A morning with Sherry

The fresh morning sunlight glided into the office and there was a pleasant buzz around the space. The clock showed 9.30 am and slowly the staff started walking in. It is going to be a busy day, but a satisfying one, thought Sherry to herself. She loved this office, she has always been one of those people who was proud of the work she did. She was happy when there was loads of stuff to be done, articles to be written, poems to be composed.

She breathed in deeply of the fresh air as she looked out at the sea that waved to her from beyond her window. The sea took her back to memories of her earlier life as an advertising writer. It brought a wry smile to her face and she wondered why it has taken her so long to shift to creative writing. She could have done it at any stage in her life, and yet she had wasted so many years writing ads, and brochures – often rehashing some old content of clients. At the time, she believed that was what being a writer was all about.

But then slowly as a sense of disappointment, a sense of lack lustre routine began to gnaw away at her, something within her pushed her to create something new and she did. She began writing short stories as she had during her college days, she committed to creating a book of poems, a book of well researched articles on teenage suicides and why the teens are such a highly criticized species of the human race.

It was in these projects, these assignments that she discovered her voice, found the person she had lost touch with decades ago. She didn’t quite recollect when that last time was, but the more she wrote and easier it became to have conversations with this inner being. Silence was the secret. That was a huge challenge to Sherry; in her earlier advertising life, she was used to chaos and phone calls all day. She longed for a few moments of peace when her mind was not jumping around looking for things to do or say.

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But over time, as she opted increasingly to write for herself, to create in the true sense of the word, she began to find peace. She could work for hours at end without feeling the need to exchange words with her colleagues. There was a stillness around her, within her. She felt she had even begun to move slower afraid of disturbing the inner stillness that had been gotten with so much difficulty.

Slowly, her thoughts came back to her room, to the sea. Having had her fill of the lovely visions of nature, she got her cup of filter coffee, sat at her machine and began her day’s work.

~ Bharti Athray

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Write your own script

Shakespeare said it, the Gita says it: All the world’s a stage and we are but actors here.
I think an important aspect of this saying that often gets left out is the fact that as actors, we get to write out our own role. You can choose the characteristics, the script, your response as you enact the role. What you do not have control over is the plot, so don’t worry about the plot. Just focus on how the character you are playing will respond to the various incidences and events in the plot, for what happens next in the plot will really be defined by your response.
Amazing thought, isn’t it? Talk about interactive movies and films, it does not get better than this!

The problem with this play of life is we get too hung up on the plot, we try to pre-empt the events in the plot and when things do not unravel as per our thinking, we get upset. We forget we are not in control of the plot, we are in control only of our character and how that character will interact and respond to the situation and to the other actors in the scene. We cannot influence the other actors in a very serious way either. They all come with their own ideas of how they want to play out their characters, and how they want to write their script.

When you come on the stage, you are a little lost and you look for someone to guide you on what needs to be done in the play. So you get to choose your mentors, these people become your parents, your siblings, your teachers and your friends. Slowly, you get a grip and perspective on how that play works, how it moves forward, and gradually you move away from their influence and their way of looking at the world. You form your own opinions and define your own script. And then you are on a roll, looking at experiences your way, responding as you see fit and so on.

We are but actors here.

The problems in the play begin when we forget that we are actors, we get attached to the props on the stage, especially when the plot defines that the props must belong to someone else in a given scene. Then we want the prop, and if the plot does not allow this, we get upset again.

When you are performing you need to keep reminding yourself that the things that you see on stage are merely props. Maybe in the next scene, you will get that pretty prop, or may be you never will. If you are able to successfully distance yourself from the elements on stage, get into character without getting entangled, play out the emotions well, you would have lived a rich life that also feels satisfying. But for those of us who mistake our roles for the reality, we are in for a bad time. It is like going to watch a tragedy and crying all through the film and continuing to cry even after you have returned home. Somewhere you have forgotten that this tragedy was merely a film and nothing more.

Every time you feel like you are in the midst of a situation that you can’t handle, remember it is just a scene and it will change soon. As for defining your character, pick characters from Shakespeare, Gita or history, find someone you resonate with and play out your role as your role model would. It just makes life so much simpler.

