That Empty Box is ALSO a Toy!

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What is a toy?

To answer this question, we first need to look at how we (adults) define and view toys versus how children view toys. We have a very specific understanding of what a toy is. A toy is something that a child can play with. But, this ‘something’ comes with a disclaimer. We are comfortable when a child plays with a toy that is manufactured by the toy industry that has made sure it is age and developmentally appropriate. That, that piece of object carries the seal of the toy industry.  So, if a baby wants to play with a mesh sieve from the kitchen or a toddler wants to use the broom, we are not wholly comfortable. We don’t consider these as toys. We redirect them almost instantly and instinctively without much thought, “Why don’t you play with your toys?” 

But, what is a toy for a child? 

For a young child, anything and everything is a toy. If a toy is something to explore and play with, then yes, everything is a toy. We forget that babies come afresh into this world. They are free of our societal and cultural conditioning – they do not look at the hair brush and instantly associate it with combing. They will grow to create such associations. But, they are, in a sense, free of the restrictions that we hold. So, if a baby finds a hairbrush, they will mouth it, roll it, chase it, mouth it again and delight in the texture of the bristles and explore it with fervor. A toddler might not just brush their hair but their feet, their frilly frock, the couch pillow. An older child may run towards a heap of leaves, jump into it, climb out of it, stomp on it, jump into it again and giggle in the rustle and chaos of the scatter. This play, this exploration of the object is their way of understanding and engaging with the world. It is their way of asking “why not?”

But, do we look at these as toys? And, more importantly, do we look at this as play?

If the children are engaging in repeated exploration and manipulation of the objects and if the objects are giving them joy, can we not look at the hairbrush and the heap of leaves also as toys to play with? 

Specific Playthings

The toy industry is a multi-billion dollar establishment whose sole purpose is to design and manufacture toys for children. Think about it, there is an entire industry dedicated to selling playthings for children. This is no small thing! This is a huge deal in giving children the much needed place in society, in giving their developing intelligence and innate curiosity due recognition. With more and more research emerging in the field of early childhood, toys are becoming further refined. There are toys to help children count, learn letters, reason, code, hone their eye-hand coordination and challenge their gross motor skills. In a way, the industry has left no stone unturned.  

But, by purchasing these toys, there is a certain security we derive. Firstly, we believe that ALL the toys that come through the industry are developmentally appropriate – they serve a purpose, a goal. That the toys are essentially what children should be playing with. That the toys with the lofty labels are what shape children in their lives. As goal driven individuals who seek results, we are convinced to buy a toy only when we are assured of its outcomes.

A mock example of how we typically choose toys for play

We know that by purchasing that particular toy, we are offering, essentially, a lesson on logic or the letters. We bask in the safety of these toys because we simply know. We feel secure because we can, in a certain sense, control the kind of early childhood experiences we can give our children. A rich environment filled with age-appropriate toys, each of which promise a skill, a learning! 

The Child’s Play 

But then, this child enters the scene and runs toward the cardboard box in which the toy itself arrived and plays endlessly with it. This is unsettling because we question what skill the child is acquiring through such play. We want them to play with the toy and not the box.

So, we show them to place the ball in the hole and the baby chooses to roll the ball on the floor. We are tempted to redirect them. Because, we know that by dropping the ball in the hole, they are learning a very specific skill. But what if the baby wants to roll the ball elsewhere? Drop it down an inclined slope? Are we willing to let them? Are we willing to let go of knowing ‘what’ they are learning from each exploration, from each play? Can we be comfortable in that space of not knowing? 

We must remember that children do not differentiate between a didactic toy and a non-toy, nor are they result-oriented. In a sense, children make every object a didactic object. They are little scientists who engage through experiment. They also do things for the sake of it.

They jump in the puddle of water because that is calling to them. Just because. What could they be learning from that play? We don’t know. Maybe they are teaching us to be joyful in the moment.

Letting Go | Finding a Balance 

In some ways, we need to let go of this control. We need to let children decide what they want to play with and how. We are going to watch for disrespectful behaviour and redirect those energies but, even that, we need to watch. Remember, young children are free of the layers of conditioning that we have? So, are they intentionally disrespecting the object or just exploring it in yet another way? We need to observe before intervening. 

We also need to strike some balance. Children do need didactic toys, they do need play that meets specific developmental needs. But, they also need time to play without constraints. If they want to roll the ball downhill instead of putting it in the hole, let them. 

We need to take away the notion that children need to learn something from every toy. We need to let go of controlling what they are learning from every experience. We need to be okay with not being able to pin down on what developmental need is being met through each play. 

So, the next time they go for the empty box, refrain from redirecting them to play with their ‘toys’. Instead, mark the joy of sitting inside that empty box, diving into the heap of leaves and jumping on a puddle of water as the mystery of childhood, the child’s world, their own domain and sometimes, at least sometimes, let’s not meddle with it.

“Let the children be free; encourage them; let them run outside when it is raining; let them remove their shoes when they find a puddle of water; and, when the grass of the meadows is damp with dew, let them run on it and trample it with their bare feet; let them rest peacefully when a tree invites them to sleep beneath its shade; let them shout and laugh when the sun wakes them in the morning as it wakes every living creature that divides its day between walking and sleeping.”

Dr. Montessori, The Discovery of the Child

From No to Yes : How can we shift positively from a NO Environment to a YES Environment?

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The Child in the Adult’s World  

The adult world is filled with objects that serve us a purpose. Our cords and wires, glassware and knives, screens and gadgets, scissors and car keys. These individual objects make up our homes, our lives. These are the objects that serve us a purpose, that bring us joy, that put us in touch with the world. Into this world, enters a baby afresh. This baby sets foot with no prior worldly experience and observes for months, us adults,  engage, manipulate and transform our environments using these objects. This creates in the baby a fascination, an allure, to get their hands on those keys that jingle, on the scissors that magically snip paper into confetti, that glassware which sparkles. This is what holds the baby’s attention for months – our manipulation of the world using the objects that surround us. 

So naturally, when they are finally able to move their tiny bodies, they gravitate towards these objects that they have silently observed from afar for several months – only for us to say the word NO. 

What is this No? 

