By Tanu Shree Singh
I recently started swimming again despite the futile attempts that the boys made to gross me out with ‘little kids peeing in the pool’ stories. Sharp at 4 pm, I am in the pool all raring to swim 50 lengths. I manage 20. My swimming partners are these four to six-year-old tiny bubs (who I hope do not pee in the pool). At the end of the pool are the mums watching the little ones. I see most of them frowning, focusing on the child splashing about. The kids are learning to swim.
One tiny girl swims a length, gets out of the pool and runs up to the mum. “Did you see that? Did you see that?” she squealed.
“Yes. But you are not listening to ma’am. You need to go faster.”
Go faster, be quicker, study harder, run, run, run. That seems to be the parenting mantra.
The little girl’s shoulders dropped a little as she dragged herself back.
The mother looked worried. She wants her to learn well. Another one protested when the coach blew the whistle and signalled everyone to get out. She felt there were still five minutes left. What could have been an hour of learning with some fun thrown in became a boxed activity where every minute that we pay for is accounted. A tick on the list.
The boys are all grown up now. But once upon a time when they barely reached my waist, they would look up and ask if they could go and play in the sand. The three of them – two of mine and one friend of theirs – would spend hours filling their ears, head and pockets with sand. This would repeat each day. Sometimes, they would get imaginative and run off to the neighbouring complex. They took some risks, caused my friend and I to panic. They grew.
Sadly, the risk taking opportunities have drastically decreased over generations. While my father climbed trees and learned to swim in the village pond holding a buffalo’s tail, I spent hours cycling and skating around (without GPS) with friends. However, the children now learn to skate in classes, in protected environments. We need to stop and ask how much is too much. How much protection? How much stress of learning more, learning best?
I won’t say I never breathe down the boys’ necks to get the work done or learn a new skill. I am sure I sufficiently scarred them with the handwriting improvement classes as a last ditch effort to get them to write answers that someone somewhere could read. However, no classes were joined with the aim of winning World Cups. Swimming was taught as a life skill and not as a road to additional certificates. They joined tennis on a whim to learn the game and soon quit because the coach was not happy with them not trying to participate in competitions.
I do get the stress that most of us live under. The world is competitive and we want our child to be on the top or at least have everything that we hope would get them to lead a happy life. In the rush to do so, somewhere childhood is lost. As a child, my favourite bit was to climb on to my father’s back in the pool while he swam. And the water fountains he taught us to create using our hands still bring a smile to my face. We splashed water at each other, dived to find bottle-caps much to the disapproval of the coach and looked forward to swimming each day. That childhood is somewhere getting lost in the race to be the best parent who gives their children all sorts of opportunities and skill sets.
The result is exhausted, worried children who are losing that twinkle in the eyes one gets when they are about to try something new all on their own. I recently saw that in the eleventh grader as he bought a skateboard and ended up with twisted ankles and banged knees in a bid to teach himself. Of course I panicked! What if he hurts himself badly? What if he decides to skate on the road? What if this? What if that? I did give him some set of instructions and did frown when he came back limping. But the sunny smile stopped me from discouraging him or trying to find a ‘class’ where he could ‘learn’. The boy is happily nursing his sore foot. And is doing something entirely pointless for the sheer joy of it.
In our quest to ensure a happy future, somewhere we are sacrificing the happiness that ought to be their right today. All of us need to hit the reset button. A child who is interested in singing should join a class to better the skills not because they have the potential to be the next singing sensation but because singing gives joy to their soul. Often conversation about happiness and well-being turn to the omnipresent question, “but what about the future? The blissfully happy soul won’t ensure a seat in the best college!”
I usually ask, “And the seat in the best college would ensure happiness?”
There is usually silence and dismissive shaking of heads after that. I get that too. But I surely hope that we can take a break and think about the future we are pushing our kids into.
Prioritising happiness and well-being does not mean letting everything take a backseat. It is about creating a balance. It is about recognising the excitement of the little girl who ran to her mum after managing one length on the pool. It is about resisting the urge to frown and push them to be better. It is about hugging the soaking child and whispering, “I am so proud of you.” It is about the spring in her step when she saunters back to the pool and turns to smile at her mum as she jumps back in. It is about resetting childhood.
(The writer has a PhD in Positive Psychology and is a lecturer in psychology. She is also the author of the book Keep Calm and Mommy On. Listen to Season 1 and 2 of Tanu Shree Singh’s podcast Difficult Conversations With Your Kids.)