~ Bharti Athray

How to get your child off digital entertainment.

There is so much discussion these days on children being over-exposed to television and digital entertainment. There are constant discussions on how we need to stop our children from excessive consumption of these devices. I have found that if you clearly define the timings when your child can use the digital devices, and control your own consumption of these devices, it is not that difficult to reduce their usage of digital devices.
Give your children and their friends games that will keep them engaged, give them a challenge, and it seems they don’t really miss the idiot box. That was a pleasant surprise for me on one of the recent rainy evenings. Three young boys, full of energy sitting together building towers out of Jenga blocks, and not once did they mention the TV.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This incident made me wonder whether the fault lies in us, not giving them enough opportunity to play together, fight with each other… make amends, upset each other. May be when you put children together they no longer need other devices to entertain them!
May be instead of enrolling them for endless classes and tuitions, we should just let them hang out together, play with real friends, and build bonds that will last them a lifetime.
That short stint on a weekend evening revived in me the hope that all was not lost, and that our children are not really that different from us. They too, like we did at their age love being together, playing the fool, ganging up and enjoying each other’s company. To more such unplugged evenings and indoor playtimes!

~Bharti Athray

Is your teen’s art teacher stifling him?

Personally, I love drawing, painting and crafting things with my hands. I think that is what really makes me ‘Me!’ My teen has seen me do it, and as a child I always encouraged him to take up painting, even sent him to a drawing class that he thought was boring.

As he grew into his teens, his interest in drawing dropped completely, instead he nurtured a new interest in music, sports and took up parkour very seriously for almost 2 years. As the academic pressure of the higher classes set in, he had little time for the outdoors. Then, all of a sudden he began drawing – weird teenage stuff of course, but there he was… making pen and ink drawings in his books, telling me stories around what he drew and often referring to Dali, our favourite artist, for his inspiration. He would go through Dali’s coffee table book for hours, trying to understand the imagery and the connects. And days later, I would see some shadow of the great painter’s work in his own work.

No, he does not paint like Dali, a long way from there still, but he is trying to think like him, follow his thought process, connect different ideas and create a new piece. All of this happened after Std. VIII, when art was dropped in school as a subject of study.

‘So what exactly do your paintings and poems really say, kid?’ I asked him. ‘Oh, lots, they talk about how I am feeling in that moment, sometimes I try to write like my favourite song writers, other times I imagine I am writing for the next Spoken Word event, where I will perform my piece…’ he says passionately.

From the parent’s eyes

This was interesting for me to observe as a parent. You see, he was not a particularly good art student, could never colour within the lines, his water color paintings were often marred by patches of too much water or too little of it… and his human figures right through school were well… different. He and his art teacher did not quite hit it off, and he struggled with grades in the art exams. It was sad for me to see that as I had hoped he would grow up to love art as much as I did… but obviously, that was not to be.

So his new avatar where he began to draw and look up art books and try his hand at painting came as a surprise to me. During the last years of school when he was supposed to be studying and practicing for good grades in Maths and Science, he would buy himself sketch books and spend hours drawing, sketching and perfecting his art pieces. And with my love for the same, I could not help but sit down with him and guide him on how to get a certain angle right… not that I am a studied artist, but I have learnt a few tricks and tips along the way.

Rediscovering art

He recently completed a beautiful oil painting on canvas, it is gorgeous. He is proud of it too. This piece made me realize that in the last few years, he had been denying his creative expression through this medium. His relation with his art teacher and having been given marks that clearly showed that he was not ‘artistic’ had made him stay away from drawing, colours, paint… the works.

Once there was no judging, he found this to be a great way to express himself and found a voice all his own. His works have images combined with words and icons that he sees in his fav music videos all rolled into one.

I learnt: Art is a medium of expression, not just a profession

This experience has taught me that we ought not to judge our children by the syllabus that has been set out by the schools. There has to be a wider, more open participation and encouragement for the young minds and hearts to be able to express themselves. Not everyone is going to be a professional artist, not everyone needs to colour within the lines; but I do believe each child at every age must be encouraged to express himself through art. This is where they learn to discover themselves and deal with their emotions.

