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     Volume 7 Issue 2 | January 11, 2008 |

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Food for Thought

Never a Dull Moment…

Farah Ghuznavi

Nobody ever said being a parent would be easy. Indeed, as a postcard I once gave my mother reads, "Insanity is hereditary - you get it from your children!" Perhaps it was different once upon a time, a century or so and several generations ago back in the day when parents were parents and children were…erm, “seen and not heard”. These days it can involve anything from physical, emotional and financial pain (spread out over decades, i.e. the rest of your natural life!) to intense guilt and performance pressure in the event that anything goes wrong (as inevitably it will every now and then), to often trying (and occasionally public) testing of parental patience and behavioural boundaries - particularly for parents of teenagers. And all this without any guaranteed rewards! Though it can pay off, at least in terms of the occasional card to acknowledge a landmark birthday for prematurely ageing parents…

Although my sympathies in these situations tends to be with (good) parents, it is hard to avoid the realisation that the blame for maladjusted adults must be placed somewhere, and the first port of call in this regard is undoubtedly upbringing. Although the deck may be stacked against them on anything from the genetic predisposition of their child to the influence of school, friends, extended family and wider society, the buck invariably stops with the parents! As one friend tearfully said to me, after a particularly spectacular tantrum by her four-year-old in a crowded shopping area, even if they turn out to be axe-murderers, the parents are likely to end up being blamed for not potty-training them properly!

In fact, since research now indicates that the most critical period in shaping a child's behaviour lies in the period up to the age of three, this makes parental responsibility even weightier. Presumably it is during this time that children are most intensively cared for by one or both parents. And if that is not the case, it inevitably leaves the parent open to the accusation of neglect by those with more judgemental tendencies! After all, if you aren't spending time with your pre-schooler, what exactly are you doing with your time?!

The enormity of this task was brought home to me several years ago when a friend and I were having lunch together at university. Our peaceful break was suddenly interrupted by the loud shrieks of a toddler sitting at the next table. His mother had broken a chocolate bar in half to share with him, and it was clearly evident that sharing was just not part of the plan as far as he was concerned!

Even as Katy and I winced, the volume of the howls grew impossibly louder. But his (clearly long-suffering) mother remained unbelievably calm saying, “Thomas, you have to share with Mummy. Half is yours, and half is mine.” Thomas unfortunately remained unconvinced and the situation degenerated, until all of us in the restaurant simply prayed that his mother would give in. As it happened, for the full five minutes (and it felt like an eternity!) it took for Thomas' howls to subside into whimpers, his mother held firm. And looking back on that incident now, I have no doubt at all that if Thomas grows up to be a half-way decent human being it will be in no small measure due to her heroic efforts…

It must be admitted of course that the issue of sharing is a thorny one for many of us. Some people struggle to share the attentions of parents and friends (let's not even get into spouses!), while others are still at the chocolate bar stage of development. Unfortunately, mastering this particular set of skills is an essential part of really growing up. So no responsible parent can afford to ignore their duties in this regard, however challenging the task might be. And speaking of challenging, I'm reminded of the experience of my friend Nina, whose three-year-old daughter Asha returned home with a pre-school report card (!) stating that she “needed to work on sharing”.

Assigning to me the role of witness, Nina proceeded to engage her daughter in a brief and pithy explanation of why sharing was good. Asha agreed that she liked other children who shared their toys. And after some prompting, she also agreed that other children would like her more if she shared her toys with them. At the end of it all, an expectant Nina said, “So now you will be nice and share your toys with others, won't you?” Without batting an eyelid (and very firmly), Asha said simply “No.” It's hard to know what to say after that really, and Nina was certainly left speechless!

Indeed, “no” is a favourite phrase for many young children. I suspect it may have something to do with the sense of power that refusal involves. Or maybe it's just the fact that “noooo…” has a much more pleasurable sound to it than the rather curt feel of an acquiescent “yes”! Whatever the case, I think most weary parents would agree that they have heard this term all too often issuing from the mouths of their little ones (and their not-so-little ones). And personally, I would argue that the more “modern” (or, God forbid, “new age”!) the parent, the likelier they are to hear it…

One of the stages (age-wise) when "no" or generally negative responses are almost a given tends to be when children are two or three years old - it can be at either end of that spectrum, depending on how "advanced" the child concerned is. My friend's niece Jamila, a highly intelligent child, is going through just such a phase, and driving everyone around her crazy as a result. The most frequent comment heard from her these days is "Tomakey to diboi na" ("I will absolutely not give it to you"). She tends to come out with this kind of remark regardless of what is actually being said to her, as was made quite evident when she responded to her uncle's comment that he hadn't asked her for anything, with "Tao dibo na! " ("And I still won't give it to you!").

My friend Tina's almost 3-year-old daughter is also going through the same stage, and her response to around 80% of the questions put to her is "Na!" The funny thing is, sometimes she's even smiling as she says it, as if she knows how absurd such constant negativity is. But she can't help herself! In fact, I had the thought that it might be a variation on the kind of behaviour one experiences with adolescents (best summed up in my mother's comment that "It's like a disease!"), when the mood swings, sullenness, and generally exhausting interactions almost seemed to be something that is biologically predetermined. Raging hormones are commonly blamed for such behaviour, and no doubt there is some truth behind the science of this! But along with Joya's frequent (and mostly cheerful) "Na!" utterances, it is as if something beyond their control is driving such behaviour...

In the case of a child as intelligent as Joya, there is also the critical issue of saving face to be considered. In a recent conversation where she forgot that she was talking to me rather than her mother (who is more of a soft touch), she accidentally said "Na!" when I asked her if she wanted to accompany me on an outing. Too late, she realised that she had actually refused something that she wanted to do, but of course by then she couldn't possibly back down!

I watched the conflicting emotions play across her face as she considered her options. She knew that, unlike her mother, I would actually go without her. I wondered briefly if she would apologise, but I had underestimated her. Quickly recovering, she asked me to tickle her before I left. I agreed, but made it clear that I would leave immediately afterwards. As soon as I had finished the tickling game, she bounced up and said "Let's go!", as if the previous exchange had never taken place. In the presence of such creativity, I felt I could do nothing but let it go gracefully! That's what I call a win-win situation and from a formidable strategist not even three years old yet…

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