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
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.