The word NO is a fascinating one. It has no real existence in this world. An apple tree, my shoe, the neighbours cat, your book all have an existence in this world. Even if I describe my apple tree as large and bearing several green apples, you can visually see the apple tree match my description. But, this word NO fits nowhere in this realm. It really has no concrete existence. A baby who understands the world largely through concrete experiences therefore does not instantly comprehend the word NO. What does it even mean?! 

What actually catches their attention as they are reaching for our shoe and trying to mouth it is the tone which accompanies our NO. That urgent, high pitched, slightly-bordering on anger, NO is far from the tone that we typically use to speak with them. Our facial gestures and body language that accompany the word NO are vastly different from our typical behaviour around them. So, the difference in the way we say this particular word is what holds the baby back initially. 

This intrigues them, and curious as they are, they want to reach for the shoe again to see if we will give them the same response. When they hear the word NO a second time, they begin to see a pattern. “Ah-hah! So every time I touch the shoe, this person makes this peculiar sound.” Some reach for the same object again and again only to see our reaction remain consistent, possibly sterner and slightly impatient. When our tones and hand gestures become louder and firmer, some babies start crying while some others find the whole thing rather amusing and do it repeatedly much to the annoyance of many adults. But, soon enough, all babies begin to understand that more things in their world are NO than YES and begin to grapple with this reality. 

Our Usage of No 

The word NO holds a lot of power. It means “Stop!”  The person who utters the word NO wants what is happening to stop instantly. It implies a non-negotiation of the situation, a complete standstill of what is currently happening. Considering this, we adults use the word NO rather too freely and carelessly without much thought. We also use them very inconsistently. What is NO sometimes, suddenly turns into YES and what has been YES for a long time suddenly becomes a NO. “No, please don’t go and turn on the tap now.” “Fine, you can turn on the tap, just this once.”  “No jumping on the bed.” “Okay, fine jump. As long as you don’t trouble me.” “No chocolate on weeknights.” “Fine, you may have chocolate today.” We also use NO most generously, several times a day without any hesitation. It becomes a habit, a pattern after a while that we rarely ever pause and ask ourselves, Why am I saying NO? 

So, the real problem with our NO stems not from our usage of it to protect our children but from our careless over usage of it to suit our whim and fancy. 

“NO leaves you feeling reactive, making it impossible to listen, make good decisions or connect with and care for another person. A focus on survival and self-defence kicks into gear, leaving you feeling guarded and shut down when it comes to interacting with the world and learning new lessons. Your nervous system initiates its reactive fight – flight, freeze or faint response : fight means lashing out, flight means escape, freeze means temporarily immobilizing yourself and faint means feeling utterly helpless.”

Dan Siegel, Professor of Psychiatry at the UCLA School of Medicine

So, what does NO do to the child?

  • NO curbs exploration

The first thing that the word NO does is that it stops exploration. Imagine a young child who is new to this world. How would this child know what is high from low, loud from soft, smooth from rough without concrete experiences? Exploration is the key that unlocks intelligence for this child. Only through  holding, manipulating, mouthing, banging, rolling, falling and engaging to see how the objects respond to their touch, do they learn. This is how they build concepts, judgement and perception. When we repeatedly use the word NO for situations that do not truly demand it, we are indirectly telling the child that the world out there is not for them to explore, effect or transform. 

  • NO interrupts independent thought & action

NO tells the child they are not capable of handling the world. “No, no don’t climb the stairs. You will fall.” “No, don’t touch the jackfruit, it is prickly.” Imagine if someone was following us around, tracking our every move and telling us what to do and what not to do, how would that feel? For starters, it would be a complete robbery of freedom. Secondly, it will be a reminder that we cannot manage on our own in this world.  This leads to self-doubt – “Can I actually climb the stairs? Am I even capable?” and also leads to reliance on others – an unnecessary dependence where independence can blossom – “I will just ask amma to peel the oranges. It is too hard.” Unnecessary use of the word NO leaves children uncertain about themselves, their abilities and potential. 

  • NO instils  a fear of what is out there

NO very clearly scares the child into believing that the world is an unsafe place with threats and dangers. Yes, there are threats, there are dangers and it is our job to protect our children until they are ready. However, most situations where we use NO do not require it. It is an overuse of the word that creates an environment of fear – of an anxiety that something negative will happen whenever they seek exploration and experience. 

How can we shift from NO to YES? 

  • Prepare a YES Environment

The first step is to create a YES environment and surround the child with YES objects and experiences. What I mean by this is that things must evolve to meet changing needs. The space must be flexible.  A baby of 4 months is not mobile and having  glass cutlery on the bottom shelf may not be a problem. But, a toddler of 14 months is mobile and going to want to reach for everything. So, we can either show them how to access and use these objects with care, (“Yes, let me show you how to carry the glass bowl”) or if they are not ready for that, keep them out of reach. We have to continually see how to make our homes a YES space bearing in mind the child’s need to explore, manipulate and belong. 

  • Choose your NO’s thoughtfully  

The key to having a YES environment is to first understand what aspects are YES and what aspects are a NO. Before deciding on what is NO, we must think about it and ask ourselves “Why am I saying NO?” This will vary largely based on individual families, the age and readiness of the child. One child might be ready to eat using glass utensils while another might still not be there. One 2 year old may be using a knife to slice vegetables while many others may not yet be ready. So, we need to first assess what works for our situation and decide as a family on what aspects are NO. Once we have decided, we must stick to it. There is no point in going back and forth – this will only confuse the child and make the NO meaningless.

  • A YES Mindset

Our homes can be thoughtfully prepared and still curb exploration if our  “Yes, you can!” attitudes do not permeate it. When we overuse the word NO, we not only take away its power but create a mindset that holds children back from the world. It creates a fixed mindset – one that limits the child’s growth because of a lack of belief, a lack of faith that comes from constantly hearing the word NO. “I am not capable of climbing.  I will only fall if I try.”

By consciously creating a YES home, we instil in children an attitude of openness that looks at learning as continuous. What’s better, in this home, they begin to trust that they are capable of tackling glitches and treat all experiences with josh, enthusiasm and joy!

“Anything we give attention to, anything we emphasize in our experiences and interactions, creates new linking connections in the brain. Where attention goes, neural firing flows, and neural connection grows. And where neurons fire, they wire or join together. If you’ve been focusing a lot of attention on No! No! No! this is where neural firing flows, a No Brain reactive state.”

