As any regular reader of this column knows, I try to keep my words outside the realm of being useful. I try not to tell readers what to do or how to fix their life. I am usually too busy figuring out what or why I am doing what I am doing.
But this is your lucky week, because all that restraint has made me discomfortable, which is a word that means exactly what it sounds like. I am going to offload all my pent-up goodwill and advice here and really, what can I say, don’t thank me too much, I’m just paying it forward.
I stumbled upon some excellent parenting advice in an old email that I had once written to my writing mentor. I won’t tell you who she is because it’s more fun to make people curious and leave them guessing, and of course great gurus tend to be intensely private, and so is she. After a few years of having moved on, I wrote to her with a new realization:
“It was also about the border-less space that I was allowed to explore. I didn’t want to have dos and don’ts about what I could write about or where I shouldn’t go. And you never hinted at any limits either.
“I realized that what I really appreciate about you is not only that you were not critical of anything that I wrote but that you also didn’t influence my voice with praise or appreciation.
“Once in a while, you would reply with a short message. Mostly it was your personal response, and not the teacher’s voice."
The spectacular parent is a minimalist. She doesn’t offer feedback to make herself relevant. She knows that real learning involves listening to one’s intuitive voice and allowing the wisdom of the body and mind, which has evolved over centuries, to lead the way.
The wise mentor does not want to create a praise-junkie. Which, if you look at it, is the finest form of parenting. Don’t manipulate children with your words and you won’t feel manipulated by them later. Let children discover their own interests and meander their way towards their own personal growth. We want to foster autonomy, not dependence. Self-assurance, not anxiety.
Anyone who has been near infants and toddlers knows how astounding it is that they seem to learn new skills all the time. From being helpless, hungry, gurgling babies, they grow into toddler-hood like there is a programmed script guiding them. We know it is natural, yet as they cross each milestone, we are moved as if we are witnessing a miracle. This is a reward in itself.
Now let’s move the focus away from the children to you, the parent.
Adult life is very frustrating. Especially if you are successful. The things that work always seem to demand more work. The variables we are juggling to keep our balance seem to change constantly. Our luxuries increase and so do the restrictions. Commutes get harder, the news gets murkier, we seem to be working even when we are sleeping. We wake up tired.
What’s with our mood all the time? So grumpy.
This weekend is the best time to pause and do a cost-benefit analysis. Is your repetitive behaviour as a parent bringing in diminishing returns as the children grow up?
Mothers, learn from the fathers. See how distracted they are when the children are getting ready to go to the school bus-stop? Just when you need everyone to be alert and respond to your commands, otherwise the bus will leave without the children and it will literally be the end of the world.
It won’t be the end of the world. It will just be you at the end of your tether. I’m not going to ask you to have a longer tether. You will reach the end of it too.
I’m going to ask you to distract yourself. Just like him.
“Don’t try to be like me," my husband often intervenes when he catches on to my plans.
“Why not, you’re so good at what you do," I say, both because it is true and I am trying to deflect his attention with flattery.
“Listen, everyone is unique," he will say. “You be you and let me be me."
But I carry on undeterred. A good idea mustn’t allow itself to be waylaid so easily. Whenever I am successful at being more like him, I find that he creates equilibrium by being more like me.
Distract yourself from trying to do everyone else’s share of the work. Avoid your own routine too. Go to the bathroom or something. Read an urgent column. Remember, you are practising minimalism in action.
Some of you are going to send me feedback messages and tell me that you were very inspired and did what I suggested in this column but it didn’t seem to work, so you have dropped the idea. Some of you will say you have boys. It’s too hard, you will say.
I will ask you how long you tried to implement this and you will say three days. Two and a half, actually.
Well, I won’t tell you this in person, but I am saying it here: Do you want to be a winner who feels like a loser, or a loser who feels like a winner? Come on, be strategic. It will be chaotic and confusing for a while, but it will be a new kind of mayhem. Others will step in when you step out.
Trust yourself. And trust what rings true to you. Now go for a walk. A spectacular one.
Natasha Badhwar is a film-maker, media trainer and author of the book My Daughters’ Mum.
She tweets @natashabadhwar