Tuesday 23 October 2012

Learn to listen to our children

To raise happy kids who do well, parents should not push them and ignore their interests
By Deepika Shetty, The Straits Times, 22 Oct 2012

Recently, when I was invited to address a live audience of restless primary school children and their parents at my children's school, I decided to take notes from my teenage daughter, who has just turned 13.

Her points were brief.

"You are just a side show," she told me matter-of-factly, a style which comes naturally to teenagers, before spelling out the rules of speech.

There were five points, including the one above, I needed to bear in mind. This was turning serious. Putting down my cup of coffee, I reached for my reporter's notepad and started taking notes.

1. Your speech should not be more than three minutes long.

2. Do not waste time talking about yourself. No one is interested. Anyway, someone will introduce you.

3. Do not go on and on about the school's achievements. They will show everyone a slide show before you speak.

4. If you really must say something, make it short and sweet. Children have too many lessons to remember as it is.

The morning of my grand appearance, I tried listening to inspiring speeches by the late Steve Jobs and a funny one by Bollywood superstar Shah Rukh Khan.

"Do you realise they are speaking to college children?" my girl asked me before reminding me that I was neither funny nor a celebrity.

In that telling moment, I decided I would stick to her brief. My speech, clocking just under five minutes, started by parroting her points.

After the unnerving "short and sweet" speech was done, several parents told me it was "heartwarming", "sincere", "genuine". Through the evening and the night, her friends SMS-ed, Whatsapped and e-mailed her to tell me how good I was. One of her friends even urged me to do a masterclass for future guests of honour.

It all felt rather good and the exercise left me with an important lesson: As adults, we need to pay greater attention to what our children have to say to us.

Often what they have to say can result in better endorsements than our adult perspectives.

Having lived through 13 trying yet blissful years of parenthood, I have learnt to pay attention to whatever my children have to say.

This should not be read as an entire lack of ambition on my part.

Like all mothers, my early parenting experiments were shaped by the things I had not achieved. So, when the girl was old enough, she was dutifully signed up for ballet and bharatanatyam classes.

Within a few months, she told me there was no joy in stretching toes and bharatanatyam was "boring". Luckily, since we could afford only one class at a time, the dance lessons stopped and she went on to find love in pottery, art and swimming.

From the start, our boy showed all signs for the great outdoors and sports. We wasted no time on piano or violin, preferring to focus on what he loves. Swimming, soccer and cricket, in no particular order of merit.

There was a period, a very brief one, when my husband decided to speak to the world, learning Mandarin was a must.

When the tutor walked into our home, for all of four weeks, my children's crest- fallen faces told me, languages were just not for them.

Over the years, my "listening to my children" parenting style has helped them do just what they enjoy, one class at a time.

At my son's soccer class, when a tiger mother asked me what my son does, my answer was barely a sentence long.

"He plays soccer."

"I mean what else does he do?"

"He goes to school and plays soccer," I said.

If this hot mamma's Botoxed face could register a reaction, I would have seen shock.

Her sentence, which followed, said it all: "X plays tennis on Monday, soccer on Tuesday, does Mandarin on Wednesday, swimming on Thursday, piano lessons on Friday, soccer again on Saturday and violin on Sunday. You really should not be wasting your son's time."

I looked at her son's lacklustre performance on the pitch and knew this was a lad who would be a lot happier in the company of his books, surrounded by his musical instruments.

But that is not how modern-day parents, with more access and often resources, believe in raising their children.

Even tots these days have a time- table. Their days are charted, days off are planned by the hour, and heaven forbid, if something does not go according to plan.

Parents, in their adult wisdom, believe in pushing their children. "Putting their energy to good use" is a phrase I hear often. The point is, parents are so busy pushing their children that they often end up ignoring what interests them.

My children, who are no geniuses, routinely surprise me with the information they glean every day.

By the time I get home, my daughter, a news junkie, is ready with a detailed news update from around the world. My son's sporting knowledge constantly makes me wonder about the results we would be looking at if he applied the same attention to his textbooks. But I accept him as he is because the future, they tell me, is in sport.

Between them, they have taught this Luddite that the iPhone is an intuitive device. They can fix all my computer woes and they give my dated playlists a much-needed weekly lift.

Through them, this mother of two has fallen in love with Rod Monteiro and The Married Men. On weekday mornings, when we drive them to school, no sound other than the one from the radio is allowed as the animated radio jockeys pull pranks on unsuspecting callers. By the time they are ready for yet another day at school, there is a megawatt smile lighting my children's faces.

Rod, I forgot to tell you the other day as you held the glass door for me: Even if you read the phone book, I'd still be listening to you.

And none of this would have happened if I had not listened to my children and tuned into voices beyond the newsy BBC.

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