Making room for shy

On an average day, I see more grumpy adults than grumpy children. The strange thing is, while the adults are allowed to continue their behavior unsupervised, the children are always expected to explain themselves. Especially children who are shy. Or children who appear to have charisma, but display it only after they have warmed up to you. Re is one such child. He is constantly monitored by the adults who allegedly ‘dote’ on him. Why are you quiet? Why are you not talking? Why are you not answering my (idiotic) questions? Do you want a chocolate? Sometimes, the questions are directed not to him, but to me: Why is he shy?

More so since Re’s antics and banter precede him (partly my fault), and there are so many conversations in the public domain that many adults feel a sense of familiarity when they meet him (and I can’t grudge them that), so they behave not like strangers, but people who know him really well. It’s as though he has to display his Mr.Congeniality behavior on loop, and of course, he has bad days like everyone does. He is shy, but because his charm precedes him, he doesn’t find enough room to be shy.

I don’t think shy needs fixing; I never apologize for it. Earlier, I used to say, “He’s still learning” or, “He takes time to be comfortable with new people”. It was my way of saying that labels like “shy” are unrealistic and unhelpful. But as I went along, I let him know that it was alright to speak up as much or as little as he was comfortable with. I never gave excuses for his shyness. I encouraged him to share his name if he was asked, but I was also okay with repeating the answers for him if the words come out too quietly.

Probably the worst thing to do to a shy child is to say, ‘Don’t be shy. Don’t be so quiet.’ Shyness is not a pathological disorder. The danger, of course, is in rescuing too soon, too often, too much. When you do that, the kids don’t develop their own coping mechanism. I usually let Re be until he turns to me for help. Often, he doesn’t.

Re knew he took his time with strangers, both adults and children, and he wasn’t always ready to answer questions posed by them, even something as banal as “What’s your name?” But since I never introduced him to the ‘shy’ label, he didn’t know what it was until we watched “The Shy Princess”, an episode from Sofia the First, a Disney series about a girl from a village who becomes a princess. Sofia is his latest role model, and he really looks up to her and the things she does. This particular episode was about Sofia trying to be friends with a shy princess, Vivienne. It’s when it struck him. “Oh, I am also like her. I am shy, but sometimes I can be not shy also, when I meet someone like Sofia!”

She even had a shy song. That was it! Shy became legitimate from that day on.

We live in a society that places a lot of value on extroverted people. Society rewards extroverts, but quiet types have a hidden strength all their own. When I found myself with a child who had the exact opposite personality from me, I knew it was important that we learn how to support him. It wasn’t easy, though. I often felt judged when Re was reluctant to respond to an adult’s questions, or when he held back from joining activities or hated going to birthday parties. I grew up with shy siblings; it has always been a difficult task not to complete their sentences or offer to read their minds aloud.

Susan Cain, whose bestselling book, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, addresses the western culture’s tendency to undervalue introverts. In her book, Cain says one-third of people are introverts — folks who’d prefer to listen rather than speak. But this personality type also comes with many other qualities — innovation, creativity and sensitivity — that have led people to make great contributions to society. (Famous introverts include Albert Einstein, J.K. Rowling and Dr. Seuss.)

I like shy. I am always attracted to shy, and I still find it an endearing quality in most people. Even as a teacher, I find myself listening more to the child who talks less.

Shy children are not antisocial. They’re simply sensitive to their environments. But in a society that celebrates the bold and the outspoken, shy and introverted are perceived as disadvantages. It’s natural for young children to be shy around new people, especially adults. Although the child may appear to be afraid, their response is less likely to be caused by fear than by simple discomfort. Many children feel uncomfortable with new people until they have got to know them better. Many adults are the same way. And in the world today, it is not always a bad thing for a child to be wary of strangers. So, make room for shy. It could be useful.


