Is your child happy?

Jan 22, 2012, 09:15 IST | Dhamini Ratnam

Experts and parents involved in the dialogue on better parenting exhort adults to ask themselves the question above. Everything else will fall into place, once parents begin to shift focus from controlling their child to helping them grow into balanced people. Oh, and remove the word 'should' from your vocabulary, they add

Experts and parents involved in the dialogue on better parenting exhort adults to ask themselves the question above. Everything else will fall into place, once parents begin to shift focus from controlling their child to helping them grow into balanced people. Oh, and remove the word 'should' from your vocabulary, they add

Parenting is a wondrous thing, by the looks of it. Or at least our population figures seem to suggest that Indians like being parents. But the question to ask is, are we doing a good job?

The Porbanderwalas have a ritual at night: before sleeping they
all indulge in some 'family hug-time'. "This is one time when
we all connect, no matter how stressful the day has been for
each of us," says Zahrah Porbanderwala, an interior
designer. Pic/Atul Kamble

"At the end of the day, you need to raise a happy child," says 38 year-old home chef Deepa Kochhar. The Lower Parel-based mother of a 11 year-old and a four year-old believes that parenting is fun, as long as the parents don't reduce it to a series of chores.

Psychiatrist and psychotherapist Dr Anjali Chhabria, who counsels parents and children too, agrees.
"Parents would do well to laugh at themselves and keep an open mind while parenting. It's important for the child to be happy, not tensed or worried, in his or her house," says Chhabria.

Yet, as many would attest, this is easier said than done. So we spoke to life skills experts, rational behaviour therapy practitioners, and parents to help you break the glass ceiling of parenting in 2012.
Read on.

Be firm not rigid
Five year old Zahee is an adorable muppet who likes pairs. "She's just not satisfied with one!" says 36 year-old Zahrah Porbanderwala, her mother. So whether it's a candy, a chocolate, a pencil or even a large serving of ice-cream, Zahee would rather have two of each. Of course, neither Porbanderwala nor her husband, Aneel (39) gave in to Zahee's demands, which would often lead to Zahee throwing a tantrum. To instill satisfaction with singularity, the Porbanderwalas laid down a simple ground rule: If Zahee asked for seconds, she wouldn't even get the firsts.

At first, the five year-old thought her parents were kidding. Then when she realised they weren't, her tantrums returned. However, both her parents were clear about enforcing their rule. "It would break my heart to see her cry, and sometimes I'd just want to give in especially when she'd throw a tantrum while we were out," reveals Zahrah. "But, I also knew that if I gave in, Zahee would think that we're condoning her behaviour."

Eventually Zahee got the plot: A bird in hand is worth two in the bush. Even now, Zahee may take two candies from her mum's bag of chocolates, but she makes it a point to tell Zahrah: "Mom, I'll try not to eat the second toffee, but if I do, I won't eat another for the next five days."  According to Chhabria, disciplining a child is an art.

"Parents need to exert control, but allow their children to express themselves. While a tantrum must not be condoned, parents need to be firm but not rigid in enforcing correct behaviour. Discipline them without getting upset, as parents who lose their temper send out a signal that when things go wrong, it's normal to lose control. Not only does this scare the child, it also teaches them to look down upon another person's point of view. How you say something is as important as what you're saying."

Make them a partner in parenting
A week ago, Zahrah's help had taken leave, which meant that in addition to office, Zahrah's work at home had increased. "I returned one evening to find the house in a mess. The children's toys were strewn about, the dining table was covered with dishes and plates and the children hadn't cleared their room. So I sat them both down and told them, 'When I return home, I want to spend time with you two, but all this house work is stopping me from doing that'."

Zahrah divided the chores and took her children's help in cleaning up the mess. Recently, Deepa Kochhar's 11 year-old daughter Yashi, asked her to call the swimming coach, because she wanted to take part in a swimming competition organised by her school. "I lay out options and let them choose what activity they want to do. The act of making a choice is important for a child, because none of us likes being told what to do," she says.

Chhabria says that involving the child in decisions that concern them lets the child know that you believe in their abilities. It also teaches them to act responsibly, both, towards themselves, and their family members.
"Make them a partner. Ask for  their opinions, get their views, give them responsibilities. I recently let my 19 year-old do up the interiors of our house, after discussing the budget with her. At the same time, accept their version of doing things," says Chhabria.

