgeonly, miserly man, Silas Marner, who has withdrawn from society and fled his community after being wrongfully persecuted for a crime he did not commit, finds love and redemption when he chances upon an abandoned baby girl and decides to raise her. The child’s love pulls a defeated adult out of self-imposed exile, and makes him a better person, who eventually finds both justice and happiness. The child gives birth to a reborn man, his better self.
From the moment they are born, for many of us, our children become the most important relationship in our lives. And from that first moment that we begin to expect, we also start to expect the joys and wonders of parenting. Mothers testify to how the birth of their children, especially the firstborn, gave them the greatest moment of joy, a moment of pure euphoria, in their lives. Many fathers also say that children change their lives for the better. Some adults say how they actually finally grew up the day they became parents.
Parenting is not necessarily always a guaranteed source of happiness and joy and raising a child can be stressful. So what is it that becoming a parent does? Can a child make you a better person, can children trigger off a transformation in a parent?
When I posed this question to friends and family, I found that most acknowledged a transformative power that children exert – in small and big ways. “Patience” is a key lesson of parenthood, a fact which every parent will testify to—from toddler tantrums to teenage mutiny, whether we are learning the lesson well or not! There are others too. Children, most agree, keep you honest, or as honest as possible – about the world, about reality, about yourself, because they can see through you most of the time, and it is just plain embarrassing to be caught out by your child!
But there are other lessons too. From honesty, to shedding deeply ingrained habits; from empathy to slowing down and taking note of life; from healing from life’s wounds to rediscovering the self, children are sometimes our best teachers and guides. And in assuming the role of their protector, guide, and champion, parents sometimes have to pause, take a step back and learn what they are showing them.
Priti Mahaseth, a Delhi-based HR professional, shared an incident about a friend who had a long habit of littering. His seven-year-old daughter learnt in school about how everyone can contribute to keeping public places clean. She was shown a foreign documentary on how people in many countries go on trekking trails to forest parks, picking up the litter and debris left behind by tourists. Initially, when she discussed this at home, not much attention was given, even though she questioned her father’s habit. But the next day, while they were out, the dad threw a wrapper in a parking lot while chatting with his friends. Seeing this, the little girl picked it up and went to a nearby garbage bin and put it in. This little action had a transformative effect. The dad and his friends immediately noticed it, and it had a dramatic effect on the father. He stopped littering altogether. Years of a thoughtless habit dropped. Today, the father-daughter duo go to a park every weekend for an hour to clear up litter.
Today’s aware, evolved children are often the messengers of social and behavioural change. From saving the environment, to quitting cigarettes, children can be the proverbial push we need to pull ourselves out of bad habits. This is because, no matter who we are, despite all our failings, we want to be role models to our children. We want them to look up to us, have them watch us do the right thing, even when ingrained habits keep us from doing so. Research on parenting norms suggests that the best way to guide kids is not by instruction or advice, but by modelling the behaviour for them. Children can force us to look deeper, at our needs and ambitions, and see what is really valuable. Our children teach us empathy, showing us how to reach out, and see the world from their eyes.
The power of little ones can be surprisingly strong. Parents, it is said, will lay down their lives to protect their young. It is a primordial impulse, not just confined to humans. By now, many of us would have seen the visceral video circulating on WhatsApp, of the fierce wilderbeest mother in the Serengeti coming back to take on a lioness after her calf has been mauled nearly to death!! Our children’s vulnerability can make us draw on strengths that we did not know we possessed. It is their dependence that makes us set aside our own needs and plans. On a more normal scale of things, how many times have you wanted a lie in, or forced yourself to get up for your children, and not just because they had to get to school on time? How many times have you stepped out of your own comfort zone because of the tug of a little hand or your child’s eyes looking up at you? Sometimes, it’s best to have small shoes to fill.
Because it is perhaps as new parents that we first learn to put another human being’s needs before our own. No matter how exhausted we may be, how much our bodies scream for rest, we wake bleary-eyed, but rush to the baby when we hear a cry. Working mothers, of course, usually have it worse.
|Suzy Singh with her two children who taught her vital lessons|
Suzy Singh, a Delhi-based healer and writer, shared how as a working mother she had to muster all her patience and compassion when her elder one was born. “For three long years after her birth, she kept me awake every single night. Many children do that but after a 10-hour gruelling workday, to be patient and compassionate with an infant who lay awake from 10 pm to 4 am night after night, expecting to be rocked, sung to, and entertained, took enormous restraint and perseverance. My daughter taught me to be patient and compassionate. She taught me the value of putting another’s needs before mine, quite literally.”
