Eliminating Clutter in Children’s Lives

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How did I end up with so much?

In today’s world, the coming of a baby is a reminder for lists – we make long and winding lists with toys, books, mattresses, clothes, shoes and some more toys. This is our way of preparing for the sea of changes that are to overtake us; our way of welcoming the baby. The fact that we can simply stretch back on our couch and click ‘buy’ has completely changed the way we shop. There is no longer that extra effort of going into a store to buy the stacking cups or the exhaustion of waiting in line to hold us back. Shopping for something is tailored to be as comfortable as sitting on the couch.

But, soon, we are left with an overabundance of stuff – a by-product of an overabundance of choice – that has no specific place in our homes or our lives. Clutter creeps into our lives unawares – a result of the impulsive wants that we don’t need. It is also, sadly, the side effects of a materialistic society that equates ‘things’ with richness.

As we look at how best to organise all our stuff, we cannot help but wonder how we ended up with so much. 

Clutter & its many forms

On one hand, we have physical clutter. The stuff that we can actually see – the sea of books and toys that overtake our living rooms, bathrooms, beds and that forgotten spot under the staircase. Each year, in the United States alone, 600,000 children’s books are published. Could we possibly want them all? Or are we depriving our children of something if we don’t buy them all?

On the other hand, we have mental clutter. All that stuff we cannot see yet which occupy our thoughts, interfering with our ability to focus, to just be. Our minds are crowded by umpteen parenting styles – the latest research on child development, the newest article (this included!) on how to nurture children. While some of these ideas may be beneficial, how many do we really need? Often, too many ideas interfere with our natural parenting rhythms because all the outside voices make it difficult for us to hear our own voice. 

What does clutter do?

↑ cortisol

When there is too much stuff lying around the home, there is a continuous increase in cortisol – a stress hormone. Typically, cortisol rises in the morning to stimulate activity and gradually drops by mid-afternoon as children head towards the end of their day. But, when there is clutter, the brain continues to produce increasing amounts of cortisol which begin to over-stimulate children, contributing to high energy and affecting their emotional state. 

↓ exploration 

Naturally, when there is an overabundance of stuff, children struggle to explore because they cannot settle down on ‘what’ they want to explore. They go through fragmented exploration by jumping from one to another, unable to stay with any. This kind of play puts children in a loop of distracted exploration. It neither gives enough time with one object to send feedback to the brain nor gives a chance to concentrate.

↓ harmony

A home should ideally allow for engagement, bonding and the space to think and be ourselves. When there is an abundance of stuff, children want to give energy to everything in sight. This often triggers parents who are also navigating through all the stuff (both physical and mental). Parents, then, are less patient and more prone to reaction. Because of all this, a home, instead of being restorative, ends up creating disharmony. 

An overabundance of possessions that collectively create chaotic and disorderly living spaces can impact mental health. It is this danger of clutter, the totality of one’s possessions being so overwhelming that chips away at your well-being, relationships, and more, drowning in a sea of stuff. As clutter grows, and demands more attention, everything else that’s important gets forced out of your life! 

Joseph Ferrari, The Dark Side of Home: 

↓ rhythm

Young children thrive on some level of predictability to feel secure. Simple things like finding their plate in the second drawer of the cubby or finding their toothbrush on the left cabinet in the bathroom gives them a sense of calm because they feel secure in knowing. Clutter erases this kind of predictability because clutter sits anywhere. It has no home and belongs each day, each moment in some part of the house. Clutter for children is antithesis to clarity.

How can we manage clutter? 

Reduce – Rotate – Recycle 

The first (& honestly, the most difficult) step is to reduce buying. How many toys can a child play with? And more importantly, how many are we willing to buy in a year? What message are we communicating by constantly providing a range of stuff? There are so many books and toys available in the market for children that we will always feel like we are offering them less. But, less is good. Can they have that one book on leaves and instead explore the other parts of a plant by spending time outdoors? We feel a need to spell everything out for children,  robbing them of experiencing these through self-exploration. 

“Gather all their toys, half them, then half them again, then perhaps, once more.”

Kim John Payne, Simplicity Parenting, Sage Family Podcast

Rotate what is available instead of having everything  accessible all the time. Some young children need a maximum of 2-4 items and anything more will overwhelm them. Some other children can lend their attention to one item even if there are 5-6 available. So, watch for the ideal range of toys that your children are able to handle and keep only those many available. Swap them once you feel their interest waning with something else from storage. Leave room for boredom and refrain from keeping something always available. 

Before buying, ask around if friends and family have anything meaningful for your child to play with. Once your child is done exploring, save their toys to offer to other children that you know of. Saving one or two of their cherished toys for sentiment, recycling the rest is a helpful way to move on. It also models the practice of sharing to our children.

