I have an eight year old autistic child and a five year old typical. As every fellow parent of a special child, I was at my wits end trying to find the missing pieces of the autism puzzle. My son was labeled ‘high functional’ but couldn’t engage himself when left free without external stimuli. His vocabulary was huge and he always got his spellings right but couldn’t make meaningful conversations. He could cycle, skate, ride a scooter superfast but couldn’t wash his face properly. He could read books but couldn’t comprehend a simple sentence or add single digit numbers. He seemed happy yet had a lot of stimming behavior and repetitive speech.
My meetings with many therapists and much research on Google fit to get a second Ph.D. left me still looking for answers. I was never able to connect the dots as to why even though my son seemed highly functional, he wasn’t practically functional.
My whole perspective of child development changed when I met Poovazhagan a.k.a Poo. He was able to fit all the missing pieces of the puzzle and I was finally able to make sense of why the gaps prevailed in my son. I want to explain those missing pieces as much as possible so that anyone reading this could benefit, however minuscule. My main realization was this – what I thought about child development and what I thought I was doing right for my child was not exactly how I was doing.
Poovazhaganhe told me to focus on three aspects; one, not to obstruct my child, second, to do only unstructured play and third to allow my child to explore. He told me to start with these and then we can move to other aspects.I was happy and thought to myself that this was going to be so easy! I told him, of course, I do all that already, and I explained how I did all that. Poo was quiet.
As days passed and as I had many conversations with him and other fellow parents is when I realized no, I thought I did but I do not follow any of those. Let me tell you a story to illustrate this.
One day I decided to start a small home garden. I took the kids shopping, we bought all that was necessary; soil, plants, pots and came home excitedly. Then I told the kids to put the paper on the floor so that the floor doesn’t get dirty. When they wanted to touch the mud, I told him to wait, so that I open the bag of mud and mix it properly with the fertilizer. They were the greatest spectators not troubling mommy one bit. Now once the soil was ready, I told kids to put the mixed soil into the pots, then slowly keep the plant inside the pot, then put more soil and then be careful not to overfill the pot, and not spill any mud on the floor, and then decorate with seven or eight stones, and yes they carried out all the steps so well. I felt great. I had achieved three things, did not obstruct, did an unstructured activity, and allowed my child to explore a new activity, so all the three boxes were checked.
Everything was right right right isn’t it? Totally wrong!! I saw the video of our activity. I watched the video again and again and yet again. And then I cried. I cried a lot. It was only then that I realized that I obstructed my children’s thoughts, I designed the whole activity for them and I no way let them explore because I let them do only what I wanted to do so that the goals I had for the activity were achieved.
Fast forward six months and now this is how I would do the same activity. I would go to three or four different nurseries leisurely without hurrying and letting the kids take their own time choosing what they want to plant, which pots they want to plant in. When I go home I wouldn’t say anything. If any of them showed interest to plant, then I would just assist by maybe helping them open the soil packet if none showed interest, then I would start slowly doing it myself and then wait for my child to show an interest. I would let them plan and handle everything. I wouldn’t care if they dirtied the whole house. I wouldn’t care if they put the plant or soil correctly in the pots, all I would care is how much they have observed how plants are grown and how much they would try to do that themselves, what other things would they try with the soil.
Would they put the soil inside other objects other than pots? Would they want to put it on the floor and roll on it? Would they want to mix water and make dosas out of it? Would they want to just shove it in the commode and block the commode? Do they want to cook something with it? I would only focus on what they would want to do and give them complete freedom to do it without giving instructions or prompt and without obstructing their thoughts and actions.
From this experience of mine, I hope you can realize the difference too. When we do something with/for our children, it is not what we do, but how we do it is what matters. I want to highlight few key aspects that we don’t pay attention to because of which we unconsciously are a harbinger of doom on our kids.
The primary foundation of any relationship we have is the emotional connection that we have with the person. It could be with our spouse, our parent, our good friend, our children or even our dog. We are in an ecstatic state of mind when we are around the person we are connected with. The world feels more beautiful; we are more positive and feel confident about ourselves. We can be ourselves without feeling the need to explain our actions or emotions. We can understand each other completely. We can be our true self. We need to be this person for our child.