Where freedom of expression is threatened, thinking slowly dies

Let us remember that it is the dictatorial governments who stop their creative citizens from expressing themselves. The writers, the painters, the theatre performers, the singers  – they are the bravest citizens of a country for they dare to state things as they see them, for they have little to lose. These creatives are committed to their vision of the world, to have their distinctive view of all that is happening around them and they dare to say and do things that normal people don’t. The governments that are trying to control the masses, and stop them from thinking, clamp the freedom of expression; and societies where this is done face a slow down. They stop progressing, and over decades one can see a definite collapse of their social, economic and political systems (read: Communist Societies)

The future belongs to creative innovators, not repeaters!

As parents and teachers, we should take this aspect of creative expression seriously. What is taught in schools is what we already know : grammar for language, a certain method of writing, drawing singing… yes, it is important to learn the basics, but let us also use the creative spaces to teach our children to think for themselves, let them use these media to explore their personalities, to define what freedom really means to them… after all, the future really belongs to those who will be able to bring different ideas together, not those who can repeat that has already been defined. For that we have AI and bots…

I am glad my teen has gone from being a consumer of art to being a creator….

How to keep your teen safe on social media

Right, so here we are talking about one of the most pressing issues of our times: Social media and teens. It is a topic that all adults know needs to be addressed, and one that the teens believe, their parents should stay away from.

Attend any PTA meeting in school, and you will hear the teachers warn you of the dangers of letting young children access social media without adequate parental guidance. There is the fear of stalking, of having online relationships with adults who are upto no good, the danger of cyber bullying, the fear of your child creating a digital trail that may come back to haunt him in later years when he starts applying to universities or for jobs… the concerns are endless.

But the flip side: this is the technology of the future, everybody is on it. Your child’s future academic institute will look for blogs and Facebook communities that your child has set up, invested time in or nurtured, the networks they make here are ones that can connect them to their future mentors, they follow their icons, study and observe how these social media celebrities have become icons and hope to do so themselves.

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Understanding the power of social media
The young people today are not just dreamers, they dream big, and they are brave, very brave, I think. To them, failure as a concept does not exist. What social media has done for us as a society is made us realize that you don’t have to win the Nobel Prize to be considered successful. Each community has its success stories, consisting of passionate people who wanted to make a difference. Social media brings these young achievers and doers to the fore, inspiring others in their age group to do the same.

You hear their interviews on radio, they perform at local clubs, some of them travel across the nation or even the world, sharing their passion and their stories, in the process building a network of followers and becoming more famous and thereby, according to the traditional standards, successful.

Can I make social media work for my teen?
These positives make me ask the question, what should I do about social media and my child being on it. If he spends too much time on it, it affects his academics; if I take his access away, I fear he is being left behind. As a parent, how do I strike a balance?

Some of the answers by experts dealing with children and teens can be a route that you may want to adopt:

  • First and foremost acknowledge that your child will have a social media presence. In this day and age to expect otherwise is living in a fool’s paradise. We fear social media as we are not very comfortable navigating this digital world. Your teen knows it well in terms of how it functions technically, how the various networks are connected and how people using it to their advantage.
  • Set up your own social media accounts and ask your teen to help you understand how the different media work. Most teens are happy to teach you as it makes them feel you appreciate their inputs instead of constantly telling them that they don’t know anything.
  • Speak to your teen about the real world dangers when you were a teen, how you were advised to remain safe and how the safe rules apply online. Eg: Don’t speak to strangers, don’t share your information with people you don’t know, don’t be rude to peers even the ones you don’t get along with… explain to him / her that apart from their friends viewing their social media posts, there are also known adults who could be checking them out, like teachers and their friends’ parents.
  • Teach him to mind his language: Content posted online by young teens can appear out of line, brash or even vulgar to adults who are not used to the lingo teens use between themselves. This can easily be misconstrued and spoil a teen’s reputation. I have found it important to explain to my teen to use his language very carefully on social media keeping in mind that the other child’s parents may be accessing his / her friend’s account. Being aware of this fact ensures the social media conversation remain publicly acceptable.
  • Follow your teen on social media, but as an observer: Ask your teen if he is ok with you following him on social media accounts. Most teens do not have a problem with that as long as you don’t keep commenting on each post. A ‘Like’ once in a while is appreciated. Being very vocal in a space that he shares with his friends is like inviting his friends to come over and sitting in the room while they want to share their private stories.
    You would not do that in real life, so don’t do it online. Give the child his / her space, you are just following the account to keep an eye on his / her activities.
  • Follow his close friends, but don’t invade their privacy: My teen helped me set up my Instagram account and also asked his close friends to be my first followers. This encouraged me start posting regularly and his friends would regularly ‘Like’ my posts, making me feel good. This also let me follow them and watch the activities on his friends’ pages. Please note, the same rules of online conduct apply for friends’ account: comment as little as possible, Likes are ok, it makes them feel good, but comments can make them feel as though you are invading their privacy. So tread carefully.