And if her first child taught her the first lesson in selflessness, her younger child taught her an even bigger lesson, when after having him, she tried to return to work.“Every time I planned to return to work after his birth, something would happen to disrupt that plan. The reliable domestic help would vanish, and I didn’t have anyone else I could leave him with, till too much time passed to really take up a regular job again.” Then one day, the little boy suggested that she work from home, following her passions. She found herself listening, and when she eventually did, she found that the experience transformed not just her work life, but her consciousness, making her more creative, more human, more empathetic.
Just how deep this empathy can run, when we listen to children and what it can open up, is what Mamlu Chatterjee, a Kolkata-based writer and mother of two grown children, discovered, when she found that she had a special connection with her son—with whom she shared an instinctive “invisible telephone cord”, through which she and her son could instinctively understand each other; words became unnecessary. And just how big a gift was this extraordinary empathy, is something she realised in her work as a counselor, when she had to learn to communicate with folks who were so troubled that they could not find words to begin sharing.
But empathy was not the only lesson these moms learned. In each case, the children, with their extraordinary pull, had other “gifts” to give, a crucial one being the act of letting go, of surrendering, or simply slowing down. The last, simple as it sounds, is no small lesson for parents to learn.
In fact, it is probably one of the biggest, in today’s harum sacrum world, where so much of the stress we experience is caused by the relentless pace of our lives, when we find that little is in our control, the way we want things to be. We forget to share in their little joys and simply brush past them. We forget that children are usually in the Now – whether immersed in a book, a game, a drawing, or simply looking at ants marching towards spilled sugar. While we, on the other hand, are always hurrying, trying to get things out of the way or trying to get them under control, losing our tempers when our children won’t march in lockstep with us!
In fact, sometimes we can learn this, even when we are trying to teach it. “All her life, she has been in a hurry, learning things before her time, refusing to sleep in case she missed out on something through the night, rushing from one toy to the other, and so on,” recalled Mamlu, speaking about her daughter, Kiki, her first child. “Because she was always in such a hurry, I slowed down deliberately, to teach her by example that things could be done well, carefully and painstakingly rather than in a hurry, carelessly. This was a much required change in me as well, because I went through my entire school life with the word ‘Careless’ emblazoned across all my copies! My daughter taught me the importance of the ‘pause’.”
I learnt this lesson too, during a recent vacation in Kashmir. While we grownups were over planning our day – a gondola ride in the morning, a trek in the afternoon and shawl shopping in the evening, and getting a little stressed working it all out, my 11-year-old daughter, I realised, was just happy sitting on a rock, blowing at the petals of a dandelion and wondering out loud how long they would take to reach the mountain peak ahead. I was calling out impatiently to her to get ready, getting increasingly annoyed that she wasn’t paying attention. I hadn’t even noticed the meadow of dandelions near our tent, until she called me to watch her, and that’s when I realised how simple the vacation could be.
Ishita, a working mom in a high power corporate job in Mumbai, describes her children as her reality check. At one point, her teenage daughter observed that her mother bore the brunt of all the conflicts and friction between other members of the family, by constantly trying to intervene and set things right.
The wise child, realising the stress her mother was taking on, told her to step back and not get personally involved each time. Her advice to her mother was to be an observer, as she would not always have the power to change things. Once again, in this case, the mother listened to the child’s advice, and now says, “What I have learnt from my children is that one does not have to try to be ‘perfect’ to sustain relationships nor try to ‘explain’ whenever things go wrong….sometimes, it is best to let go and trust that situations will work themselves out.”
Learning to trust
Speaking of trust, isn’t it true that adulthood can turn us into cynics? The world outside, with its relentless stream of bad news of corruption and scams, and neglect and cruelty, and our own failures and disappointments can make us suspicious, forget to trust, and jump to conclusions.
Jayanthi, an educationist in Jamshedpur, describes how her six-year old son taught her the importance of trusting and not judging. An episode stands out in her mind, that made her reflect on her nature, egging her on to become less judgmental, and learning to respond rather than react.
“Siddharth, my son, was in Std 1 and was asked to bring Rs. 50 to school. I gave him the Rs 50; he took it, and suddenly, as an afterthought said, ‘Mummy, I’ve to take Rs. 100 to school and not 50.’ My mommy antennae stood up immediately. I gave him a threatening look, and asked menacingly, ‘Do you really have to take Rs 100? Aren’t you telling me a lie?’ The boy looked rattled, but did not say anything. I was devastated. ‘What did you want that extra 50 for?’ I thundered. ‘Is it to buy dosas from the thelawalla outside your school? If so, did you have to lie to me for that?'”
