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A week of parenting rehab

Learning Societies UnConference (LSUC) seeks to bring together people who are creating diverse learning communities and sustainable learning spaces

An impromptu music session at the LSUC in Bengaluru. Photo: Deepali Parmar
An impromptu music session at the LSUC in Bengaluru. Photo: Deepali Parmar

Let your kids go," said Claude Alvares as soon as he came on stage at the Learning Societies UnConference (LSUC) at Bhoomi College in Bengaluru. An environmental activist and editor with Other India Press, Alvares is also the father of three sons.

“Let your children be free of you at least for the four-five days that you are here," he repeated. I picked up my smartphone and typed this into my notes.

My husband and I are on the cusp of being parents of teenagers. Our oldest child is 14 and the middle one is 12. The youngest is reassuringly 9.

About 15 months ago, I remember holding Sahar, our first-born, in an embrace and saying, “I don’t have an alternative solution to schooling for you. I am hoping to find it. If I knew how I can solve the problems you experience in school, I would. For now, take it easy. Take it slow. Take the breaks you need to recover."

Despite my words, I didn’t trust her or myself to know how to take breaks. When were we being lazy and escapist, and when were we really overwhelmed? What were we supposed to do when we chose to not do what was expected from us? I didn’t know how to give ourselves the time to find out the answer experientially.

Somehow Sahar crossed over from her anxious phase to one where she has found a supportive network of teachers and peers. Yet she often returns from school exhausted. Her morning sports and all-day school routine leaves her with little time for anything else she is interested in, including adequate sleep. She often tells me that she longs to go home. She wants to become small again and sleep in my pocket.

We have been reading and paying attention to alternative education options for years now. I knew about the annual Learning Societies UnConferences organized by a network of volunteers and Shikshantar—the Peoples’ Institute For Re-thinking Education and Development, based in Udaipur. LSUC seeks to bring together people who are creating diverse learning communities and sustainable learning spaces—alternative educators, organic farmers, artists, designers, healers, social entrepreneurs and giftivists (those who believe that the practice of radically generous acts transforms the world).

What really made us pack our bags and go to attend the 10th edition of the LSUC in the last week of December was the state of mind of Aliza, our 12-year-old. Despite her natural love for learning, sports and arts, Aliza seems to have suddenly become emotionally incapable of dealing with school. She reminds my parents and me of what I had been like at her age. Unable to get help, I had spiralled into depression and become suicidal as an adolescent.

We have tried to understand and help Aliza in the ways we are familiar with. Her school principal, class teacher and art teacher are paying special attention to her needs, giving her time off from the pressure of academics and attendance. We met our family therapist. We went on holidays to the mountains and the sea. She travelled with me and slept in my bed, next to me.

Eventually, we reached the LSUC in Bengaluru. And I heard Alvares say what I have heard myself say so many times before. “Look at the violence in our homes and schools," he said, “where families organize themselves like armies to ensure that their children should do what they want them to do. Seventeen years in the education system and young people come out of it with fear in their hearts, wondering what will become of them now.

“Children grow up listening to don’t do this, don’t do that. We are not just supposed to replace the word “don’t" with “do". Replace it with peace. Masti karne do (let them have fun). Masti is not a bad word. It’s the sign of life."

It was my second day at LSUC. I had spent the first day trying to be productive. I had scanned the sessions and workshops that were being offered, decided what would be of interest to me and to each of my children and tried to inspire all of us to make the best of our time here.

What I heard Alvares say was this—let it go. Let yourself go. I realized I had needed this dose of free-range parenting for myself too.

I stopped showing the children where the food was. I stopped suggesting sessions where they could learn something. After a while I stopped looking for them among the 800-plus people who had got together on this vast campus.

I gave myself freedom to just be. Every time they needed us, the children knew how to find their father or me. Sahar took a shawl from our bag and went to sleep in a quiet corner in the middle of the day. Aliza hung around in the play area where the swings were. The youngest spent the most time either with one of her parents or one of her sisters.

I moved from one huddle of people to another. I listened and I carried on. I drank a lot of fresh coconut water. Occasionally, I checked to see what was new on display at the dariyadil dukaan (the generosity shop)—the corner where anyone could leave anything useful and anyone else could pick it up. It was just another example of how the gift economy was at work at LSUC.

A friend asked me when I would volunteer to host a workshop or a session for others. I looked at him blankly.

“I want to stay quiet," I thought in my head. “I have been speaking too much lately. I want to listen. Be silent."

I ate a lot. Whatever I could find, I ate. I bought a packet of organic chikki, groundnuts encased in melted jaggery, and roamed around eating and distributing it. I bought another packet soon enough. Being attentive to my own hunger is not something I do regularly.

I didn’t quite understand why people wanted to give so much. In the evenings every day, there would be a marketplace where people of all ages would set up stalls to offer salads, tea, massages, music performances, games and more. Some would charge Rs10 for their offering. Others were accepting a paper currency called tuk—just a token of payment.

There was a moving Baul performance by Arpita Gaidhane, a young student of Parvathy Baul. Vipul Rikhi sang the poetry of Kabir and other Sufi mystics. There was a lot of dancing and storytelling. Sharing and letting go.

LSUC was like a parenting rehab for me. I felt light and free. I can be nurturing to others when I start with myself. I attended a workshop titled “Fearless parenting".

“We need to clear our own gut of the toxins of shame and guilt," said Reena Ginwala, who was conducting the session. She spoke about non-violent communication. I was reminded of how careless my words and tone have become lately. I feel rushed, angry and impatient. I need to slow down. Restore myself.

“There is nothing to fix," Ginwala whispered in my ear as we said our goodbyes, reminding me not to perpetuate the circle of guilt and control all over again. “There is nothing to fix."

Natasha Badhwar is a film-maker, media trainer and author of the book My Daughters’ Mum.

She tweets @natashabadhwar

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