Table for three

I ran into a friend-in-law (can’t think of a better term for the OPU’s friends) the other day, post an afternoon at the museum with the child, just when we were attacking our fennel infusion pasta (me) and chocolate milkshake (Re) at a neighbouring cafe.

After the first enthusiastic greeting, our conversation went something like this: “Where are you? You are never to be seen! Why didn’t you come to Wild Wednesdays?” (something in between wonder and cynicism in her voice)

“Well, I have given partying rights to the husband. And in any case, I am not into wild nights anymore; I just don’t have the temperament for it.” (Need I add that the aforementioned party required you to come dressed as your favourite animal?)

“Oh, maybe we should organise a brunch for you,” she said, in the manner of someone offering a consolation prize.

She didn’t realise that I had already left the conversation.

I know what you are thinking. What’s the big deal about having a night-life post children? A “real” social-life, hanging out with randoms at places where you can barely be seen, forget heard? Where you are saying “Awesome!” to all and sundry, while holding drinks that could buy you dinner somewhere?

Oh, come on, you can do it, you might say. What are nannies, night crèches, parents, friends for? Yes, I know I am missing out on a lot of scintillating conversations and company. But you don’t know what I’m thinking. I’m thinking, “This is my chance to trim the extraneous matter from my life. I am so going for it.”

Perhaps, this is one of the fringe benefits of having a child. You trim down. You cut out the riff-raff. You find it easier to say no. You become selective about who you spend your time with and how. You realise that the friends who invite you home and the ones who come over to see you are the ones you want to keep. (The ones who cook for you become topmost in the hierarchy).

You begin to strike off the ones who say, “Let’s catch up” (and never mean it) from your list. Or the ones who send a bulk SMS for their birthday bash, which is a paid-for, food-deficient, alcohol-fuelled event, chiefly populated by 30-somethings who always keep their sunglasses on. No, I am so not missing all of that. Having a baby gave me a legitimate reason to not see the people I didn’t enjoy seeing. It would have been rude to tell them, “You are so shallow and boring; I really don’t enjoy your company.” However, “I have a baby at home” sounds good and grants you immunity.

So my social life is currently a movie with friends I want to catch up with, friends I have over and friends who will have me over, parks and theatres and play-dates and, of course, weekend breakfasts and lunches with the OPU and child. On some such outings to manicured fine dining places (the OPU doesn’t do basic), the child collects all the cutlery from the table and the neighbouring ones and opens a stall. Sometimes, he wants to try a headstand. Sometimes, he wants to pretend we are trees and climb us. Or pretend that he is a lion and we are “his people”. Sometimes, he just wants to take his animal entourage (all 16 rubber toys) to lunch. With a child, every outing is an expedition, every routine, an adventure.

Most of the times, we get beaming looks (“You made that?”), sometimes we get the “This too shall pass” nod, at other times we get the “Poor you!” look and very rarely do we get the WTF look. The funny thing is, the ones giving the look are more often parents of older children. The been there, done that kind. Clearly, they have short term memory, because they have forgotten what it was like. But that’s the thing about children. You always forget the bad parts.

Yes, children in public spaces can be a bit overbearing at times. But not as much as adults who go around pouring glasses of wine on an ex-lover’s head. Or slapping random people at parties. Or shooting someone because they weren’t served alcohol. Why is the focus always on well-behaved children? Why is there not an equivalent demand for well-behaved adults? Why is it that every time a child cries in an airline, everyone turns to look around like it’s the most abominable thing ever, but if an adult is a nuisance on his mobile phone or asks the stewardess for one drink too many, no one bats an eyelid?

The thing is, children are meant to be seen and not heard. So a baby came and peekabooed you? Not on! But an adult dropped wine on you? He was just having a bad day.

(This post initially appeared as my column in Indian Express EYE on Sunday, June 10th 2012)

Two is company, three is a mutiny

On most days, I have absolutely no idea how to be a parent. I barely know how to do marriage. But then, work on that can wait, because husbands take a long time to grow up. Children, on the other hand, grow up before you can manage to finish reading that book about how to talk so kids will listen. Or what to expect in month 31, week two, which is where I am at with Re currently.