Dan Siegel, The Yes Brain : How to Cultivate Courage, Curiosity, and Resilience in Your Child

The Words we use to describe Children Matter.

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Words.

Words are a carrier of our thoughts; they elucidate our emotions, pain, joy, frustrations, ideas & play through meaningful sounds. When we hear words, images pop in our minds; words take us to faraway places and make us laugh. They evoke memories and instantly bring up deeply buried scars. A single word has the capacity to make our day, decide our mood and steer our course of action.

Words are so much more than just sounds.

Yet, how often do we pay attention to the words we use? 

When a child is born, it is only a matter of time before we start to describe them, box them – “He is so naughty. Look at him reaching for the ball”, “Don’t pick her up, she is manipulating you”, “She is such a picky-eater, just like Tina” , “Mine is such a brat, what about yours?” 

While many of us catch ourselves using such words, those seemingly harmless & casual remarks, how many of us pause to think about these words we use? 

Why do our words matter? 

  • Words decide the way we approach our children 

Let us assume we have named a child a fussy-eater. “Tara has always been such a fussy eater!” When we pin this on Tara, our attitudes and approach towards her changes drastically. We now view her AS a fussy-eater.  We tell ourselves “Okay, my child IS a fussy eater.” We acknowledge this in our minds and every time we approach this child, we are going to approach A fussy eater.

So, how would we approach & handle this child? Would we be patient, empathetic and respectful or would we be impatient, irritable and stern?

Our brains are shaped by the words we hear, the words we speak, by our mental chatter. So, if we tell ourselves, “Tara is a fussy-eater”, we will not just approach her with less empathy and patience, we will also be unconsciously looking for ways to confirm that thought, that belief that Tara is a fussy eater. 

how we word it is how we think about it
  • Words become their inner-voice

Children carry our voices with them throughout their lives. Overcoming these voices in adulthood takes conscious acknowledgement & effort. 

Let us take an example, in Southern India, being fair-complexioned is considered essential for women. If, however, you do not fit this box, many women are commented on for their ‘lack of colour’, their ‘dull appearance’ and the likes. Or, they are given suggestions : “Why don’t you apply this new fairness cream? , “Have you tried using olive oil and turmeric?” As a girl who grew up in this society, everytime I bask in the sun, I pause for a moment and wonder what would happen if I lost my complexion because a dear one repeatedly told me that being fair IS essential. Like this, don’t we all have our own insecurities about ourselves fed by the people who surrounded us in early childhood?

The words we use become the voice for children and as significant members in their lives, it becomes increasingly hard to ignore the voices that nurture them in early childhood. 

  • Words put children in a box 

Being in a box can be very limiting because all humans change and grow throughout their lives. When we have called a child terrible at math, they believe this to be true and every time they make an honest attempt at trying to understand math, our words will hold them back! Even labelling a child ‘perfect’ and ‘amazing at everything’ is counterproductive. This is because, we now put this child on a pedestal from which they cannot fall. Very often, such children find it hard to live up to these expectations; they find it easier to hide parts of them rather than disappoint loved ones. 

  • Words become their identity 

When we attach labels to our children, these become their identity. This is hard for young children who find it difficult to understand that we love them regardless of these identities.

As Veer grows, he will believe these to be true and his behaviour will begin to support these labels. These will become his identity! Now, some of these labels might hold him back from exploring what else he can do; they can also hold him back from being open to experiences because of the fear of losing his identity!

Where to go from here?

The truth is, as caregivers it is hard for us to not form any opinion about our children as their personalities take shape. However, by calling a 2 year old a fussy eater, we limit the capabilities of this child. Our 2 year old may not yet be open to trying all foods. But this is their journey; the ups & downs contribute towards growth. They may go through phases where they are enthusiastic about some foods and not as much about others. Children (and adults) are a work in progress. This is what we must be mindful of. 

So, going forward, it does not mean we are wary of every word we say. However, it is important to watch what ideas we are feeding our children about themselves using our words; what words are we using to identify them because how we word it is how we will think about it.

Do we look at our children as horrible-nappers, fussy-eaters & math geeks or do we let them be? Do we let them show us how different life- experiences are moulding and transforming them? 

“We are always in a perpetual state of being created and creating ourselves.”

Dan Siegel, The Developing Mind

Let’s talk about Mess!

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Children are messy! This is a common notion that we adults share. Whether they are playing with some blocks or washing their hands, whether they are painting or rolling up a rug, mess always seems to follow children. We instantly know there is evidence of a child’s handiwork wherever things are in disarray. 

Trigger for a Reaction

Mess is something that throws many of us off. It is a cue for an elaborate clean up – no adult with a toddler needs to be told the scrubbing that has to be done following a painting session. Mess is something many of us struggle to look past because it requires effort to rectify, energy to restore and time to reset. Mess is not something we want to have time for because we associate mess with mischief, disrespect and unruly behavior. We think of mess as bad.

But, in early childhood, mess is not a sign of rebellion. It is a sign of learning, a sign of overwhelm, a sign of wanting some 1:1 time. In young children, mess is a reminder for observation. 

Types of Mess 

  • The “ I’m learning” Mess

When a child is learning to do something by themselves, there is going to be a mess. This is a natural part of exploration and learning. We need to train our eyes to look at the mess and see what it symbolises. It is a sign of work. In the process of taking food from the plate to their mouth, their yet-to-be coordinated body, their yet-to-gain finesse hands have spilled some or most of the meal. This type of mess is the remnant of a child at work. 

How to help?

We help by first not saying, “Oh my god! Look at what a mess you have made. This is why I prefer to brush your teeth myself!” Likewise, there is also no need to tell this child that the mess is a sign that they are learning. Instead, what we can actually do is look at this child.

  • Is this child a baby, a toddler or an older child of 4 or 5 years? 
  • Can this child help you in the clean up? If so, is this child actually going to clean up without your prompt?

If they are going to clean up, we just wait. Else, we swoop in and say, “Okay, so you have finished washing your hands. I notice some water here. How about we get that purple sponge and clean it up?” If this is a baby who cannot yet help, we can offer a piece of cloth for them to hold and also model how to clean up. Yes, this is hard work! But we need to remind ourselves that we are setting the tone for future initiatives by this child. When this baby becomes able and ready, they can collaborate in fixing the mess. 

