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The parent who stopped saying no

The two most toxic elements I have suspended in my relationship with my children are expectations and judgement

Replace your instructions with peace. Let the children have fun. Photo: Natasha Badhwar
Replace your instructions with peace. Let the children have fun. Photo: Natasha Badhwar

Ihave been fairly unemployed in my role as a parent recently. I am practising what I have been preaching to myself for the last few years. Create a safe and loving environment and leave the children alone. Let the home belong to them. Let them find their own rhythm. Ditto for yourself.

“Mamma, I don’t want to go to school today," says the child, warm in her bed on a January morning in Delhi.

“What are the lessons you have scheduled for today," I ask her.

“I don’t remember, Mamma," she says in her little voice.

“Okay, beta," I say, tucking her back cosily.

On another weekday afternoon, one of the three siblings comes up to me tentatively to ask if they can watch one of their favourite films on DVD. “Yes, sure," I answer, looking up briefly from what I am reading.

I don’t ask the children to make their beds or pick up their clothes. I don’t tell them to bathe or comb their hair. I don’t wake them up and I don’t ask them to go to sleep. I call them to the dining table for meals but I don’t ask them to clear the table afterwards. I don’t ask them to switch off the lights, dry the bathroom floor or pick up their books and bags from wherever they are scattered. I don’t suggest that they go out and play. I don’t want to know what they are doing on the laptop or the tablet.

I have also stopped telling them to hurry up and finish whatever they are doing. This one was huge for me. I didn’t realize how many times I must have said, “Hurry up," till I stopped myself from saying it each time. I remember from my own life experiences how much anxiety is caused just from the pressure to be quick.

The acts are small, but the impact on us is deep.

I said yes to whatever they came to ask me for. Yes, you may rewatch How To Train Your Dragon, eat Nutella with your roti, stay up longer, sleep in whatever you are wearing, postpone your bath, open your presents, make cookies in the oven and have ice cream after breakfast.

I did not tell them to stop laughing because they had laughed enough, to lower their voices because we had guests, to eat more or eat less.

I stopped instructing, pushing, guiding and directing my adolescent children. I do not need to train them.

I realized that this made me very quiet. Eerily quiet. Apparently, this was almost all the content of my conversations with my children. I wouldn’t have described myself as a controlling parent, but when I removed these words of control from my vocabulary, there was very little left.

For the first two weeks, I looked very sad. I felt strangely empty and lost. As if I had given up an addiction cold turkey.

We found out that when I stopped giving instructions and paying extreme attention to the children physically, nothing changed in any dramatic way. The house looked exactly the same. Their room and personal grooming was no different. Everything that needed to happen, happened in the same way. Just with more calm.

The most significant difference was that the children slept a lot more. I slept a lot more too. When they were quiet, they were reading, and when they were noisy, they were discussing what they had been reading or watching. They came to me and told me their nightmares and fears. I listened, maintaining eye contact with them longer than before.

The two most toxic elements I have suspended in my relationship with my children are expectations and judgement. I replaced them with trust. Anger went away on its own.

Like the children, I read a lot too. I revisited books by John Holt, a writer and educationist I had discovered in my school library when I had been a 15-year-old myself. I read blogs by parents who live the philosophy that Holt had articulated in these simple words—“Living is learning and when kids are living fully and energetically and happily they are learning a lot..."

Looking back at the tumult of the last two years, I realize that the person who had changed the most as the children arrived on the threshold of their teenage years was me. Even as I mocked other parents who were openly articulating their distrust and fear of the coming of age of their children, subconsciously I had recalibrated my expectations from my own children too. I was the one worried that they would behave differently now. That they would value me less. That they were now required to pay me back in some way by being model human beings.

I needed to step back and deal with my own conditioned fears. The children were all right. The parents needed reassurance. I revisited my own column in this paper two weeks ago, in which I had quoted Claude Alvares at the Learning Societies Un-Conference 2017 (LSUC).

“Replace your instructions with peace. Let the children have fun," I had written in my notes. I congratulated myself on being such a good learner. On the internet, I found this snippet of a conversation with John Holt, where he is speaking to an audience in a school.

“But surely there must be something important enough that everyone should learn it?" Holt thought for a moment and replied, “To learn to say ‘I’m sorry’, ‘I don’t know’, and ‘I was wrong’."

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

She tweets @natashabadhwar

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