Monday, December 31, 2012

On Exercise, Hibernation and Mindfulness

The last few days have been days with some "Wow!"moments for me with my son. After almost two months of no outdoor play or any other physical exercise whatsoever, besides the usual jumping and prancing around, or the occasional breaking into a dance to some Kailash Kher music, Raghav walked almost a kilometre today with me to a local shop and back! My feelings are those of amazement, wonder and elation!....and I had to share these through my writing!

His "hibernation" if one can call it that, started some months ago, when he had severe stomach ache on a trip to Madurai with my husband who was on work. Ever since we came back, he stopped going down to play. Initially I did not force him as I thought he was still recuperating and was tired. Soon, I had to do away with my evening "walking"time too as he did not want to be alone at home on his own. I relented finally after much hesitation and a lot of argument. I could not think of any creative way to get him to go down and exercise his muscles a bit, without getting into long, heated arguments, or long-winded explanations, that I soon got tired of. Like many other things that we have let go of so far in this journey, I let go of this too.

How did I let go? I realised finally that once again the root was in fear - fear of what would happen to one's body without exercise, whether one would fall sick, or feel lethargic, or get stiff and "not-in-shape". These were the reasons that drove me to push him to go out and play. I realised that I had pushed myself too.

There was yet another incident that happened in the last month or so, that added fuel to fire. Some weeks ago, after the few showers that we had here, the Corporation had started fogging some areas. Twice, we were down when that vehicle came into our apartment complex. Raghav did not like the smell at all and was bothered by the sound of the machine. Ever since, he has been closing all doors and looking out off and on, in fear. There were many times when I was very worried about this intense fear that he had and thought I had to get help from somewhere and someone. There were times when I felt like I was in prison with no fresh air and sunlight. We fought a lot over this.....had long conversations about this.....and tried many other things......but nothing worked.....until we just stayed with this feeling, accepted it and understood the depth of it. Then he started trying to go out for short bits of time.

Before all this happened, he loved going down to play frisbee, cricket, football, and cycling with his friends. Although it has always been an effort to get him to play outdoors, once he started, he was okay. We used to be downstairs for an hour at least and sometimes much more.....and I started getting my daily workout through playing with the kids and walking around the complex. I thought that that would keep me in good shape and pushed myself to walk for at least half an hour every day. Many a time, it was tough to get this time for myself. But I persisted. Then I realised that I was not really listening to my body and was sometimes pushing myself too much - so on days when I was tired after having done a lot of chores at home too, I was pushing my body to complete what I usually did everyday.

It was then that I realised that unless I stopped and listened to my body, Raghav would not do that too. So from then on, I started walking mindfully more often, whenever I could. I started listening t o my body. I stopped when I got tired without pushing myself to do "just a little more". When I did that, I felt better - not too exhausted, and even slept better at night. And after these two months of hibernation, I can say that I have lost weight, sleep better at night, am less irritable and have more energy to do things! Strange but true! What's the secret? I don't know! It could have been the hibernation or mindfulness or both!

Raghav - way ahead!
Today, I had to go to the flour mill which was about half a kilometre away. I suggested that we go walking so that I get my sunshine and fresh air for the day, and that it would be a different and exciting thing to do, instead of taking the car. I also recalled how he had walked effortlessly, more than a few kilometres last week, on our trip to Coonoor, when we had gone exploring through the tea plantation, to reach the Nilgiri Mountain Railway line, just in time to see the quaint steam engine and old coaches chug past us! He was immediately all excited to walk and surprise his father when he came home that evening.

I was surprised too that he agreed readily without a fuss, but apprehensive about what would happen along the way - would he ask to be carried (Raghav has been attached to my hip and my husband's shoulders ever since he was a toddler!)? would he ask that we take an auto? would he jump and scream in the middle of the road that he could go no further? So many thoughts raced inside my head!......but I shushed them, smiled and carried on. Going with the flow, with an empty mind helped. He finally walked all the way to the shop and back without a whine! He was proud of himself and I was proud of him! It was unbelievable that he walked so much after a long hibernation of sorts!

It left me questioning many things - our fears about lack of daily exercise, our conditioning and definitions of what makes us fit and healthy, how much exercise does one really need, whether we sometimes over-exercise, not listening to our body signals and so on. So then, can we allow kids who
want to be indoors, the space and freedom to do just that? Can we wait till they show a "readiness" or a need to go out and play? Can we trust them to listen to their own bodies?

I think we can....and I have learned that from being with my son once again!

Sunday, December 30, 2012

A Kodak Moment

Any time-bound event or activity has been and continues to be hard for us to manage as a family most times......Raghav finds it very hard usually to transition from something he is doing at home, to something outside....and today was another day when this came into focus in a big way.

It was the last day when my sister and family were going to be here and we were to go to my parents' house for lunch. Raghav woke up late and was busy doing his own thing, our reminders not really being heeded, until it was close to the time when we had to leave. This is something that happens quite regularly in our house and I am still trying to find better, more creative ways to handle transitions.

While I know that my getting anxious adds to the already volatile atmosphere, I have been unable to let go of that, simply because there are times when it concerns others' schedules that I want to respect, like it happened today. He was so totally absorbed in what he was doing that he did not want us to interrupt him in anyway, with any sort of reminders. As a result of this, my husband and I lost our tempers; we were both harsh on him and ended up pushing him to get ready and leave immediately. Raghav was in tears and kept reminding us not to get angry. We then had a long chat with him to explain what we were feeling; apologized to him and hugged and kissed him. I love the way we always make up with a special family circle and hug :) - no matter what. He then told us that he wanted to be by himself in his room and do something for us.

