Category Archives: parenting

On not being the "right" size.

Bedtimes are quiet vulnerable moments, more so if you’re little. The secrets, no longer able to roil in tiny tummies, make themselves heard. Two nights ago, after lullabies and stories were done, Shyama mentions that exercise causes weight loss; I agree, groaning inwardly at the thought of her asking me to lose weight. I ask her what made her think of it. She says she wants to start exercising and lose weight. I ask her again why she’d like to do that. Because the kids in class call me fat, she says.
Now, I never know if I am parenting correctly. There’s almost never a counterpoint to my method and behavior as a parent and I almost always wing it, erasing doubts on the run nice and gentle, quite like an avalanche demolishing pines on a slope. Because there’s no time to consider when you’re parenting little kids, and especially if you’re the only one who parents regularly. They demand and you better show up, or miss the moment and scar them for life. But at this moment, all my anxieties came rushing back and collided pretty hard with my parenting.
Growing up, I was an average-sized kid, not fat, but definitely not skinny.  And much like Shyama, I was surrounded by kids who were the latter. Teenage brought with it some weight, sure. So while I don’t remember being teased by kids around me about being fat (although, in class nine, a teacher burnt me for life by calling me “fatty”. You’d think an adult would know better) I do know that not being the size everyone else was made me feel infinitely less. It didn’t help that people close to me started pointing out that I was fat, even though I think back now and I know I wasn’t.  I grew up thinking I was fat. I think about the girl I was and I think of all the things I stopped myself from doing because I wasn’t the right size, and I wish I had known better. I was excruciatingly shy and felt foolish every time I uttered a word. And I blamed it all on the size I was. Nothing has been more shackling to me than feeling fat.
At 35, I am a lot more comfortable with my body but my anxieties haven’t left me. Sure, I wear whatever I want and am comfortable enough to look at my unclothed body in the mirror without hating it, sometimes I even like it. But I also cover up a lot. When I meet new people, when I want to make a certain kind of joke, when the situation is more intimate and demands a certain physical vulnerability, I freeze up. I am so little of myself. I wonder if I look ugly to the other person and I hope my flaws will be taken care of by my dazzling company. I kid, of course. But, jokes apart, this is one of the two things from my childhood that I haven’t been able to overcome. And to hear Shyama might begin on that hellish, corrosive journey paralyses me. Especially since she isn’t a fat kid. Just like I wasn’t. But I didn’t believe that of myself. And I am hoping she will be different and believe it when I tell her she isn’t fat.
At that moment, with anxiety rioting inside me, distress at the future of this lovely child suffering at the hands of the insanity of an ideal size, I didn’t have any solutions. Anger was foremost. I told her she was just right and shouldn’t listen to teasing. Next I asked her who it was in particular that teased her. “Everyone except K,” she says, mentioning the one girl as tall as her. Shyama and this girl are the tallest kids in class at 4’4”. I am glad she said that because I used that to tell her that maybe the rest just wanted to be tall like her and because K was already tall enough, she didn’t feel the need to tease Shyama. That seemed to satisfy her a bit. I tried not to preach but I did tell her that she was getting *plenty* exercise in school and that she was healthy, happy and running around, and had a bright bright soul; that’s all that mattered. I then told her to go to sleep and that we would talk about this in more detail tomorrow.
As soon as she was asleep, I reached out to two friends, both parents. I had no idea how to deal with this. While it wasn’t bullying and Shyama is no shrinking violet, my concern was negative body image issues. One friend instantly put me at ease by telling me of her own experience. She said something so wonderfully, sweetly vulnerable and true.  All the time, I was cool inside but didn’t feel it outside because I wasn’t the right size, she said. And it rung true. Another friend suggested I tone down the import of it by not giving it too much attention so Shyama gets the message that size isn’t important.
But tomorrow morning came bright and early and before she had brushed her teeth, Shyama said, Amma, you said we’d talk about something in the morning. I hadn’t forgotten, I told her. We bathed, breakfasted and buzzed off to the bus stop. Only this time, I had Shyama sit in the front next to me. I know she felt special; she stuck her tongue out her brother in the back. I asked her again, this time calmer, what her concerns were. She said I feel bad when I am called fat. We went over the ‘you’re not fat, you’re healthy’ routine, once more. Then I asked her if she believed she was fat. “Sometimes. But mostly I have great muscles,” she said. I then told her if she feels the need for a comeback, in a situation that she can’t handle,  she can always be kind and yet be teasing of her friends. “Go give them a shoulder hug and say ‘Hi Shorty!’” She giggled and said, “I’d never do that! It’d make them feel bad, amma.” The next best thing I could come up with took a while because I was too busy clearing the painful lump in my throat. If she wouldn’t turn it on them, I decided to let her risk being a bit haughty and say, “I am not fat, I am perfect.” Nothing gets people’s goat than someone thinking well of themselves. She gives me a big, heart-shatteringly innocent grin and says, “YES! I am perfect.”
I still have no solutions; I hope we will find our way together, she and I. I hope she won’t let this nonsense that kids come up with affect her as searingly as it did me. Speaking of, how are these kids at *seven*  years of age picking this shit up? What kind of conversations happen at home for fat to be an issue when all you should be worried about this spending all your time at play? I will admit to cartoons ALL ganging up on fat people and making them figures of ridicule. But I would think steadying influences at home would teach kids that’s not done. 
There are three things that guide me when I deal with this.
1. I want her to genuinely know size, not just hers, anyone’s doesn’t matter.
2. That there are loads of other things apart from body and size that she can and needs to spend time wondering about.
3. That she is healthy is the most important thing. After my initial confusion cleared, I decided to write her a story that will subtly talk about size without talking down to her. I have no idea what the story is going to be but it is what she loves more than anything else in the world, so maybe it will speak to her. Two friends suggested I show her achievers, just sort of slip it in, who are different in size so that she knows it doesn’t need to hold her back, in case she ever comes to a point where she starts to believe her size needs to stop her. But the best advice came in the form of this: http://idiva.com/opinion-iparenting/dont-call-me-fatty/24222