Ensure family time
Despite the hectic lives parents lead, it becomes vital for both to make time to spend with the kids -- that's the bedrock for a happy and fulfilled childhood. Family bonding time, asserts Chhabria, is important, as that's when children learn to be more sociable, empathetic and prioritise their family over everything else. They also get an opportunity to talk to their parents. "Balance, whether in time, emotion, money, work, is what children need to learn," she says. 

While being tucked in at night, Zahee would ask her parents and sister Sara to hug her. Unknowingly, she kick started a family ritual: the family hug. "Zahee came up with this when she was 4 years old. Every night before going to bed, she would ask us all to come and give her a hug. Then it became a time for all to hug each other. The family hug time is one where we all connect, no matter how stressful the day has been for each of us," says Zahrah. Another rule of thumb the Porbanderwalas follow is 'no TV during dinner.'
"Instead we play Atlas, or guessing games," Zahrah adds.

Lead by example
The Porbanderwalas lead a hectic work schedule -- they run a design firm -- so imparting spiritual knowledge to their two children, 11 year-old Sara, and Zahee, often takes a backseat. To correct that, Zahrah began to teach her children the importance of meditating at night. "I meditate for a short duration before hitting the bed, and taught my children some simple techniques on how to meditate. They both picked it up immediately, after seeing me do so."

This practise has also encourage the five year-old to talk to her mother. "Immediately after we open our eyes, Zahee tells me all the things she saw when her eyes were shut. Invariably, this leads to a discussion about her day in school, and her interactions with her friends and teachers. She reflects on her behaviour, and talks about her 'fights' with her friends, and what she can do to rectify them," says Zahrah.
Says Chhabria, "Parents teach values and ethics only through their behaviour. For instance, children emulate a parent's behaviour toward elders and subordinates. If the parent is rude,  or abuses during a crisis, it's obvious that the children will pick that up."

Talk, don't punish
Parents often resort to punishment as a way to get their child to listen to them. But all they need to do to achieve that is to talk to their child. Further, how you treat your child's indiscipline depends on his or her age. Children below four wouldn't understand rational conversations that ask them to 'think about what they've done.' Between five and 11 years, children are not very open to talking about their feelings, as they don't have the vocabulary to express them. However, this is the age when they grasp -- and feel -- very keenly.

To get them to open up, clinical psychologist Shrradha Sidhwani suggests that parents make them draw or play games like role play, to understand them better. (see box) Says Deepa, "I created a reward chart for my four year-old, Pranava. If he did all the activities listed in the chart, like wake up on time, eat his vegetables, go to school without fussing, take a bath and go down to play in the evening, I'd give him a gold star at the end of the week."

If Pranava didn't perform the activities on the chart, Deepa and her husband Suren kept a chair in the corner of the kids' room, which they referred to as the time-out space. "When Pranava throws a fit, we give him a choice. If he persists in throwing a fit, we ask him to take time out. Often, he corrects his behaviour because he doesn't want to go to the time out space. There is no need to get angry, because he knows that sitting in the time out space means he has done something he mustn't be doing." Says Chhabria, "Don't equate the behaviour of the child with morality. If he's done something wrong, don't say, 'You should be ashamed of yourself'. Instead say, 'this behaviour will not be tolerated'."

Lighten up
How we parent is often a reflection of who we are as people. If we feel guilt easily, then our actions towards people -- including our children -- is often  motivated by the need to over compensate. If we lose our temper easily, it means we lose control in times of crisis. And since children's perceptions are governed, to a large extent, by their parents -- both in terms of what they do, and what they say -- it is important to work on our negative emotions before we ply our children with them.

One way to do that is to accept feedback from your children about your behaviour. "When I raise my voice while talking to my 11 year-old, she quietly asks me to not do so. So then I apologise and secretly crow about the fact that Yashi can distinguish between discussion and emotion," reveals Deepa. "After all, I expect the same from her, and it's great that she feels she can says things to me without being afraid of the consequences."

Another way to do this is by giving your child his or her much needed space. "After dinner, Yashi likes to read, or answer her emails, and Pranava enjoys spending time with her in the room. They're both doing their own thing, and talk to each other. So I ensure that I leave them to it. Both my husband Suren, and I don't barge in to tell them to sleep," Deepa admits. Says Chhabria, "You need to be ready to laugh at yourself. Keep an open mind while parenting, and that'll go a long way in ensuring the happiness of your child and you."

Have the sex talk
The birds and the bees seem to be the bane of many a parent's life. However, it need not be so.
Says Deepa, "Sex is not a taboo topic in the house. I'd rather that my children are correctly informed about matters, than have them hear some half-baked information from peers." Parents usually wait for their child to approach them with questions about sex, and fear that too much knowledge may set their child off on a wrong path. However, what they don't realise is that their child is not in the dark about such matters thanks to television, the Internet and peer groups. So the talk becomes all the more important, if you want your child to get the right outlook towards sex, sexuality, the body, and love.