The connection permeates into everything that we do. I will try to make that clear in the rest of this write-up. A strong emotional connection totally changes how we feel; towards oneself, towards others, towards the environment. The way we experience situations in life drastically changes when we are connected.A very simple activity like eating lunch will make you feel that you have conquered Mt. Everest. You enjoy every bite of food better, each and every single moment better, your senses were more aware, you see the world differently, and most important of all you certainly are more happy.
We as a parent should provide this experience to our children.
Trust goes hand in hand with having a strong emotional connection with the child. Emotional connect is not the same as an emotional dependency. When we are emotionally connected, we don’t fear of it breaking.
Just imagine yourself being around the person you trust the most. Trusting that person gives us special powers. It boosts confidence, it removes fear, it removes anxiety. It replaces negative thoughts with positive ones. It opens the mind to new ideas and thoughts. Trust is what helps us feel safe.
When a child builds his trust on his parent is when he will explore freely. He will understand that when you react, that you are reacting to something genuine. When he trusts, he will have the confidence to try out new things he was afraid of.
We, being parents, very strongly believe that children need to be taught to eat, to play, to speak, to sleep, in fact everything. In reality, we don’t need to teach them because they know how to do these things much better than adults do, but we don’t allow them. If you have noticed, the greatest learnings happen when we try and fail and then try again. By teaching, a child learns just one way of doing things, the adult defined way, but there would have been a hundred different ways to do it. Children naturally are uninfluenced by external thoughts, processes, the rules set by the environment and hence have greater creative ideas than us adults.
Let me give an example of a simple task of opening a chocolate wrapper. The moment the child struggles, we immediately start teaching them how it has to be opened by telling it verbally, and then doing it and showing it to them. If we think carefully, we will understand that we really don’t need to do it. Why? Because the child who really wants to eat a chocolate will definitely find a way to eat it. Giving the child opportunity is important. Do we keep the child hungry enough to want that chocolate? Do we make the child wait to have the chocolate instead of giving it immediately when he asks? Do we allow him to take his own time to try to open it? Are we calm enough when the child is not able to open the wrapper and starts yelling? Will we allow enough such opportunities for the child, maybe hundreds, so that one final day he will open the wrapper himself?
We usually take the shortcut and will teach him to open. What happens in this method is that, the child will learn a specific skill to open one specific kind of chocolate wrapper. However, if we give him enough opportunities to do it himself without teaching, he will learn himself to open wrappers for any kind of chocolate wrapped in any way. This is just a small example of how we can take a small step to build a child’s confidence.
We underestimate the power our children possess. If we truly respect them we will not try to teach them everything, instead give them the space to explore, touch, feel, experience and formulate solutions themselves. And by doing this, we instill confidence in our children. By correcting them and instructing, we make them feel that they are incapable. By giving them the power to make decisions for themselves makes them aware of their abilities and gives them the confidence to push the limits.
We give importance to speech rather than communication. Especially if the child is high functioning, all other things go out the window and the focus is only on speech.
A child may be talking in grammatically correct and very long sentences, but if he is not able to observe and wipe your tears when you cry, he will not be able to connect to people in this society. A child may be able to complete a 100-piece jigsaw puzzle, but if he is not able to make a sandwich for himself or for a person he loves, he will not be able to show his affection for someone. A child maybe writing beautifully but might not be able to open a bottle lid by himself. A child maybe singing songs but if he doesn’t know how to make another person happy, can he have a meaningful relationship?
Communication is more than words. Communication is understanding others emotions and responding to it. Speech is a part of it, what we need to focus is on communication and not speech, because the speech comes naturally once communication comes in.
Every parent of a special child that I have spoken to including my family, and I mistakenly believed that speech development comes with teaching language and by teaching the right responses and hence need to talk to our child more, instruct our child more and question our child more. However, unless the child is emotionally connected to you and the environment, and is aware of the environment, whatever you talk or teach them just becomes rote learning because they do not understand it. They only repeat it and it is not contextual. Speech stays at a very superficial level and hence the child has difficulty understanding the questions, he has difficulty comprehending the questions, he had difficulty understanding new sentences, he had difficulty understanding sentences and questions framed in a different way.
What we need to focus on is first let the child connect to the parent, and second, to provide opportunities for the child to learn from the environment. No direct teaching of language is necessary, as the child will pick it up naturally from the person and environment he is connected to just like any other typical child.
This is what I have observed in my own son in the last six months, where I did not teach any language, reading, grammar directly. His speech has not regressed but has shown an exponential increase. His speech is more clear, his voice is not monotonous, his vocabulary has increased, his grammar has become better, his contextual language has tremendously improved and is easily making conversations.