  • The “ I have too much” Mess

Another kind of mess happens often with children who have too much. For this, we need to understand that our level of too much and the child’s level of too much are not the same. If we have a book cabinet with about 30 books, we can look for the title we want from the mix and move on to reading the chosen book. But, even we struggle nowadays, I must say. Everytime we are on Netflix, we take hours just deciding which movie to watch. If this is true for us, then it is even more true for little children. They need limitations. 

When we have all their toys dumped in a tub inside a playpen, there is going to be a mess. This is a kind of mess that is detrimental to progress because it curbs exploration. It leads to a child jumping from one to another, banging, throwing, screaming and creating further mess – signs of the child coping with the mess. 

How to help?

We help by offering this child the much needed limitation. Have a look at what draws the child and choose 3 – 5 toys that support or aid this. Put everything else away in a closet, out of the child’s sight! Now, these chosen toys can be arranged very neatly on a mat on the floor, under the centre table, on a low cabinet or shelf. The toys can be rotated when we feel the child is seeking new challenges. 

  • The “ I need some attention” Mess

This happens to almost all of us several times a day. Adults have a lot of responsibilities around the house – we have to wash the dishes, fold the clothes, take that important call and we cannot give children our full attention all the time. And, we needn’t! But, when the child is creating a mess, it is a sign that they need help. It is not a time to ignore the child or the mess as this child needs help to fix the mess, to fix that feeling of wanting to create the mess. It is  a reminder to stop. 

How to help?

If this is a toddler or an older child and you have to take that important call, talk to them. Tell them, “Amma really needs to talk to this client. I will be with you as soon as I am done. You can bring a nice book over here and read it. We can look at it again after I am done.” They may be able to wait or they may not, depending on the situation and prior experience with waiting. Once you are done, you can go over and give them that 1:1 time to calm their energies.

It is important to stop because we first need to calm the energies, calm the need to make that mess. Children also need bites of 1:1 time with us during the day. This will calm, ground and secure them, readying them for periods of play. 

  • The “ I’m curious” Mess

Young children are learning. They are learning that when they release their hold, that piece of potato will fall splat on the floor, that when they turn the tap fully, water is going to flow at full force. This mess is similar to a child who is learning. However, this mess may happen because of a curiosity to know what happens if? This is a way to understand that their actions impact their world. 

How to help?

We help by showing the child how to fix the mess once the curious exploration comes to an end. This is very similar to the, “I’m learning mess” and requires the same kind of assistance in resolving.

Looking beyond the Chaos 

Understanding where children are in their development, observing their actions and the motives behind them will help us form a bigger picture of their mess.

The child’s order and disorder, the successes he attains, depend often on one’s ability to observe the least particulars, because only through doing will the result be satisfactory.”

Maria Montessori, The Child in the Family

As we have seen, mess is a sign of work, a sign of learning, a sign of exploration, a sign of having waited. Mess is a sign of growth. 

Why Vocabulary Matters!

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What is Vocabulary?

When a child is born, we surround them with language. We offer words, “Oh, look at that bird, that is a crow.” We move on and name a few other birds – pigeon, myna, sparrow and soon, our repertoire of birds is exhausted. We now look at every other bird and say, “See, that’s a bird!” This happens to almost ALL of us. When we take a walk in our neighbourhood park with our child, how many of us stop and show our child the different trees, shrubs, plants, flowers and birds? Do we ever stop to look around or do we just group all of these into ‘nature’? For most of us, every tree is a ‘tree’ and every flower is a ‘flower.’ But for young children who rely entirely on us to understand what their world has to offer, vocabulary becomes a necessity to connect with it completely.

Vocabulary is a collection of words. It is a list of words that we associate with objects, emotions, people. All of us have a database of words which we use to communicate with one another. For some of us, this vocabulary is rich, while for some others, it is limited. Vocabulary becomes so important when we want to understand something, remember it, explore it further, build abstractions and speak about it. We never stop to think of the limitations of a scarce database of words!

Our Obsession with Letters!

There is a serious concern that haunts each of us when it comes to teaching our children the alphabets. We don’t think as much about words as we do about letters. We start with letters very early. We sing the ABC songs when our babies are barely a few months and we read them a string of alphabet books. The day they identify the letter R or the letter P, we celebrate.

The truth is letters are important. Yes, we want our children to know them because they are the building blocks of words. But, what use are letters for a young child who has no words to build them into? What will the child talk about if she does not have the experience and word association to remind herself of that experience? With young children, we need to worry more about words and less about letters. This is because, without words, letters stand as isolated entities that have no meaning! Letters become important only when our children have a well-stocked repertoire of words that they then want to pen down or read about.

The WHAT child

Children under six are explorers. In their exploration of their home, their garden, their society they come across various objects. This sparks their curiosity and they eagerly ask us, “What is this?” We have all come across that young child, constantly asking us what, what, what! They parrot this as they move from one to another, trying to understand what their world is made up of. If our own repertoire is very limited, what can we feed our children? This unique aspect of human beings – naming everything from objects to emotions is what connects us with others. Without words, without a rich vocabulary, we are limiting the child’s further exploration and understanding. We are taking away from them the joy of communicating their discoveries with others.

Why does Vocabulary Matter?

A Word for Everything 

When we say the word flower, each of us conjure up an image of a flower. The flower in my head is the poisonous oleander. This is probably because in southern India, most of us grew around oleander flowers. Poisonous as they are, oleanders are found in abundance in South India. This is the image that comes to my mind when I hear the word flower. Now, when I say the word flower, each of you reading this has your own image of a flower. The images in our minds may or may not match. This is because we each have different experiences that conjure up an image. When I become more specific and say sunflower, immediately all of us draw up an image of a sunflower. This abstract image of the sunflower in my head may still be different from yours but we are all thinking of sunflowers. We have now narrowed down to the specifics. 

A word for everything is important because every word is a tag on which that whole experience will sit. Without that specific word, a child cannot carry the experience anywhere. If our child comes to us and says, “Amma, today I saw a big flower. It was yellow.” and all we can say is, “Oh you saw a flower. Very nice!” That whole experience stops right there. Instead, we say, “Oh, what colour was it? Was it purple? Was it yellow? Did it have large yellow petals? Did you notice a brown disc in the centre? I think you saw a sunflower. How wonderful.”