"There are ways of explaining the act of sex to children. One way to do it is by sticking to facts, and keeping it as scientific as possible. Another way is to talk about it without making it out to be a big deal," says Sidhwani. This approach is enhanced by laying down ground rules on behaviour regarding the body, and more importantly, another person's body.

"The psychological implications of love aren't understood by adolescents. They only understand affection, attraction, and attention, but not the complete gamut of emotions. While it is better not to approach sex and love as taboo subjects, parents must be approachable, so that their child can come up to them and talk about it," she adds.

Teach your child life skills
The UNICEF lists out three broad categories as life skills, under which several issues are raised. Life skills are defined as psychosocial and interpersonal skills generally considered important for the holistic growth of a child. These are:

1. Interpersonal communication skills: involves active listening, negotiation/refusal skills, empathy, teamwork, motivation

2. Decision-making and critical thinking skills: information gathering, alternative solutions, analysing information

3. Coping and self management skills: Managing stress and feelings like anger, grief, and anxiety, and abuse, developing self esteem, self awareness of attitudes and values, learning relaxation and time management techniques

A quick guide on how to encourage rational behaviour in your child

Shrradha Sidhwani, 30, Clinical psychologist and Rational Emotive Behavioral Therapy (REBT) practitioner tells us how to stay rational when your child isn't.

First, remember:
You can alter your behaviour if you're feeling low or angry by taking a walk, or seeing a movie with a friend. But to get rid of the anger -- a fundamentally irrational emotion -- you need to work on the thinking patterns that lead to those emotions: the 'whats and whys'.

One of the irrational thoughts parents have is that they are in control of their child's life. In reality, the child's going to have his or her own experiences, some of which may be negative.

The most a parent can do is equip the child to deal with their experiences (hence the importance of life skills). By turning anxious, over controlling or angry with their child, they only teach the child that it's okay to be irrational.

Here's a quick guide on how to treat your child when:

He's throwing a tantrum:
Age 2 to 4 years is the tantrum period. Deal with this using a reward-punishment chart. If the kid eats his veggies, is polite, brushes his teeth etc, you make a note of it on a chart, and at the end of the week, he gets a star and a reward -- his favourite meal, an outing, a hug. Keep a time-out space (don't use the word 'punishment') where the child is asked to sit by himself for a few minutes. From age 4 and above, you can ask them to think about what they've done, and how could they behave differently to avoid the time-out space. As the child grows older, from age 10 to 17, talk to them without losing your cool. Separate their emotion from their behaviour, and point out how they can put their anger across without screaming, in a way that will let them be heard and taken seriously.

She is stressed:
Scores, exams, pressure to perform and live up to expectations give rise to anxiety, which hampers a child's performance. Instead of focusing on marks, focus on the child's learning method � teach her essential life skills like time management, and understand her learning pattern (whether she learns best through listening, reading, or writing). Most importantly, let the child learn through his/ her own experiences.

He is being violent:
Lay it down as a rule -- anger is fine, aggression is not. Helping the child isolate his behaviour and see it as separate from his emotions -- helps him deal with both better. One way to do that is to help the child identify triggers that get him angry (mom refusing to let him watch TV; dad not buying him the toy he wants). When he finds himself in the same situation, ask him to choose a different behaviour, one which doesn't make the situation all about him.

She's spending too much money:
A child's value for money needs to be instilled from the beginning. You can't wake up when she is 15 years old, and expect her not to demand money, after plying her with toys, food and clothes. Start by teaching her money skills -- ask her to save money to buy something that she wants, instead of buying it for her. Distinguish between her needs and items for pleasure. iPads are for pleasure, a textbook is a need. Set limits to usage of items of pleasure, like TV and gaming consoles.

He's having mood swings:
Signs of depression in a child include disturbed sleep, mood swings (either passive or defiant), and lowered activity levels. Excessive crying, and bed-wetting even though the child is toilet trained, helpless and negative thinking, not wanting to go to school also indicate that the child is going through something.
The first step would be to help the child express what he is feeling so you can identify the problem. Young children do this best when drawing, or through games like role play. Encourage detachment and emotional independence from situations. Rationalise the situation by asking questions like, 'how would you feel, if you reacted differently?'; 'what will you do to make sure you don't feel this low again?'

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