I can say this very confidently that speech doesn’t come through teaching language or questioning but comes only when the child is aware and understands the environment and picks up language from the people around him.
The internet is loaded with information about autistic children having behaviors – flapping hands, hitting, spitting, and how we should use all strategies to get rid of them, by positive reinforcement, by distracting, by giving socially acceptable options. What Poovazhagan stressed is not to label anything as a behavior. Comprehending this is super important because we start looking at our child in an entirely different way the minute we truly understand this. When we start labeling a particular action as a behavior that has to be corrected, all our attention is negatively focused on it. We ignore everything else the child is. What happens if the child flaps, does the world end?
My son banged doors and flapped his hands. I would give him toys to hold so that he doesn’t flap. I would hold his hand when we went out so that his hands are occupied. I have scolded him and asked him to stop flapping so many times. Nothing helped, in fact, it worsened. When realization dawned and I stopped considering this as a ‘behavior’, I completely took it out of my mind. I focused on my child and not on what he can or cannot do. That connected him to me at a different level and that made him engage with me more. We just plainly had fun together doing simple things. Also, let him flap whenever he wants, in fact I too flapped with him sometimes and showed him different ways to flap. He was now truly comfortable with me. I became his safe zone. I didn’t even realize when he stopped flapping, it is zero now. And I really don’t care anymore.
Child development and upbringing have drastically changed over the years and now our modern society pressurizes to provide time to a child to play. Something that was very natural has been highly structured. Google bombards us with information on how to play with a newborn, a one year old, a two year old and so on. There are ideas of play to improve gross and fine motor skills, to develop planning, to develop social interaction. We adults read this and try to implement this on our child. An adult teaching a child to play, does this sound sensible? Who is the authority on the play? A three year old or a 30 year old?.
The child is unbiased by experience, and when it comes to playing, a child is the authority on it is a realization that is very important for us parents to make. Play should never be structured, but it should be child led. Child led play is to truly respect the child’s thoughts; giving a child space to think and act freely without boundaries.
Let me give you a simple example, which most kids would do unless we stop them. When a two or three year old wants to drink water, he would never want to drink it out of a glass. He would probably use a spoon or spill the water or a plate and lick imitate a dog he is fond of. But truly respecting his thoughts and let him do those things would be what we would call child led. It is child led because it is the child who is in control of his thoughts and is responding to it with actions of his own.
Play need not have a goal or outcome. Just trying something is play. Doing nothing if the child does not want to play. Lying down under a blanket is play. Sitting in a box is play. Tearing paper is play. Spilling water is play.
What happens if you don’t allow child led play?
We would have a child who gives up easily. Why? Because we have never let him experience the joy of achieving something himself, the power of intrinsic motivation. A child who will not have any ideas of his own. Why? Because he was never allowed to explore and figure out that there are 10 different ways to approach something. A child who will not be confident to face any difficulties and who cannot accept failure. Why? Because he was never allowed to fail and try, lose, try again and succeed. A child who will not know true joy, the joy of doing something with his own two hands. Why? Because when a child to taught how to play he is not thinking on his own but merely following instructions and will never know what it has to the joy of thinking and doing something on his own. A child who would not know that it’s okay not to have all the answers and solutions. Why? Because he was not allowed to try and fail and understand that we don’t need to win always. A child who has not had ample encounters with disappointments and who will not be able to handle real life disappointments. Why? Because he was not allowed the first hand to experience different outcomes of the decisions he made by himself and then face it himself. A child who wouldn’t understand patience and perseverance. Why? Because he was never given the opportunity to find out that if we are patient to try enough and do something consistently, we can obtain the desired outcome. Mainly, a child who would not be confident to make decisions and be the driver of his life. Why? Because he was never allowed opportunities to understand how he can steer his play to come up with outcomes.
I write so strongly the importance of child led play because I have seen drastic changes in both my typical five years old and special eight year old, when I allowed them to play without me planning it for them, and me instructing them how to play. I have to warn that this is not an overnight process; it would take a few months for the child to understand and realize that he is free to play when we adults made this change.
When I allowed child led to play, my kids started approaching the environment in very different ways. Even in the regular play areas, they started playing differently. They were no longer afraid to try new things and didn’t feel that they needed my permission to approach different play areas and take risks.