Later, we can talk about sunflowers and go back to observe it with more understanding because we have given a word for that particular experience of the child. 

Ability to Notice 

This is a skill that is lacking in most of us as we now spend more time looking at our screens. At the bus stop, we hold our child’s hand and are busily looking at our screens. At the restaurant, each of us is holding a phone and scrolling down. We don’t notice what is happening around us. Let us take the same example of the walk in the park, assuming we know the names of the different trees. When we have named these for the child, we will see ourselves and the child begin to notice more details. It is like getting to know a person. We have taken the effort to learn the name of this tree and the tree then starts to come alive for us. We notice its branches, how they sway differently from the branches of another tree. How the trunk has ridges and how the roots are as thick as the branches and so on. Without that word, we don’t notice further. We just move on with our lives because we know nothing about that object. 

Wonder! 

Oh, the joy of wonder! The ability to wonder should not just be a child’s gift but an adult’s as well. How many of us wonder? Do we ever curiously look at a bird and wonder why it flies so low, why does the hummingbird jump from one flower to another so swiftly? How are big birds able to lift their bodies? Wonder is the birth of all knowledge, without wonder, we are limp! A child can carry the abstraction of the object and the word in her mind and gradually begin to wonder about it. A word is a gate pass into wondering all about an experience. It is the beginning of all the why questions that an older child comes to us with. However, without the what’s the child cannot move onto the why’s.

Fondness & Love  

This is ultimately where we want all these words and experiences to take our children. This love for what they see around them. Let us take the same example of the park. If our child accompanies us every morning and we spot different birds and rest under different trees, these experiences create joyful memories. If someone were to cut that large tree under which you spent every morning with your child, resting, singing and laughing, won’t it be like someone is snatching away a dear friend? Would we not care enough to at least see if that can be stopped? We rarely ever pause and care about these things, not because we don’t have the ability to care but because we don’t know anything about life around us to even notice what is going on. 

A word is so much more than a word. It has the potential to lay the foundation for abstract thinking, imagination and intelligence. This is not to say we invest in a pack of flash cards and just offer ‘names’ to children. With young children, we offer words with experiences so that the word can sit on top the sensory richness of that experience. This way, the child can club all that experience into a single word. So, we need to take the effort to learn the names of words ourselves so that we can pass this on to our children. It is not just about ticking off a list, “bird, tree, car.” We need to invest a little more attention and care into marrying that experience with the word.

Dr. Montessori, in her book To Educate the Human Potential, said “We shall walk together on this path of life, for all things are part of the universe and are connected with each other to form one whole unity.”

Interdependence over Independence : Earth Day Special <3

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Today, we live in a world that is all about autonomy – I, Me, Mine. All of us strive to be self-sufficient; we do not wish to rely on others. Our family units are becoming smaller and smaller pushing us further towards self-sufficiency. But, let us take a closer look at this ‘self-sufficiency’, this so-called independence that we all cherish. Are any of us truly independent? Are we ever to call ourselves self-sufficient, forgetting the innumerable factors that come together to sustain us?

When we look at a newborn, helpless & frail, solely dependent on us for love, comfort, food & security, we hold a vision for this life. A vision to enable these tiny beings to become independent. From very early on, we nudge our children towards doing for themselves – whether it is learning to dress, eat or move, our goal is to guide them towards independence. True, being able to independently do, think & be are critical to survival in this world. However, we celebrate independence as the goal, the destination. But this independence is only a means, a means that will hopefully take our children towards that intricate web of interdependence that holds us all together.

So, instead of stopping at independence, our goal must be to guide our children to use their capabilities in contributing towards the web of interdependence.

So, how can we highlight interdependence in young children?

Young children derive immense joy in being able to do something by themselves. Anyone who has observed toddlers, will have noticed the pride they derive in being able to do – whether it is carrying an oversized pitcher of water or moving a tiny piece of furniture. This is often followed by the famous “Me do it!” phrase. While we nurture this independence by giving them the opportunity to do tasks & make simple choices for themselves, we can also guide them towards doing for others.

Doing for the Home : For little children, home is the first solid & stable environment. In this home, every member is integral and doing for each other is what makes the home a warm, loving & joyful space. So, involve your children while you set the table, casually highlighting, “Today, let’s set the table for dinner. One plate for amma, one for appa, one for thatha (grandpa), one for paaty (grandma) & one for you.” This is an example of a simple way to draw the attention of the child that they are helping set the table for their family. Similarly, activities such as dusting a shelf or collaborating in preparing a meal, either by washing the vegetables or by peeling or pounding, children can be involved in countless activities at home that put them in touch with their whole family. By peeling the potatoes that everyone will be having for lunch or dusting a shelf that sits in the living room, children are contributing towards their family.

Doing for the Environment : This environment, this planet is our home & as a member of this home, we ought to show other new members (our children) how to nurture & care for it. For very young children, filling a bird-feeder or keeping a bowl of water for birds & squirrels instantly puts them in touch with other beings. Having a few potted plants, or a vegetable garden and learning to water them, pulling weeds & caring for them tenderly shows them to treat other beings with respect, value & kindness. Even by avoiding wastage, at the dining table, while cooking and while using compost from simple vegetable waste as manure, or by consciously staying away from single-use plastic, we are constantly modelling to our children how our choices & our decisions are impacting our environment.

Doing for Others : Young children are eager & enthusiastic little helpers, if only we let them. When we use children’s innate kindness towards doing tasks for others such as fetching grandma her shawl or helping appa (dad) carry a bag, helping feed their younger sibling, we are again highlighting how we can use our capabilities towards fulfilling others needs.

Stories : Lastly, something that always ties things together for little children is stories. Talk to children about people who have cared for this planet & treated it with the kindness it deserves. Talk to them about kindness and the joy of helping one another. Apart from oral stories, if we can read books to children about these, and hold conversations on their importance, such experiences will leave an impression on their psyche.

Earth Day
The Water Princess

Why?

If there is one thing our current circumstance of a global pandemic determines, it is that we are ALL in this together. Our actions determine the health of others around us; our actions determine the health of this planet. We want to raise children who are mindful of their actions on the environment. We want our children to hold the big picture – this is not their independence but their ability to use their independence of thought and action to support one another. Every choice matters; our children need to see us make choices that take others into consideration; choices that nurture and nourish the environment.