Access – Play – Cleanup 

We need to have some system of storing children’ items in cupboards with easy access and keeping a few out on a shelf or the bottom rack of the centre table or even a simple mat. Keeping a few out neatly shows respect for the toys and books. And when these items have a designated spot in the house, it is easier to model bringing the items out for play and putting them back once done. This helps children take ownership for their tasks and when they know where to put them back, they are much more likely to fall into the habit of cleaning up. 

From “My child really needs that!” to “Does my child really need that?

Every single thing out there for children carries a label that makes it impossible for us to walk away from. But, do we really need them all? The next time we feel our children need something, remember, the more we accumulate, the less space we keep for ourselves and our children. Afterall, when there is more, less can stand out and when there is less, more can stand out. 

Virtual Learning & Social Isolation : A Professional Perspective

professional perspectives

In the past few months, globally, we have had to make some drastic changes in the way we live our lives. Even the most routine things such as working, shopping for groceries, going to school and meeting family and friends have been severely impacted. This, amongst other worries, has also created an anxiety in parents ranging from how their children will learn virtually to how their babies might react to social contact without the experience of any. 

So, I reached out to Dr. Abhishek Bala, MD. to share with us his thoughts on some of these issues.

Hello Abhishek. Thank you for the taking time out to share some insight with all our readers. Please tell us a little about yourself.

Thank you so much. I have been reading Srishti and have found the blog to be insightful and supportive to caregivers. I truly appreciate the calming and mindful approach that you take to communicate such important topics. 

As for my background, I completed my MD and Masters of Public Health and am based in Michigan where I am doing my Psychiatry Residency and Fellowship in Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. I have been part of some global mental health ventures while seeing kids and families everyday as part of my training and practice. Just trying to keep busy and stay balanced during the pandemic like we all are.

Parents and children are in uncharted territory during this pandemic. As someone who works with children everyday, what are some common concerns you are seeing?

Currently, the main theme of my conversations with patients are surrounding reopening of schools.  There are several discussions happening at the dinner table these days where plans from fulltime schooling, hybrid schooling, and home schooling are all being explored. Indeed, these are difficult conversations with various pros/cons and without a seemingly satisfactory solution. Over these past few months, kids and parents have also expressed their concerns about being cooped up at home all day. As a result, I have seen some worsening frustration tolerance in kids who have difficulties with inattention and hyperactivity. Kids who find social interactions protective in overcoming feelings of depression have also been particularly affected. We’ve had to explore other avenues for them to facilitate interpersonal communication that helps maintain a level of motivation and energy conducive to daily functioning. An interesting trend I have observed is that some children with social anxiety disorder perceived a sense of improvement early on during the isolation. However, these kids are currently finding the uncertainties of the approaching school year to be a little more stressful. These families will likely need some additional support over the upcoming weeks. 

How will social isolation impact children under 6?

Kids in this age group are at a key stage in development driven by social interactions. Attuned parents don’t just notice their child’s physical and cognitive changes, but also become aware of their child as a budding personality, who is intelligent, socially curious and even quirky. Many of us don’t notice, but an average play date or birthday party can play a major role in developing that personality. Moreover, they are such precious avenues for kids to practice their social skills, unlearn and relearn behaviors, defense mechanisms and foster a sense of independence. 

Can children ‘catch up’ if they do not experience social interactions now?

This is a novel situation and the long term impact of such social isolation in pandemics is not well studied. However, neuroscience has given us significant evidence for neuroplasticity and the high level of cognitive flexibility in this age group. 

How can children under 6 learn virtually when they need plenty of concrete experiences?

Firstly, we need to remember that these are not “normal” times. Nothing can replace the experiences kids would get from “life as usual”. This is an emergency that warrants innovative strategies to ensure continued education and learning. E- Learning exercises, interactive videos, virtual story times, online field trips are all resources that might have to be utilized. Kids can be included in a whole bunch of activities that can promote creativity and curiosity even at home. Anything from cooking, doing puzzles, arts and crafts projects, taking care of indoor plants, raising butterflies, collecting rocks at a backyard scavenger hunt can all be enriching, concrete experiences.  

How much screen time is too much? 

As with everything else, rules surrounding screen time have also changed. The idea of 2 hours a day seems far-fetched due to how vital screens have become over the past few months.  Screens are extremely useful in this day and age. On top of several resources being made available online to continue education, parents working from home have also been flexible with screen time to help balance their “work from home” routine with childcare.  However, it comes with its fair share of risk as well. In fact, of the several kids I see with sleep difficulties, the primary issue appears to be sleep hygiene secondary to excessive screen time at night. Behavioral issues are also common especially when boundaries surrounding screen time are not established. Therefore, it is important to lay out the rules and expectations before giving the child the device (Ex: “I am now giving you the phone for thirty minutes to watch cartoons” instead of “Here is the phone. Now, stop bothering me.”) Of course, we must also remind ourselves that screens do not replace human contact. 