In our daily life, none of us are spending our days in a calm, neat and clean place that has the latest occupational therapy(OT) equipment. None of us do our daily activities in one room in one setting all day. Then why do we think that our child will learn in such a setting? Our daily lives are filled with trips to the grocery store, salon, shopping, different offices, interacting with different people in different environments. Then why do we subject our child to such an artificial setting and expect them to generalize to every kind of setting when the only exposure we have given them is one distraction free OT room?
When we provide a comfortable distraction free setting to a child in an OT room there has to be another phase where the child has to generalize, which is what takes the longest. With the child learning in a dynamic environment, the generalization phase is completely eliminated and the child gets naturally gelled into the environment. For him, inside the OT room and outside the OT room are one and the same.
When a runner trains for a half marathon, he trains on different surfaces, different weather conditions, different times of the day, different variations in speed, combines running with other strength training exercises. Why do we need to do so many variations for a run that would last for only two hours? It is because the mind and body need to be prepared to run in any adverse condition so that the mind and body do not break down but is ready for any new situation. This is what we prepare a child for, the reality of life and this can be done not in an OT room with ideal conditions but in the real world giving them exposure to as many variations as possible.
Another very related subject is how we let our child handle these dynamic situations. We want our children to handle dynamic situations, but what do we do when they react in a dynamic situation? We do not let them handle it. We take them away from that environment or try to teach them how to respond. This is very counter-intuitive and also goes back to the same fact I was talking about earlier regarding learning versus teaching; the importance of letting the child be in the dynamic environment, and learn from it themselves. Without original thoughts and problem solving skills, a child can never handle any new situation or any dynamic situation in their daily life.
It is very important to have realistic expectations from our kids be it autistic or typical.Just as every adult cannot become the President of a Country or the Captain of the Cricket team, every child too cannot be top of the class or be best at football. Expectations should be based on child’s level and child’s capabilities and not based on those of parents. We should strive for children to be individuals with their own thoughts and ideas and not a robot who is compliant and follows all instructions and behaves as per the needs of the adults.
We need to rethink our expectations from the child. We need to have expectations from a child’s point of view not from our point of view. A child is supposed to cry, make a mess and trouble. We think that this is adverse, but he it is part of his exploration. We cannot expect a four or a five year old to be sitting in a movie theatre calmly for two hours so that we the adult can watch a movie. We cannot expect a four year old to be dressed in uncomfortable clothes and go to a party and be fine. We cannot expect the child to be always okay with eating sleeping routines. A child is not a child when not exploring and when he is not clearly stating his demands.
Not having goals was one of the hardest transitions for me to achieve after I started working with my son with the guidance of Poo. When we see anything that we do with the child as an activity or something targeted and focused, as a task to be finished with a goal to achieve, the focus is so much on the goal that we unconsciously get into the teaching mode.
Taking the child to the park is usually associated with goals of teaching him to play skills, improving gross motor skills. Playing with sand is associated with the goals of sensory integration. Playing with toys is associated with teaching play ideations. Playing with paint is associated with making good meaningful paintings.
What do we parents naturally do when a child picks up a bottle of paint? We immediately give him a brush. We get the paper and teach him how to hold the brush, dip it in the paint, then do a painting on paper. Yes, the child after few attempts will learn one thing – how to paint on paper. What about the other things? What about the child finding out how the paint feels on his fingers. What about him using paint to paint different parts of the body and understanding his body better? What about him mixing the paint with water to understand that even the water can change colors? What about him painting on different surfaces other than just paper to understand that yes, paint can be used on many different kinds of materials in different ways and we don’t need to just paint only on paper?
Since our mind is focused on the one goal of achieving that the child learns to paint on paper, we get into the teaching mode and block the child of hundreds of other ideas he would have experimented and created.
We all want immediate results and hence we follow the easier route, the teaching route. This will make us just teach that one particular skill to the child but will not allow the child to explore, and when the child is not allowed to explore, there is no learning happening in a holistic way but intermittently and we will see a lot of gaps as the child grows up.
Now when I do anything with my child, I do it just to do it, for the fun of it, for giving him an opportunity to explore and not to teach. This approach takes definitely much longer for the child to understand and express, but I would prefer my child to draw an ugly stick man by himself rather than a beautiful picture of a man that I taught because it would have come entirely out of his mind and not mine.