Social media and rocky parent-child relationships
Next question: What if my teen does not share his social media account / does not accept me as a friend? Yes, this could happen if you and your teen tend to argue and disagree about almost everything. I would suggest two things:

  • Chat with your teen, help him understand that you have his best interests at heart.
  • If that doesn’t work, ask an adult family member whom your teen connects with and is a trustworthy person to help out. See if your teen accepts his or her friend requests, and let the adult be your teen’s guide in his social media journey.

Surviving Parenting in the digital age
Yes, it is difficult to be a good parent and be liked by your teen these days. But I don’t worry too much about being liked. You see, while at this time your teen may think you are being archaic and old-fashioned, you need to remember you are only trying to keep your teen safe. Just don’t put the rules down with an iron hand, as that simply does not work with today’s generation.

They believe they are grown ups, and deserve to be treated as such. But as I have mentioned in my earlier articles on this blog, you need to understand that they are not always thinking straight or logically. Put your rules in place, share your perspective, listen to them and walk with them mentally to a solution that works for both of you.

Don’t make every discussion with your teen a power struggle and an ego conflict. It is not. You are still dealing with a child, who currently is reacting like a toddler. So have patience, guide him, love him and let him know that no matter what happens in the world of social media, you still will be his most ardent follower.

~ Bharti Athray

I almost abandoned my teen!

There are days when my teen and I get along like the old times, when he will hug me and hang around me like a nine year old. And then there are other times, when he will mumble at everything I tell him and make me want to shake him and get him to answer me properly. He is tall lanky guy who seems to wear this ‘I know what I want’ look most of the time.

I thought my teen wanted to be left alone
So where his academics are concerned, I would keep a watch but let him decide his study time and portion completion. This I quickly realized was a bad idea, we had to stay up till 2 am one night to complete the study for next morning’s exam.

He had a different set of friends as school over the last two years, as elective subjects were introduced their batch has been shuffled. This meant he was hanging out with kids I knew nothing about, much less anything about their parents. Over time, I lost touch with what was happening with his friends, how his relationships were growing… he would share some stories of school, every once in a while, so I did know the names, but what were they like, their habits and personalities, I had little clue. I felt I would be intruding if I asked too many questions.

After all, when I did ask the questions, I would get vague, monosyllabic answers; so I left him to his own devices believing he was now old enough to handle his relationships. A few cracks in these relationships with people who were once very close to him caused him pain and anxiety. Something I learned almost a year after the incident had happened. And my young boy had been struggling with the issue, without even realizing it, all by himself; with some help from friends who were as clueless as he was.

I was wrong!
This incident made me question the very premise that we parents come to adopt that these teens are now old enough and mature enough to handle their lives on their own. I believe, parents of boys feel this more as the boy grows up, chooses to share little about what’s happening with him and worse, refuses to share anything that is bothering him (they feel boys are not supposed to share or feel weak or hurt).

While theoretically I do know this is what the teen boys think and feel, I didn’t catch it when my teen was going through this phase. He seemed to go through his regular day without saying anything and I just assumed things were fine with him, and I did not have to keep on asking him how he was doing.

