PARENTING – Creating Creative Children and Adults

A series of Tweets by renowned child psychiatrist Dr Bhooshan Shukla, Pune today (23.04.2020) has prompted me to write the following blog. These are our experiences while raising our children, in a way that is unconventional by today’s standards. We don’t claim to be experts at all. Every parent will have to find her/his way with their children. But since we have dared to tread waters that is done by fewer parents, I thought, it will be a good idea to share my thoughts.

Although the overall movement of alternative schools has grown considerably, yet I find so many parents around me who are still stuck in and struggling with conventional mindsets when it comes to schooling and academic performance. And most times I have seen only grief and stressed relationships between parents and teenage children because of academic performance.

RECOGNIZING TALENT IN OUR CHILD

Dr Bhooshan Shukla, in his series of tweets, mentions about recognizing talent in our children. This is the starting point and this is a very subtle, yet insightful function that a parent needs to perform. By talent, I don’t mean that a child needs to be a genius, exceptional, far above her peers. But talent, in my opinion, is identifying that inherent skill / liking / interest in your child. She/he may not be very good at it at the moment, but may be displaying certain skills / indications that tell a parent that she may like to pursue a certain field / subject as a future career. As a parent, I agree, that we also need to acknowledge that these skills / likings may change over time. We are parents, not prophetic gurus who can foresee a future. But, recognizing this inherent skill / liking / indication gives us a guidance as to what her learning environment should be like.

The most important question, as a parent, we need to then ask is, will this inherent skill survive / flourish in the learning atmosphere she is in, or will it die? We all live in present moments anyways and cannot really plan for the future, although we have a semblance of doing so. In our daily adulthood careers, we are making momentary decisions too, isn’t it? Today, we have a job that we like and we are working for it. But tomorrow, we may need to change to something else. If that happens, we deal with it later. I think a same approach is needed for a child. Too much emphasis on whether a child will continue her/his liking later on, is very unfair to a child.

As a parent, by not being mindful of your child’s inherent likes and dislikes is a grave parental mistake. Actually, we as parents know our children, but their behaviour is often only categorized as “good”, “bad”, “naughty”, “hyper active” – into classified social norms. What is the skill/interest that’s being displayed by a child’s behaviour is what parents need to be mindful about. We, as parents, tend to remain superficial to labelling the child, because, as the child grows up, academic institutions, also reinforce this practice. In fact, as a child’s performance in school gets labelled, the inherent skill/ liking remains unidentified, while the labels begin to shape our children.

Dr Bhooshan Shukla also writes that parents nowadays are so tuned into making a child a genius that even the most inane skill displayed by their child is taken to be an indication of a genius. While, not being able to identify your child’s liking is unfair to your child, even more damaging is the fact of putting this burden of being a genius on our children.

We have to remember that geniuses and their stories tell us that most times they are emotionally unstable, socially inactive and cannot manage frustrations and disappointments. Would we want this of our children? A genius will emerge wherever she is. Parents’ role will be marginal and supportive. But most children, will be ordinary human beings like you and me. And extraordinary work will emerge out of them if parents play an important role in their upbringing and learning. So, as a starting point, let us all think and believe that, thankfully, we have normal, ordinary human beings as our children. That in itself will remove a huge burden of performance from our children.

FACILITATING EXPOSURE, NOT PARTICIPATING

If a parent has identified a skill / liking / interest in their child, what is the next step? Wait and watch. Don’t be in a rush. Lets be with the idea, first in our minds. Then, perhaps include our child in what we think. Then begin the process of moving further. Just like we will advise our children not to rush into a relationship, we too should practice this precaution when it comes to going ahead with a child’s liking. In a parent’s rush and over enthusiasm, children can be put off. Particularly, teenagers. Because, as a rule, a teenager feels that whatever excites her parents is uncool. That’s just the age and the hormones acting out.

Giving exposure to knowledge is one of the most basic functions of a parent. If a child has consistently shown a liking to something, providing this exposure in a very supportive way is the first step. I have also seen over enthusiastic parents (particularly mothers) leave their jobs / adjust their schedules so that she/he can accompany  & actively participate in the activity of their child. I am personally, appalled by this. A parent’s role is to facilitate. Not participate. I would participate only and only if my child specifically asks me to. Lets give our children space to learn, explore without a hovering parent around her all the time. Let the child ask for your participation, before you assume it and give it to her.

Much of a child’s liking may wane after this first introductory exposure. This is a reality check for both a child and the parents. A child’s expectation may have been different, which she realises, after she is exposed to that particular field. Berating a child for refusing to attend future session / classes is a sure way of killing creativity. How will a child explore what she likes, if we parents, make her accountable for the time lost in a “needless” exposure?