What can parents/caregivers do to help children during these times?

It is essential for caregivers of a household to stay united in their efforts. Sharing tasks, establishing routines, expectations and boundaries are all essential. However, I think the most important things that families can do are to be mindful, play and have fun. 

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

Nurturing a Holistic Relationship with Food : From One Mamma to Another

Hear it from the Mammas!

Hi Janani, thanks for being back to share another story on the blog. Last time was about baby swimming. This time let’s talk about food.

I am happy to be back on Srishti to share yet another story as a mother. Although food and food making are given a lot of importance in our (Indian) culture, I grew up eating food for the sake of it. It was an imposed activity which I never really enjoyed, until I met my husband, Abhinav. He is a food enthusiast and appreciates any food offered to him and this entirely changed my relationship with food. I realised that the food that we eat not only decides our physical health but also the very way we feel and experience life. Therefore, as a mother, it was vital for me to enable my daughter, Agni, to have a positive relationship with food right from the beginning.

When did you start introducing other foods to your daughter and how did you go about this?

When A was about 3-4 months old, just like every other baby, she used to put things in her mouth to explore the environment through her senses. I consider this ‘mouthing’ to also be a natural instinct for babies to explore foods. I initially introduced food by giving her whole carrots, lemons, apples, coriander etc., to play with. From 5 months onwards, she was let to feed herself when she was hungry. She was made to sit on a highchair and was offered finger foods that included a mix of soft-textured fruits, veggies, and some cooked grains. As she grew older, I introduced foods with harder textures, and mixed ingredients. By 8-10 months, her chewing skills, dexterity, hand-eye coordination and even sorting skills (she used to sort a mixed platter of fruits by colour, shape, type) had improved tremendously. This whole process allowed her to be ‘in-charge’ of when, what, and how much she wanted to eat.

Can you describe Agni’s eating area?

We are a small family of three – Agni, my husband and myself living in Germany. When we are at home, we prefer to eat together as a family sitting at the dining table. Agni used to sit on a highchair until 1.5 years, but then shifted to a normal chair with a booster seat that helps her to independently climb up and climb down from it. While we eat, we appreciate the different tastes, and discuss our day’s activities. It is important for us that there is no other parallel activity happening while we are eating. This focus helps Agni to appreciate, enjoy, and be grateful for the food she eats.

How open is she to trying different foods?

Right from the beginning, Agni loved to explore different tastes. I could say, mealtimes are the ‘high points’ in her day. She looks forward to eating every meal with so much joy and excitement. She is always curious and ready to try out new tastes.

How do you and your husband support your daughter’s approach to food?

We support Agni’s approach to food by enabling independence. We introduced her to a spoon by 15 months, and a fork and knife by 18 months. We keep some healthy snacks and fruits that are easily accessible to her throughout the day that allows her to eat something in case she gets hungry. Just like how she is in-charge of eating the food, we also encourage her to be part of the clean-up in whatever way she can. Overall, the whole process over the last 2 years has required tremendous patience from our side especially because – as a baby, it used to be extremely messy when she ate, involving an elaborate clean-up after every meal. But all this effort has been totally worth it.

Does your daughter participate in preparation of food?

We generally prepare two meals at home every day. I try to do most of my household chores along with Agni. So, she is continually involved in the preparation of food as well. She participates in washing, de-stemming, sorting, and clearing of the ingredients used to prepare the meal. She smells and tastes the different flavours while I cook. She understands that preparing a meal takes a long time and effort. She is also part of our visits to the farmers market or supermarket where she chooses the fruits and vegetables.

Is it important to give children the experience of seeing food grow? How do you think this impacts their attitude towards food?

In a world where we are so disconnected with our choices, it’s important that a child knows where the food comes from. In the last few months, we are actively involved in growing plants at home in our small garden. Agni tends to the soil, waters the plants, and experiences the process of growing them. We, in whatever way possible, explain and communicate to Agni the importance of actively contributing to a changing world – a kinder world. So as a family, we are trying to reduce the consumption of animal-based products (dairy, eggs etc.).

Can you share with other parents a few guidelines on approaching food holistically?

Every human baby has an in-built mechanism to feed themselves. As a caregiver, it is important to nurture and give space for this to develop well. Besides, exposure to food need not just be confined to the dining table but can be extended to the kitchen, gardens, or farms.

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

Life by Cycle : From One Mamma to Another

Hear it from the Mammas!

Hi Aparna, tell us a little about yourself and your family.