“My son looked frightened and devastated. But he said nothing. Only stood there looking very guilty. My husband, who had been a mute spectator to the whole drama, went up to my son, hugged him and asked him very gently, ‘Why did you ask mummy for 100 when your teacher asked only for 50?’
The little boy stared long and hard at the ground but said nothing. A little more coaxing and goading. and out came the truth. His best friend, Kiran, was a very forgetful child who could never remember to do the work his teacher asked him to do, and as a result was always getting scolded in class.
‘I thought that Kiran might forget to bring the money and so I thought if I lent him my extra money he would escape a scolding,’ my little boy whispered, his eyes welling with tears. I stood there dumbfounded, feeling so small, and yet my heart swelled with pride at what my little boy taught me that day.”
Jayanthi’s story, described in such vivid detail, reminds us how, in the rigours of everyday parenting, in a world besieged by what many adults see as an erosion of values, teaching our kids these values becomes a major parental preoccupation. It is true that helping children succeed and accomplish goals has probably become the top parental priority today, but many of us worry about what we are doing about the people they become… and whether we are able to inculcate honesty, fairness, and compassion in them. We become frightened when we think that our kids are falling short on this, and we forget that we must sometimes just trust them. This is not to say that we should be naïve, never questioning questionable behavior, or letting our parental antennae down altogether. But rushing to judgment is a danger that many of us fall into, and sometimes our kids can remind us to step back.
Sometimes, the trust issue can reach deeper, an inexplicable bond can form with a child, that can help us step out of self-created walls, as Dr GL Sampoorna, a Chennai-based psychologist and Heal Your Life teacher trainer, found. A divorce had led to a hardening of heart, and simultaneously, a couple of incidents had caused her to distance herself from children. The first involved a relative whose three-year-old girl adored Sampoorna. and who she adored. Somewhere along the way, the mother began to feel threatened, and voiced her fear to another relative that Sampoorna might take away her child. Shocked by this, and another similar episode, she started to withdraw from children for some years after that, until her grandnephew was born, an adorable baby boy. When the baby was a few months old, he was brought home to her and others, in Chennai. While the others cooed and fussed over him, Sampoorna kept her distance. But then something happened. “At one point, the little fellow looked directly at me and held out his arms. At that moment, I could feel my heart melting in a great overflow of love, and all the barriers I had built around my heart got washed away.”
Empathy, trust, surrender, so many lessons to learn from children…but what about the feeling of failure that can grab us when we can’t seem to learn the lessons, when parenting brings up our flaws or shortcomings in sharp relief? When we fear that we have passed on our worst to our children.
A friend’s experience in this regard provided a valuable insight. Some major life events had conspired to make her depressed and angry – illness in the family, the loss of her career following a major relocation, uncertainty in the family business, and mounting stress in her marriage. Her short fuse, that had always tended to trip up often, had grown shorter every passing month. She tended to explode over the smallest things, especially around her daughter – for misplaced books, stalling in front of the TV, unfinished chores. Bitter yelling matches, and inevitably, tears, followed. No matter what she tried – from yoga to medication, the problem did not seem to abate. She started to worry even more when her daughter started showing signs of being stressed out and developing a short vicious temper, which, she realised, was a mirror of her own. At her lowest point, she resolved to just give up. But, she says, it was foremost, her love for the child that pulled her out, and brought her back above water – the child’s natural effervescence, and the forgiveness that followed the fights. It was the child who made her pick herself up, reset her compass, no matter how many times she floundered and flailed, and made her resolve to try to learn the lesson – whether in patience, forgiveness, empathy, or simply letting go.
The main lesson in all of this, perhaps, is when we realise that as parents, we are here to learn and to work our way through the various challenges that parenting, or life, throws at us. And it does not even matter whether we are stellar students in the school of parenting. That we simply try, is what we do, as parents.
Even if we can’t always receive these gifts of parenthood, or learn the lessons perfectly, we keep trying. And it makes me wonder; many of us tend to think of the act of raising and teaching our children as our magnum opus, and one that should come naturally to us, when it’s really a work in progress–for life, that requires us to be ready to learn, every time.
About the author : Radha Biswas is a public policy researcher increasingly devoted to creative writing and teaching. She returned to India with her family after 15 years in the US and curently lives in Jamshedpur
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