When, one day, he shared that things were not absolutely fine with him, I realized my assumptions about him being able to handle stuff were wrong. Ok, let me state here that I am not doubting his ability to excel, I am not saying he is not mature enough to understand all that is happening with him, but what I realized is that my approach of staying away and letting him solve his problems on his own was probably what was wrong.

What science says
My research on the topic led me to this Wall Street Journal article (link provided below), where various studies explain the behavior of teens from the age of 11 through till they are 18 years old. The article makes for a very interesting read, especially if you have kids in this age group. The writer has shared a careful analysis of the behavior of children as they grow through these years and the areas where they need parental support and intervention.

Here’s a quick snapshot of what is required from parents of 15-16 year olds.

Apparently these are the two years that teens are most prone to taking risks. According to the paper, ‘the brain’s reward receptors are blossoming, amplifying adolescents’ response to dopamine, a neurotransmitter associated with feelings of pleasure and satisfaction. This makes thrill-seeking more desirable than it will ever be again. Normal fears of danger are temporarily suppressed during adolescence, a shift scientists believe is rooted in an evolutionary need to leave home and explore new habitats.’

My responsible little boy was turning edgy
I think this insight is amazing. My young teen has been one of the kids who has always judged risk well in his younger days, to the extent that he hardly hurt himself physically during his toddler years. I have always considered him a very sensible young man. And then, suddenly, in the last one year, he has been willing to experiment with his career, go to the very edge of what we call the standard, and at times, making me panic.

Parental support makes a difference
It was heartening to know that according to experts, this age is not too late for warm, supportive parents to make a difference. In a laboratory risk-taking test, teens who grew closer to their parents starting at age 15 showed less activation of a brain region linked to risk-taking and took fewer chances 18 months later, according to a 2015 study of 23 adolescents published in Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience. The closeness to parents included having parents’ respect and help talking through problems, and an absence of arguing or yelling, according to the study.

Choosing to be a part of my teen’s world – again
These scientific findings have helped me re-look at my relationship with my son. First, I began talking to him more often, trying to get him to share his daily life as he used to in his younger days. I stopped leaving him alone, though he did display that he wanted me to.

I fell back on the research I had done and the papers I read, that they are open to advise if you don’t push it down their throat. Till I began this project on understanding my teen better, I used to let him make a lot of his study decisions on his own. And this often landed him in a soup, where the last day would see him struggling to complete submissions, and study. The last few days, I have begun to guide him with clear timelines, telling him that he needs to do certain tasks at a given time.

While there is an initial resistance to being told what to do, I find that he does see sense in what I tell him. And he will follow the instruction with, of course, a few tweaks of his own. I do believe this change in approach will enable him to score better marks at his exams, and as I handhold him to logical decision making, he too will learn to make better decisions for himself.

Don’t be hurt by your teen’s behaviour
As I continue my exploration of how the teen mind works, I am increasingly realizing how ill-equipped we, parents are when it comes to helping our children cope with these tumultuous years. Instead of being their pillars of support, we are too busy nursing our own hurt as they begin to challenge our authority, tell us that we don’t really know how the world works, and that they don’t want to live with us anymore, that we are interfering in their space.

This is difficult for most parents to handle, but letting go of your children at this stage is like abandoning them when they need you the most. They are in the process of finding themselves, and tend to experiment with not just different hairstyles and clothes, but also with different personalities. This leads them to hang out with different kinds of people, make friends with peers they may never have interacted with at school earlier… this is also the time when they have many arguments with their friends as each one tries to prove his or her point.

You need to be your teen’s biggest fan!
In the backdrop of all that is happening emotionally and socially, these are crucial academic years for the child, as he /she is in the process of completing schooling. But with so much happening outside the class, and the emotional centres of the brain being in overdrive, these youngsters can often feel alone, misunderstood and isolated. They feel they can’t trust anyone. In this situation, if you as a parent too pull out your support, the young teen is actually abandoned and has to fend for him / her self.