While saying this, I also know that most parents will ask whether we should continue a child’s whim to join an activity and then refuse to attend it? We will have to arrive at some middle ground, together, as parents and children. This is where we, as adult parents, need to really understand why the child has lost interest. Has she lost interest in the subject or the way in which it is taught? In 99 cases out of 100, I have seen that my child’s interest is lost because of the methods of teaching rather than the subject itself. Parent intervention at this stage is absolutely crucial because a wrongly taught subject is a matter of concern. Something that our child likes to do will be lost to her forever, if the teaching is not correct. Remember the wrong methods that were used to teach the subject of civics in our schools? We all hated it, while it emerged as one of the most essential knowledge requirements in our social dealings.

OUR EDUCATION SYSTEM AND PURSUING ARTS

Schools and their teaching methods have been a bone of contention for as long as I remember. Every few years, new methods of teaching are devised to make students more interested in learning. However, fundamentally, our educational institutions are still functioning in the last century. Even today, a grandmother at home is happy when tables are learnt by children, because that’s how she learnt them!

Fundamentally, schools still have a limited range of subjects which a child learns and still leaves out hundreds and thousands of skills / interests that remain forever unrecognized in our children. And I am not blaming the schools. With more than 40 children in one class and the information overload of the curriculum, what can we expect? So the age old subjects of English, Science, Maths and Social Studies are taught sincerely, focused upon, whereas the remaining interests are relegated to “hobby” or “extra curricular” in schools. Like Dr Shukla mentions, the importance of sports and arts is so relegated to the bottom that rarely do parents want to meet these teachers and understand how their child is performing in these subjects.

Due to the virtue of this structure, arts, sports and creative pursuits are left out of our child’s life, sometimes forever. And this is the sad part of our education. While I know that not all children would like to pursue arts, few that would, also remain as under performers and labelled as academically weak. Just imagine. A highly creative child, possibly in a subject of painting / music / sport is constantly told by our system that she is not good enough! All because, she may not like the “important” subjects of maths and science.

Also, think about the length of our formal education system. Children are put into schools or “early childhood recreation centres” as young as 2.5 years and they emerge out from it after the age of 18, when they finish their 12th standard exams. 15.5 years, a child, in her most formative years, undergoes a conditioning that arts and creativity is not “good enough”. While, learning by rote, with or without being creative, gains you academic excellence in terms of marks. Let us think about what kind of a next generation are we bringing up?

SCHOOLS AND KILLING OF CREATIVITY

Many parents ask me why it was not possible for my son to pursue music and also be in the regular schooling system? After all, they say, he should have a fall back plan with a proper degree. What most people don’t understand is the inherent lack of capacity of our schooling system in nurturing art and creative thinking. Its not just about time management that a child will attend school for 6 hours and then continue his music learning with his guruji. Its about the conditioning that a school fails to do, when it comes to art and creativity. Neither the teachers nor the formal education system are geared towards understanding this important distinction.

Any kind of pursuit of art, be it music, painting, dance, even for that matter, sports, require thousands of hours of self exploration. This is something that the school just does not permit, is not designed to furnish. Every minute of every waking hour of a child in a school is engaged in an activity of ‘doing’! Not thinking! The thinking is provided by the teachers, the educationists who have written textbooks, the government! Children are not supposed to think, they are supposed to do! Their entire time is supposed to be spent in reading, writing, memorizing and answering. Not thinking. And pursuits of arts require a child’s brain to think – think without doing anything. This self exploration only will bring out the creativity and make the child excel in arts.

So by keeping a child that wishes to pursue arts in school is counter productive to his/her overall development as an artist. The pedagogy of teaching is completely opposed to what he seeks as an art student. And hence, keeping the child in our formal education system is detrimental to a child that wishes to pursue art forms.

So what we have chosen is hybrid mode of learning and examinations that allow my children to pursue art education without the burden of a formal education system.

LETTING A CHILD SELF EXPLORE

The self exploration of a child is most important in the ages of 14 to 18. It, of course, continues later too. But this span of 4-5 years, I have personally experienced, are the most frustrating for parents and children, particularly, if the child is not interested in the regular subjects of Maths, science, social studies and English. If, by this time, a child has a fair idea of what she wants to pursue, its easy for a parent and the child to make a decision. If this is not clear, this is the time to give your child some time for self exploration. And unfortunately, this is exactly the time in our schools when the child is given no time at all.

Our colorful, playful early years in formal schools change into grey, cold places when the child reaches the 8th standard. The teachers become more strict when it comes to the number of hours a child spends in studies. Writing becomes the focus. Exams are conducted as if there is no tomorrow. And I don’t blame the teachers. The competitive system of marks and academic performance pressurizes even them to ignore the artistic pursuits of the child in front of them and coax them into the formal system of learning by rote and writing exams.

