What are some of the basic needs of children that are going largely unmet today?
Indian parents know very well how we adults like to pinch the cheeks of babies and young children. Even when Isha and I are waiting at a bus stop, passers by don’t hesitate to stop for a second, pinch her cheeks saying ‘So cute!’ and go. Isha hates it everytime somebody does that to her. If you think about it, it is actually such a physical violation of children's spaces, and they grow up thinking that it’s the norm. Earlier, she used to cry and get upset every time someone did that to her. Then, we used to step in to tell people not to do that to her. (It is our duty to speak up for these vulnerable beings, who trust us and look to our protection.) As she grew a little older, we started explaining to her that people actually did that because they liked her and they didn’t know that she didn't like it. ‘How about telling them that yourself? If people want to connect to you, what do you feel comfortable doing?’ She said ‘They can shake hand with me!’ So these days, she tells people 'Apdi Pannatheenga. Enakku Pidikkathu' (Don't do that. I don't like it.) And then people invariably back off feeling surprised, sometimes offended, sometimes appreciating her confidence. We step in to suggest that they shake hands with her, which restores the smile on everybody's face. :)
1. Need for silence: Children need silence to stay calm and alert. But from the time they are born in urban houses, their fragile senses are subjected to assault from noises from various sources – the blaring TV, constant chatter by adults, the road traffic, construction work next door, noisy battery toys that we buy for them, etc. Noise is the first thing that frustrates children. When children wake up from their sleep they like to have a quiet morning and ease into the day. Just like we adults do. But very often, we start talking to them, exciting them about a surprise waiting for them in the living room, blaming them for being ‘late’ to school, and on and on. A noisy start is already enough for a child to start feeling frustrated.
Try being by your child’s side when she wakes up, and spending some quiet loving time on the bed until your child utters the first word. (For a chatty parent like me, this is hard! But when I manage to pull it off, it is sublime. :) This silence that we have started the day with (and reducing, if not eliminating, all noises) can then hold the space for anxiety-free and safe times. We also become more alive to the subtle sounds of nature – the rustle of leaves, bird calls, the rain, the breeze. These natural sounds make their way into the child’s soul and make it sing.
2. Need to feel trusted: All children have a need to feel trusted. Constantly telling them “See, you are going to break it!”, “You might lose it”, “You will fall”, etc. makes this basic need unmet and frustrates them when they are actually feeling ‘Can’t you trust me that I will do my best?’ And when they do break it, lose it or fall, it is worse to tell them ‘See, I told you!’ Their egos get their final bashing with that comment. If we turn this around and tell our children ‘You can do it!’ and trust them with small things and if they mess up assure them by saying ‘It’s ok. We all mess up at times. You can try again’ we can actually help our children become self-confident and trustworthy. Like someone said 'The confidence of childhood is a fragile thing. It can be preserved or destroyed in an instant.'
When children grow up feeling untrustworthy and lacking self-confidence, another voice in their heads grows louder and louder. It is our voice telling them ‘You will fail!’ that won’t allow them to try out anything new for fear of failure. How can one expect a child that grows up with this fear, to ‘learn naturally’?
We need not trust our children with 1,000 rupee notes, expensive stuff and risky feats. How about beginning with small things that are really ok to be lost or broken? I usually give the bus ticket to Isha when we travel together. She holds on to it tightly and has almost always kept it very safe. I’ve sometimes noticed her holding on to a tattered piece of paper, an hour after our bus journey was over. When asked why she’d say “You never asked for it back!” One or two times when she does let it slip out of her hands, I make sure she does not feel bad about it.
Isha is a natural climber. One of her dreams is to be able to climb the coconut tree and 'pluck tender coconut for amma’. She is usually very sure-footed and careful while climbing. Once, she slipped and fell off a jungle-gym from a height of about 7 feet. Both Rajeev and I got concerned since Isha didn’t stop crying for a long time. We made her talk, walk, move her arms and made sure there wasn’t any major injury. After a while, Isha stopped crying and felt comforted. She turned around and looked at the jungle-gym from where she fell. Though we both felt tempted to say ‘If you climb again you will fall!’ we managed to not yield in to it. Instead, we asked her ‘Do you want to try climbing once again, this time more carefully?’ She enthusiastically nodded, ‘Yes!’ and did climb for a bit and held on to the bar extra-tightly this time.
Children are, many times, naturally willing to trust their own ability and ‘try again’. If we don’t come in their way, and if possible, reinforce it in them, we won’t have to tell them the story of ‘the king who took inspiration from the spider, tried several times and then won a battle’ when they grow up. They can at times get frustrated about not getting something. Like an infant trying to open a bottle when her motor skills are not developed enough to do it. At those times, we can wait until they reach the point of their frustration and then gently assist them to open it with them. Every time children feel trusted, they learn to trust themselves more, in turn opening up to natural learning.