This is what he made and gave us a few minutes later! My heart broke.....take a look......

I was amazed at what he could come up with when he was feeling so low! I was touched by the unconditional love that he showered on us.....and he had written this all by himself without asking us for spellings of words - which was a first time too for him!

While we sat talking and listening to one another, Raghav came up with some profound wisdom which was a Kodak moment for me!(However, the only camera that I had then to capture this moment was all of my heart and my eyes!) This is what he had to say:

Me: "How did you manage to write this?"

Raghav: "I thought about what to write while I was walking....then when I went to my room, I just sat and drew the picture and wrote what I thought......see, I did not ask you for any spellings.....I wrote it all by myself!"

Me: "But how did you learn to write like this? is so beautiful!"

Raghav: "I learned how to write from you and appa."

Me: "But I did not teach you..."

Raghav: "You did......just by living!...and actually I did not learn anything in school."

Me: "How did you draw us all happy and not angry?"

Raghav: "Because that is how I want us to be....I know that when you are angry, you are not angry with are angry with yourself....and when you or appa are upset or angry, I want to help you.....because the most important thing in life is to help someone else....and that I did not learn from you.....I learned that from my Thomas DVD!"

Tears poured down my cheeks as I listened to my son, who never ceases to amaze me with his common sense and simple profundities, way beyond his years. I realised how beautiful learning was and how it happens every day in the most incomprehensible ways, just by living each day as it unfolds. I whispered softly to my husband that if I had to die at  that moment, I would have gladly, as I felt so blessed and so fulfilled as a parent.

This may sound cliched, but I so wanted to share this personal moment, only to bring out the point made by my son indirectly - that Life is a miracle and that we just need to live, to learn what we need to. Aren't  these the "Life Skills" that we really need anyway?


Saturday, December 8, 2012

A Mind's Wanderlust

I have often found myself exclaiming to myself in the past - usually when my son shows us something: "Hey, he knows the concept of multiplication"....or "I didn't know he could learn about light and shadows like that"......or "he knows all about the countries and the earth forms just by playing around with Google Earth"....or many other thoughts like that.

Thoughts that have wanted to compartmentalize everything into boxes and clearly defined spaces in one's mind....thoughts that wanted to perhaps ratify what is "being learned".......thoughts that wanted to coax the heart into thinking that yes, "learning"is happening....thoughts that wanted to -
Hold on.

But these kind of thoughts come into my mind more rarely I try to enjoy every one of those moments for just what they are...without attaching any meaning or learning to it. I try and sometimes look at those moments as learning moments for myself, not my son. So when he shows me a new invention that he has made of a machine in an ipad app called Tinkerbox, I watch as he explains how it works, and how he built it or what he named it.....I try not to look at it as his learning something about engineering or Physics. When he goes to the blackboard and writes down something that he has to remember to build later on, I try not to look at it as his trying to self-organize or that he is beginning to like writing. If he comes to me and talks about something that he read on a website or a book, I try not to reassure myself that he is finally reading something. I am trying hard now to just accept what is for what it is......and nothing more.

It is hard - after a lifetime of conditioning to thinking linearly or wanting to define things like learning. The other day, I wanted to create a google document of resources for our homeschooling community to share stuff that we have used with our kids, and I found it so hard to create it......because I found it hard to segregate things into areas anymore, but had to for convenience! As I was trying to put down areas, I found my conditioned mind so good at finding names - like wildlife, science, geography, art and craft and so on. But I found it very difficult and almost impossible to put down stuff under one area, as they were all so inter-connected anyway! I felt that I was limiting a resource to one area by doing that, which is not the way things work in life.

I find it hard sometimes to answer questions now from family and some friends-"So is he writing?" or "What about math?" or "Does he only play with Lego all day?" or many other such queries. The difficulty for me is not so much in explaining things to those who ask, but rather to make them understand how much we are missing out on, just because we choose to define, label and box learning and living. I often feel inspired to share the joy of living and learning without any boundaries, the way it is for us now......but I do know that somewhere someone is making connections, labelling, defining.

But why should we attach so much importance to "learning"? Why should we be so concerned about what someone is learning, why, how and where? Why can't we just go along with the flow of life and just live.....just be....moment to moment?....These are my questions I am beginning to break free of definitions in my head more consistently now.

For now, I often dream of a world which would start all over again afresh...I imagine and wonder how it would be without anything called school and learning and a whole lot of other predetermined stuff clogging our minds. A world where everyone starts off all over again with a clean slate - with a mind that is expansive.... that is hard to confine. I wish for a world when all of us could experience the miracle and joy of just living in the moment......and enjoy it for just what it is.......

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

A dance of two souls

Raghav has explored friendships in phases - just like everything else that he has.  His first friend was a little girl we met at a park many years ago (when he was three I think), and then realised much later, that she went to the same school that he went to! They got along like strawberries and cream (Raghav's favourite dessert!). He was soon in her class. Since then, she has been Raghav's best and very special friend. Later, Raghav made a few more friends at school - mostly girls - as I think they were more gentle and docile. But she always had a special place in his heart.

I remember how Raghav was very troubled by what happened at school one day with her and shared it with me. His teacher had chided him for hugging this friend of his in the playground, and forced them to sit apart. A funny reaction indeed to two small kids who were but expressing their love. Raghav cried all night asking me: "...what is wrong in hugging someone you love? You, appa and I hug each other at home because we love each other. I love her.....why can't I hug her then?"

Once he left school, Raghav took a long time to start exploring friendships again. He enjoyed and wanted the time for himself - alone. Initially, I was worried and often tried to coax him to go down to play, just so that he would see other kids and be with them. Very soon, I realised, that just like everything else with him, he had to decide and choose what to do, when to do it and how to do it. It had to come from him - the need and the means to have friends.

