Monday 24 February 2020

Encounters on the walking trail

Each of the four seasons in Virginia have their distinct charm. The winter season is characterised by low (sometimes freezing) temperatures, snow/sleet, and moody skies. However, the lack of leaves and undergrowth provides excellent opportunities for viewing various varieties of humans, even from a distance and while remaining unobserved ourselves.
These are some of the species that one may commonly encounter while walking on the trails of Northern Virginia. 

The Cryophobic: This species is characterised by bulky layers of winter gear, rendering facial recognition almost impossible. This species receives the weather memos out of phase with the general population. In autumn, they retreat into their winter camouflage and immediately start hibernating. Hence they are rarely seen venturing out except to forage for food and escort their young ones. They receive the news of the onset of spring a little late too. While the rest of the population exhibits field marks of the spring season, these guys are still to be found huddling in their fur-lined boots and winter coats. Their habitat is characterized by high thermostat settings, often in the region of 75+ Fahrenheit. 

The Fast and The Furious (also known as the Fit and the Fabulous): This hardy species is easily discoverable outdoors in all weather conditions. Fleet of foot, they do not hibernate during the winter, preferring to obtain all their warmth from strenuous exercise. Field marks include a lack of appropriate outerwear and even basic clothing. The male is often found running bare-chested while the female prefers sports bras and running shorts. They move quickly and silently, and often the only warning of their presence will be seconds before you spot them, as they rush past with a terse "Excuse me".  

The Social Animal: This species hunts in packs, and have a special affinity for their canine friends. Like the Fast and the Furious, they are also weather-independent due to the need for their canine friends to take a daily constitutional and poop. One need not fear this type, as they are very friendly and social, often greeting others with a cheery "Hey there!" 

The Wildlife Lover: This species is characterized by their gait, which is slow and measured. Often accompanied by a canine, they stop frequently to peer at the trees and plants, and discover birds, rodents and other small animals. They prefer peace and quiet,  dislike loud noises and will fix you with a baleful stare if you walk past talking loudly to your mother in Chennai.

The Shrinking Violet: The Shrinking Violet is not an endemic species, but has been imported from various parts of the world, particularly Eastern and Southern Asia. This species has been found to flourish particularly well in the mild Virginia climate, however it is still fighting for its place under the sun. Consequently, they are often retiring and shy, and prefer not to make eye contact with other humans (though some exhibit more social tendencies). There is some intersection between the behaviour of this species, and that of the Cryophobic.  

Observation of the many types of human inhabiting the trails can be a very enjoyable and rewarding exercise!

Wednesday 12 February 2020

The Confidence Gap

Last year, Y's school asked for kids in her grade to self-nominate if they would like to stand for election to a few school office-bearer posts. Initially, Y showed some interest but as she got to know more about what it involved, she rapidly backed off. I tried to encourage her to stand, remembering full well my attempts at such electioneering in my school days, most of which led to thumping defeats! But all my encouragement seemed to make it worse. She simply did not want to make posters, stick them up all over the school, give speeches and generally ask for votes. I let it go, thinking that she may be more confident after a year. After all, it was her first year in a strange environment. 

Of late, I have noticed a worrying insecurity that lurks beneath her surface confidence. She will show us our assignments but balk at showing them to her brother. Ads is notoriously critical (those Virgo genes!) and does not mince words when offering feedback (he is also very mature about accepting feedback about himself or his work, recognizing that the comments are not personal but designed to help him improve). Yuks, unfortunately, does not have the maturity to accept constructive (if blunt) feedback in an unemotional, impersonal way.

Often, showing us something she has made, she will preemptively announce "It's very bad, I know" and rush off into another room while we examine her work. A few days ago, she showed me a school assignment and while I was reading it, she was crouched under the bed as though I was going to pronounce a sentence on her!

Every time, I tell her the same thing. It's your work. If you put in your best effort, it's good. Don't aim for perfection. If it is flawed, or imperfect, you need to love and respect it anyway because it's yours. Don't allow other's comments to hurt so much. Do take feedback and examine it carefully to see if it has merit, then use that feedback to improve. But ultimately, be your own judge and judge yourself kindly. 

Reading articles and books harping on this theme does not help. As much as I want my daughter to grow up to be a confident woman, I understand that modern pressures will always pull her down unless she learns how to recognize the insidious nature of her own mental blocks, and knows how to cope with them and ultimately surmount them. My alter ego, of course, is laughing heartily and sarcastically at my attempts to inject confidence into my kid when I myself am subject to imposter syndrome, performance anxiety and sundry other imaginary syndromes, disorders and maladies :))

So, still working on how to tackle this. One more parenthood challenge! Will it never end?? 

