Paying attention: An important parenting lesson from my two-year old

Rumi has recently turned two and I do not know how to describe the phase she is in right now because “the Terrible Twos” does not even begin to cover it. Yesterday, she threw a temper tantrum because her stuffed animal would not shut its stitched felt eyes. This morning, an hour of wailing followed a ear-piercing shriek, because she wanted the exact same lemon juice that she had just finished drinking (no, not more juice but the very same juice that was in her tummy).  She is constantly whining and clinging to my clothes like a monkey, crying and screaming for grandparents and various members of the extended family. She seems very happy with kaka, kaku, nanu and mamu and does not like to come home after visiting them. This, my husband and I normally manage to take in our stride although on the bad days we do wonder why she gets so bored with us and whether we are doing something wrong (don’t we parents just LOVE this question?)

Her boredom and irritation rises over the next couple of weeks, and we go around in circles trying to decipher why a happy and easy-going baby has suddenly become so sullen and cranky. Is it the weather?  Surely it must be all this sun and heat. Is it her diet? She eats too little. Is it the lack of other kids? (“Mulanna mula lagtat, children need other children to play with” my mother asserts in a firm, know-it-all tone, and then even goes so far as to suggest random and completely irrelevant solutions like ‘de-worming’). We talk of sending her to a preschool or day-care for at least two hours a day, for some company and constructive play.  One hot afternoon however, I stumble upon the astonishingly simple answer and it is my little girl who leads me to it. I am sitting amidst a huge pile of toys, clothes, peanuts strewn over the floor and other miscellaneous  articles with my Smartphone just inches away from my nose, reading various articles on parenting ideas and tips and tricks and do’s and dont’s. Suddenly Rumi stamps her feet. “Nako” she cries. Don’t.  “Don’t what Guddu?” I ask without taking my eyes off my phone. “Nako na” she cries again, clenching her fists and banging them on the coffee table. Her skin is flushed and she is starting to tear up – a full-blown tantrum is on its way. “Kay pahije Rumi? Kashala radte ugach? Khaun zhalay, zhopun zhalay….” (“What is wrong with you? You’ve eaten and had a nap..’) I start, my own voice taking on a plaintive tone with more than a tinge of annoyance at being interrupted while reading. I see the strain in her face as she screams with the last bit of momentous effort  “Nako phoooonnnneee.” And then it strikes me, she wants me to put down my phone. She wants me to look at her and talk to her without being interrupted by constant WhatsApp messages. Such a simple thing.

It makes me think back on all the days that I have spent with Rumi as a SAHM. How many hours of full and undivided attention have I given her? And how many more useless futile hours have I spent on my phone, on Facebook and Whatsapp? If I am just sitting next to her while she is playing, is she really reaping any benefit from my decision to be at home with her full-time, a decision that has come at the heavy cost of being a single-income family in a very expensive city?

I don’t want to get into any kind of debate of the SAHM vs. the Working Mom. I have long since learnt that there is no “correct” or “right” parenting. Breastfed or formula-fed, attachment-led or sleep trained, with or without TV, most babies turn out fine with a good dose of love, attention and nurturing. And happy moms make happy babies so every mother needs to decide for herself – working full-time or part-time or staying at home is a decision that should solely be based on your comfort and that of your immediate family’s.

We felt that it would work best for us for me to be at home with Rumi full-time and it has been, for the most part, a good decision. I don’t want to go back to work yet, I don’t feel the pull, the need. And Rumi does not go to any preschool or day care yet, so it is me and her for a good 14 hours every day. Some days, I can be an innovative, creative playmate. But on most days, I have a long list of things to do and I feel restless and listless when I am sitting down with her. Some days I am busy texting a friend for some delicious gossip to spice up my stay-at-home life. On others, I am scouring the web for interesting posts and articles. On really bad days I am a Facebook stalker, drooling over the amazing lives of other people, feeling discontent and envious. But I spend so much time of my stay-at-home time on my phone that I might as well have been at work! In fact a recent chat with my yoga buddies revealed that they spent better, more qualitative time with their children in spite of and in fact because of being out working all day!