When I let go of all expectations and my fears of how I wanted him to be or not to be, I found him breaking free and opening up. A child who was labelled shy and aloof took on another avatar altogether! He came up with novel ways of getting to know and making himself known to other kids in our neighbourhood. He dressed up as Santa long before it was Christmas, doling out gifts to all the kids. I realised yet again that here was a child who knew what he wanted and how to get it!

Then, he made friends with a boy who was much older, but soon started understanding that he was not listening to him, but rather overpowering him. So he moved away on his own slowly. He came up to me one day and said :"Amma, I am so happy that N told me that he is not my friend anymore.....I was wondering how I was going to tell him that!"

Soon, he started playing with other kids off and on and made a few more friends. Exploring each one, has been a struggle - some more, and some less.....but all worth it. Now, I notice a pattern - there is a time when he wants company and finds his own ways of seeking that, a time when he wants to just be in his own space with his own self, and a time in between - when he wants to go back to a comforting, trusted friend. For, he has been by himself of late, after the deluge of people that he called over for Navrathri......we haven't stirred out of the house for more than a month now, except to go shopping for our groceries and stuff. But just two days ago, he mentioned his dear friend and said that we should call her over sometime as he wanted to show her something. I often wonder why he does this. I now feel that he is perhaps using her as his comfort zone to test his own skills or discover himself a little more....

She has been very special to him. He has wanted to keep in touch with her, even after we got out of the school. With all other friendships, he has maintained a distance and has never been so much at ease....but with this little girl, he has been himself. I find it amazing to watch both of them together.....much like two free spirits enjoying the space and energy between them......on the same wavelength.

They don't meet so often now, as she is busy with school and her mom has a little one who keeps her busy. But when they do meet, even if it is after a month or more, they take off from where they started last time.....with total ease and a warmth that has to be felt by being with them. That little girl has an understanding of my son that even I do not have sometimes. Her responses to him are filled with an empathy that adults often find hard to develop. I have not seen any other kid respond to his meltdowns, fusses and joys in sharing something like she has.

One day, some months ago, we took them both to the Planetarium. They had loads of fun together and chats together.....holding hands and walking together, without a care in the world....listening to each other......sharing jokes and facts.....huddling together in the car, watching the world go by.....sharing a snack...and dozing off together after a tiring was so beautiful to just be and watch - two children who filled each others' hearts and our hearts - with love. That day, in the car, on our way back I remember Raghav asking her: "So do you think you will get bored of school like me, one day?" :) "No I don't think so", was her answer. :)

Today, when he wants to meet her again after a few months now, I realise that she might have grown up.....her interests may have changed.....she may not want to play with boys so much anymore
...or listen to him go on about his Lego or trains! But there is a good chance that she might still feel the same way and begin to play with him again from where they left off last time. I wonder if it really matters. For she has been one of our angels from the Universe anyway - one who gave my son the space to be himself without any judgement....a space that is so rare in our world today. We do have a lot to learn from children.

I miss her giggles and their whispers of secrets.....the soft and gentle tunes she tried on the keyboard.....the moments when she put paint to paper to create little masterpieces, quietly egging Raghav on with his.....her sulking when they had a little disagreement , and Raghav cajoling her to get back....I miss her running with gay abandon and Raghav trudging along....or whooshing down the slide together....and enjoying an evening meal....

While she gave my son the space to be and discover himself, our home perhaps gave her the space and time to just be too. I am grateful to the Universe for these precious gifts that we get through children.

It has truly been a privilege for me to be a witness to this dance of two souls!

Monday, November 26, 2012

Man on a Mission!

Some months ago, Raghav spent days exploring the solar system and Universe. We found an exciting website that he liked very much. You can check it out here.

He spent days checking out the website on his own - finding out facts about the planets, playing games, building rockets and laughing at the space jokes! And then, he decided that he wanted to paint the solar system! That was a surprise to me as he had not shown much interest in painting before. But this time, he was a man on a mission! He told me that he wanted to paint one or two planets every day and planned his whole week that way. Our outings, eating times and other chores were all worked out around his plan, for he did not want to budge till he had finished what he had set out to do every day. On many days, he would wake up in the morning and go straight to his easel to paint and be lost in that for an hour or more sometimes! It was fun to watch him enjoy what he was doing and creating.....and even more fun to listen to him weave a story about each one while he was painting, with all the facts and other things rolled into it! He kept talking about each one's core, how hot or cold they were, how Uranus also had rings like Saturn and so on. In his paintings, he was particular about some of those things too - like the rings of Uranus, the Giant spot on Jupiter (which was a storm - so he would change his tone of voice and his stroke accordingly!), the clouds over the Earth, and the solar flares and sun spots on the sun! He was also very upset that Pluto was no longer considered a planet and insisted that it was part of the family - at least his family!

Here are his paintings and creations of the solar system in different ways -





The Sun

Here is his own representation of the solar system using some sponge pieces and other odds and ends!

His representation of the solar system

And here is the model he designed and created all on his own from air drying clay and wire for orbits! He asked for help to bend the wire, which I did. I loved the way in which he added a key ring as the ring for Saturn! He also took care while making this and painting each planet, that they were proportionate in size......he thought about that a lot while rolling out each ball.

His solar system model

We also explored the Nasa website and discovered that there is a mission to Pluto. He keeps checking on that now and then to find out where the probe is currently. You can check it out here.

When we made a trip to the library, he would ask me to look out for books on the solar system and
pore over them when we got home - correlating all the information. And that is also when his interest for the programme on CBeebies started - Lunar Jim! It was simply amazing for me to see how a natural webbing was happening in his learning, when he followed his inner curriculum.