How we parents react to situations impacts the kids in a way much bigger way than we can imagine. When my daughter spilled something on the floor I immediately got angry and asked many questions, why she spilled, why can’t she be careful? Her face would contract and become tense and definitely, her confidence dropped. I am sure she could not understand why I am scolding her. This translated to her being overly aware of her actions and god forbid something spilled by mistake in the future she would get horribly tensed and look at me for my reaction.
After my interactions with Poovazhagan, I realized that I was completely wrong in giving such a reaction to my child.So I stopped giving such a response. When she looked at me when she spilled something, I told her it’s okay or didn’t say anything. Instead, I just let it be and later clean with a washcloth and mop.
Now after many months of doing this, when something spills she will not look at me, but she herself tries to clean it. Now, this is not a behavior that I taught her, but since I didn’t react negatively and let her play with water as she wants, and clean it without actually telling her to do it, she observed me and learned herself.She was calm because I was calm. Another time, she spilled nail polish on the floor and she tried to clean it up her usual way and it didn’t work, so she brought a utensil scrubber and scrubbed it and later realized that maybe adding soap will work better so she went and put some soap on the scrubber and started cleaning. Now all these learnings she did herself because she didn’t have to fear anymore of trying new solutions.
The reality is that no child would purposely want to spill water, they are figuring out things and in the process of experimenting they do such things, which actually have no negative impacts other than just needing to clean up, but we definitely tend to overreact. Imagine how much they can learn and do if we don’t react negatively to matters that are minuscule, that drop their confidence levels, that blocks the learning opportunity!
My daughter refused to go to school yesterday; she wanted to play at home with my son as he had a holiday at his school. During the weekend, my daughter promised she would not skip school the next week
While I was driving to work, my daughter called to tell me that she wants to stay at home. I just strongly told her no, that is not an option and she can’t skip school this week. I cut the phone after that without reasoning or giving explanations. In five minutes she called again and this time crying howling that she wants to stay at home and I told her the same thing as before and she immediately responded with yucky mama. I got a call a third time 10 minutes later and this time she called to say she is going to school.
When I went home that night, I was very tempted to take a chocolate for her but I didn’t want to reward her for going to school. I went empty handed and her reaction when I went home towards me was no different than any other day. It made my understanding clearer that being connected to a child doesn’t mean we need to do everything to keep them happy.
We as parents have the greatest power to make our kids emotionally strong. Which means, they understand the boundaries without losing their self-confidence. They understand that defeats are part and parcel of life which have to be handled to move ahead. They need to understand that not everything can be their way and that they have to adjust and consider others perspectives.All this can be achieved by providing our children the emotional support but yet being firm about not doing things which are not appropriate. For this, I want to also emphasize that there should be clarity that appropriateness is measured from a child’s perspective and not an adult.
What would I do when my child finished his meal? I will say oh wow Ahan you did a good job, and clap. Yes, kind of sounds silly. Yes silly because my son is hungry and needs to eat, so why do I need to praise him and give him an external reinforcer for doing a natural task of eating?
I did a lot of this before meeting Poo. I thought that this gave a positive motivation for my child to do better. In fact, he became so dependent on it, that whenever he did anything, however mundane, he looked at me for reassurance, for confirmation. All his actions were driven by the sole motivation of getting positive feedback from me and not for doing something himself.
I consciously stopped any kind of reinforcement. Needless to say, it was hard. Needless to say, my child kept wanting it. After many months he now doesn’t look for any kind of confirmation from my side. I feel that he has started realizing the joy of learning, exploring and doing something himself for himself.
A child needs to do something for oneself and not for others. Only then, there is the passion and joy of doing it. He has to do it to make himself happy and not others.Only then he will be motivated from within to sustain anything long term.
My son used to wake up at 6am and go to bed by 8pm. I had strict times for him to eat too – breakfast, lunch and dinner and two snacks. He wanted to sleep in one particular room with fan on, lights off, and all curtains and doors closed. This was his routine that I enforced since he was 3 months old. I had enforced this unconsciously to make my life easier so that I could go and come back from office according to my routine not thinking about how this would impact my child. I was getting by my day without any meltdowns because of my routine and so it was extremely convenient to me.
But, whenever my son faced with a different setting, he would get extremely agitated. If we were out late in the evening, he would get extremely cranky as he would want to go to sleep as soon as it got dark even if he wasn’t sleepy. As soon as mealtimes approached and the food was not available, he got distressed even if he was not hungry. He was fixated on the routine based on the times of the day rather than the need of his body. Of course, I was the reason.All this was because of my lack of understanding of the impact such routines would do to him.
