Into the World of Books: From One Mamma to Another

Hi Menaka, tell us about yourself and your family. 

Thank you so much for having me here. It’s a pleasure to meet like-minded people and share ideas. I am from Chennai, staying with my husband and our son Pranav. He is 6 years. My journey with the Montessori Method started in 2015 when my son was 2 years and there has been a lot of learning and unlearning happening since then. My husband and I strongly believe that a child’s formative years impacts their entire life and together we guide our son in this journey.

What do you think is the role of books in the lives of children under 6?

To me, one of the best things ever created is books. With books that relate to real life, children connect with the world and enjoy being a part of it. For example, reading a book on insects to a very young child changes the way the child looks at the insects. When my son was younger, I used to read a wonderful book on ladybirds and whenever he noticed an insect he used to call it a ladybird. Though many of them were not ladybirds, we were glad that he noticed the insect and related the story to it.

Are there some aspects you consider before choosing a book? 

Yes, there are! I am a very picky reader. To choose a book for an adult seems a lot easier. When I chose my son’s first book, I did go to the bookstore to understand what sort of age appropriate books they had available. There were many things running through my mind -paperback or board books, content and presentation, illustrations and most importantly the plot. After searching a lot, we resorted to books that had real images, art, collage and hand-drawn illustrations, and content presented with simplicity and humour. We went for books that blended facts with a story. I have realised that things like paperback or board do not matter as we make sure all books are treated with respect in our house and they always stay in the same condition.

How did you ‘read’ with your son when he was under 3 years? How has it changed since then? 

Reading books together is the best memory we both share. Initially, we had one box collection of books and 2 individual books that we placed on a table close to the sofa. We made sure we read at least 2 books a day. Initially, after reading the books to him regularly and observing his depth of listening, we would ask him to bring his choice of book and read that also to him. We also made sure that we were available whenever he wanted us to read to him.  Now that he is older, we set aside a reading time and decide based on our availability. If we aren’t available, he will just go through the books himself, looking at the pictures. We noticed how he gradually tried to read phonetically.  Now that he has started reading, he reads a book and then I read one.

Regardless of how we read now, we have always begun our sessions by  listening to the storyline and gradually, as he started talking, we began to comprehend the character’s emotions, humour and other aspects.

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Are there any specific ways in which you store and display the books? 

When he was younger, we used a DIY cardboard holder and placed it close to where we spent our family time. As our book reading gained momentum, we chose a place by the window to display the books so that he can make choices. There were days when he didn’t show interest in reading any book and, on those days, we would just pick out his favourite book and casually leave it lying in different ‘noticeable’ corners of the house. This usually caught his attention and he would grab them and then we would ask him if he would like to listen to a story. 

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How do you collaborate with your son in maintaining the books? 

As parents, we are particular in making him realise that there is responsibility in the choices he makes. Initially, we bought all the books for him. As he grew, we started taking him to a bookstore/lending library to choose books, find a place in the bookshelf and decide when to read. We both spent a lot of quality time at home reading books in the early days. It is always not just about reading, but we look at the details on the cover picture, the front page, the summary/collection items, the way the books are bound and how the author has  illustrated them. I think bringing his attention to all these tiny details has made him feel a deeper connection with the books. He would never take any book, fold or flip the front page or scribble things on them. 

Do you think it is just as important for adults around children to read? Why? 

It is absolutely important for adults to inspire children to read. Children look up to the adults in their family and learn habits. There is so much to learn and enjoy in this world and sometimes we could never experience them in real life but the joy of experiencing them by picturing the images in our mind is what books help us achieve. When a child sees somebody close to them enjoying and cherishing a book, they are naturally drawn to it. My son always wonders how I read big books with no pictures and lots of words. I hope that wonder changes into a joyous interest in the future.

What are some unique themes you have explored with your son in your readings? 

We are not particular about themes but I just realised that most of our books are about nature – plants, animals, insects and everything under the sky. We spend most of our evenings gardening, watching the sky and talking about stars. So, he got into choosing books about these topics and even when we are not around he looks at the pictures and refers them to us in our conversations. We continue to encourage him to choose books based on simple and real things so that  we can talk more about it.

Do you think there are enough libraries and reading groups for young children in India?

That’s a good question! There are very few libraries and reading groups. We recently shifted to a more central place in the city hoping that there would be more libraries, but we managed to find only two libraries and no reading groups. And those two had very limited collection for young children.

Schools and parents role in encouraging children to read are vanishing. More libraries and reading groups should come up in India. Parents and schools should give more importance to reading and help children blossom into young readers. I feel the awareness among parents to nurture reading is less and most schools are sidelining reading as a hobby. Reading is so much more than a hobby; it is a deep need for children! There is so much that children get from books. When we look at where the world is going now, what we want is more empathetic people who can understand others’ feelings and be there for them. Books don’t just help us imagine but make us feel what each character is going through.

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With the current pandemic situation, how have you been accessing books? 

My son who had recently got into independent reading was actually shocked when he came to know his ordered books won’t be delivered. Since we had a few extra new books, thanks to our book collection habit, he managed well for a while. We additionally got him into watching others reading books online which has helped tremendously.

Inspired by watching people read books online, he got interested in reading his old books  for other children and now we have a YouTube channel featuring his videos which really helps keep his reading habit alive. I continue to read my books to him, few pages a day and let him listen, as I feel it will be a smooth transition for him to enter the world of non-fiction and improve his listening skills as well.

What are some ways in which you talk to Pranav about the situation we are in? Do you read books around that? If so, can you recommend?

Firstly, we stopped watching sensational news about the current situation and made sure he learns about the crisis from us. He took to the changes gradually as we spoke about COVID-19 and the importance of staying indoors. Surely, books have been of immense help; many across the world have created e-books for children making it easier to explain things that’s happening around while also instilling hope. 

Ignorance is the key to fear; when children know what’s going on and see people act with courage and caution, they develop responsibility, problem handling skills and care for people. This is a learning opportunity for everybody. 

Dealing with a Child who Bites

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. 

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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.

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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.