Friday 7 February 2020

Resilience, Reinvention and other such Random Ramblings

I have been counting. In the last 44 years, I have lived in 30 distinct places. 30 places I have called home at various points in time. The number is staggering and even absurd. What were my parents thinking?!!!

I counted the places we've lived in after we got married. The count is 10. My 14-year-old has lived in 7 houses/apartments. We've basically moved him to a new place every 2 years. What were we thinking?!!! Since I am still counting, he's studied in 7 schools up until now. Guess he's not making my record of 12 schools. I'm not sure whether that is a good thing :) 

I've been thinking a lot about resilience, and courage, and risk-taking ability. I did not grow up with friends I knew from kindergarten. Of course, my parents did not deliberately set out to change my school almost every year, but that's what happened. There have been only 3 years when I have not been the new girl in class. So every year that I moved schools, I was the one with no friends, no associations, no frame of reference, starting at the bottom of the social ladder. Making friends quickly was the first job in every new school, a task an introverted kid is singularly unfit for. Yet I shudder to think how much more introverted I might have developed to be if I had stayed cocooned in the security of the same home/city/school. 

It's hard to pinpoint the exact emotional state from so long ago. I am pretty sure there were some miserable lonely times. I do remember hating every move, the terror and uncertainty of the unknown never lessening with the passage of years. The ability to mask it under a veneer of confidence, however, increased exponentially. Over a period of time, even the aforesaid fear of the unknown largely evaporated. One just got braver, and more resilient. 

Hindsight is always 20-20 :) I read a beautiful quote somewhere - "I will forgive myself for not having the foresight to know what I now know in hindsight". Looking back, I would not change any of the experiences I underwent. As they say, what doesn't kill you makes you stronger! And this gives me a lot of strength and consolation as I think about my kids. Especially Ads, who even as a baby and a toddler, was one of the most cautious, scared kids around. For many years, minor changes in his schedule would lead to full-blown tantrums. That his ability to handle change was weak, was obvious to us very early on. A lot of our parenting with him has involved forcing him into uncomfortable situations (however, this is not why we moved all over India and to and fro from the US!). 

Willy-nilly, it happened. We see the results now, in his quiet confidence, courage and resilience. When we moved from India in 2018, I was very very anxious about his ability to handle this big transition. Having seen him tackle it head-on and just do what it takes to integrate and come out ahead, I'll be sure not to suffer unnecessary sleepless nights next time around!

A big part of the parental contract is protecting your kids from the vicissitudes of life. To the extent that we can, all of us want our kids to have a safe untroubled childhood. But exposing them to change, uncertainty, failure - this is part of the parental contract too. This gen will come of age in a VUCA world, and they need all the tools they can equip themselves with. And for most of us, we need to consciously build in challenges, experiences and situations that force our kids to go out of their comfort zone in a controlled environment, when we are watching over them. Because soon enough, we won't be there to stand guard and they will have to navigate this chaotic world on their own. 

Some concrete examples of conscious actions we have taken/are taking to inculcate independence and resilience in our kids:
1. Independent living - Do chores around the house. Picking up their stuff, folding their clean clothes, throwing soiled clothes in the laundry, making their beds and keeping their rooms clean are expected. It's their job to clean the table every night after dinner and help in clearing up the dishes. I've been working on training Ads to chop veggies and iron his own clothes, but it's a WIP.
2. Academics - I haven't as much as glanced at their homework or test prep for many years now, unless it is voluntarily offered up for inspection, and their grades thus far have been great (positive correlation or causation?!!!) Keeping on top of schoolwork, studying for tests, exams etc, getting decent grades, is their job and their job only. Occasionally I will help out if there is a big project looming. This happens maybe once a year. 
3. Empathy - Cultivate an attitude of gratitude and reinforce the importance of empathy. We have made a lot of strides in the first one and are still working on the second. A regular family volunteering activity would go a long way to promote empathy and this is a personal goal for me this year.
4. Self-care - Exercise and be mindful. Again, WIP. Ads has been doing well on this and he exercises every single day and has a daily meditation routine. We are working with Y on this as well.
5. Socialization - Communicate, make plans, ask for help. We do a lot of this when we travel in Latin America, where it is Ads' job to walk up to random people and ask for directions, opening and closing times, and other general stuff which clueless travellers need to know :) Ordering in restaurants is another way for kids to communicate their own choices. We have to do more of this, including making them shop for groceries and check out with minimal assistance from us.

I feel like this list keeps increasing in length, and every week I can think of something else that I need to teach my children. Life is complex, and it will only get more so as they enter college, and the workforce, and the demands of the real world. As I keep reminding Ads, grades don't matter that much, but it's all the other stuff you learn at this age that is key - how to be independent, organized, socially savvy, brave and empathetic - to be a success at living. I'm not sure he totally buys into what he considers my mumbo-jumbo though!!