My learnings from my son

  • I realised that he would not stop with an area that he was exploring, until he felt that he was done
  • He read and assimilated the facts and the information on his own. He went back on his own to check on stuff he had forgotten or was not sure, and came back to me and shared what he had discovered
  • He created his own objectives, plan and ways and means of understanding and assimilating the information. He followed his inner curriculum.
  • He only needed an audience most times!

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Food For Thought - Part 2

Learnings from my son

Our homeschooling journey and the precious time that I had with my son to think, talk about, discuss, argue, listen and watch closely, opened my eyes to his world and his needs related to food. There was time to read up, experiment, ask questions and come up with ideas to test and rethink. There was time to watch each other and understand what our bodies needed at different times.

Food and health

We are all foodies in our family and enjoy a hearty spread whenever we can – sometimes at home, and when we eat out. We used to go out often to eat, till my son once developed a very bad stomach issue (Raghav has had stomach issues from when he was little) many months ago. He had severe stomach pain, very high fever and just screamed and screamed all the time. He refused everything, including water. He was not able to tell us much about the pain, nor could we figure out what the problem was. Those were helpless moments, and more so, because he was not someone who would go easily to the doctor and hated to have medicines. He would rather go with natural home remedies. We usually have to sit down and explain to him how we were worried, how we could not figure out what was wrong and so on. Finally he would agree to go to the doctor, but refuse to have all the medicines that were given. This time though, he wanted to go to the doctor immediately!
The result of this sickness was that Raghav started listening to his body more. He decided that he did not want to risk eating out till he felt ok about it; he did not want to go on holiday too till he felt ok; he thought about what he had eaten recently and where and what could have led to this problem; he also seemed to detoxify his body by cutting off all food for a few days, before getting back to eating. This time he made me understand that he really knew his body. Earlier, not eating for a day or more – not even comfort foods - would have bothered me a great deal, but this time I understood and allowed him to listen to his body. He was fine after a few days of starving and then had only curd rice for months!

Having given him the space to do what he wanted with food for many months, Raghav then agreed to come out with us sometimes to eat when we wanted to, on special occasions; but he would not eat. He would eat dinner at home and then come with us, bringing along his iPad to play on, while we enjoyed our dinner; and not once would he get tempted to eat even a little bit of what we were eating! That was some amazing lesson on self-control for us adults who constantly yielded to temptation!

It was around the time when he got very sick, that I also decided to stop all medicines that he was having – all Siddha – for constipation, general health and so on and just let him be. Everyone else in the family chided me for doing this all of a sudden. But I felt that I just had to do it. I must say here how my husband allowed me to do whatever I wanted. He did express his worries from time to time, but supported me unconditionally. That was a huge boost for me and Raghav had no problems for a long time after that.

It was Raghav again who got us into buying organic food and veggies, when we read about chemicals in food, GM foods etc. in a book from the British Council Library. His questions led us from one area to another and soon he was picking up stuff in the grocery store and reading the ingredients on labels – like “added flavour”, “added preservatives” and so on. That took us to adulteration in food and how to test for adulterants – we got a small kit that my father and his team of consumer activists had put together and tried out some experiments at home. We hardly use any chemicals now at home for washing clothes and cleaning too!

Choosy about food

With a diabetic husband and a son who was chooy about food and the way it is made, and one who could not keep to externally set mealtimes, it was natural that I had to always be prepared with food, wherever we went –  in the car, on a long trip / holiday, on the plane, and just about anywhere that we went outside of home! This has been the case from when Raghav started eating solid food. I have always carried some food in my bag! It has been reassuring for Raghav to know that food was always available, and for me to know that I did not have to go in search of food when he needed it.

Raghav’s choosiness about food have often been more during times of stress – sometimes the stress factor is something that I have not figured out and neither has he. But I know from watching and being with him that there is something that gets to him sometimes. These are some of the quirks (for want of a better word) that we have discovered :

  • He likes to use his own plate, glass, spoon and fork at home and sometimes elsewhere too. So I usually carry some of those wherever I go!
  • He does not like one kind of food touching another on his plate – so if he is having more than one side dish, then each one has to be in a separate cup
  • Once he uses a cup or plate to eat something, he will not use it again for another thing until it is washed
  • He does not like to eat with his hand too much and needs to wash his hands immediately if they get dirty
  • He loves to eat crunchy stuff but not so much gooey stuff 
  • If there is a crowd, he likes to find his own quiet space to eat alone
  • He will decide what to eat or not just by looking at it and smelling it from far
I have realised over time, that these are what make him unique and what he is. I have not tried to “work on” or change any of these in anyway, but rather accepted them as parts of my child and moved on. We have always found ways of working with them and around them somehow, in any situation and I am thankful for that.

Watching TV / Listening and eating

This was something that my mother started with him, when he was very young and I have held this against her until I asked Raghav recently one day as to why he wanted to watch TV and eat. He replied very matter-of-factually, that watching TV helped him eat better. That was it. That was the moment when I let go completely of the control I had over this.

There were times when I was inconsistent in this as I was not sure if it was helping him – he would take hours to finish his meal sometimes, and then ask me to feed him. But I realised later, that those times were few and far between and  times when he was perhaps sleepy or tired.

I also once shared my fear with him – what he would do when he had to go to a place where there was no access to TV? He immediately brought me back to the moment and said:”Amma, why are you thinking about that now? Don’t worry about that now. I know when I can’t watch; I will find something else to do then.”

I now am content with this explanation:  Just as some kids are able to concentrate better on their reading or listening when they are listening to background music, my son perhaps is able to enjoy and partake in the food experience better, when he watches something. I just have the feeling that this is something to do with how the senses balance out inside.