“Interdependence is and ought to be as much the ideal as self-sufficiency. Man is a social being.”

Mahatma Gandhi

The Importance of Practising Gratitude with Young Children : Part 2 : HOW?

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Part 1 of this article focuses on Why it is important to practice gratitude with young children. In Part 2, let us look at  a few different ways in which we can practice gratitude with young children.


Children under 3 are different from those over 3. Very young children are less articulate and require verbalisation from our end. However, this does not mean we cannot engage in dialogue with them. We can use their coos and babbles or their few words as a response in our interactions. With children over 3, we can expect more response by encouraging reflection through prompts and also by presenting events of the day that urge reflection. 

How might this be?

  • With Children Under 3

Let us assume a parent is talking to their toddler at the end of the day. The parent can casually talk about some of the events of the day. “Today, we went to the park that has the giant fountain and you played with your new blue ball. Do you remember who got you the ball?” (pause) “Yes, thatha (grandpa) got you the ball. You laughed so much while playing with the ball. Tomorrow, lets go again to play with the ball and I can take a video of you to share with thatha. He will be happy to see that you like it.”

Initially, babies and toddlers observe and may coo, babble or say a few words in response to the conversation. It maybe something liketha” for thatha or “ba” for ball or something else in connection with the incident. Regardless of the response, the aim of this simple practice is to bring the incident back to focus, acknowledge the emotions experienced and highlight the intention behind the contribution (in this case, grandpa’s gift).

  • With Children from 3 – 6 years  

If older children are habituated to unwinding with gratitude, they might share some experiences. “I played on the swing with Mudra.” or “I liked the dosa today.” While helping children express experiences that spark a feeling of gratitude, we can also probe further to help them understand emotions around gratitude, building perspective. “Why do you think thatha came all the way to play cricket with you? (pause) Do you think it is because he cares for you and enjoys having time with you?” Children in this age group can also be helped to reciprocate acts of kindness with kindness. “How did you show/tell thatha you were happy he came?” Maybe tomorrow, when he comes, you can give him a hug.

Gratitude Part 2

  • With Children in a Community 

In a communal setting with several children, this can be done in groups. The adult can help the children in the group bring their attention to benevolent acts, such as “Do you know who washed all the hand towels for lunch today?” or “Radha Akka swept the veranda clean so that some of you can work outside after lunch.” By highlighting these acts, children understand that kind gestures are valued in the community and gradually begin to reciprocate with kindness.

In “Thanks! How the New Science of Gratitude can make you Happier”, Robert .A. Emmons says, “The momentary experience of gratitude is not the same as having a well-honed grateful disposition : although at one moment their emotional experiences might be identical, a person who always seem to have a deeply grateful heart no matter what the circumstance is very different from another who is simply appreciative of a gift he has recently received.” 

So, what is important? 

  • Being Consistent

Routines are a reliable way for children to integrate a practice into their daily lives. Creating a simple gratitude practice for children and sticking to it makes this yet another bedtime ritual, much like brushing teeth or bathing. While routines do help children look forward to and predict their day better, it is our responsibility as adults to prioritise and value these practices until children are themselves able to to consistently fulfil them. 

  • Enabling Recollection 

Helping children reflect on their day allows them to look back at events in their lives and focus on those that make them feel thankful. As adults, we often look at events that make us complain, “Oh, the traffic was just horrible today” or “ I wonder why my manager always picks on me”. Instead, we can focus on simple things that light up our lives. Reflection not only allows children to gain perspective, but also helps them recollect incidents which is crucial in practicing gratitude.

In The Whole Brain Child, Dan Siegel says “ Memory is like so many functions of the brain : the more we exercise it, the stronger it becomes. That means that when you give your children lots of practice at remembering – by having them tell and retell their own stories – you improve their ability to integrate their memory.

  • Being a Representative of Gratitude

Perhaps, with young children, the most important of all is for adults in their lives to share their own experiences that spark gratefulness. “I am so thankful to Papa and you for waiting in the car for almost an hour to pick me up this evening.” or “I was so touched when you shared the last chocolate with your sister.”  This gives them examples of how, as adults, we also end our day with  gratitude.

The Importance of Practicing Gratitude with Young Children : Part 1 : WHY?

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The word gratitude brings to mind a feeling of thankfulness; an acceptance of circumstances and an acknowledgement of the gift of life.

But, does gratitude end with just the feeling or is it much more than a fleeting feeling of thankfulness?

When we choose to make a habit of gratefulness by adopting an attitude of gratitude, we are making a long term investment in the mental and physical well being of not just ourselves but of those around us, as well. A grateful disposition is probably the best gift we can give our children to take with them into adulthood. 

“It is gratitude that enables us to receive and it is gratitude that motivates us to repay by returning the goodness that we have been given. In short, it is gratitude that enables us to be fully human.”

Robert .A. Emmons,Thanks! How the New Science of Gratitude can make you Happier

Gratitude & Children

With children under the age of six, gratitude begins as a subtle and indirect ritual which gradually becomes a more active and involved process. This can be as simple as a conversation at the end of the day between a parent and child or a teacher and a small group of children. The adult in the picture brings to focus some of the events of the day and helps the children pin emotions around them that focus on gratitude.

Young children understand a lot more than they can speak and by giving words to emotions that they feel, we give them the opportunity to narrow down these emotions to specific words. “Were you relieved when Mudra brought you a tissue when you fell at the park today?” or “You seemed delighted to set the table for dinner.” The words that surround gratitude such as joy, thankful, relief and happiness are simply highlighted in this practice with children.

Why?

  • Learning to Unwind with Gratitude 

Studies have shown that adults who spend a few moments each day journaling at least three things that they are grateful for have better mental & physical health, sleep & exercise better and tend to avoid depression. Although young children may seem inherently more joyful, practicing gratitude is a habit that will stay with them through life. It can be a simple bedtime ritual just like brushing their teeth.

In its own way, gratitude is a kind of prayer; instead of asking, we show our children to give thanks. Gratitude is a dynamic and open prayer where we recollect events of the day and be thankful for how those events have enriched and shaped us.