I started making very small changes. I stopped giving him food and making him sleep unless he asked for it. And I took it very slowly. I didn’t force it on him but tried to make it as natural as I could. I stopped keeping alarms to wake up. I stopped looking at the clock. I kept making very small new changes in response to my son’s reaction without making him under confident, without losing the emotional connect with me. As he showed acceptance, I added another new small change; for example, sleeping in different rooms; one day in the bedroom, the next day in the living room, the next day in the kitchen.
After about six months of making these very small changes every day, my son is now able to sleep in any room in our house, in any kind of setting. He eats when he is hungry and sleeps when he is sleepy. It could be 6pm one day, 10pm another day, he chooses.
The changes my son showed are very small adjustments and changes, but it’s a big step towards not getting fixated at small things. We still have a long way to go in this regard, but it is important to understand how these little things add up. And it is extremely important to be aware of the child’s response and act accordingly, push, but just enough and take it very very slow.
If a child with autism diagnosis is verbal, then the child is commonly labeled ‘high functional’. This very strongly makes the parents believe that their child is doing much better than the non-verbal child and hence the child has to be placed with other normal children so that the child learns all things normal. This is a highly flawed logic. I say this because, in such a setup, the child will be under immense stress as he has to try and keep up with the crowd around him.
How would you feel if you are a regular employee put in a group of CEOs for nine hours of your day?
We want our child to learn from others which is a noble thought but if the child is not confident, doesn’t have his own ideations, is not flexible enough and has not developed dynamic thinking, he will not be able to learn in any kind of environment. Even if the learning happens, it will be very superficial rote learning with many gaps. There will not be end-to-end integration, no development of emotions or feelings and no true independence.
What a child need is not a normal or special setup, he needs accepting people around him. People who don’t want to fix the diagnosis, people who do not treat the child as having a diagnosis, but who treat the child as just a child.
When we are in an accepting environment, the focus is on people, relationships, and our surroundings. When we are in a sophisticated environment, we focus on the materials available, the food itself, not the taste of it, the size of the play area, not the play itself. The sophisticated environment can definitely give happiness, but it is very short term as we need to emotionally be connected to people to find long term happiness.
Toys are the worst inhibitors of creativity. Yes, you heard me right. Each toy comes with a specific purpose. A toy car is meant to be played as a car, a kitchen set is meant for pretending to cook, a musical toy is supposed to play some music when some buttons are pressed. Even the so-called open-ended toys like beads, blocks, still have some form of rigidity built into it.
Then what would be the best toys to give a child? No toys. Yes, you heard me right again. I say this because when children do not have access to the think-inside-the-box toys is when they come up with many different ideas to play with what they have around them. A utensil may become a drum or a space helmet. In contrast to this, if you give a child a space suit and ask them to do play pretend, what options does he have to pretend with it? The only option he has is to be a spaceman as that is what the space suit is made for. How are we allowing the child’s creativity to blossom? How are we allowing him to think?
Toys have to be open-ended. A cardboard box, which could be a house, a bus, a toilet, a bed, a school. A rope, which could be the snake, a garland, a skipping rope, a river. A blanket. A stick. A stone. A leaf. Mud. You get the idea.
In today’s world we horde our children with toys, clothes, non-stop activities. We want to give them things more than they need, we want them to be engaged continuously more than they need to be.
If we observe carefully, our child might have just had five favorite toys that he plays with every day. My son played with his train set, a few cars, a few airplanes, and read a few selected books, but my house was not less than a toy store. I had boxes and boxes of toys, puzzles, pretend play items in my house. Almost every room in my house was like a mini toy store. I thought the different toys give different opportunities to play, but it did exactly the opposite. My son played with the same toys over and over, and almost no new play ideas developed for months altogether.
When Poovazhagan asked me to get rid of all the toys I was exasperated. I thought it would immensely unsettle my son, and I did not want to cause him any distress. But when I observed carefully and realized that the play is really repetitive and my son is not thinking beyond and the play has stayed constant over many months, I decided to give it a try and got rid of 95% of the toys at home.
I was pleasantly surprised when my son didn’t show any signs of missing his toys. Instead, he started playing more physically with me and with the things in the house. He followed me to the kitchen and started helping me in the kitchen. He started climbing everywhere in the house which previously he was hesitant. He started exploring every nook and corner of the house which before he hadn’t paid attention. He was a whole new boy. The person who I thought had no play skills surprised me and showed another side of him which was totally different from what I assumed him to me. And all this exploration never existed merely because he was in the company of too many toys.