So, can he eat without watching TV when we go somewhere? He can sometimes, but he likes background music playing when he is eating (like in a restaurant). If none of these are possible, then very often, he asks to be fed – which we do quite willingly now because we understand his needs. Sometimes we take the iPad, iPod with headphones, a book or a mobile phone along so that he can do or listen to something while he eats. It is not such a big deal for us anymore, because we know as parents that our son does know how to eat by himself, and that he is definitely not going to be asked to be fed forever!

We have found out through this process, that he actually knows how much he has eaten and is able to stop (he never over-indulges) when he has had enough, knows what he has eaten, what he doesn’t like or like, much better when he has been allowed to do something while eating.

When guests come home and he has to watch TV and eat in the hall, we just politely request the guests to move elsewhere to chat with us. Earlier, we used to stop him from doing this when people came over.

Listening to one’s body

Earlier I thought that my son did not know when he was hungry and which foods his body needed or liked. Many a time, I even felt that when many sensations - like going to the loo, hunger, feeling tired and all came together, he would get very irritable, as he would be confused. So, I would use humour then to describe what was perhaps going on inside – different parts of his body fighting about which was more important, and that would work like magic most times! He would figure out what he needed to do.

Sometimes he would get so engrossed in something like building with his Lego or on the iPad that he would not stop when he was hungry, and then later when he did, he would be so hungry and irritable, that he would have a huge meltdown. So I often kept reminding him to eat. And that was the trigger factor I think, because he did not like the external control and reminder. We tried all kinds of things from alarms, to notes to ringing a bell – all non-verbal methods. None of them worked for more than a week at the most!

Then I realised, that it just had to perhaps come from within – from him, not from me or anyone else. And so, we just let him have a free hand in deciding when to eat. There were times when that worked, and times when it didn’t. But we could not do anything but patiently wait for him to figure it out on his own. What we did was to hold him in those moments and get him to think about what was happening inside, name the feelings and so on. That helped a lot.

Raghav then started self-talking when he was in those situations and figured out what to do. That became more consistent. Soon, he started telling me what foods he thought were upsetting / “bothering” his stomach (as he would say). He was a child who disliked rice, sambar, curd etc. from when he was little and preferred only rotis. Suddenly he said that he did not want rotis any more and wanted only curd rice with vegetables. So for months together he ate just that. Then he stopped eating noodles all together as he felt that it did not feel good. He ate only pasta, bread, semiya, rava. I could not understand how he could eat all that but not rotis, as they were also made of wheat. He then told me that it was something about the way it was made or cooked that bothered him! 

Then a few months ago he stopped eating curd rice altogether and started having ragi in different forms; and he stopped eating all other fruits which he had always eaten from when he was little, and started eating only apples, pineapple and strawberry (his favourite fruit!). Now he hardly eats any fruit – just a little apple now and then, or fruit salad when I make it (but with only the fruits that he likes in them). I realised that perhaps even his food choices worked in phases like everything else!

Even drinking water which was an issue with him became a non-issue once he started listening to his body. He would ask for a glass of hot water and down it immediately with a glass of cold water from the fridge! He would suddenly ask me to give him hot “tulsi water” (tulsi leaves and some other herbs boiled in water) if he felt he was getting a cold. He would also not drink water at all for half a day or very little water in a day and then keep pouring out glasses of water for himself the next day. But he was fine. The minute he had little difficulty in going to the loo, he would say that he needed to drink more water and then go get some!

Along with him, I too started listening to my body. I started understanding that I was most prone to getting irritable or angry when I was hungry. So from then on, I would not wait for him to come to eat with me. I would just tell him that I was hungry and go on and eat. Suddenly, my “moments “of anger too came down, and if for some reason I was irritable some time, Raghav would come up to me and say “Amma, are you sure you are not hungry? I think you must be, because you are getting angry!” Slowly, he started reminding his dad too about listening to his body and eating when he needed to.

Food and Emotions

I had always thought eating as a family was important and it was to me, because since childhood, I had often come home from school to an empty home. Many a time, as my parents were hardly home and mostly at work, my sister and I would go off to my aunt's place to get some hot snack after school. I got my share of food, but missed a meal made with love. I believed that eating as a family was an expression of love.....and I kept looking for that with my husband and child. It was a dream that was hard to fulfill for reasons not known to me then, but now I understand. I understand that I was holding onto something that I thought was very valuable to me and not accepting what was. My son liked to eat alone many times, or wanted to watch TV and eat (which I did not like so much). My husband too had spent most of his growing years eating alone for whatever reasons.

Hema's words about not adding emotion to food, hit me strong and hard! It stirred me up from inside and I suddenly understood what I had to let go of. That was it. I stopped asking for us to eat one meal atleast as a family. I just accepted what was and then there was peace. Now, we often eat together watching something on TV and sometimes, when I consider myself very lucky, we even eat a meal together at the table - just the way I wanted it to be!

I started then to ask myself many questions - why do we wait for each other to eat; why do we have social niceties like asking guests or elders or even men of the house sometimes to eat first (while we die of hunger!); why do we ask kids to finish their meals first; why do we feel that that is THE way to bond over food? Why can't we just be - like animals and birds - just go in search of food when we are hungry and just eat?! WHY DO WE ADD SO MUCH EMOTION TO SOMETHING AS BASIC AS FOOD?

Right now, in our family, each of us just eats when we need to! We don't wait for each other unless we really want to or need to. And life is much more peaceful this way.

