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?
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.
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
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
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.
- 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
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.
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.
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.
Savi Paaty Series is a tribute to oral stories. I have created this in memory of my beloved grandmother – Savi Paaty. Each story in the series is a story within a story. Although oral stories are becoming a lost art, it is time we revive and bring them back to life, into our homes and schools, back into our children’s lives.
Here is a story of Apoo, Abi and Janu – three siblings who live in Coimbatore, India and love listening to Savi Paaty’s stories. Savitri Paaty, whom the children fondly call Savi Paaty, always parted her hair in the centre, wore bright silk sarees and used the pallu of the sarees to repeatedly polish her already sparkling diamond nose-pin. Apoo, the eldest of the three siblings at 8 years, loves playing basketball, spends most of her time out in the open, climbing trees, and sporting new scars on her knees every day. Abi, at 7 years is Apoo’s closest confidant. He loves his cars and precious mechanic set. He never fails to bring the set out, screw, un-screw and explore the parts of his dashing wheels collection. Janu, the youngest at 5 years, tries hard to join in with her siblings in climbing trees and fixing cars, but secretly loves playing with her kitchen set and making ‘green-medicine’ with the fallen leaves on the porch.
It was late July, the monsoon had been pouring in Coimbatore and the trees and grass in the city were sparkling with a coat of fresh leafy green. With the heavy rains, as people in Coimbatore had grown to expect, came the flu season and both Apoo and Abi had caught the flu one after the other. They were recovering from a combination of cold, cough and a fever and were advised complete rest by their doctor. Little Janu had been upset that the flu had left her out of the pack, since, it seemed to her, the duo were having much too fun in their resting room with no school or homework to be bothered with, while she had multiplication homework and a test to tackle by Monday. Janu watched longingly as Amma carried bowls of warm soup and bread in the evening and warm, mashed rasam rice with ghee late in the morning and went back to her looming math homework with dread.
Suddenly, to Janu’s delight, an idea flashed in her head! She realised that with her siblings unwell, she could try her hand at some of the new toys that she had been eyeing for months. The dreadful day turned into a field day. Janu threw herself at all the new toys, like a child in a candy shop. One moment she was wheeling away Abi’s scooter round and round the living room, whiffing past Savi Paaty whom she thought would notice her zip. The next moment, she set the scooter aside and ran to fetch Apoo’s brand new badminton racket and was waving it in the air trying to strike the cork. Janu paused and looked at Paaty in delight but noticed that, oddly, her Paaty hadn’t noticed and was rather busily chanting prayers with the ஜெபமாலை (prayer beads) twirling at a rapid pace. She then went on to try her hand at the other forbidden items belonging to her siblings – a handful of puffed rice in Abi’s blue spiderman bowl and lastly Apoo’s orange and purple sunglasses. It was then that she noticed two crows cawing loudly from the balcony. Janu was familiar with the crows, they were usual visitors in their house and came promptly every morning for their feed. As a routine, Amma would keep hot rice and dal in the yard for the crows every day and just as expected, they were on time. If Amma was delayed, as she was today with her two kids still recovering, they would caw loudly and remind her that they were hungry too.
The pair of cawing crows drew Janu’s attention and she ran to the balcony to watch them. She stood behind the glass door to the outdoors and saw one of the crows cawing with eyes focussed on her. The other was hopping up and down on the railing of the balcony and joining in the hunger call. Janu wondered to herself what the crows were cawing about when Amma came with a plate of hot rice and dal and opened the door to the balcony. The pair of birds flew from the balcony and perched themselves on the guava tree and watched patiently. The moment the door was shut, Janu saw the birds fly back to the meal and peck at it instantly. The whole unfolding of activities delighted her and she ran to Paaty and declared, “Paaty, paaty, when I become a big girl, I will also feed the crows like Amma.” The statement seemed to finally put a smile on her grandmother’s face and she stroked her granddaughter’s messy hair and said, “Do you know why we feed the crows every morning?” Janu was elated and wanted to hear more. She called out to Apoo and Abi from her grandmother’s lap and out came the pair of them, excited to hear a story to brighten up their otherwise sombre weekend.
Paaty began, “Every morning, Amma feeds the birds rice and dal before feeding even you children because there is a belief that our kollu thatha and paaty (great grandparents in Tamil) come in the form of the crows to eat and bless us.” Abi giggled and looked at the birds polish off the last of the dal and rice and asked Paaty, “Oh Paaty, does that mean Ramu thatha is now a crow and has come to eat parupu sadham? (dal rice)” Apoo and Janu looked instantly at their grandmother to see her response when Paaty smiled and continued, “While this is the belief, Paaty has her own views on why we feed these birds.” The children shared a proud moment when they realised their Paaty had her own take on such big matters. Paaty continued, ” Our pithrus (ancestors) wanted to teach us to be compassionate towards all living beings and our mother earth. So, as a simple daily practice, we draw kolam (rangoli with rice flour done traditionally in most South Indian homes) in the mornings to feed the tiny ants, we grow tulasi with care and water it every day to value and respect plants.” Paaty went on as the children listened in rapt attention, “Have you seen when we visit Gobi (Gobichettipalayam is a small town about 80 kilometres from Coimbatore) ,we always feed the cows every morning and Amma pours milk into the snake nest to feed even the snakes which we all fear?” The children nodded and Paaty said, “All of this is to embrace these living beings and not hurt them. Through these simple daily practices, our pithrus wanted to tell us to live harmoniously with all beings.” She concluded, “That is also why we feed the crows every morning.”
The children were moved by the story and wanted to start pitching in instantly. Janu ran up to her Amma and said, “Amma, can I feed the crows from tomorrow?” while Apoo and Abi decided they would learn to draw kolams from Amma. Having made their decisions, Apoo and Abi started discussing what they would draw for the ants while Savi Paaty went back to chanting prayers for her two grandchildren to recover from the flu.