This condition of being left alone, constantly being reprimanded at home for poor time management, improper behavior and too many restrictions on dressing and social etiquette leads to immensely aggressive behavior among these youngsters. Further, it creates permanent behavior patterns that they carry into their adult life. Much of what we as parents tell them now, becomes their self talk in the adult years.

These facts and research papers made me realize that we need to be as involved in the lives of our teens as we were when they first began school. Just as they were unsure of their environment then, they are now. It’s just that they don’t come home crying about a fight they had, nor does their teacher call us to school to say he / she is acting up.

Your teen son still wants to be loved, hugged and appreciated.

So my suggestion to my peers is, if you have become a hands-off parent as the teen years set in, with the belief that you were giving your youngster freedom… well, maybe you need to relook at your stance. Your teen’s happiness is still your responsibility and he still needs you to hug him, love him and appreciate him even if he does not ask for it. In other words, your teen wants you to be his biggest fan. Please don’t let him down!

 

 

 

 

Read more of the Wall Street Journal research article here: https://www.wsj.com/articles/what-teens-need-most-from-their-parents-1470765906

 

When teens go beyond the ‘safe’ careers

So what are you advising your teen to pick as her career? My son, already in his Std. X and due to pass out in another couple of months has turned my very safe and sorted advise on its head. Being responsible Indian parents, we have been preparing him for a career in sciences, in the subject of his choice.

Then suddenly in July of last year, he returned from a month long camp with Seeds of Peace in the US where he met his peers from the Middle East, our neighbouring Pakistan, from the US; and he decided he was going to be a storyteller. ‘There are enough people in the world working in the areas of science, the world does not need one more engineer or a doctor. I want to get people’s stories out there and I want others like me to understand and know what it is like to live in Palestine, to grow up in Israel; to see war every day and still love life.’ Those are his words.

Of course, after the first wave of passion had ebbed, we looked to explain to him how he needed to consider a proper education, something that would qualify him for a ‘regular’ job, and then if his passion for storytelling still was strong, he could always build his career there. So for the last six months, we have discussed, chatted and explored his career options and now even as he sits just 2 months away from his finals, the options are completely open.

As a parent, I am proud of his ability to think beyond the obvious, I am happy that he has found a passion that he really connects to. But on the other hand, I worry about what kind of a career he will have, when he chooses to tell the stories of people living in war-torn areas. Following his declaration, I checked out the various war writers and learnt that they have difficult lives, and they are totally committed to their careers. Most of them walk a very thin line between life and death, and their experiences teach them to see the war situations in a different light. Often this unique perspective of theirs threatens the political situation and they are not allowed to voice their opinions in the mainstream media. Many of these journos and war reporters have to publish their own books to get their stories out there… to me, all of this sounds like a recipe for a very unstable and unsafe future.

Is this what I want my boy to be doing? I am not sure. I share my opinions with him and he kind of listens to it all, some of it does scare him… knowing that a career on the war front would mean almost no family life, it would means living in constant fear of what could happen to him. I constantly speak to him of how he can help the people living in these areas better with technical skills in engineering or medicine, and he listens to that too.

As I read the various researches on how teens are biologically ill-equipped for decision making, I increasingly feel I must take the decision for him as he sets about choosing a line of study. Maybe the solution lies in enabling him to see my side of the story and convincing him that we have only his best interests at heart.

But this very approach makes me question whether we are not clipping his wings even before he has taken flight. Taking the safe route, studying the sciences at some good university seems like the sensible thing to do. How will it influence his dream of being storyteller, of connecting to those whom the whole world has shut out? He writes poems, creates art and loves alternative music, loves to perform and is truly the creative package. As the next few months unfold, I look forward to exploring and planning his future along with him, and I do believe that things will work out for the best.

I am well aware of the careers people are making as Instagram and Facebook influencers, having their YouTube channels, and otherwise making careers out of social media. But to me, these are short term opportunities to be cashed in. These are not careers even though they make money for the individuals involved. So while I do enjoy coming across these really popular people on the internet and reading about their success, I am rather skeptical about how long the success lasts. And what happens ones these opportunities dry up? Will the individual, if required, have the skills to survive beyond the media opportunities?

~ Bharti Athray