Yes we want to give the best to our children, but without understanding what a child actually needs, giving them materialistic things can actually be very detrimental to their well-being. It will shackle their mind and make them confined to thinking within very closed boundaries.
I have completely stopped buying toys for my son, instead, I provide him a variety of experiences, and most importantly, I give him my time.
My fastest learnings came from the group trips that Poovazhagan organized. We had short day trips and longer 4-5 day trips each of which came with the deeper understanding of child development.
I used to think how can a trip to a play area be different when I took my kids to play areas almost every weekend. I used to wonder how a trip to Goa can be so different when I have visited Goa with my kids almost twice a year for many years now. How can a visit to a park be different when I take my kids to so many different parks every weekend?
I understood only on my first long trip to Wayanad. It was three-day trip, two days of traveling in the bus with a group of about eight families and one day of sightseeing. The trip opened my eyes to very different aspects of understanding a child. It made me realize that what I thought were good for my child were not. My son did not know how to engage himself in the bus, he was scared to walk in the bus when the bus was moving. He wanted to sit in just one particular spot. He was agitated when he didn’t get food on time. He wouldn’t sleep if he felt sleepy on the bus. Now the importance of a group trip is that the dynamics become very complex when many people with different personalities and needs are in one closed space. In such an environment, there is a big need to understand each other and make adjustments that were not easy for the adults too.
The group trips are learning lessons to both parents and child, more so the parent. How to stay calm in situations, not in your control. How that it is not the end of the world if food is not available on time. How to stay in a closed confined space with many people. How to be flexible enough and have a good time because at the end that is all that matters.
The group trips are also opportunities for complete freedom for the child to be around accepting families. People who won’t judge by the way a child behaves. Children get an added advantage of interacting with many more personalities, many more children, and adults.
Group trips change individual routines into that of the groups’. Group trip changes a person’s individual preferences to that of the groups’. We are put in adverse new situations that are not predictable and also helps us reflect better to understand ourselves better to better help our child. Getting used to not having control of the routine is a hard one for adults to process. It helps us accept situations as presented and be okay with it.
My child should have ‘good sitting tolerance’ is one of the worst expectations one could possibly have from for a child
We want a three year old to sit and finish a puzzle. We want him to finish activity sheets. Imagine you being made to sit in a meeting for four straight hours without taking a break. Can you do it? Then how do you expect a three year old to sit for 15 minutes? It is definitely not realistic.
It is common sense that a child cannot explore when he is not allowed to move around in the space available to him. Many components of development are hindered, both physical and emotional.
We expect a child to wait patiently for a doctor’s visit. We expect the child to sit and watch two-hour movies in theatres. We expect the child to sit nicely in the car. By having such expectations and forcing the child to sit will just force him to do what is not natural to him and he will resort to other actions (maybe hand flapping, yelling) to compensate for the forced sitting.
Sitting tolerance will come naturally when the child is connected to his parent and the environment. My children will sit for hours with me with full attention cooking a meal or cleaning a shelf. Isn’t that what is important?
Every child goes to school and we want the same for our children. We want them to be with normal children and do everything normal because of our chase, our desire and our aspiration for our child to be normal. I thought that my child would learn faster and excel if he goes to school, and is amongst normal kids.
But after understanding child development from Poovazhagan, and when I started looking at everything from a child’s perspective, keeping a child’s emotional health in mind, I realized that sending the child to a school to learn to be like a normal child can be very emotionally straining. Why? The main reason being the child is in an environment surrounded by children who are very ahead in most of the abilities and the child is constantly trying to cope up. There is no way a child’s self-confidence can bloom in such an environment. And when there is no self-confidence and environmental understanding, there can be no learning happening, there will only be plain imitation.
I am not denying that the child should never be sent to school. Yes, a school environment will help to learn, but only when the child is equipped with the right tools; when he has developed emotional independence, dynamic thinking, executive functioning. Without these tools, sending a child to a challenging environment such as a school for eight to nine hours a day would be similar to sending a soldier to the battleground without any ammunition.
Reading and writing should come only after a child has developed emotionally independence and executive functioning. These are skills very critical of time and are hard to develop as the child grows older, and hence in the early years, all the child’s time should be spent to develop only those. Without these, the child cannot sustain in any environment. Specific skills like reading, writing can be easily picked up at any age and developed at lightning speed once the foundation is set right.
