Jeeta Shah will never forget the time she exasperatedly told Hriday that if he wasn’t going to listen to her, he could just walk out of her house. “This is not your house, it’s our house. We take the decisions together,” her nine-year-old son replied promptly.
In an age when children learn about their personal rights in school and when you have to give up your own couch-potato habit to convince your 10-year-old that television is just not good for him, I’m almost glad I’m just everybody’s favourite cool aunt. At least I don’t have to set the rules. Or renegotiate them.
“We have a constitution that gets amended constantly,” says Shabina Welde, the mother of eight-year-old twin boys, Anish and Ishan.
Like the time the once regular Shin-Chan watchers called their mum a “kali budiya”. “I lost it. We had a long talk about why it’s one thing to enjoy the funny one-liners on the programme and another to disrespect your elders. They argued, but eventually they agreed with me,” says Welde. Japanese anime character Shin-Chan, who’s been translated into Hindi for Indian audiences is, incidentally, the most-watched show on Hungama channel.
Welde, who describes her rule-enforcing self as “authoritative but not tyrannical”, has two types of rules—negotiable and non-negotiable. So, for instance, mealtimes are non-negotiable (7.30pm to 7.45pm) and junk food is a “guilty treat” once in 10 days and always followed by a day of healthy eating to cleanse everyone’s system (I bet you’re taking notes).
But the boys have the space to negotiate the details. “The nature of the meal is flexible. I don’t nit-pick the small stuff, I respect their likes and dislikes and make deals that include eating a portion of your vegetables in return for some dessert,” says Welde.
In addition to respecting preferences, it’s important for children to feel that you trust them, says Shah. Hriday always has to ask for permission before he watches television or plays with his PlayStation and Game Boy. “But it’s not like anything is under lock and key. I trust him not to break my rules,” says Shah, who has two firm no-nos—no bribing and no lying.
Of course, if trust doesn’t work, there’s always the old fallback. So, Shah gave Hriday a month to fix his habit of not writing his homework in his calendar and when her son didn’t take the deadline seriously, she did something I can still remember from my childhood. She made him write “I will not forget to write my homework” a 100 times.
Elementary school counsellor Palomita Patel believes we spend too much time treating children like adults. “Children don’t necessarily have the analytical skills to think things through. We’re demanding too much of them when we expect them to reason like adults,” says Patel, a counsellor for three- to 11-year-olds at the American School of Bombay.
Patel suggests parents should help their children make decisions by providing them multiple choices. There are two ways to do this—just give your child the options to pick from or brainstorm and come up with ideas together, then pick the acceptable options and ask your child to choose one of them.
Another tip from her: Don’t be so controlling. “We often pick schedules according to our convenience,” says Patel. “Why not tell your child these five things have to happen between now and dinner time, but you can pick the order in which you want to do them. That way they won’t argue on every point.”
For some parents, making sure their children follow the rules can be an elaborate, creative game. “The only thing that works with us is a point system,” says Aditi Vijayakar. So, a good remark from the teacher in his school calendar could get her seven-year-old son, Arnab, 100 points. Watching television on a weekday equals minus points, of course. Arnab is rewarded with a new book, a toy or an outing when he scores 2,000 points.
Vijayakar supplements this with her own version of Aesop’s Fables—stories of wolves (Arnab’s favourite) and tales of a naughty child called Prince Ali. Like the one about the time the Emperor sent the badly behaved Ali to work on the docks. Ali’s task was to load a ship and travel to a neighbouring island to deliver some goods. Alas, halfway through the journey, Ali realized he had forgotten to load the food. The sailors were tired and hungry and the trip had to be abandoned midway. A teary Ali went back to the Emperor and confessed sheepishly. The Emperor listened patiently, then told the little boy: “You have two choices. Either you’ll never manage a ship again or you’ll do it better the next time.”
Moral of the story? Don’t give up. Keep trying.