I spent my formative years in Kuwait, then high school and college years in India and adult years in the US. I have moved a lot over the years and am always pining to grow roots and stay in a single place. For now, I have lived the longest in the Bay Area as an adult and I would like to think that is where my community is. My husband, Jayaram was born and raised in Mumbai, where he lived until he was 21. Out of curiosity to learn more, he moved to the United States to pursue scientific research in computer designs. From an early age until today, he stayed outdoors for most part of the day playing some sport (in a cramped corner space in Mumbai and now in heavenly, vast and diverse outdoor areas in the US).  

Jayaram and I met in 2012 while we both were in university pursuing graduate studies in different cities. We got married in 2013 and started living together in the San Francisco area since 2014.  Dharma came into this world in Oct 2018.  Dharma’s interest and curiosity to explore the world through mud, rocks and shells of different texture, size, color and shape, people and language continues to grow.

To learn more about our journey, feel free to visit www.lifebycycle.info

What prompted you to embark on this journey by cycle with a toddler?

The idea of going on a bicycle-touring journey evolved over various experiences coupled with our own fundamental fascination for the bicycle: a simple two-wheeled human powered pedaling unit which can take us places at an enjoyable and self-determined pace.  

In 2014, we happened to meet a couple from Germany who started their bicycle journey from Alaska with a 6 months old infant and spent 2 years on the road riding to Ushuaia, Argentina. Their story opened our eyes to the idea of bicycle touring and that neither age nor family size is a barrier to travelling on a bicycle. Starting early 2019, we found ourselves asking one question: Is there an alternate way to soak ourselves in family time? If not now, then when? 

As for Dharma, we thought between 1 and 2 years of age would be the perfect portable age, when all of Dharma’s basic needs could be met on the move. Being outdoors for most part of the day (and nights when we camp) is something any toddler would love, if given an option.

What is a typical day like ? How does Dharma feature in this?

A typical day begins around 6:30 – 7 am when Dharma wakes up with sunrise/ crowing roosters, talks a little about any dreams and breast-feeds on me. Jayaram and I divide the task of making breakfast, packing lunch, packing our panniers (camping gear, clothes, utensils, stove, gas etc.), while assisting Dharma with breakfast/diaper change and ensuring Dharma expends a good amount of energy by running around. By around 10:00 a.m we are ready to hit the road. We ride for about 2 hrs and stop for lunch. During the 2 hours, Dharma would be inside the Thule Chariot baby trailer sleeping, watching the scenery outside, talking to us or playing with her toys.

During the afternoon break for lunch, Dharma is back on the playing field full of action, while Jayaram and I switch between tasks of assisting Dharma with lunch/diaper change, having our lunch, taking a power nap/rest and packing our bags to get going for the second half of the day. Another 2-3 hrs of bike ride, part of which Dharma spends on a front baby seat with me chatting, watching nature, chewing on some energy bars/cheese, hi-fiving with Jayaram while on the ride and posing for some camera shots. After an hour and half, as sleep sets in, Dharma settles into the comfort of the baby trailer for a short one hour nap. (Depending on the day, weather and sleep schedule, Dharma sits in the baby seat with me in the earlier part of the day.) 

Once we reach our destination, Dharma gets to run around again and soon it is time to start with dinner preparation. We typically start feeding Dharma between 7-8pm (earlier on camping nights). By 8.30-9pm, Dharma breastfeeds to sleep. While Dharma nurses, Jayaram narrates stories from the day (on what we did/saw with lots of masala added). Most days, I fall asleep with Dharma, and Jayaram maps out the route and logistics for the following day. 

Toddlers usually have a need for order and predictability. With so many rapid changes, how do you help Dharma adapt?

From the previous answer, you might have observed that there is a certain order and system established within what at first might seem like a chaotic moving lifestyle.  Food, sleep and play usually happen around the same time on ride days. On rest days, there are slight variations and Dharma chooses to spend more energy and sleep less. At the start of our journey, it took about 2 weeks for Dharma to adapt to the new life style. Of course, everybody has different moods and Dharma has days when she just does not want to sit anymore on the bicycle. Those are our curveball days and within reason, we respect those needs, stop riding and find a safe place to sleep (because most likely we have limited choice ☺). We always make sure to keep Dharma informed of our plans for the day especially if it is going to be a long day and that we need full cooperation by sitting for longer time. On those odd days Dharma adapts by sleeping for more hours and sleeps later in the night than usual. Although it is challenging for us to keep Dharma entertained when we are tired after a longer ride, it is part of the game we signed up for. In general, babies adapt to changes much faster than adults, which we often underestimate or overlook. Adaptability is an important quality adults can observe and learn from babies. 

How do you strike balance for Dharma between time in the wagon and time freely?

