By Geetika Sasan Bhandari
Research consistently shows that one way in which long-term learning can take place is when children make links between what they are learning in the classroom (or now, in online classes) with the real world. When we step in and point out/facilitate these linkages and encourage discussions, it helps children to see what theory looks like in practice, in the real world. And that stays.
So if we, as parents, want to encourage compassion, kindness and acceptance in our children, we can’t just keep mouthing these terms, expecting they will naturally become what we want them to embody. Instead, we have to constantly find ‘teachable’ moments and then talk about it with our kids — make it dinner-time conversations — and encourage them to share their views.
At the moment, there is no better teaching opportunity than the recently-concluded Olympics. While I was sceptical about such a large-scale event taking place, the fact is it brought some cheer and hope in Covid times. Every day, I looked forward not only to the events but also to the stories of warmth and friendship. I’m inclined to believe that the pandemic may have just made all of us a little more compassionate, a little less harsh. And while competition is important, it is not everything.
Nothing demonstrates this better than the story of the high jumpers. Qatari high-jump Mutaz-Essa Barshim and Italian Gianmarco Tamberi, both with jumps of 2.37 meters, failed to clear the last height. The judge offered them a deciding jump-off, but at the spur of the moment, Barshim asked the judge if they could both have gold. The jubilation that followed, as both world-class athletes and good friends hugged and recreated history, was a heart-warming reminder that there can be room for magnanimity even in competition. It would be interesting to tell your children this incident and then see what they feel about it. Encouraging questions, firing their curiosity and making them think about alternative scenarios help to hone critical thinking skills.
The second discussion you can have is about the importance of putting yourself first and focussing on holistic wellness. US gymnast Simone Biles, with 32 Olympic and World Championship medals under her belt, decided not to compete in the women’s team event and then went on to withdraw from the women’s all-around gymnastics final citing mental health issues. Biles is just 24 years old. Earlier in the year, 23-year-old tennis player Naomi Osaka, a four-time Grand Slam singles champion, too, withdrew from the French Open because the organisers threatened to expel her when she declined media interviews, owing to her fragile mental health. Osaka did not compete in Wimbledon either.
What is important to discuss here is that finally two young women have had the courage to prioritise their mental well-being in the world of big sports. If we can accept that sportspersons regularly withdraw from tournaments due to physical injuries and surgeries, then why can’t we accept that they may need to withdraw due to mental health problems? When it comes to the mind, we think stress is part and parcel of the game and a sportsperson should be able to handle it. Of course, they can and do all the time, but if a time comes when it interferes with their game, they should be able to talk about it openly. This is not just in sport. Burnouts happen all the time everywhere – school, college, the workplace. Talk to your kids about developing hobbies that help them handle stress; explain that it’s okay to take a step back and rejuvenate, and ask them what they feel about these women speaking out.
Of course, there’s no better example about how hobbies can help manage stress — and how it’s high time we stop stereotyping hobbies by gender — than British diver Tom Daley. Winning hearts worldwide for his knitting and crochet, Daley almost acquired another, perhaps unsuspecting feather in his cap, by veering close to becoming a ‘crochet influencer’! But the Olympian, who won his fourth Olympic medal, says knitting helps him stay calm under pressure, and is really the secret weapon in his mindfulness regime. This is especially heartening because boys usually still face resistance if they choose to play with toys or pursue hobbies that are deemed ‘girly’. Perhaps the image of Daley, quietly putting those knitting needles to good use in the stands, will help alter perception.
Last would be the news of sports people refusing to wear uniforms they are not comfortable in. The Norwegian handball team refused to wear bikini bottoms, and wore shorts instead, for a match at the European Handball Championships, and was fined. The step sparked controversy, inviting both accolades and brickbats. Among the supporters was singer Pink, who offered to pay their fines. The team had apparently been petitioning for this since 2006! And then at the Olympics, the German women’s gymnastics team wore ankle-length unitards instead of bikini-style leotards.
Just like everything else, sports have to evolve and make room for comfort. If schools can adopt a more gender-neutral uniform that places comfort (physical and emotional) above all else, why can’t international sports? These are important discussions to have with your children, to highlight the changes taking place in the world and to allow them the space to observe, discuss, and then formulate their own opinions.
All critical to becoming sensitive, compassionate, thinking, and accepting adults.