Priya Desikan is a homeschooler from Chennai. At the Swashikshan launch she shared with us how patiently and heart wrenchingly she discovered that her son cannot be taught because he is a self-learner. Presented below is the video of her talk followed by the transcript where she shares how she let go of many of her conditioning to be a deeply engaging parent to her son.
I believe that Life is about coincidences and how you see them… much like a big plan and small moves – all connected in some way. But it is up to us to make the connections. I chose to see them as voices of the Universe. When I saw the beauty in that scheme, there was nothing else that I could do but surrender. Completely! And suddenly I was able to break free and find myself. When I freed myself from this time and space warp of routines, habits and patterns of behaviour and thinking, I freed my son.
The challenges I faced with Raghav from when he was very little till today have been with routine. He has been a child who disliked routines imposed on him from outside. As a baby, he never had set patterns of sleeping, waking and eating. I listened to people around me who told me that routine was important for children, instead of listening to my child, and fell into the trap of getting him into a routine. But it was always a fight and he always won!
It was one of the reasons why we decided to put him in a playschool, and I tried so hard to make it work. Some days it did and some days it didn’t. The days when my husband was travelling on work, Raghav missed him a lot and refused to sleep at night. This in turn affected his routine the following day. I lost my temper many times trying to get him ready on time for school – bribed or threatened him to eat breakfast and get dressed. He would somehow manage at school and coped till a point when he could take it no longer. He began rebelling and made it impossible for us to take him anymore. He used to scream, cry, get angry and refused to listen to anything. I finally saw these as cries for help and we got him out of school. All along I had held routine as sacrosanct – much like traditions and customs that are handed down to us by our parents and society. From infancy to adulthood or old age, we are plagued by routines – that we cannot do without and do not question.
When I started questioning this, I realised that routine wasn’t so important.
The first thing that we got rid-off after that was routine. It was the stress factor. Once that was removed, we suddenly realised how much time we had! That was the biggest relief! We made our own routine every day. We could wake up whenever we wanted and sleep whenever we wanted. But there were other challenges…..Raghav was so used to an external structure and constantly being directed, that he did not know what to do without one. He would constantly pester me with “what do I do now Amma?”, “I don’t know what to do!” He could not even say that he was bored for a long time. I knew that I had to let him be and experience boredom so that he would be able to think of what to do. So instead of telling him what to do, we made a list of things together from which he could choose. Slowly, he started making his own choices. I think he finally found himself. He was happy!
His mealtimes too became more self-directed. He started eating well, slept better, and was less cranky and restless. He stopped snacking and started enjoying what he ate. There was no time schedule for eating as in school. He started listening to his body. He ate only when he felt hungry. Giving him time to find this out for himself has now made him more aware of his bodily needs and his internal clock. It was hard to let go of this, being a typical Indian mother, but I learnt to do this over a period of time by trusting my child and realising that he actually knows what he wants.
Raghav once told me: “I don’t understand a timetable Amma. I don’t like to do a particular thing at a particular time. I like to do it in my time.” I think children have an internal clock and a sense of what they want to do and when. It is only when we try to shift the control to an external one that problems arise.
So there are days now when he doesn’t want to eat or have a bath until he has finished what he has set out to do. I used to get worked up about this earlier. Not anymore. WE adjust to his routine. We don’t have a maid because I cannot predict what my day will be like and Raghav sometimes wants my 100% attention. But that allows us a lot of freedom and flexibility to do what we want to whenever we want to! To me the chores are my workout for the day. Raghav understands that it is an essential part of living. He respects my time and understands the effort that goes into various things.
We also did not curb his freedom to explore different kinds of food, including junk food. He asked for Pepsi and Lays a couple of times. We read out the ingredients and very matter-of-factly explained why it was not healthy. He figured out himself that once he started eating that, he felt like eating more and that it also bothered him. He started very consciously making more healthy food choices.
Raghav loves watching the CBeebies channel on TV. He started watching a lot of TV when he got out of school. I feared that it would become an obsession and always stopped him. When we understood that this was the way he perhaps de-stressed himself and also learnt things on his own, I gave him complete freedom. He watched TV for days……months until finally one day it stopped on its own. I realised that my fear was misplaced. Then he got onto LEGO. He would do nothing but build with LEGO the whole day long. He did this for years! But we found out that that was his real passion! He located websites on his own that gave him instructions to build different models; he would keep track of new products and pester us to buy them. Allowing him to pursue his passion, made him realise what he was good at. That was a huge boost for his self-esteem. I suddenly saw a pattern – I discovered that Raghav did things in phases. I finally understood that he would explore something for a long time and to great depths till he figured out everything about it. Then he would move on to something else. He did that with watching TV, making friends, building with LEGO, painting, playing board games.