What an eye-opener this is! Despite being at home almost all the time, I am depriving my child of something vital to her well-being and growth:  total, unshared, wholehearted attention. For all my mother’s intuition and two years of experience, I almost cannot believe that I have overlooked such a tiny, basic thing! But then it is usually the tiny, basic things that get overlooked most of the times, isn’t it? That more than the time I spend with her, it is the quality of the time that matters? That even if I play with her for a few minutes, she needs me to pretend to eat the cake she made, say how yummy it is, ask her how she made it. As an adult, I hate it when I get the feeling that somebody’s not listening; I nag my husband all the time about not looking at his phone when we’re talking. But with my two-year old, I have taken the liberty of forgetting this courtesy.

I am so glad that Rumi has brought this to my notice. The minute I start putting my phone away while playing with her, I sense her happiness. I am rewarded with constant chatter, delicious clay food and lots of cuddles and loving strokes. After a tiring play session, she is only too happy to be put down for her nap which gives me enough time to read and stalk and gossip away to glory. Now I try to limit Smartphone and Laptop time to afternoons when she sleeps. We go to the park without our phones and come back sweaty and covered with sand (I wouldn’t go into the sandpit earlier, so as to not spoil my phone!)

Of late, I have been trying my best to give her my undivided attention whenever I can and I want to continue to do so for as long as I can, before she grows up all too soon and stops asking for it altogether.

Coping with the Terrible Twos Part 2: On the toddler side

In the previous post I wrote about things that are helping me maintain a semblance of sanity. Here, I’m noting down some tips and ideas that are of help while dealing with Rumi.

  1. Temper Tantrums

Temper tantrums are a result of and also result in great frustration. Rumi gets frustrated because she wants to do an activity on her own but is unable to do so, or she is trying hard to tell me something but I am unable to understand it. I get frustrated because I am trying hard to make sense of a lot of gibberish, knowing all the while that with every ticking minute, it’s getting worse and worse. While tantrums are sometimes triggered off by the most random, unexpected, hilarious things that we cannot always predict, there are a few things that have helped me control Rumi’s tantrums effectively.

The first cardinal rule is to never, ever laugh at a tantrum. Sometimes we can’t help it, the whole thing seems sooo funny to us – Rumi flat on the floor because the large block wouldn’t balance on top of the small block, but to her, it is a very real, serious thing. No matter how trivial it is, it helps to make eye contact and listen seriously like you would to an adult. So whenever you sense a tantrum coming up, sit your toddler at eye level and talk to them in a firm but loving tone (they can pick up on your impatience and irritability like magic and it makes things worse).

Encourage your child to talk about feelings and emotions. A really fantastic book that helped us with this is “Happy” by Mies van Hout. It has gorgeous illustrations and one word emotions such as “curious” and “jealous” and “brave”. We started using it when Rumi was 18 months old and decided upon an action for each word. Now Rumi uses the book very well to tell us that she is “angry” or “irritated” using the book as reference. Older children can also be asked to draw how they are feeling.

Also, I always ask Rumi to choose between two things to eat, wear etc. rather than ask her an open ended question such as “What do you want to eat?” as such questions very often lead to frustration on her part as she doesn’t quite know how to frame the answer. Moreover, this way she can be guided (manipulated?!) into doing something I want her to do rather than getting her own way by replying “chocolates”! And she feels like she gets to choose.

I have never used a naughty mat or chair in the corner, though many parents find it to be an effective tool for controlling misbehavior. I have found that in this age, Rumi really needs me to be around when she is losing it and leaving her alone has often aggravated things. Also, she doesn’t really quite get why kicking or hitting is wrong, she is merely doing different things to see our reaction, more than make us mad. However, if you find yourself losing your cool, it is a good idea to leave the room for a few minutes and then come back and hold your child.