Shyama came back from school yesterday and told me not many people teased her. And that she thought about it and didn’t want to tell them she was perfect. She wanted to tell them, “I am perfect the way I am and you are also perfect.”
Maybe I don’t have to worry after all.

*****

An opinion arising from a show that I do not watch.

I don’t watch tv. I don’t own one. I may have mentioned that before over here. So when MasterChef Australia Junior began being broadcast on Indian television recently, I couldn’t quite understand the raptures into which people went. For two reasons, or three, maybe. I am not a fan of regular TV, I do not find shows on cooking interesting and thirdly, but perhaps most importantly, I am entirely loath to encouraging reality shows that feature kids.

Yesterday, on my very lively Twitter timeline a bunch of handles got into a bite-sized brawl (which I think is called a debate these days, if not a twibate) on the issue. One bunch of people, who I believe enjoy cooking and the show itself, saw nothing wrong in these kids in being cast in a reality show. That faction believed that it was okay for the kids to do so as long as it wasn’t a reality show where the kids were being judged on their dancing/singing skills. This was a “life skill” and these kids were “prodigies” is what was being said. That may be so. I can’t decide. (I honestly believe no one starved because they couldn’t cook. Not in recent times anyway.)

The other side, as I see it, argued more than one thing. That these kids were “competing” and “being judged” and “rejected in front of the whole world.” Another thing that came up was that they would be better off spending time studying/in schools instead of missing weeks of “normal” school-going time.

I feel very strongly about this kids and television/reality show issue. I’ll tell you why. First let me make clear that it is not the competition issue that gets me all in a twist. Ideally, of course, I’d be happy with minimal competition but that’s probably a perfect situation if I am living on a far flung island with its population being only my family. Even then it’s probably unavoidable. If, as a parent, I can inculcate a sense of self in my child that allows her or him to deal with competition without thinking that’s all that ever matters, then I’d not only have done part of my job as a parent, I’d have probably helped create a less unhappy person. My beef, then, is not with competition.