Food can be fun

Although Raghav loved food, I don’t think we really gave him a chance to enjoy it as an inherent part of living, only because of our fears about his health and well-being. But once we loosened the rope on that by starting to let go of our fears, he started enjoying his food even more. He suddenly took out the Tarla Dalal recipe book that I had got him ages ago and pored over it day after day, reading out recipes and goading me to cook this and that. He helped find recipes, read out ingredients, looked to see if we had them, helped me cut veggies and mash potatoes, set the timer on the microwave and started creating more recipes of his own. Things that were once few and far between became almost an everyday affair.

Once Raghav had asked me for onion bajjias that I made for him. He sat down relishing every bite, and suddenly showed me how the onion rings actually formed a simple but beautiful puzzle – of concentric rings! At once he stopped eating and started arranging them according to size, got me to take photos of him doing every step of the puzzle, carefully picking up each piece without breaking it!
The onion puzzle

Then, he would stop by at the kitchen counter in the middle of his usual banter about something that he had built and what it could do, and admire how a baby corn, pomegranate, or peas were so beautifully packaged!

While he was helping me cut vegetables, he would carefully pick out the capsicum seeds and ask me to keep them and plant them to grow new plants. That was how he got us into kitchen gardening! Soon we were buying or saving seeds and planting our own veggies. Today we have a little garden where we grow coriander, pudina and methi and are waiting for our home-grown bhindis!

I have always tried to make food interesting for Raghav by making dosas of different shapes, cooking a variety of food, and trying to get him involved by choosing the menu for the day and so on. Raghav enjoyed making gol-guppas with me and eating them too! He loves chaat and can make a meal out of it. He invented his own chaat sandwich recipe too sometime ago. You can read it here.

Raghav constantly challenged me by asking for complicated shaped dosas like a truck with headlights, a sail boat and even a World Cup dosa when we won the cricket World Cup! Recently we also made  "noughts and crosses pizzas"!

Noughts and crosses pizza
With whole wheat bread

World cup dosa!

Suddenly food became a work of art and a celebration!

Looking within and letting go

Until now, my experience with food choices and control was much like flying a kite! In the beginning, I was scared that something would happen to the kite and so held on to the string so tight, that it just would not lift off into the air even! It did not do what it was supposed to do by its nature. Then, when I overcame that initial fear, my worries of how long it would stay up, the wind direction and other factors started affecting me and how I controlled the string. It was only when I stood confidently, trusted myself and the kite, and began to enjoy the process, was I able to let the kite fly in the open sky with freedom and abandon and enjoy its flight!
This last straw of letting go of all fears related to food and gaining in confidence, by looking more within me, happened when I watched the videos made by my friend - on food and her unschooling journey. That was the inspiration for me to let go completely!

You can take a look at her videos here: 

She and her kids inspired me so much, that I let go of all control over food with my son almost overnight! I realised where I was making a mistake with my son. I looked within and found my answer. The time was ripe……not because I decided that it was,   but because the Universe decided for us! And I can say that with confidence, because everything kind of fell into place so magically.

Just a few weeks before she put up those videos, Raghav was sick again when we were travelling with my husband on his work-trip. It was again an issue with his stomach. He was in pain again, screaming and crying and bundling up. But he had not eaten anything the whole day in the car and was only lying down. We could not think of what could have upset his stomach so much. That night he started running a very high temperature that would keep coming off and on and we got very worried. With a lot of cajoling, he finally agreed to go to a doctor there. She examined him and said that his throat was badly infected and put him on antibiotics. I felt that was very strange as he had no symptoms at all of a strep throat otherwise, except for the high fever. There was no sign of any sore throat, pain, irritation, cold or cough – nothing. That got me thinking a lot and I felt somehow, that it must have been an allergic reaction of some sort.

That was when I watched Hema’s video and suddenly I knew what I had to do! I just had to let go completely and trust and listen to my child, who was the best judge of his body. So that was what I did.

I cannot even say in words how thankful I am for getting the right messages at the right times in my life through someone. It happened yet again this time and I am so elated about it! When I shared what I had learned with Raghav and what I thought I had to do, he was happy too, and we haven’t looked back ever since!

These days Raghav is into exploring foods that he had not shown interest for in all these years, like salads, tacos and wraps. He has started eating cheese (especially mozarella), stopped eating many fruits that he used to and started tasting few pieces of orange (he never liked any of the citrus fruits before!) and a little pomegranate.

Today Raghav is enjoying the variety and surprises that “Monkey Platters” bring to him! We explored Sandra Dodd’s site on this and now make up our own.  We don't make them all finger foods as Raghav does not like to eat with his fingers too much! I enjoy putting it together, and he loves digging into them! I think it is just what we needed with Raghav’s need for variety, small helpings and not wanting to stop what he was doing to eat. The platters have been a godsend to us!

You can take a look at what we put together here:

We now do not say anything about his eating and have just allowed him to be – trust him completely! And it has been fairly easy for me now to do that, which is why I feel that the Universe has timed this for me!

Another interesting thing that I realised was that what was stressing me out or making me feel anxious about what he was doing was this – that his breakfast times were almost lunch times, lunch times were early evening and so on! So I figured out a simple and yet most effective way to get out of this myself – I just stopped giving mealtimes names like breakfast, snack, lunch or dinner! Instead, I just tell him – “Ok, so you are hungry now….so what do you want to eat?” I just say the word “food” in my head every time he wants to eat something! And lo and behold, my anxiety vanishes! It really has been that simple and so funny that a mere name could have caused so much anxiety!

Today, it has been more than a month and a half, and Raghav has had no stomach issues at all (touch wood!), eats heartily while watching his favourite programme on TV (we laugh heartily watching Lunar Jim), knows when he is hungry and asks for food, hardly asks to be fed and acknowledges every little effort on my part to cook something new. I cannot ask for more than that can I?