As a family on a bicycle with a toddler, we ride for an average of 50 Km a day, lasting for about 5 hrs on the bicycle over a period of 12 hrs with daylight. Dharma has at least 7 hrs of free time. In addition, we usually take a day or two of break after 5-6 days of continuous riding and at times a week for local sightseeing and visits.

Being on the move exposes children to all kinds of weathers. How do you help Dharma power through?

We invested a lot of time to pick the right baby trailer since Dharma would be spending a good amount of time through the journey in it. The Thule Chariot Cross comes with features that include a rainfly for rainy days, a sunshade against the midday sun along with UV protective coating on the side screen through which Dharma can watch outside and an adjustable recline. Of course for the cold days Dharma is padded up with extra layers and has my shawl for extra warmth. All of this is while riding. What we really like about the bike travel is the potential for acclimatization. When we slowly pedal through different areas with varied weather, our body has time to naturally adapt to the weather. And in the event we fly into a new place we give it a week or so to get used to the new weather before we start riding. 

On your social media account @life.by.cycle, I noticed that you use cloth diapers for your daughter. How do you manage this on the go?

Cloth diapers have been easy to handle for us. At the end of the day, we soak all the soiled diapers that we collected through the day (roughly 4-5), hand wash and dry them overnight. If the diapers have not dried up by morning, we hang them to dry on our bikes while riding and by mid afternoon it is all ready to be used. Sometimes we get lucky and have access to a washing machine (extra bonus for dryer). We carry a foldable bowl and a long rope with us, that has served great as a bucket to wash and dry respectively.  We carry enough cloth diapers to go for 2 days without washing / drying, either due to weather or unavailability of water to clean.  We were once forced to use disposable ones while crossing a desert for 4-5 nights.

Can you share some defining parenting moments that you have experienced in the last several months?

Jayaram and I fortunately balance each other out in our parenting approach. We usually watch Dharma adapt to changes and we ourselves adapt as a family as well. I can’t really think of a particularly defining parenting moment. We are all just learning to be a unit. While riding on the bike we have a lot of time to reflect on our actions and reactions with Dharma. Jayaram and I discuss the things/changes we observed in Dharma during this time and it puts a smile on our faces while riding.   

What do you hope is Dharma’s biggest takeaway from this journey?

This is a little far-fetched, but I hope one of Dharma’s biggest takeaway from this journey is to be brave, to be an explorer and to believe in the power that resides within her. The second biggest takeaway I hope is that she has felt the love and kindness from strangers and Dharma can channel it in a positive way in the future.

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

Our Breastfeeding Journey: From One Mamma to Another

Hear it from the Mammas!

Hi Shilpa, tell us about yourself and your family. 

Hello, my name is Shilpa. I’m a Bangalorean, married to a Chennai boy. We got married in 2016 and were blessed with our darling little boy in March, 2019. We’re currently based out of Chennai.

Can you share with us  your birthing experience? 

I was blessed with an amazing doctor who was extremely supportive from day one and gave me a patient hearing no matter what concerns I had. I had a LOT of concerns and questions, so I was extremely thankful to her and all I did throughout my pregnancy was follow what she said. There were certain reasons due to which I was advised a cesarean section and it was scheduled for when I completed 38 weeks. I had a fairly pleasant experience, constantly reassured by the doctors in the room. After what felt like hardly any time at all, my doctor said, “Shilpa, it’s a boy!”

It was about two weeks post delivery when I was still struggling with breastfeeding that I started reading up a lot more and learnt about the importance of the “golden hour”. I wish I had known about it earlier so that I could have at least asked my doctor about it. How I now look at it is that, though I missed the golden hour, I managed to leave the hospital with a healthy baby and that’s more than I could have asked for.

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Representative photo of the Golden Hour

What kind of breastfeeding support did you receive in the weeks following birth? 

At the hospital, working with my doctor and the lactation consultant and the numerous nurses, I was able to get the latch right after a lot of work. Once I got home, my mom was my biggest support system, guiding me and ensuring I was always well fed and hydrated, she tried her best to get me to rest as well. I think immediately after birth it was more of making sure you are doing it right, how to hold the baby and how to get the latch right. There wasn’t too much information being given on the actual process and benefits etc., as my doctor had already asked me to attend some classes on that.

What are some struggles you have had to overcome in your breastfeeding journey? 

Some of the basic challenges I faced were how to get the latch right, how to get a sleeping baby to feed, multiple feeds at night, handling a cluster feeding baby, and of course the most important one – how to ensure that you build up your supply gradually. 

However, there were a bunch of struggles I wasn’t prepared for. 

