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“Trust your children”

Bhumika K. quizzed well-known children’s author Roopa Pai about the benefits of hands-off parenting and the importance of parents role-modeling good behaviour and values

A computer science engineering graduate of University Vivesvaraya College of Engineering, Bangalore and former journalist, Bangalore-based Roopa Pai is a well-known children’s books writer who has authored over 25 books of fiction and non-fiction across several genres including fantasy-adventure (Taranauts), science (What if the Earth Stopped Spinning? And 24 Other Mysteries of Science), philosophy (The Gita for Children) and self-improvement (Ready! 99 Must-have Skills for the World-conquering Teenager). The Gita for Children won the 2016 Crossword Award in the children’s writing category. Her latest book is The Vedas and Upanishads for Children.

Also mother of a 21-year-old daughter (Chetana) and 16-year-old son (Rohan), Pai philosophises about the benefits of hands-off parenting and the importance of parents role-modeling behaviour they want children to follow.

What is your parenting philosophy?

I’ve never thought about it before in these terms, but I suppose the core of my parenting philosophy has always been to trust children. Trust them to do the right thing, trust them not to be awful — either to others or to themselves — trust them to fulfill their responsibilities to the extent of their capability rather than my expectation, trust them not to lie and cheat. However this does not mean that I expect them to tell me everything that’s going on in their lives. I’m sure they keep plenty of things to themselves, and work through their own conflicts and difficulties without bothering me. That’s how it should be.

Are 21st century parents too fussy about their children and transforming into helicopter parents?

I am a hands-off parent. It is my nature not to obsess about anything. So it wouldn’t be fair for me to say that other parents, whose parenting style is different from mine, are being ‘obsessive’. There is no ideal parenting style.

If your parenting style doesn’t seem to work on your children, it would be advisable to think about tweaking it, after a respectful and open-minded discussion with them.

What are the three biggest challenges of being a parent in India today?

The first challenge is to teach your child to love and accept herself unconditionally. I truly believe self-love — which translates not to ‘I’m OK, you’re not OK’ but to ‘I’m OK, you’re OK’ — is the core of a happy and peaceful life. Such acceptance means you don’t judge and denigrate other people for their choices, that you don’t feel compelled to do something because of peer pressure, and don’t depend on others for your happiness. The best way to help your child develop this is to role-model it for her.

The second is to be able to listen to your children’s opinions, world-views, and notions about careers and marriage — which could be very different from yours — with respect. To be able to get them to listen to your views, present them not as the ‘right’ but merely as different views and let them make the choice after due consideration.

And thirdly, to appreciate that we learn as much from our children as we teach them, and behave in ways that demonstrates this truth to them. Parenting has always been complicated, and it will continue to be. The challenges of each generation and different cultures may seem different but, at their core, they are the same.

The general perception is that children are reading less today. Simultaneously there’s a flood of children’s books in the Indian market…

Personally, I believe there were reading children in our time, and there are reading children now. This group always was, and continues to be, a small percentage of the child population.

What has changed is that new-age parents believe that reading books outside of the curriculum is necessary and useful, and more books are being bought for children. Books can also be afforded now, because parents have greater disposable incomes. Fortunately parents and schools are creating new readers all the time by developing the right environment for readers — by filling shelves with children’s books at home and in school libraries.

How can parents make children fall in love with books and continue that relationship over time?

As with everything else about good parenting, this is also best-accomplished by role-modelling. If parents are seen buying and reading books for themselves, children will get the message that reading is an enjoyable and desirable activity, without parents needing to say or do much.

It’s also useful for parents to continue reading/sharing their children’s books as they get older. Children love it when they can discuss books with their parents. Co-reading and sharing also provide parents valuable opportunities to share their views about book characters’ choices, the consequences of those choices, and so on.

Do you believe exposing children to social media or allowing them too much screen time is detrimental to their cognitive and emotional development?

Too much social media and gadget time is detrimental to both children and adults! But forbidding it entirely is not advisable as the world is inexorably moving towards digitisation. But how much is too much? This is a matter of opinion. It’s best if parents and children discuss this and draw up a set of rules on what is acceptable to both sides. Then parents can monitor children and children can monitor parents.

Do you believe that most parents tend to overly focus on academics? What’s your advice to them?

Balance and moderation is always advisable, whether in parenting or any other aspect of life. I believe our role as parents is to stay close to our children and observe them, without preconceived notions and agenda, to figure out their natural aptitudes and what’s likely to make them happy. Then we can work towards exposing them to activities which will help their talents to blossom. But we need to also ensure that they engage in other activities as well, so their growth and development in other areas is not retarded. In fact, an increasing number of educationists these days are promoting the concept of multidisciplinary teaching and learning.

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