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. 

Journey towards Motherhood; Experiences on Pregnancy & Postpartum : Mamma Love Series

Mamma Love Series

Do you think pregnancy focuses on preparing for motherhood as much as preparing or a baby? 

Ramya, who lives in Bangalore with her toddler shares, “I do not believe pregnancy focuses on preparing for motherhood. Throughout pregnancy, a mom, especially a first time mom, usually thinks a lot about the course of pregnancy, how to get through it & how to keep her growing baby healthy. Then there is of course labour and delivery, which preoccupies many moms-to-be. And finally, one thinks about processes and things for when the baby comes – how do you swaddle, what stroller do you need. There is very little mention – from healthcare providers or more experienced moms’, in literature, depictions in popular culture of what motherhood entails, and the mental fortitude required to deal with it. 

Shilpa, mother of baby Dhruv who is 11 months old, writes, “Contrary to what I thought, not in the least. While I was pregnant, it was all about staying healthy, happy and focusing on having a safe pregnancy. Rest, sleep, nutritious food, supplements, yoga – the days just whizzed by. Coupled with long hours at work, there wasn’t really any time to think of anything else. And no one really spoke about motherhood, at least to me. Other than the usual, “Oh, this is nothing, wait for the baby to arrive!” – no one had much to say, and it never occurred to me that we actually do need to prepare for motherhood.

Can you share with us the emotional and physical ride you went through soon after your baby’s arrival?

Shilpa begins, “Remember how I said that people tend to tell you, “Oh, this is nothing, wait for the baby to arrive!”. At the time I thought, well, it would really help if the same people could actually tell me something useful instead of these unwarranted comments,” she says. “But, what I can tell you now, is that, NO ONE can really tell you anything about how you are likely to feel. Every pregnancy is different, every baby is different AND every mother is different. There is really no ‘one size fits all’ advice – and it would really help if that is what people would tell new mothers.”  She continues, “For me, it was much easier to deal with the physical aspects than the emotional ones. I had a C-section, it was not easy, and it was painful, but with the help of doctors and nurses I found it quite manageable. For someone who really really needs sleep to function, the lack of sleep that comes with a new baby hit me like an express train! Even that I managed to deal with in the best way I could. 

She says none of the physical challenges came close to what was going on in her mind. “The answer to what was going on in my mind is, nothing, and everything,” shares Shilpa.  “A lot of the time I was completely blanked out and functioning like a robot, and when I wasn’t in that mode – I was paranoid and overthinking EVERYTHING baby. Is he sleeping ok, is he being fed enough, is he peeing enough, is his poop the right color, is he breathing while he is asleep (yes, even this!), have I covered him enough and so on. ” She assures, “But, things do settle down eventually and the important thing for you and your immediate family is to acknowledge what you are going through.”

Meanwhile, Ramya speaks of her experience, “I had been waiting to be a mother my whole life. Since I was five years old, I would play pretend with my dolls, and as I got older, I’d imagine scenarios with my future children, and fantasise about life as a mother. I struggled to get and stay pregnant, which added to my deep yearning to be a mother. This pregnancy and my unborn baby were so precious and important to me – it’s not wrong to say that all my hopes were pinned on them. Then my daughter was born, and all my castles went up in smoke.” She says, “I knew it almost immediately – I did not feel all the emotions that everyone says you must, that I was prepared to feel – the overwhelming love, the immediate affection. I felt removed from my baby, I couldn’t bring myself to feel the quantum of love that I expected and wanted. She was low birth weight, and had experienced some in-utero stress. This led her to being diagnosed as a baby high needs. The intensity of her behaviour and emotions were jarring. She would cry for hours on end, and I would be at wits end, unable to comfort her, and not knowing what to do. Our bonding was not immediate, and took lots of time and effort. I felt deep anguish when I saw how easily my husband and father bonded with and loved my daughter, and I struggled to do the same. 

My angst was compounded by the fact that I moved back to my parent’s house after living away from them for more than five years. My father is a doctor, and was very involved in my daughter from the moment of her birth. My mother- in- law and husband’s aunt were also very keen to help and would come over everyday. I am an introvert at heart, fiercely independent, and deeply opinionated. This combination did not bode well for me in my circumstances. I felt like I was drowning under the torrent of constant advice, comments, and suggestions. I felt that I was not getting the support and rest I truly needed, and started feeling resentment towards those around me. The restrictions on eating, going out, and general to-dos, mild though they were, felt unbearable to me. 

About her initial breastfeeding experience, Ramya shares, “Breastfeeding was probably the worst part of the initial days. I struggled to produce sufficient milk, and felt like I was subjected to an inquisition from all the elders at home. It was deeply anxiety inducing. To add to this, my baby was born with a tooth, which rendered breastfeeding traumatic at times. Physically, my recovery was quite quick and relatively easy, given that I had a vaginal birth. However, I had stitches and some digestive issues that left me in constant discomfort for the first couple of months. Coupled with my lack of sleep, I felt like a zombie. 