Is there a worry as to whether he would be able to adjust to a new place and new or different foods from what he has been used to now? Absolutely not. He has shown us time and again, that if he is given the space he needs at home - whether it is to do with food, emotions, playing, watching or whatever else, he can draw energy and confidence from that space when he needs it.

So then, I believe now that food is like anything else that we have to live with. As long as our mind, body and spirit are in balance and harmony with each other with respect to food, I guess we will be healthy and happy.

Today, I am enjoying flying my food kite – the wind direction could not be better, the weather is perfect as it is, I know my kite…..I smile with confidence and a new-found belief in my son and the Universe – yet again!

Letting go!

Food For Thought - Part 1

Looking back today on our journey so far, it does seem like food had a major role to play in our finding a way out of the school system. As a mother, I used to get very worked up when Raghav would not eat anything before he left for school, or he would eat very little after a mammoth effort on my part. I cannot imagine now, the things I did to get him to eat something every morning! I bribed him, threatened him, fought with him, got angry over it…..because it bothered me a lot as a mother that he was not getting his nourishment and enjoying his meal…..but I was not doing anything to make him feel better. Today I realise what a negative experience food has been for him – all because I could not think of a better way to fit into a predetermined schedule that he had in school. Nor could I think of an alternative to school at that point in time.
I am however, thankful to the Universe for showing me the way through my child and friends, to help me retrace this journey – re-live all the tears, helplessness and hope - to make food the nourishing and enjoyable experience that it should be, for us today!

So join me as I retrace the path that we followed until where we are today.....when unschooling has touched every possible aspect of our lives, including food!

Food wars and the early years

I breast-fed Raghav till he was almost 1 year and six months. That was the only time perhaps that I listened completely to my baby for his nourishment needs. My gynaecologist told me not to feed on demand after a few days and asked me to get him into a schedule even for breast feeding. But I did not listen, because somehow I felt that that was not right. I could not bear to think of my baby crying in hunger or thirst and deny it the only nourishment it could get then. So I followed my heart and my instinct. Raghav’s pediatrician however encouraged me and insisted that I breastfeed him as long as possible. I did until it was “time” to wean him off. People around me suggested a number of ways to do that, none of which sounded right to me – from disappearing for a few days so that he would “forget”, to being firm with him and saying no, to giving him a special cup filled with cow’s milk every time he asked to be breast-fed and many other ways.
That period was very stressful for me, as in my heart I could do none of those, and I did not know any better. I tried many things and none worked. Finally, I just let him cry his heart out in front of me one day, held him close to me, and patiently suggested alternatives. He would not take any alternative and chose to remain hungry. This happened for three days! At the end of it, he stopped asking to be breast-fed and refused to drink any other form of milk! I should have realised then what my son was made of – he was made of an indomitable spirit and strong will that no one else could break. 

As I write this today, even after all these years, my eyes well up and my insides churn as I relive those heart-wrenching moments that made me into a demon of sorts…..moments of despair when I thought myself unfit to be a mother. Today, however, I am ready to share my story here, because I have forgiven myself for what I did in ignorance. I would love to find out and hear other parents’ stories of how they weaned their children -  if they just gradually moved on to other foods without any effort to wean – things that I did not know and no one guided me about.
I gave Raghav choices in food ever since he started eating semi /solid food……and for that I am thankful to have found an amazing pediatrician, who showed me the way patiently and with understanding, during the first year of his life. Raghav was always clear with his choices of food – he liked variety, but would only eat what he wanted……the only thing he really did not like was milk – and I forced him to drink that, only because I listened to everyone in the family around me instead of listening to him. A baby not drinking milk?!”– that was unheard of in my family! Raghav hated milk, but I persisted for a long time - not giving up, because I feared that that would make him unhealthy or weak. I also don’t like milk and was forced to drink it as a kid. Now, was I redoing something that someone else did to me in my childhood because that is what I knew, or did I fear that my child would turn out like me and not like milk too? Perhaps it was both. And for these reasons, I have been a demon to him many times! Poor kid!
As a mother, I knew when my child was hungry or sleepy or uncomfortable for some other reason by instinct. I had never really interacted with or handled babies before, but I just knew what my child wanted or needed at different times. But somewhere along the way, I lost that. I lost it to my insecurities, my lack of self-belief and my conditioning. So, instead of being tuned in with my child and his needs, I tuned in to what people around me had to say about bringing up babies. I started listening to them about getting my child to follow routines for sleep and food, develop regular eating habits, and eat only certain things at certain times and so on. They would tell me to give him lunch at 11am or dinner around 6pm and then put him to sleep; say that I had not fed him enough if he did not sleep well at night; that he should have milk from a bottle as perhaps he was not getting enough breast-milk; and so on. They perhaps shared what they knew and had gone through as parents. The only difference here however was that the child was different! No one saw that, including me! All of us put him into the same slots as other babies, wanting him to stick to the usual schedule of eating and sleeping. That was the beginning perhaps of my food wars with Raghav.

Food wars and school

When he was in school, Raghav would usually wake up late, and I would get into a tizzy trying to run against time - that just would not stop, except for Raghav of course! Every morning almost, I would feed him (rather stuff it in!) his breakfast – as much as I thought was enough, to last him until lunch time when he got back home. Many a time, my husband dropped him off at school on his motorbike because that was a quicker way of getting through traffic in the morning (Raghav was always late for school as he took his own time to eat!) and Raghav loved the bike ride. He would however make his father stop alongside the train station on the way to watch the electric trains go by, however late he was for school! For us it was a race against time every single day!
Most days I would be so worried as to what he would do there hungry, as he would not have eaten much in the morning; nor would he get much for snack (which they served). Most days he would come back home tired and very irritable……crying and screaming the minute we got home……sometimes he would cry himself to sleep and I would sit down feeling miserable and worried that my child went to sleep hungry. 