How often do we see children in messy dirty clothes these days? How often do we actually see kids dirty with mud as in the Nirma ads? These days we parents are obsessed with keeping kids looking clean and tidy. Clean and tidy is an antonym for childhood.
Before meeting Poovazhagan, I spent a lot of time dressing up my kids, and I paid so much attention to it that my children too started paying too much attention to it. My five year old wanted to match her clothes with her socks, hairband, clips. My children wanted to choose their own clothes to wear and they would get agitated if I chose something for them. My daughter always wanted to wear pink and during shopping would pick out only pink items.
The more we expose children to superficial items, the more they will learn to judge people only by their superficial qualities. The importance will be given to the appearance rather than feelings. Children will not explore and play freely worrying that their dress will get spoilt and dirty. The focus will be shifted away from the play.
Once I understood that children should not spend their time worrying about clothes, I stopped giving any attention to clothes and when I was dressing kids up, didn’t talk about clothes and stopped making it an important aspect of their daily functioning. Slowly my kids gave up paying attention to what they wear and now my daughter wears anything, be it my son’s old clothes, discolored and dis-figured clothes, but she wears something that she feels comfortable to play with.
My son went to daycare by the time he was 10 months old and the daycare insisted that I teach him to eat with a spoon. After that, I did not let my son touch food with hands, but let him eat with only fork and spoon. Then, he developed so many sensory integration and fine motor skill issues. Do you think they are related?
Yes of course. Eating with hand has in numerous benefits. Of course, a child learns how to manipulate different kinds of food and take it to his mouth, but most importantly, there is positive physical and emotional connection that is developed with eating, because of the child using his hands, which totally lacks when we use cutlery for eating. Because of this emotional connection, the child is able to explore more about his own body and his body’s needs.
We do not need any kind of sensory integration when we let our child use their body to the fullest when we let them touch anything, feel anything as they please. When they are fully allowed to use their body according to their wish, their body will function at an optimal level.
Lastly, but the most important for me as a parent is having a positive attitude towards life and our child so that he resonates the same feeling towards life and the people in his life.
Being positive does not mean always happy and enthusiastic. Being positive does not mean that my child will not have failures. Being positive does not mean that there will not be ups and downs in life. What being positive means, for me understanding the core of emotions and be able to handle it in a constructive way without hurting others. Being positive is making others happy with your thoughts and actions. Being positive is having the confidence to take life head on no matter what happens.
I am sure you all will agree that the core essence of living life to the fullest is being positive and having emotional resilience. Unless I project it, my child will not be able to project it, it is as simple as that.
First, let us try to understand what positive learning is. Letting the child cry and letting the child take time for it can be positive. Why? Because it teaches the child that emotions are necessary for normal functioning and the child learns to cope with the situation and learns to handle herself. Letting the child pour water on his own and let him spill is positive learning because it teaches the child how to balance, how to pour, how much water he needs, independence to drink water himself. Letting the child break cars is a positive learning because he is trying to understand the cause and effect, he is trying to do new things with the car.
We could go visit the same place but using the same place in different ways can be new learning opportunities.
Let me give an example how we can create learning opportunities. I took my kids on a day trips to Mysore. The first time I went, we took the train, then ate breakfast at the station, then took an auto to the Zoo, roamed around in the Zoo in a golf cart, then skipped lunch, had a milkshake and took the bus back home. The next time we went, we changed a few things. I went with another friend, we took the train, then ate breakfast at the station, then walked in the Zoo, went to the palace, packed lunch and ate on the train on our way back. I purposely changed a few things during the visit so that my son doesn’t think that, there is only one way to do things. Yes, kids can get fixated on very small things. Now when I go a third time, I will add a few changes. I will probably go by bus, not visit the zoo, but the something else. I will probably eat lunch at a new restaurant. By being conscious of your child’s reactions to an environment we can make every minute an opportunity to learn, an opportunity to experience something new. And the more varied experiences a child has, the more resilient he will become, the more ideations he will have, the less fixated he will be.
The less we interfere with our child, the more they can develop faster and in a better manner to their full potential. The less we teach the more they learn. The less we obstruct the more they ideate. The less we restrict our child to use their body, the more they are aware of themselves and their environment.
I am now doing less of everything so that my child can do more and more and more!