  • I was not aware that breastfeeding works differently for different mothers, although it is made out to appear as if it is the same for all.  While I was advised to go get a few classes, all they said was “Latch, hydrate, sleep, repeat, and all will be well”. What they didn’t talk about is the importance of a deep latch, the importance of nursing as and when the baby demands and how that affects your supply.  They didn’t talk about how babies latch for comfort or how long it takes for a new mom to start producing more milk and how the baby really does not need too much in the first few days post birth. 
  • I was also not aware of the link between maternal mental health and breastfeeding. It is incredibly important for a new mom to be made to FEEL comfortable and safe at all times. The reason I highlight the word “feel” is that everyone may be under the impression that everything is well, and the new mom has all the support she needs but it is very difficult to predict what may be going on in her head.  Stress can affect the milk supply and since it is common and normal post delivery, we need to ensure we do what is possible to keep it under control.
  • There always seems to be a lack of consensus between the various healthcare professionals you encounter during your stay at the hospital. In an ideal scenario, the gynecologist, paediatrician and lactation consultant are on the same page. In my case, while the paediatrician couldn’t stop insisting that I probably didn’t have a good supply, and hence instructed the nurses to feed the baby formula, the lactation consultant instructed the nurses to stop the formula. So not only was it stressful but it was incredibly confusing as well, as to who was right.
  • I also had challenges with pumping. The paediatrician insisted that I pump in order to “check my supply”. In case it wasn’t adequate, I was supposed to start the baby on formula. He started with this on day two and would tell me every single time he came to check on us. That was three times a day! When I finally gave in and pumped, all I got was 12 ml. The shock of seeing 12 ml in the bottle got me so upset; I was completely convinced I was incapable of feeding my baby and I had been starving him until then. What I wasn’t aware of at the time was that: 
    1. Pumping output varies for every mom.
    2. Pumping output is not an indicator of supply, what is an indicator of supply is the number of times the baby pees (no input leads to no output).
    3. Supply takes a few weeks to get established, and in the first few days post delivery it is very normal to see lesser output as the milk may not have come in properly as yet. 
    4. One cannot expect much pumping output when you are handling a cluster feeding baby, there needs to be a bit of a break once the baby has been fed. 

Do you feel there is enough psychological support for new mothers who want to breastfeed? 

I think that the lack of awareness about breastfeeding in general poses a huge challenge for new mothers. Some of the questions and reactions that I got from near and dear ones and even strangers made me question if I was indeed doing the right thing.

  • “Are you breastfeeding the baby?” – first of all, it is no one’s business how a mother chooses to feed her baby. She does not really control whether she can exclusively feed the baby, do a combination feed or formula feed. Depending on the person who is asking – it could be interfering or accusatory, or simply uncomfortable. This seemingly harmless question can make a new mom question whatever method she is following regardless of which it is.
  • “Why aren’t you giving the baby formula?” – My response to this has nothing to do with formula feeding, but when a mother is trying to exclusively breastfeed her baby because that is what she wants to do, asking this question in the initial few days can make her question this decision and wonder if she is indeed starving her baby.
  • “The baby is crying again, are you sure there is enough milk”, “he looks hungry” (after a long feeding session), “Oh, is it already time to feed him again”, “Oh the baby is quite lean, we need to make him more chubby” – again, these may be harmless remarks in the mind of the person making them – but they are best avoided. They are not supportive and can make a new mom feel like she is not doing enough/ not doing something right.

How do you think families and society can help new mothers succeed in breastfeeding their babies? 

I think the most important contribution from family would be to help the new mom with whatever she thinks she needs help with. I had a fabulous support system wherein all I did was take care of my baby and everything else was taken care of for me. And to be honest, despite the support, I found breastfeeding incredibly challenging. Families also need to educate themselves on the entire process of breastfeeding in order to be able to fully support the new mom. 

As far as society is concerned, I think there needs to be options to support every kind of new mom. Some are incredibly comfortable nursing in public, and some are not. Every establishment such as hospitals, clinics, restaurants, malls, stores etc. should have feeding rooms that are hygienic and well ventilated, and all workspaces must mandatorily have creches and pumping rooms. In fact my biggest challenge to continuing feeding is that my workplace, far from having a creche, does not even have a pumping room. 

From your experience, do you think breastfeeding is exclusively nutritional or is there more to this connection between mother and baby? 

There is definitely much much more to it than the nutritional aspect. I read somewhere that breastfeeding helps in coping with postpartum depression. But from my experience, I can say it can also be one of the primary contributors for depression. The immense pressure on exclusively breastfeeding or not being able to exclusively breastfeed can both prove to be extremely hard. In the early days, each feeding session was stressful, tiring, just painful. But after ploughing through, almost 100% thanks to my mom, I now love it. And just the look in your baby’s eyes makes the struggle worth it. Now, I know it’s going to be incredibly hard weaning him.

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Representative Breastfeeding Photo

What would you recommend : fixing a time-table from birth or following the baby and understanding their inner clock? 