Raghav is a self-learner and loves the visual medium. So the TV, Ipad, computer, LEGO, and others are his tools for learning. It has been amazing how much he has learnt this way. We borrow DVDs on the Earth, wildlife or birds from the British Council Library and watch those together. We also get books on various subjects. He bonds with his dad by exploring things on the Ipad. He now usually sets a time for himself to watch TV or sit at the computer. So all along, the biggest fight was actually with my own patterns of thinking.
Raghav has learnt many things on his own with my role being that of a bystander. He has taught himself mental maths (can combine numbers in his head and add them) just by watching the IPL games and playing cricket. He taught himself multiplication facts by building with his LEGO for years. He developed an interest in art and craft and cooking through programmes on TV. He reads on his own, watches YouTube videos on how things work, explores websites on astronomy, the human body, geography, LEGO and others and comes back to me and teaches me stuff I didn’t know before. He writes shopping lists for me, loves naming clouds, likes to predict the weather, makes up stories based on things he has read, makes recycled gifts and cards for family and friends, and plays Angry Birds or Temple Run, challenging his father many times. He loves Kailash Kher so much that he has taught himself all his songs! We go out to the beach, library, park, or any other place that interests him.
Making friends was another challenge as Raghav’s interests were very different from those of the other kids in our apartment. They played robbers and police, or with toy guns or pretended to be super heroes and Raghav had no interest in these things. If they played other group games, they were too aggressive for him to handle. So I had to become playmate to Raghav. We played football, cricket, Frisbee, or pretended to do pit-stops for his bicycle turned race car. Initially I resisted as I was the only mother down there playing like a kid! I also resisted being Raghav’s voice when he had to deal with other kids or parents. I felt embarrassed because I believed that kids need other kids as playmates. I soon realised that it was by playing with adults that kids learnt to play with others. Today, I enjoy this time with him. We have loads of fun with other kids joining in sometimes…… and I get my daily workout!
By being there with him during play time, I have also learnt that that is the time when kids really need adults – not to control, take sides and solve problems – but to be there to empathise and get them to understand each other’s point of view, so that they can solve their own problems.
Raghav goes through phases of wanting to play with another kid and being alone. In the beginning I used to talk a lot to him about how to make friends. I feared that he would be like me with very few friends. Raghav though had a mind of his own. He explored friendships in his own way – he made friends with a 9 year old boy first, but soon realised that he came to play only when he wanted to. So he stopped calling him home. He decided that he would only call his one dear friend (from his earlier school) home. Even with her, he found out that she would not listen to him every time. He used to get upset as he wanted to have his way.
I found myself interfering most when it came to sharing his toys with other kids. I was brought up with the misplaced value that sharing was a virtue. He would ask kids to come home to play, but he would not let them touch his toys. I would get very upset. When I went back and tried to find out why this was happening, I realised that he was perhaps not yet ready to share…and it was my fear of the outcome – what would people say or think of this – and my own childhood experience of giving in all the time that was actually eating me up. That understanding changed everything. I taught myself new ways of saying things to him and the other kids who he would bring home. I respected him for what he felt and needed. He perhaps needed us to listen to him more. When I did that with empathy, rather than advising him, he became more aware of his emotions and problems. He could articulate them and also found his own solutions.
One day he decided to dress up as Santa and give gifts to the kids, when they came down to play. He wanted to be noticed. After that, every single child knew him and that he was homeschooling. Then last year during Navratri, he insisted that we make our own display of dolls and call people over. He made a list of people he wanted to call and divided the group into manageable numbers over three days. He made models, displayed his LEGO ones too and explained everything to everyone. He was able to handle old ladies, young babies, his friends, and some of my friends too with ease. This was after a period of isolation and very little opportunity for interaction. Yes, there were no niceties, no pretence. He was himself and happy with being that way. I realised that when he started feeling ok about himself, he was ok with others.
They were important revelations – that kids need to be allowed to just BE… they don’t really need to be taught anything in a structured way. The greatest work that has to be done I think is with our own selves, our own conditionings and patterns of thinking and being. It has been a wonderful journey with Raghav leading the way. We are happy to follow wherever he takes us.