As you can see, I didn’t really do my research on the baby thing. I do know a thing or two about how to write good resumes or how to make a mean banana and chocolate chip muffin or hummus you’d want to pay me for. Or how to find the best outdoorsy things to do with my child or how to make friends with mommies I would normally never speak to if I weren’t a mother.

What then, am I doing writing this parenting column? I have to reason it out in my head; Help came in the form of a line Kareena Kapoor throws at Imran Khan in the recent Ek Main Aur Ek  Tu. I am the ‘perfectly average’. I don’t do too much or too little of anything. I make mistakes, I sound foolish, I am never afraid to say “I don’t know”, and I will try anything. I am constantly amazed at parents (and it doesn’t matter if they are ahead or behind you in the baby hierarchy) who have the answer to everything, from visual stimulation to building motor skills to diffusing a tantrum. Okay, I should have read those books, but Re never let me. Also, a random page of one of them said something to the effect that you must maintain a Zen state of calm whatever the child may do. That made me swear off the said books completely.

The funny thing is, the more time I spend as a parent, the more flummoxed I get. Children have that knack of messing with your head just when you think you’ve figured them out. I decided I will simplify parenting into a neat little rule that I pin up in my little head, and it is this: For every Kodak moment, there is an equal and opposite What The @#$% Moment.

So, if the child gives a sterling performance at the table, it might turn into a demon during a bath. Or, if it sits pretty in the car seat, wearing its seat-belt without a whine, it might want you to stop abruptly in peak traffic as it wants to count the windows in a house it fancied or say hello to a “red tree”. Or, if it planted a wake-up kiss on your cheek in the morning, it might suddenly announce it wants to wear its pajama suit to school. Or, if it eats real food with a flourish, it might have a problem with the dal premixed with the rice. Or the chapati touching the sabzi. Or, if it is one of those children who can play for hours on its own, it might turn into a screeching banshee on a perfectly planned play-date with your best friend’s daughter.

There are days when I can laugh at it. There are days I can only cry. There are also days when my irrational self wants to outdo the child in the tantrum. Okay, I am not as mean as I sound. Children are mostly cute. A good camera, great lighting or interesting props make them cuter. The point is, WTF moments are rarely photographed. People are inundated with smiley, happy, picture-perfect baby moments and they think this is the way it is. And they are convinced, “Oh, yes, we want one of those!” And a baby continues to be born every four minutes.

Recently, we had a potential WTF morning. It was a Monday, and the husband and I had woken up early for Oscar watch. Nervously, I made our beverages (coffee, him, tea, me) and sat myself down. Half hour into it, Re walked in, beaming, noticed the parental units riveted and announced it’s Madagascar (favourite breakfast cartoon movie) time. The husband and I tried to pretend we didn’t know what he was talking about. We got him breakfast, settled him at his table and continued watching the Oscars. A few shrieks and fist poundings on the table later, the tension in the room was palpable. We decided to try something new. We held our own. It was no longer about Jean Dujardin vs George Clooney. Or Meryl Streep vs Glenn Close. It was us against what we made. Surprisingly, we won.


(This article first appeared as a column in the Sunday Eye of the Indian Express on 11th March 2012)

Mr Congeniality

May be there is some truth to the fact that having a child is your last chance to be a better person.

May be Re is my chance to be one.

Okay, a bit about his gene pool. I am one of the rudest people I know (although I think it is predominantly Gemini sarcasm, but most people can’t tell the difference). Sometimes I feel my default setting is ‘rude’, so niceness is always a bonus. My friends don’t think so, and people who know me well enough don’t think so, but for the large majority that doesn’t get there, I am that person. The OPU is no angel either, although, between the two of us, I seem to have earned the title of the ‘bad guy’ for some strange reason, since he is never ever rude to me, but I am aplenty.