  1. Picky Eating

I have written a whole, separate post on mealtime tussles in our house (read it here) and can still go on and on about fussy eating habits.

One thing I have really learned is to stop focusing on the weight chart as a health development milestone and focus on good eating habits that will hopefully stay with Rumi for life. I grew up eating most of my meals in front of the TV and I honestly still like to do that, but I want things to be different for Rumi. I want mealtimes to become family time, where we eat at the table and talk about the day. I want Rumi to try new foods and new flavours instead of serving a one-bowl meal that I stuff into her mouth while she is watching something on my phone. This is really hard for the grandmoms to get; the MIL keeps on saying that “hya vayaat mula ashich khatat” (this is how all kids eat at this age) whereas my mom flat out refuses to listen to me and does exactly what she likes (iPad, games, everything and anything that makes Rumi mindlessly open her mouth is allowed). It really makes them feel good that Rumi has finished off an entire bowl and my feeble attempts at explaining how she had only chatkor chapatti at home but ate the bhaji happily is like water off a duck’s back.

And this is the big problem with parenting: how do you really know what is indeed the best thing? I have experienced my heart falling into my shoes on more than one occasion when I see plumper babies and see how small Rumi is in comparison. But the pediatrician and common sense (in the form of my husband’s voice) usually come to the rescue and I can see that skinny need not be synonymous with unhealthy.

And although, it is really tempting to watch TV during dinnertime, especially since Masterchef Australia and Friends are on, I try my best to convince myself that good eating habits are worth investing in, in the long run. So, at least four times a week, we eat at the table and Rumi eats whatever we eat, at dinnertime. She is allowed to use her fingers, slurp, lick and yes, drop a little too. There is plenty of time for table manners later.

  1. Bedtime Battles

Rumi hates to be taken to the dark, quiet bedroom and leave all the excitement and light and TV outside. What with all that boundless energy, waiting for her to tire herself out would probably mean waiting until the wee hours of the morning. On the other hand, it is not possible to expect my husband or other members of the family to turn off all the lights and get into bed at nine. The trick, we learned, is to make the whole bedtime ritual a lot more fun by including some activities that are especially reserved for bedtime so that it becomes something to look forward to.

For example, we have an owl hand-puppet from Hamleys that only comes out at night for storytelling. Also, some favorite books are reserved for bedtime. (Love you Forever by Robert Munsch is a big hit here!). Special dinosaur pajamas, radium stars on the ceiling or a musical night lamp, anything that makes bedtime fun and interesting works.

Also, once Rumi is in the bedroom, I don’t really fret about what time she actually falls asleep. I allow her to wind down at her own pace – she is allowed to indulge in quiet activities like drawing, looking at her picture cards or playing with her pillows till her eyes start to close.

This ‘bedroom time’ has really helped her associate ‘getting into pajamas’ with something that is positive and fun rather than dull and boring.

 

  1. Multimedia Clashes

I want to say right at the outset that I am very, very against kids using tablets and phones and the like. My husband likes to download different Apps for Rumi and loves to see her excitement when she uses them but I hate to see her with her nose almost touching her iPad, oblivious to sounds around her, stuck to one place for hours. I hate it when people exclaim and find it clever that she unlocks and swipes the iPad screen with ease and goes to whichever App she wants. (‘intuitive learning’ beams my husband and I just want to throw the damn thing out of the window!).

I know, I know that “technology is a tool” and a “powerful” one and that it can be used very effectively when used “wisely”. But it is just so damn addictive! How can a poor blank sheet of paper and a few crayons hope to compete with a screen filled with colors, sounds and touch? Once kids are hooked on to it, there are very few other things that they’d rather do.

There is lots of research that speaks against the use of electronic media for children but again, a lot of evidence to show how it benefits children so there is really no solution to the ongoing debate in our house but compromise.