In this age between 14 and 18, the mind and body of a child is at its raw potential to absorb new skills, excel at existing skills and be creative to a point of abandon. No other time in their life will they get this freedom to self explore when they are prime in their body and have the courage to try new things. I personally, feel that it is sacrilege to disallow our children a chance of self exploration during this age.

We, took a conscious decision to allow self exploration to our children, thereby discontinued their formal schooling at the age of 14. Both my children are thus home learners, actively pursuing the fields of interest they wish to learn (and possibly follow later on in their lives).

HOME LEARNERS BECOME SELF LEARNERS

Since my children became home learners, they have also become self learners. In school, they learnt to please their teachers. Or to get marks. Or to just ensure that they don’t get punished. With a different model of learning, both children are showing signs of learning for self improvement and achieving their own next level of skill. This generation is so internet savvy that they have resources at their fingertips. So I and my husband get requests for us to call some artist and see if my child can attend their session, because they want to learn a specific particular skill from someone.  My daughter, who was so reluctant as a school learner is now so keen to go and stay by herself in Konkan to explore pottery making. My son, who would have balked at the idea of a theory lecture, chooses to go and attend a tanpura making workshop at Miraj, all by himself.

As a parent, I have overcome the fear that children will sit idle, be on their phones only and waste their productive time. I have found that when children have more time for self exploration, time wasted is much less. On the side, both are following a NIOS curriculum that allows them the flexibility and freedom to do this self exploration.

I have also realised through my interactions with other parents that the NIOS curriculum is such a misunderstood platform.  NIOS is looked upon as a way for academically weak, children with learning disabilities to pass their 10th and 12th standard exams. It is a totally wrong understanding.

THE NIOS CURRICULUM

The Ministry of Human Resource Development (MHRD), Government of India has developed the NIOS in the 1970s to offer an alternative medium of learning for students in India. Its such a beautifully structured and developed program, that I was personally quite amazed to see how it works.

The learning happens completely online, with all resources available there for free. The Exam fees are as low as Rs. 1500/- for which any student across India has multiple subject choices to give their exams in. All regional languages are available, all technical subjects are available and cross offering of subjects is also possible. So a student need not stick to a particular stream like Arts or Science or Commerce and have to take all subjects under that stream only. Students are free to choose subjects across the streams.

Further, the students are offered a flexibility to appear for exams whenever they want to. April and October are two fixed time slots, but students can also choose a “Exam on Demand” option and appear for an exam whenever she is ready. Once an exam fee is paid, the five subjects that are chosen by the student can be completed over a period of five years. Just imagine, there is no stress of exams at all. Students learn at their own pace, appear for exams when they are ready. In a country where exam stress kills our children, NIOS is like a breath of fresh air.

The NIOS curriculum itself is quite voluminous, almost at par with the CBSE curriculum. So preparation is a must. Plus, I have found that the exam papers are tougher than CBSE and State Board exam papers. NIOS very rarely offers “options” to students to answer. So a systematic learning has to be done for students who wish to appear at NIOS. However, the pace can be adjusted to suit the need and time available to the child.

My son completed his 10th in 2018, a month after his first movie was released. And let me tell you, what a wonderful year that was. He was moving in and out of movie locations, recording songs, giving concerts, making promotions for the movie and all the while he was studying for the 2 subjects that he chose to appear for that year in April. We not only enjoyed his artistic journey, but we also finished the examination with no tension. He scored 83%, if it matters to anyone. It doesn’t, to us, because the life learning experiences he got in that year, far exceed the percentage he received.

PARENTING – LIFE’S GREATEST PLEASURE

Parenting is a life long learning process.  I doubt there ever will be a parent who can proudly proclaim of having not done even a single mistake. Parenting rules vary as every child and her circumstances are unique. So as parents, we have prioritized that the our parent- children relationship should be a priority. And this is built on a solid foundation of communication and trust. Our teenage children know and are grateful because they have parents who have respected their wishes to pursue the things that they love doing. So, in a way, both our children, subtly, show us this gratitude by working hard. We never see ‘I-missed-class-because-I-felt-like’ attitude in our home. Most times, ever since, the children stopped school, I have never had to remind my children about their respective commitments to their art. Yes, some days are lazy and some days are goofy. But overall, I see a deeper sense of maturity and a longing for learning after leaving school. Deadlines are kept when needed, but hours are spent in exploring what they love to do. My daughter, is a child that constantly moves – cannot-sit-in-one-place kind of energy exists in her. But, she sits in a single place for hours on end when she paints. Finally, that’s all that we as parents can instill in our children. A passion to learn, a passion to do things they love and go at all lengths to pursue excellence, in whatever field they choose to go into. Isn’t that the purpose of education?

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