My objection is to putting kids in a situation that is very obviously harsh for them. Being in a studio or on a filming set is not easy. Starting from something as basic as the set lights being extremely harsh (for adult skin and hair among other things, leave alone for kids) to being closeted for weeks on end in an atmosphere that is not only unnatural on many levels but is also blinkered. Someone on the timeline argued that kids going to schools and giving exams are not natural either. I don’t entirely disagree but I don’t entirely agree either. I have two kids of my own. As someone with a curious enough mind, I’ve tried with experimenting by breaking rules (the ones that I was aware of and didn’t see as the “natural” thing to do, at least) as far as parenting is concerned; I’ve experimented with what the books told me, just to see if parents around the world and parent-authors around the world were trying to create cookie-cutter children. One of the things I experimented with is the notion (one that comes highly recommended by paediatricians, parenting books and generally any parent who has gotten past the toddler age sane) that routine gives you happier, more relaxed, healthier (?) children. One needn’t have absolute regimentation; the books say if the child knows what to expect next — that after bathing her in the evening, she’s going to get into pyjamas and then a story’s going to be read after which you will cuddle… — then a child feels more at rest, has a greater feeling of security and is generally happier.

I tried to shake that up a bit; I changed order around, timings were shunted this way and that, routine was twisted in every conceivable way. I tried it for a few weeks – this controlled mayhem. It was me trying to reinvent a wheel by making it square. My kids, people, were pissed off kids in the weeks that their routine was tossed aside. The weeks with routine? My kids responded beautifully. They were less clingy, they were easier to get along with, ate better and all of that. My point, then, is that something like a school provides a part of the routine that kids can predict and be secure with. It’s like sleeping and waking. If you’re going to argue that sleeping and waking are also conditioning, give me some credit and please take your argument elsewhere. You and I both know, your waking mind and body do better with sunlight than your sleeping one. So while a school setting may not be the most desirable or natural setting for a child, it provides the comfort of predictability. Apart from a whole lot of friends with people exactly like you.

In addition to being subjected to the tough conditions of a TV show, the kids are then faced with judgement. Sure, kids get judged all the time; by their parents, by their friends, by the kids they go to school with. But there’s a kind of humiliation that is bigger than all of the above when you’re judged for the rest of the world to see. A child has the right to privacy even when it’s being told off or in some situations, depending on your parenting style, being humiliated. Reality shows take that right away. Moreoever, going back to school after being eliminated in a show cannot be easy — kids are cruel, I’ve always maintained — and the kids who don’t do well will go back to face a fair amount of bullying, if not some idol worship for having been on TV. All this could happen to someone who didn’t go on TV but you’ll agree the intensity is multiplied when you’ve been a “star”.

I once read a piece on how kids hanging out with adults was a good thing. I am still undecided. I am not too fond of precocity, a personification of which lives in my own home. But that has never stopped me from answering any question that my daughter has put forth. In a way, that could be counted as treating a child as an adult but I am confused about that. I think if she’s smart enough to ask a question like the ones she asks, she may also figure out a way to process my usually carefully-worded answers and understand it temporarily, till she later figures out loopholes and elaborates. On a filming set, there are other kids, sure, but there are more adults than there are kids. After a point, adults that aren’t part of the family grow immune to the presence of kids and behave like…well… adults. I strongly believe that can’t have the best influences on a child, especially if that behavior is radically different from what the child has seen in his or her home environment. You might ask can you control your child’s environment all your life? Of course not and I  hope no one ever will. But go to a set where stuff is shot; spend some time there. Maybe you’ll agree with me.

Masterchef Junior aside, there are shows closer home in India that are by no means set to any standards. Whether it is a code of conduct that states what a child can perform/do on stage or the amount of time a child spends at a set acting in a show, there are no rules. In the latter case, I am yet to discover why making a child act in a TV show or a film isn’t considered child labour (just to be specific, I do not talk of the Masterchef show here.) And that’s my problem with reality shows in particular and children acting in TV shows specifically. How long are these kids spending in studios, what kind of conditions and codes of conduct are laid out for them, how are the parents treating all the competition, do they feel normal when they go back to their life, do their aspirations take a different turn once they’ve tasted fame to whatever extent? I don’t know. And I believe those answers, in general, might be uncomfortable ones.