  • Acknowledging Collective Effort 

Gratitude helps children acknowledge that so many people and circumstances come together to sustain us.  Let us take a family, for example. Different members of the family support each other in different ways. Every member of the family is a contributor – tangible or intangible and every presence makes a difference. Many of us often take our closest family and friends, the ones who always love and support us, for granted. When we help our children acknowledge such presence in their lives, and when we ourselves acknowledge the same with our children, they begin to understand that life is made beautiful by the collective effort of so many.

  • Gratitude in the face of Adversities 

When a child has had a painful experience – falling down, an argument with a friend or sibling or losing something, we often try to either suppress or dismiss the experience. “Do not talk about the park or he will remember he fell down and start crying again” or “Stop crying! It is not such a big deal.” 

Instead if we talk about the experience, for example, “Today, what happened at the park?” (pause) “You fell down and cried. It must have been painful. Do you remember what happened after that?” (pause) “Yes, Mudra came running with a tissue and helped you. I am so grateful you have a friend like Mudra.” (pause) “Do you remember what we did after that? (pause) “We went to the doctor and he gave you an injection. You were scared. I held your hands and stayed close by. Did that make you feel better?” (pause) “Now, you are back at home and resting. Once you feel better, we can go back to playing in the park.” 

When we talk about trying experiences and help our children find hope even in those circumstances, it shows them perspective. It helps them always try and look at things to be grateful for even in adverse circumstances.

  • Spontaneous Thank You’s! 

How often we ask, rather nudge and even force children to say Thank You! As aware as we of the power of these words, we seem content with the words more than the feeling. With children, we expect instant responses.  While our children might say the words out of fear or compulsion, do we stop to think if they really are thankful? Instead, by talking to children through simple conversations such as, “I am so thankful for grandpa. He came all the way just to play with you”, we help them become aware that a certain person has done an act of kindness for another. It helps our children gradually build a habit of reflecting on the act of the other person. “Why did grandpa come? Does he really love and care for me?” 

When we think of it this way, we help our children build a web of emotions around benevolent acts. These will eventually lead to spontaneous thank you’s. Such thank you’s will stem from a deep sense of gratitude and give the words their true value.

“Childhood maybe the optimal time to promote healthy attitudes and the prevention of problems, and gratitude training could play an important role in any program designed to foster well-being. As in adults, gratitude may be a very valuable tool that children can use to negotiate both the ups and the downs in their lives.”

Robert .A. Emmons,Thanks! How the New Science of Gratitude can make you Happier

As indirect as the practice of gratitude is with young children under the age of six, it is like a seed that we plant in childhood and nurture with love and care. This seed of happiness will eventually instil a genuine sense of gratefulness and is possibly one of the most invaluable gifts we can offer our children.


Stay tuned for Part 2 of the same article on the different ways in which we can practice Gratitude with Children under 6 at home and in communities. 

 

Dealing with a Child who Bites

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The word biting brings distressing memories to many parents of young children. Biting is a common phase that many young children go through as they navigate their initial interactions with the world. Through these interactions, they understand that they are independent beings capable of having an impact on the world. They explore limits around what is acceptable and what is not and gradually learn to communicate better.

While this is a process for young children, biting as a phase comes with a lot of stigma and shaming around parenting and the child itself. Understanding why biting happens might make it easier for us to look at is as part of a child’s development and address the issue instead of blaming and worrying. 

What triggers Biting?

Some common physical triggers 

Teething: Children begin teething anywhere between 3 and 12 months of age and by the time they are about 3 years, they usually have their full set of primary teeth. During the this phase, they experience sensitivity which makes them want to bite.

Oral Stimulation: When we look at biting, it is helpful to look at the diet we offer. Often,  food for children are overly soft and mashed which give the sprouting teeth hardly any work to do. This leaves the teeth unsatisfied and children look for things to bite such as their toys, another child’s hands or even an adult.

Some common psychological triggers

Attention: Many children bite in order to get attention. This is quite frustrating for parents who feel like they already give enough attention to their little one. When there are many guests, especially other young children, at home, your child may feel like she does not get the attention she usually gets.

Lack of Vocabulary: When children lack the vocabulary to communicate their joy, frustration or excitement, they may bite to say “Hey, this is my toy” or “I don’t want to play with you!” but may not have the words to articulate this intent. Biting is a way of communicating this intention.

Asserting Power: In situations where toddlers feel like they have no control, biting helps them assert their power. They do not have the capacity or brain development to rationalise the consequences of biting. By biting, they simply try to communicate that they are in control.

Exploring Limits: Most of toddlerhood is spent in children trying to understand what is acceptable and what is not. They constantly try and do things and look at us to see our reaction. This is their way of understanding how the world works. With biting, which often gets remarkable reactions, children love to see what happens and how far they can go.

Understanding Group Play: Many of us have observed toddlers having difficulty sharing their toys or even their space. This is not because they do not know what sharing means, but merely because their brain is not yet fully developed to practice sharing. The prefrontal cortex of the brain which is responsible for actions such as self-control is still developing in young children, making it hard to share. 

Biting 2.jpg

Doodle Credits : Abirami & Daddy 

Anxiety: Toddlers also bite when they are anxious. They may bite because they feel threatened or uncertain. This can be observed especially when they start at a new school or have some guests at home, birth of a sibling or a dog.

So what can we do about all the Biting? 

  • Firm not Loud

It is important to be firm but not loud. When a child has bitten, go down to their level, look into their eyes and say “NO”. This no will always remain a no and the more firm and consistent we are with it, the easier it is for the child to let the idea sit. They understand that we will not change our minds and that when they bite, we will stop them. 

  • Distract or Divert

Another helpful technique is to separate the two children. Sometimes, the child may just be overstimulated or excited, that they may end up biting. Taking the child for a walk or to a different place to calm down helps diffuse the tension. 

  • Breaking the Habit

Many children get into the habit of biting and this becomes second nature to them. It is important to observe what triggers the biting and try to step in before it begins. This will slowly lead to the child looking in our direction when they want to bite and we can then tell them from afar that they should not bite.

  • Opportunities to Bite Food

It will help to give the child enough food to chew on such as apples, carrots, chapatis, beans, etc. Eating fibrous vegetables or fruits will give their teeth the much needed work and satiate the need to bite.