Finally, she says, “Of course like all things, the lower the lows, the higher the highs. I could watch my daughter sleep for hours on end. Hugging her tiny 2.5 kg body to my chest on those chilly winter afternoons as we did skin to skin, was tranquility epitomised. I always maintain one of life’s greatest joys is holding a sleeping baby, a truth I realised in those early days. When my daughter would smile in her sleep, or yawn, or I’d count her tiny fingers and toes, I truly understood why it was called the miracle of life.”

Mamma Love Series Set 1

In those initial months, what kind of support comforted you most and what caused turbulence? 

“My husband was my biggest support, my rock and my wall”, begins Ramya. “When he was there, I felt completely confident and comfortable. He always let me take the lead and played the perfect complement. He was ever ready to do any physical task, and give me a break. This rejuvenated me and kept me sane. I found his presence to be calm and soothing because he never questioned me, and instilled in me the belief that I was doing my best. I also found immense comfort in my best friend who had a baby 18 days after me. We were able to go through all the trials and tribulations of new motherhood together. Speaking to someone who was feeling all the things that I was feeling, was an immense reassurance. My parents were very supportive and generous. I feel I took them for granted to some extent, but knowing that they were there for relief and my father for medical help and advice was very comforting. The things that caused turbulence was constant critiques and criticism of my choices and parenting style, and people providing anecdotes about the choices that they made with their children. I felt that there was so much pressure and instruction, it left me dizzy, and unable to think out the best choice for me and my baby.”

Meanwhile, Shilpa says space and privacy were what she needed and when given that, she was able to enjoy the initial days and stay comfortable. She adds, “This was essential to recover, bond with and get to know my baby. I didn’t want a long lines of visitors at the hospital or at home, and that was THE factor that caused turbulence in my case. Being in India, a LOT of people tend to visit – out of courtesy, even when you don’t want/ expect that courtesy!  The cardinal rule of “never wake a sleeping baby” was thrown to the winds, and that was incredibly upsetting for me.”

At any point in this journey, have you felt that you were so unprepared for the task in hand?

“Honestly this happens so often that I have lost track,” admits Shilpa. “While most matters appear fairly routine and ‘everyone has gone through it’, when it is your own baby, and when it is you who are completely responsible – even the simplest of tasks can put a lot of pressure on you. At the start, even changing diapers used to stress me out – have I cleaned him properly so that he doesn’t end up with a rash?! After getting through the first few months, I can now probably tell another new mom to hang in there and that it gets better.”

“Yes!” exclaims Ramya.”Many times in the first three months, I’d cry to myself, asking what I had done to my husband’s and my life.” “The physical and mental exertions were nothing close to what I had expected, and I was completely overwhelmed. At the same time I felt like a complete failure, because I thought that since the start of time, billions on billions have undertaken motherhood successfully, why am I finding it so hard. I also felt a great amount of guilt since I knew the majority of people have minimal amounts of help and I had so much. I was perpetually petrified of what life would be like when I moved out on my own.”

Is there anything that you have learnt on this journey that you want to share with other mothers?

Shilpa advices new mothers, “You may have heard a lot of people talk about how they are independent and how they managed to do everything for their baby all by themselves. Now, that’s great. But, if you are in a position to get some help, take it! You will feel much better. While it is beautiful, it is not an easy journey, and every mother needs her rest, as well. You don’t have to feel guilty if you are unable to manage by yourself, taking care of a newborn is no easy task and especially for a new mom who doesn’t sleep nights (or days). Even now, with an 8 month old, I don’t need help with any chores, but I do ask the grandparents to come and just play with the baby. I physically don’t have the amount of energy required to keep my baby entertained for hours and that’s the one thing I ask for even now.”

Ramya puts into words something beautiful for expectant mammas, “I think I would want to share that there are so many narratives, dictats, rules, and expectations. There are so many voices in the background. There is so much stress and tension. Hard as it may seem, block ALL of that out. Remember the only thing that is right is what works for you and your baby. There is no wrong. There are no winners and losers. There is no better and worse. So focus on making yourself happy and content because that’s when you will be able to make the best choices as a parent for your child and family. Learn to trust yourself, that’s how you can be the best mother you can. 

Cut out the competition in toto. It doesn’t matter – epidural or non, vaginal or c-section, breast, bottle or both, co-sleeper or in the crib. These choices literally do not matter at all in the long run in any material way, they have no reflection on you or your child. You aren’t better if they did things one way, nor are you worse. She finally says, “Don’t derive a sense of achievement from your children!  Enjoy each milestone, quietly and peacefully.” 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gratitude & Children

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

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

Why?

  • Learning to Unwind with Gratitude 

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

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

  • Acknowledging Collective Effort 

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

  • Gratitude in the face of Adversities 

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

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

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

  • Spontaneous Thank You’s! 

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

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

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

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

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


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