With a newborn, I was advised to feed every two hours. But back then the baby wanted to feed almost all the time he was awake. So what I did and what I still do is follow his clock. When he was tiny I fed him whenever he wanted or once every 2 hours whichever was earlier. And now I feed him on demand, but the intervals between feeds are still pretty short in my case. Some people say I feed the baby too often, but that’s a choice I have made. 

An important point to be noted here is that the more the baby feeds, emptying each breast fully, the better your supply. This is because the supply comes on the basis of the demand of the baby. The more the baby latches, the better it is for supply.

What are some effective strategies that worked for you with respect to breastfeeding? 

These are some of the things that played a vital role for me,

  • Rest. The more rest (not always sleep, but that’s great of course, if you can manage it) I got, the better my mental state and also my supply. Feed and rest and feed and rest is what I was told. I wasn’t too successful with following this advice, but when I did, it made a huge difference.
  • Hydration. I was told to drink lots of fluids. Especially post a feeding session. Water, milk, juice, soup, porridge. What I do know is that when I didn’t drink enough fluids, I felt a hit in supply.
  • Nutrition. There are plenty of foods that help with lactation and I have almost lost track of all that my mom fed me.  But as someone who had supply issues, it was all of this that got me through. Everyone may not need to follow the path I had to, but a nutritious diet is a must anyway.
  • Stay calm. By nature, this is hugely challenging for me. But I did realize eventually the more I stressed, the less it helped and there was a noticeable difference when I managed to keep myself calm and relaxed.

What would your advice to new mothers, who are anxious about breastfeeding, be? 

  • Read up, well in advance. It’s important to understand breastfeeding before your baby arrives. 
  • Talk to other new moms and ask them about their breastfeeding journey. If you are having a hard time, maybe, someone else went through the same and could have told you what got them through it. 
  • You and your family need to be on the same page, and this discussion must be had before the baby arrives. For this, not just the mom, all those who are likely to be around her in those initial weeks need to read up as well.
  • Get a breast exam by your doctor. That may help you get a head start on preparing to breastfeed. In case of any challenges, they may be able to suggest solutions. 
  • Have a back up plan in case you are unable to follow your preferred method of feeding. When our baby had an accidental fall and hurt his lower lip, he was unable to feed. He was clearly hungry and crying out in pain. I managed to hand express and feed him with a spoon. But, not only was he not used to it, it was also incredibly time consuming and a hungry baby does not have the patience. Thankfully I had a manual pump, but with a crying baby, opening a new pump, washing, sterilizing, assembling and then pumping was all incredibly stressful. I realised it is worth keeping a backup option in mind. Having a breast pump as a backup, keeping it washed, sterilized and ready to use, or knowing which brand of formula you can use as a backup and how to prepare it could be very useful information and you never know when it could help you. 
  • Lastly, try to relax. There is so much thrown at a new mom all of a sudden that it is incredibly easy to get overwhelmed. Keep in mind that the calmer you are, the clearer you will be able to think and nothing beats how good that is for you and your baby.

Screen- free Parenting : From One Mamma to Another

Hear it from the Mammas!

Screens have become a huge part of our lives in the last decade. This past year, the pandemic has isolated us even further, connecting us with the outside world only virtually. So, when we speak of ‘screen-free’ parenting, it might come across as a shocker for many parents. While each family knows what works best for them, this is a story of one family that opts out of screens for their child. This shows those of us who are curious how they make this choice work.


Hi Sunetra, tell us a little about yourself and your family.

We are a family of three with my husband Gokul and son Samvidh who is 3 ½ years old. Gokul works long hours and used to travel a lot for work. Even as he works from home now, he still gets only a few hours of free time in a day. So, for majority of the time it’s just Samvidh and me. I completed my AMI Primary Montessori Diploma in 2016 and Samvidh was born soon after. I chose to take a break from work since we wanted one parent to be with our child full time in the initial years. Both sets of grandparents live close by and we visit them often, so, Samvidh spends a few hours a week with them too.

How would you define the role of screens in early childhood?

Ideally, I feel there is no role for screens in the first 2 years and should be avoided. Beyond a certain age, children start paying attention and get involved in what we do, so it may not be practically possible to keep them oblivious to screens. However, in early childhood, it is essential not to give any dedicated screen time.

What are some reasons why you opt out of screen-time for your child?

We feel that screens are addictive. When children watch videos or play games, they are so immersed in the device and become unaware of what is happening around them. Screens are usually used as a means of distraction or to get them to do some tasks which they would otherwise refuse. The instant gratification that the screen provides makes the child seek the same in everything they do and this comes in the way of learning patience and the ability to stay calm and wait. We read a lot about this and also observed it in some children around us. So, even before our son was born, we decided that we did not want any screen time for him.

How do you manage to stay screen-free even during a global pandemic?