But between the two of us, we seem to have birthed Mr Congeniality. Every time Re steps out, he spends an average of five minutes saying ‘Hiiieee” to every neighbour, building watchman, car cleaner, the 90 year-old great-grandmother sunning herself in her Neel Kamal chair in the area outside her ground floor apartment, the Parsi lady the floor above, who keeps abreast of my husband’s nocturnal obsessions (why does he stay up so late every night?), the lady in the flat opposite, who has a son by the same name (although he is in his teens) , and so, has a special fondness for Re, the grocer round the corner, the bhajiwala, the istriwala,kids and mommies in the park, mall, cafe, library and any random stranger we encounter on the road while walking, or anyone who pulls up alongside us in the traffic signal while driving.  Hi-fives, air-kisses, hugs and kisses are doled out like they are going out of style. Thanks to him, I am employing my facial muscles for smiling a lot at random strangers, more than I have ever done in my life,  and talking and exchanging pleasantries with people who would never intersect my universe otherwise. The OPU has also been making an attempt at being nice to people who he would normally brush off as ‘insects’.

Why would the two of us be gifted the “friendliest child on the planet”, I don’t know. Poetic justice, perhaps?

But I have changed post Re, even if a teeny bit, and people have begun to notice. My mother feels I am a calmer person, and more importantly, I am nicer to her. My sister feels that I have become more forgiving. My close friends feel motherhood has made me more tolerant of other people. But as for me, I am far from feeling Zen. But I can see what they mean. Being a mother makes you look at the bigger picture. It makes you raise the bar for intolerance. It makes you want to give the benefit of doubt to people when they behave in a manner not quite okay by your books. As long as the behavior is baby-friendly, all is forgiven.

I shudder to think of what my future years would be like, being mom to Mr Congeniality. Will I ever be able to break the spell of Mr Nice? Or will I be known as “that evil mom of the good guy”? Both seem fairly daunting prospects, but right now, I am enjoying the unbearable lightness of being (nice), even if I may say so myself.

Children of a lesser God

Re has been unwell since yesterday. It’s nothing major, just a stubborn cold and a cough. But this morning, I heard him wheeze, and my heart froze. I had a sudden flashback of my asthmatic childhood, how my mother used to try everything to make me sleep — put on a hot water bag, hold a roasted ajwain pack on my chest, massage my back, give me warm water and honey to drink — and how nothing would help. It was as though staying horizontal was the toughest thing on earth.

It’s not so with Re. He is a trooper; he has already gone for his morning walk, eaten his breakfast, taken stock of his pots and pans, refused to wear a sweater, put on his music and is currently conducting his ritual orchestra with his tambourine and his maracas. He doesn’t know he is unwell, and except for me opening his mouth from time to time to shove a dose of medicine, things are pretty much the same. The only question my doctor asks me is, “How is his mood?”. And if that is okay, all is well.

My grandmother used to say that whenever you are in duress, think of those who are worse off than you and count your blessings.  I thought of Priyanka.

Priyanka is a little girl,  all of a year and some, the daughter of the caretaker at the farmhouse Re and I just spent a few days in a village near Lonavala. Priyanka was hospitalised a few months ago for a knotted intestine. Yes. I didn’t know such things happen. But they do. Apparently, she stopped passing stools one day and stopped eating, and her parents figured something was wrong. The local village doctor treated her for colic for a week, and when things didn’t improve, they took her to the government hospital, where (thankfully) it was diagnosed that her small intestine had knotted itself up beyond belief. The only way to unknot it was to cut her open and physically unknot it.

So Priyanka, at one year and some, was opened up, an hour spent on sorting out the convolutions of her intestine, and stitched up. The scar runs the entire length of her belly. But that’s not it. Post operation, she spent ten days in the hospital, when her belly just swelled up like a balloon, and no one knew why. The resident doctor pronounced that she if it didn’t subside by the next day, she wouldn’t make it. The one who did her surgery was nowhere in sight.