My take:  if it’s healthy competition and the child’s virtuosity that you want to encourage, then aren’t school, interschool, state or national-level competitions enough? What extra thing are you getting from putting her or him in a studio or a set and then their perhaps-humiliation/jubilation being telecast on TV? I do believe being part of a shooting schedule that focuses on a child entirely takes away a little bit from your childhood. The examples are many. You may eventually turn out to be an adult, one that has got all the rubbish and rehab out of the way, but you’ve pretty much lost much of your childhood, one that you had every right to, had your parent understood that a parent’s responsibility is to know one’s child and nurture the capacity to make decisions by increasing subtly and gradually the scope of where a child can make them. Till such time, a parent bears the cross for making a decision that may not have placed the child as the most important factor in the decision. 

Maybe I am really old fashioned.

I am going to outrage a bit here, so take your judgementalism, and go watch a movie with it. I read this today. For those of you who don’t (or can’t) to read what’s behind that link, let me sum it up. A 50-year-old mum gifted her daughter a boob-job voucher for when she turns sixteen. Her daughter is currently seven.

Now, my mum would easily say in her usual practical-sense style that that’s what happens when you have kids late, you tend to lose any common sense. (And I am inclined to sometimes agree with her when I see the ridiculous things older parents let their kids do.) But to me this is just a mildly eye-widening piece of news. There are two things here: First, the kid is quoted as saying she can’t wait to have bigger breasts like her mum’s because they are so pretty. Second, and to more this is more alarming than the birthday present itself, her mum plans to let her watch her next series of plastic surgery procedures — after having spent more than $800,000 already on them.

Personally, I think that should have been at the core of the story — that the mother was going to let her child watch a surgery she was undergoing. I don’t know if there are rules to stop such travesty from taking place in whatever country this woman lives in but I sure hope so. Because, as you can see, this already pretty child is going to grow up thinking she’ll never be beautiful unless she spends a few hours going under the knife every few years. Already, at an age where she is absorbing things like the black hole, she’s been told directly that she should do everything she can to look beautiful, by her mother, who looks pretty scary if you ask me.

What does that do to a child? And what kind of a woman will she grow up to be? I remember reading somewhere that girls learn to hate their bodies very early because of what is popular. I don’t know what magic ideal my mum passed down to me in my upbringing but I have never hated my body. Mind you, it’s far from perfect —  I have never had a day where I had a washboard tummy, even in my good-weight days (which I must gloat, I am back to now), I have never had perfectly defined muscles to show off under short skirts and I most definitely don’t have infinitely perky breasts. But, and again here I have my mother to thank, I have never hated my body. For sure, adolescence brought enough insecurity about how the thinner girls were more popular; for a while I would always stand with my hands around my middle, that typical stance teenage girls adopt when they are growing. But I’ve never had a day of awkwardness when I moved from slips to bras. No hunching over, no weird self-consciousness over new breasts, no strutting pride over them either. Somehow, my mother subliminally taught me that this was your body, be grateful and happy with it.

So for me, to let a child be told by way of action that she isn’t pretty or goodlooking as she is, is a huge crime. God knows there’s enough trouble in grownup-gaon without the added burden of having to make money to go under the knife every time your face wrinkles with a smile or every time you imagine your butt isn’t the model of discipline it used to be. Inflicting this kind of damage is just as bad as this whole colour thing that many people of my country are obsessed with. How many times have I heard and consciously remembered to stop accepting the phrase, “she’s really dark but still pretty”.

I am never going to say the way you look shouldn’t be important. It should be — it’s the world’s first view of you, so you better look close to your best when you step out. And maybe Barbie Mum here thinks she doesn’t look her best (I’d agree with her) and which is why she’s constantly nipping and tucking. But that’s no reason to pass that on to your daughter. I just hope she goes the way some kids go and ends up militantly au naturale.

I am not saying anything new. I am just disturbed at that. And this. I have no words for the ruination this set of parents is causing their child. I only laugh at the irony of it.