We have not thought of screens as an option for Samvidh even though we are in the middle of a pandemic. We do have video calls with family and friends to avoid social isolation for us and him also limit the total time spent on it. I found that sticking to his usual routine as much as possible helped him to adjust to staying indoors and after the initial week or two he adapted quite well.

Top Shelf L – R : Lego Vehicles, Puzzles (a 3- 6 piece set and a 9 piece set) Kaleidoscope Middle Shelf L – R : Kitchen Set, Play Dough with Moulding Instruments, Beads to Lace Bottom Shelf L – R : Race Track with Small Cars, St of Vehicles, Notebook with Crayons & Pencils

During this pandemic, most of us are indoors working or seeking entertainment. How do you plan your own use of screens?

It can be very difficult to plan our screen usage especially as Samvidh is growing up, but we do try our best to keep it to a minimum around him. We absolutely avoid watching television when he’s awake. We also request grandparents and close relatives or friends to turn off televisions when we visit and they usually oblige. Work related laptop usage is unavoidable but we try to keep it at the study table so it’s not in Samvidh’s face. However phone usage is a bit tricky since we frequently check messages and do some reading on phones but we try to do it only when Samvidh is occupied with some play or reading and we make sure to put it away when he needs our attention.

How do you think screen-time affects language, attention and cognition in very young children?

Young children learn everything about life and culture from family first. They spend time with family members, going about their daily lives and automatically absorb language and social interactions and these become a part of them. Listening to and taking part in conversations with people around them provides a mutual interaction which helps them practice their vocabulary too. Some may argue that children learn language from educational videos but I feel it doesn’t give a chance for interaction and doesn’t help them to integrate with their environment. They actually become isolated. With fast moving images and sounds on screen children are just passive observers with zero effort which fails to create a lasting impression of knowledge.

If parents choose to give some screen-time, what would your recommendations on content be?

Content should be strictly filtered, controlled and monitored. As with books, it should be age appropriate and as close to reality as possible for younger children. Content should also be made available offline as much as possible (can download instead of streaming) and they should not be given free access to the internet. I’ve personally seen a lot of shockingly inappropriate content that children are able to access even by randomly swiping while watching videos.

Many parents find screen-time gives them a little respite. What would you suggest instead as an alternate?

I have found it most difficult to engage Samvidh when I have some work to be finished or when I’m really tired and need a break. It can also be very tough to keep a young child in a small enclosed apartment for long hours without frustration. Engaging him in the right kind of activities from the beginning has helped to develop independence in play and exploration. He does not have toys with bright lights and sounds but instead has a lot of puzzles, open ended toys like blocks and play dough, some pretend toys like cooking sets because he loves cooking and many options to colour or doodle. He also has a push car which he drives around the house and has a lot of imaginative play with. We have also been reading to Samvidh from the first few months of his life so he loves books and will sit and “read” them on his own when we can’t.

If he is still not interested in doing anything by himself and requires my attention, I try to involve him in whatever I’m doing by giving him little tasks that he will be able to help with. For example, putting things away or wiping tables if I’m cleaning or giving him small balls of chapathi dough to roll if I’m cooking.

Regular outdoor play time in the evenings help a lot to burn off excess energy and also helps to get through the tail end of his day when he would be tired and cranky if he has had to stay indoors the whole day. During these times of social distancing he’s unable to play with other children but still an hour or so of fresh air in the terrace makes a huge difference to his temperament in the evenings. We watch birds or plants around us and get some physical activity by walking/running around.

L to R : Easel, Bike, Sit and Spin

The pandemic has thrown families off schedule. Children are now indoors most of the time and lessons are happening on screens. How do you think this will impact children?

In these dire circumstances, schools have been forced to resort to online teaching and most children are now stuck in front of a screen for many hours a day. This in addition to being unable to leave the house will definitely be stressful for children in a way they’ve never experienced before. Children are also unable to express their frustration like adults which leads to changes in behaviour and unexpected outbursts. They really need strong support and understanding from adults to get through this tough period.

Is screen-free parenting a possibility? Share some motivation on why more parents must commit to this.

It’s definitely possible as long as we are willing to put in some effort and identify what our children need help with. Most parents introduce screen time in an effort to keep children quiet or sit in one place, or to make them do certain tasks like eating or to avoid tantrums or meltdowns. I feel that if we just take some time to think and understand what they actually need instead of distracting from the problem, it would help not only in that moment but in everyday life. Letting the child engage with the environment and become aware of what is going on around them feeds their curiosity and inquisitiveness which will help them further explore and understand their world better. This understanding also brings an air of calm and confidence since they have a deep connection with the environment. I feel all parents should try going screen-free for some time and see the wonderful effects it brings to the child which will be motivation enough to stay committed.

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.