  •  Attention

Typically, when a child has bitten another, we divert all our attention to the one who has bitten and this gives them attention. Instead, attending first to the child who has been bitten may take away the attention from the child who has bitten.

  • Stories

With young children, stories of children their age, with whom they can relate to, are helpful. These can be oral stories or stories from a book. It is helpful to have some books on biting that we can regularly read to and discuss with the child. Instead of having books that say what not to bite, we can choose a book that shows them the different foods that they can bite. This helps in positively shifting the focus to what to do instead of what not to.

biting 3

Doodle Credits : Abirami & Daddy

 What to avoid?

  • Biting back to prove a point

Sometimes, we are desperate that we end up ‘pretending’ to bite the child in hope that this will make them understand how we feel. This is very confusing for the child and often funny because, as discussed earlier, it is not that toddlers don’t know that biting is wrong but the self-control is still emerging.

  • Isolating

Isolating a child who has bit or giving them a time-out not only makes them feel cornered but also helpless. Instead, we can engage with them and show them what they can do. As adults, we do not like to be put in a corner and children are no different. Just as talking kindly helps us resolve our issues, talking to the child kindly shows them that we do not want to corner the child itself but only the action.

The most helpful tool for us as adults is patience and observation. As upsetting as it is for us to watch our child go around biting others, we must understand that this is only a phase! When we show children how to handle situations that trigger biting, they will learn to communicate better. Our biggest tool is observing their interactions. When we observe, we will notice when the biting happens and why and how it happens. This is the starting point as having the information is always helpful in handling the situation. 

Shifting Positively from NO to YES

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Words are a powerful human tool that have the capacity to evoke either a response or a reaction in another person. They can create a mindset that influences our approach to the world. When someone repeatedly uses negative words, we begin to look at the world through these lens and doubt ourselves, the environment and others. On the other hand, hearing positive words inspire us to act, be kind and open to the world. Yet, with such power at our disposal, how often do we truly pay attention to the words we use and wonder how they impact others in our lives? 

Babies spend the greater part of their first year soaking up life in its entirety. Since they are observant little beings, they occupy a lot of their time watching how the adults around them interact with their environment. This creates in them a fascination and an eagerness to get to know the world. So, naturally, when their bodies are finally able to match their intention, they move towards this wonderful environment they have been eyeing for months, only to hear adults say the word NO! 

What is this NO?

Initially, babies do not comprehend the meaning of this word NO. They look at our facial expressions and hand gestures and stop. When they go back to reaching for the same object and hear the same word a second time, they begin to see a pattern. The curious ones usually try and reach for the same object or a different one, yet again, only to see the adult’s reaction remains consistent for a third time. When our tones and hand gestures become stronger and firmer, some babies start crying because this is not their experience of how we usually talk to them. Some other babies find the whole thing rather amusing and do it repeatedly, much to the annoyance of many adults. Soon enough, all babies begin to understand that more things in their world are NO than YES and begin to grapple with this reality. 

Saying NO

Why is NO a Problem?

To understand this, let us look at what this word actually means. The word NO comes with a lot of power. We ideally use it when we do not wish to persist a situation any longer. It literally means Stop! End! NO! Considering that this two letter word carries so much power, it seems that we use it too casually, too loosely in circumstances that do not even require such authority or intensity. Our children hear the word NO countless times each day. By repeatedly using the word NO, not only are we crushing their spirit but also taking away the real value of this word. So, the problem with NO seems to stem from the frequency and context of usage and not the usage itself. 

According to Dan Siegel, Professor of Psychiatry at the UCLA School of Medicine, “NO leaves you feeling reactive, making it impossible to listen, make good decisions or connect with and care for another person. A focus on survival and self-defence kicks into gear, leaving you feeling guarded and shut down when it comes to interacting with the world and learning new lessons. Your nervous system initiates its reactive fight – flight, freeze or faint response : fight means lashing out, flight means escape, freeze means temporarily immobilizing yourself and faint means feeling utterly helpless.”

What NO does to a Child 

  • Since young children understand their world through exploration, repeatedly using the word NO subtly tells them that the world out there is not for them to explore and understand. Instead of letting them form their own ideas and views of the world, we are essentially passing on our prejudices and preferences.
  • Everytime we unnecessarily stop our children by using the word NO, we are feeding them this notion that the world is a place that holds many threats and dangers. This not only creates too much reliance on another person to navigate through life for them, but also curbs exploration altogether because of fear.
  • The more we throw in the word NO, the more our children begin to feel that they are incapable of handling the world. This leads to low self-confidence, self-doubt and an uncertainty about themselves. 

Dan Siegel, in the book, The Yes Brain : How to Cultivate Courage, Curiosity, and Resilience in Your Child says, “Anything we give attention to, anything we emphasize in our experiences and interactions, creates new linking connections in the brain. Where attention goes, neural firing flows, and neural connection grows. And where neurons fire, they wire or join together. If you’ve been focusing a lot of attention on No! No! No! this is where neural firing flows, a No Brain reactive state.”

Shifting Positively from NO to YES 

  • Fill our children’s vicinity with more YES objects and experiences

Young children are fascinated by the interactions that adults have with their environment. This fascination stimulates action and they gravitate towards these objects. However, we constantly curb such exploration either out of fear or because we cannot manage the mess. Instead, if we rearrange the child’s environment with more objects that they can freely explore, we will make an immediate shift towards a YES environment. Instead of curtailing exploration, we will be aiding exploration and play.

  • Become Mindful of our Words 

When we begin to watch our words and reflect on them, we can take control of the environment we are creating for our children. The next time we are tempted to revert to NO, we can just pause for a moment and ask ourselves why we want to say NO. If a child is moving towards something dangerous, we need to instantly stop them. But, in most other situations, we can divert their attention to something that they can do instead of telling them what they cannot do. A moment of reflection will give us a world of perspective and inspire a more positive response to our children. 

  • Create a YES mindset! 

Our attitude matters! By overusing NO, we not only take away its power but create a NO mindset that holds our children back from the world. By shifting positively from NO to YES, we instil in children’s little minds an attitude of positivity that stimulates openness. What’s better, they begin to trust that they are capable of tackling the uncertain world out there and run towards life with josh, enthusiasm and joy!