We have not introduced Rumi to the TV or to cartoons yet. My husband is dying to take her for a movie so that’ll probably happen this week on one of their ‘dates’.  Rumi loves to watch songs on the iPad and videos on our phones. I try to limit such things to “emergency” situations like doctors’ waiting rooms or long car trips.

In my opinion, TV or games on the phone should never be offered as rewards. They should also never become an integral part of the child’s schedule, where the timing of a particular show decides where to eat, when to head out etc. Naturally, this means doing it yourself first. I cannot zonk out with the remote control in hand and expect Rumi to sit down with a book. To try and avoid using the TV and phone as much as I can, I have one night a week I sit up to plan activities for every day of the week (this is the same time I plonk down in front of the TV and watch to my heart’s content!).

My take on this: limit TV, phone and tablet time as far as possible and lead by example!

 

  1. Dressing Dramas

For all the wisdom that I have passed on in the points above, I have absolutely no gyaan here because the dressing dramas at our place have reached an all-time new low: they include not just the half an hour spent in running behind the child like a screaming banshee brandishing her shorts and T-shirts in the air, but Rumi wailing and insisting that she and I BOTH remain “nangu”. And let me just be very clear here: my husband and I are not nudists and we do not remain naked within the private confines of our apartment so I have no idea in hell how she has got that! It’s bad enough that she wants to be nangu all the time but to point at me and scream “Nangu ho na” in a park? Words fail me. Any advice or input would be much appreciated!

Coping with the Terrible Twos Part 1: On the parent side

I am blogging after what seems like a million years, and the reason is exhaustion. I wake up in the mornings after a good nine hour sleep, only to find myself bleary eyed and ready to hit the sack again. And I don’t need a doctor to prescribe haemograms and ultra TSH tests to detect the problem, I already know the answer in my heart – a little curly-haired, high-pitched imp saying “Mamma” every second, every minute and every hour of the day.

I don’t know if all parents feel like this or if Rumi is particularly high-energy but, for me, the awareness that one day has 24 hours and that an hour has 60 long minutes, has never been so acute. Even if I think of some wonderful activities in my mind such as finger painting, the process of getting ready for it takes about half an hour as opposed to the few short minutes Rumi spends on it. “What next?” The question looms large in my mind as I frantically try to think of the best way to pass five long hours in the morning. (I literally dread the days she wakes up even half an hour earlier than usual). I find myself almost sympathizing with mums I had severely judged earlier, who say they keep their kids up for a while so that they don’t wake up too early in the mornings. Nap times provide a welcome respite but even those are rapidly getting shorter and shorter and I don’t even want to think of the day they disappear altogether!

And sigh, those magical witching hours in the evening! When there’s dinner to be made, and a husband home to be attended to, and a frumpy food-covered gown to be changed out of. Agreed, the husband is as easy-going as one could wish for and not the type to sulk or feel ignored. He makes his own tea, helps himself to meals and even serves me dinner! Oh, thank God, for these good, good men in our lives! Even then, we barely get started on “how was your day?” before Rumi shoots into one of our laps with a book to be read or a song that she wants to hear just then. She is tired out by evening time but not tired enough for bedtime – enter temper tantrums galore! Some evenings are so stressful that I fall asleep even before she does, while the husband is waiting patiently outside for the magical elusive moment his wife will emerge in a satin gown with a glass of wine in hand.

A lot of children that are about Rumi’s age go to daycare or summer camps or preschool sessions, but Rumi is a Stay-At-Home-Toddler . Here, I’m listing a few things that are helping me cope with the madness:

  1. Structuring the day:

With Rumi, our approach has been more or less child-led. We usually follow her cues and let her do what she likes; food when she’s hungry, sleep when she feels like it. But now that she’s two, she gets frustrated quickly and I can see that she needs more meaningful inputs. So, I’ve made a rough plan for the day and that seems to be working well for us – fewer tantrums and a sense of anticipation because she sort of knows what’s coming next. Our day looks like this: outdoor time in the morning, breakfast, mid-morning for sensory play (getting messy), bath, lunch, nap, quiet time (reading stories, working with word cards), outdoor play, dinner and bedtime (click here for details on our day as well as play activities to do with your toddler)