He liked hot food, but the food that I took for him to eat in the car after school did not remain hot and so he wouldn’t eat it. He would be hungry, but just would not eat. He would just cry and cry while I raced through traffic, driving like a maniac sometimes! But he would not show any emotion at school; he would wait till we got to the car or home before venting it all out! And this cycle would repeat itself day after day……until we could not take it any longer and finally broke free.
My worries and conflicts then were these:  
  • Why should food be a reason for almost war every day with my child, instead of it being a happy, nourishing experience? 
  • As a kid who was used to choices at home, how would he eat the snack that the school served him, if it was something that he did not like? Then, would he have to go hungry for no fault of his?
  • What learning or interaction would or could happen when a child was not comfortable with his bodily needs not being met? 
  • How can we look at extrinsic motivation or punishment when it comes to food, when it is a basic survival need? 
  • How can all children eat the same kind of food at the same time, in the same way, when each one is an individual with his own set of likes and dislikes?
They were questions that burned inside me and perhaps worked on me in my subconscious, to precipitate our decision to home school our son. But my son had already made it easy for us and decided that he did not want to go to school – long before we did! I still remember vividly the day I told him that we had had a chat with the teachers in his school and that they were not willing to be flexible with certain things, and that we were going to go with his decision. He said to me: “Amma! You finally decided!”

Food and Transition to growing without school

Not going to school was a choice made by my son, much before we did, and so the transition to growing without school happened quite easily for him. One of the first things that he decided he did not want. was a structure to the day for anything, including eating, and that stands till today. Growing without school brought with it a lot of freedom for him and us, but because I was still tied to my conditioning in many areas, it was difficult for me to trust my child completely in everything and let go of all control, all at once. This was most difficult when it came to food.
Some of the things that changed immediately were these:
  • Raghav started sleeping better and was generally more relaxed and less irritable.
  • He started enjoying his food more – he could watch TV and eat – something that he enjoyed doing, as there was no external schedule or time frame to stick to.
  • He ate less frequently – three big meals a day usually and knew what he wanted to eat.
  • He started unlearning some things that he had formed ideas about at school about food – like oily/fatty foods make your insides stick together (!), non-vegetarian food makes you more healthy and strong, junk food like pizza and pasta are unhealthy and so on. These ideas that had somehow got into his head, made him avoid these foods all-together, out of fear. 
We spent a lot of time together learning more about these things and redefining some for ourselves. We made pizzas with whole wheat flour and lots of different vegetables that he liked; we went looking for whole wheat pasta in grocery shops; we read up and discussed about non-veg food vs veg food (with examples like how my grandma who lived till she was almost 90 ate only rice, dal, sambar, curd and veggies, hardly fell sick and took care of herself till the end), about fatty foods and how they get digested, the importance of using up the energy that you get from food with exercise and activity and so on.

Food choices and control

Once we started to home school, one of the first things that I stopped forcing him to drink was milk. We had the time to watch and listen to our bodies more, and the more I watched him, I thought there was a pattern to his drinking milk and the stomach pain/  cramps he used to have. He used to crouch down holding his stomach and scream in pain. I talked to him about my observation and we decided to try and see what happened when he stopped his milk intake. The problem just vanished! No doctor helped us figure this out; we just figured it out ourselves.
And yes, I did give him choices in food, even before we started to home school, but I did also exercise some control over those choices (even after we started homeschooling)-

  • I decided what he could choose to have and what he couldn’t in some things – I controlled the amount of chocolate/ sweets he ate (fearing teeth issues) and he would embarrass me by asking the shopkeeper of the shop we regularly went to, for his usual gift (some candy or chocolate) every time!  Then, I bought chocolate for him and kept it at home, but would ration it out to him, and he would go back to asking the shopkeeper every time!
  • I decided when he could have food and when he couldn’t – although we did not have any schedule or routine for ourselves once he stopped going to school, I could not let go of this timing for food completely – especially when I got tired towards the end of the day and he wanted a late night snack. I would allow him his freedom at other times, but at night, I would persuade him to eat his dinner early because I thought that food eaten very late would not get digested properly! I would also give him freedom to eat when he wanted to, but would have an outer time limit for all meals; getting worked up and anxious as we got closer to those times and he had not yet eaten.
  • I decided where he could have his food and where he couldn’t – like he could not sit on the bed and eat, or that he could not always watch TV and eat, simply because I feared that it would become a habit or that we would never eat together as a family (something which was very important to me).
  • I decided how much he should have – I did not trust him completely in that he knew how much he wanted and would most often ask him to finish what he had on the plate. This was because he would many a time stop eating, either because he was tired of eating on his own, or bored as it was taking too long to finish; or did not like what he was eating, and often, when I offered to feed him, he would happily eat. So I thought that he really did not know how much he wanted to eat, as he was always busy doing something else and eating. Then, I started controlling his watching TV and eating as I felt that that was the reason for his not eating enough.

    Funny, that now when I write this down, I realise how I thought I was giving him a lot of freedom, but actually wasn’t! Whew! I made so many mistakes as a parent! But I have learned a lot from these experiences with my child – often the hard way, for parenting is a journey like that anyway – one in which no rulebook or “How to” book can teach you whatever you have to know completely. Our children are our books. Our children are our teachers and messengers from the Universe. That is what I believe now completely.

    Do stay tuned in for Part 2.......coming up very soon!