Her father ran from pillar to post, trying to find someone, anyone, who could help her out of her misery. Finally, at the end of ten days, her tummy subsided and she was discharged. It’s been a few months since, but she still cries at night and her mommy feels she is still hurting. But Priyanka doesn’t give a damn. She is happy to be happy by day, gambolling in the fields, talking to the birds and the bees as she is fed her lunch by her daddy, and parading around in her new shoes, chasing the local dog away. She even shared her grapes with Re, and they bonded.

Re is still wheezing, but I count my blessings and feel strong again.

Taking the bully by the horns

 I am in a bit of a dilemma. Roughly 10 months ago, the boy was un-insulated from the comfort of his home and his stroller and introduced to the big bad world in the form of play-dates, restaurant visits, the mall, walkabouts in the buildings, and the rest.

I reckon he is a nice boy. Perhaps I didn’t have much to do with it, but it has just turned out that way. Neither does the OPU (other parental unit) for that matter, who spent most of his childhood fighting for his place. Being the third born, he figured being a bad boy was the only way to get noticed. Until he met me, of course.

It’s different with Re. Being born in a house with two cats, he has had a sibling advantage from the word go despite not having any. He has learnt to be compassionate towards animals — not just ours, but even those outside our universe. He has learnt to apply the same logic to people on twos, both little and large. So it shatters me when another boy walks into my house, pushes him, pushes the cat, or worse, pulls its tail or whiskers. Or sometimes, when Re is walking about in the park, doing his thing, and another kid just walks up and pushes him. Or he is putting his musical instruments back in class and another child just walks through him, tripping him. I fear that he may be too nice.

The first time it happened, I was shocked. The mommy-in-charge (MIC) told me this is normal, and that her boy had also been pushed and shoved when he was Re’s age, and that he will also do unto others what has been done unto him, so the law of the universe balances it out. It has been a good eight months since we had that conversation, but I don’t see Re indulging in any form of aggression with littler ones. So, a part of me is really happy that I will not have to be the mommy apologising after her child. The other part is hurt that my child is hurting.

Another play-date repeatedly did the same, and when things didn’t get any better and when I got nothing more from the MIC except, “I wonder why he behaves like this?” or, “He is always so good, wonder what’s happened to him today?”, I did what I thought was right. I starting avoiding her and the boy.

Re is confused. His response to such situations is to act slightly annoyed, and to want the object of irritation to disappear. My dilemma is: should I let his innocence and goodness be and just hope that other kids will learn to behave better? It hurts me to see him hurt, but at the same time, I am left wondering at what point should I tell him that a tooth for a tooth, a shove for a shove is how the world works. When will it be imperative for him to ‘be a man’?

 It bothers me that mothers all around pretend that children will be children and that aggression and bad behaviour is normal, and just shrug their shoulders, pretending all is good, when it is so not. Perhaps some of them are not around all the time to see what’s happening and are dependent on day-cares and nannies. I have seen that perhaps one in ten mothers will truly take it upon her to explain to the child and demonstrate to him or her why it is wrong. Perhaps my decision to be a full-time mom has led to my microscopic observation of such things, else I wouldn’t know any better and Re would learn how to fight his battles anyway.

I discussed this with the OPU and his take on the whole thing seems rather simplistic, but fair and sensible. Any act of aggression that does not result in a larger good should be deemed bad. According to him, violence or aggression if used against someone equal or above is ok, if it results in a larger good for the victim. So for instance, shoving an older brat per se is bad. But shoving a brat who is pulling a cat’s tail is not. But shoving anyone younger or weaker than you is never ok.

I am now wondering how to explain this to a 17 month old. Perhaps I won’t have to. I think I will leave the ‘how to be a man’ bit to the OPU, as I still haven’t fully understood the male dynamics despite writing a column about men for years.

You win some, you lose some.