  1. Making time for myself

I realized that I now need it more than ever – time to read a few pages of that novel without interruption, or a relaxing bath without Rumi watching me every second or just plonking down in front of the TV with a drink. Since it is impossible for me to find some time for myself on a daily basis, I try to fix up one day of the week with my husband, mother, in-laws or anybody that can help and just take off. It is very tempting for me to just doze off at home while Abhi and Rumi are in the other room, coz I’m exhausted all the time, but getting out of the house really helps. Since I’m not working, I’ve almost forgotten what it feels like to get out of “home clothes” and the process of getting ready puts me into “break mode” and gets me excited. So just set out of the house and get a quick manicure (at the salon, not at home), lunch with the girls, a coffee, whatever floats your boat and keeps it afloat for the week to come!

  1. Toning down the DIY

When I became a mom, I got bitten by the do-it-yourself bug. I wanted to bake cookies and cakes for my child. I wanted to stitch her frocks and make her a quilt. I wanted to make homemade paint and homemade playdough and achieve all this with the house looking tidy and spotless (oh, I even looked up recipes for homemade cleaners and soaps on the Net). I wanted to be a Martha Stewart Mom overnight, forgetting that I had never used an oven in my life and that all my school needlework had only ever been done by my mommy. I was terrible at Art and Craft in school, always getting the failing grade but none of that mattered; with Rumi, I was sure I could manage it all. And sure I did, but a day full of boiling and straining and mixing and whisking was always followed by a day of maniacal cleaning, which was followed by a day of exhaustion to the degree where I didn’t even want to leave the bed, let alone play with my child or use what I had just created.

When I finally realized that the time I spent making things for my daughter far exceeded the time I spent with her, I stopped insisting on making it all myself and all of a sudden I found many pockets of time I could just sit on the floor with Rumi and be really involved in whatever she was playing. If DIY is really important for you, pick one or two things that you really enjoy doing and absolutely will not buy from the store for whatever reasons. Rest, just buy, outsource and relax.

 

  1. Identifying my values (and to hell with the rest):

As mentioned in the previous point, we Mommies tend to believe that nothing is impossible as far as our kids are concerned. We do everything we can for them and still feel we’re falling short, when we hear another Mom doing something for their toddler that we aren’t. “Oh, M’s taking a violin class already and he loves it! Are you doing music with Rumi?” “There’s this great phonetics class happening for toddlers” and so on and so forth. Foreign language, gymnastics, chess, piano; all these are just the tip of the baby and toddler development iceberg. When anybody asks me what classes Rumi goes for, I get invariably tense. Then I google the aforementioned class, read about its benefits and feel depressed and guilty about not having known of it earlier. And Rumi’s only two!

Every time I lose my rationality like this, my husband gently (and on rare occasions, sternly) reminds me that Rumi is a little child who is growing up at the speed of lightning. She does not need the stress caused by tightly scheduled back-to-back structured learning sessions, unstructured playtime is invaluable for her right now and she is learning all that she needs to learn.

It’s true though. The benefits of unstructured play though well-documented are often overlooked. It is very important to find a good balance between unstructured play and structured guided activities that your child can enjoy with or without your participation. So just like the DIY, pick top three values / skills that are very important to you and let go of the rest. For instance, Rumi’s unobstructed creative growth and free-spiritedness is of paramount importance to us so we tend to focus a lot on unstructured art and sensory activities that we can do together. Which means, I have to relax more than a little on the clean, spotless house part. If you love music and want your child to learn an instrument, go ahead but maybe you could drop baby gym or phonetics. A maximum of three different activities is more than enough to keep your toddler stimulated. Don’t cram his time-table from morning to night, he has his whole life ahead of him to get into the rat-race.