3. Need for respect: Children are persons too, with a sense of who they are and what they’d like and don’t like. Just like us. Many times, we don’t realize this and take them for granted. When children tell us they don’t want to eat a certain food, we often don’t give them a choice about it. We often threaten or bribe them into eating certain foods they don't want to. This may give us short-term results, but is actually harmful in the long run. Apparently, some research shows that girl children who are forcibly fed when they are children have a hard time saying ‘No!’ when they grow up, and hence more easily succumb to abuse of all kinds. How interesting!
Again, respecting children does not mean giving in to all their tantrums. Respecting them in a real sense is also showing that they need to respect others too. In an equal partnership, it is only when the parents learn to claim their respect (respectfully) the child will really learn to be respectful of both herself and others!
4. Need for participating in adult’s world and contributing
It is we adults who have separated the child’s world from ours; work from play. Children know only one world – a meaningful world of exploring, creating, celebrating and collaborating. They know only one life, where work and play, living, doing and learning are one and the same.
Children learn by observing adults who are engrossed in what they are doing. They get curious about what they see all around them and participating in them. But today’s homes can be so frustrating for children from the time they are born. First of all, we keep them in closed rooms with walls all around them. And because we feel sad about their having to stare at the walls, we buy them brightly coloured mobiles (toys that look like merry-go-rounds) and colour their rooms with bright colours. These colours can be over-stimulating and be an assault on the visual sense. Over-stimulation can excite the child in an unnatural way and can be harmful, contrary to the belief that it leads to brain development!
When children start crawling and walking, they find that all windows are beyond their eye-level. Doorways are forbidden to be crossed. Dining tables, cooking counters and desks are beyond their reach. At an age when they are waiting to go out there and explore their world sensorially, can you imagine how frustrating being unnaturally ‘locked up’ can be? These holes (plug points) on the wall look curious, but they are ‘dangerous’ and hence forbidden too. The shoes on the shoe stand, many times the only things at their eye level, are forbidden too! It is tempting to reach for all the stuff on the tables, climb on to the window sill to peep out, but they are forbidden too. How frustrating!
When they grow a little older, they start seeking to be part of the adult world and learning by doing with us. But urban adults don’t do anything interesting in their day-to-day lives anymore! We have machines and maids to do most of the work. And entering the kitchen is declared as “not for children”. Just like we adults try to kill our boredom with entertainment – on the computer, TV or phones, we buy children lots of toys. But these can seem like occupying them for a while. Those of us who can see how they can be harmful, buy ‘educational toys and CDs’ hoping that our children are also learning something in the process. It is called ‘edutainment’ these days. Their minds get numbed, hypnotized and stunned, and many times get addicted to these. That does not mean their needs are getting met. A child may get addicted to junk food and crave for it, but that does not mean it is meeting the child’s real needs.
As a parent who is interested in ‘natural learning’, I am increasingly needing to look into how I lead my own life. We don’t have a TV at home, nor do we buy toys – other than those that get handed down or gifted. When given a choice between playing with her toys and ‘working with amma or appa’ Isha many times prefers the latter.
At two-and-half, here is a list of things she can do. She can apply oil on to the idli plates and pour batter into it. She likes to roll rotis and then pass them onto me to be made thinner. She likes to organize washed dishes and put them away in their respective places. She likes to fold small clothes. She likes to put washed clothes on the clothes line, and then put clips on them. She likes to sweep and mop. She likes to put ‘kolam’ (rangoli) and has a great time playing in haldi and rice flour! She likes to measure rice and dal for soaking. She can cut soft vegetables and fruits using a blunt knife, after which I take over to cut them into smaller pieces. She likes to water the plants. And each of these tasks can take about five times longer than it would if we did it by ourselves, and many times messier. It requires at least one parent to have all the patience and time in the world to do it. How is this possible? (We’ll look at this question in greater detail in a later post.)
5. Need for their time and space
Children need to have all the time in the world to be engrossed in whatever they are doing without being hurried, or being told “Enough, now do this!” As a parent, I know this is not easy especially when you are in a hurry to finish something or get somewhere. But these should be exceptions rather than the norm! (During these times, we make sure that we explain why we needed to pull her away from something and apologise to her.) Otherwise, if she wants to play with her haldi powder for hours, it is perfectly ok! Having said this, even I have a tendency to interfere unnecessarily and catch myself wanting to be the ‘all-knowing’ and ‘controlling’ mother. Not being allowed to complete a task (or game, as we see it) for no apparent reason, can be very frustrating for children.
6. Need for uninhibited expression
Expression can be in the form of dancing, singing, speaking, drawing, writing and painting. Children are often ‘taught’ how to dance, sing, speak, draw, write and paint. Rules are given to them. When they want to express ‘out of this rule box’ they are 'corrected’. I once witnessed a little girl dancing with beautiful body movements, and her parents constantly kept commenting saying ‘That’s not how it is done! Can you please change your movement, you’ve repeated it so many times!’ and on and on. This voice that keeps ‘correcting and instructing’ them is not at all helpful. Very soon, all forms of expression will be trained to ‘conduct themselves based on what is popularly accepted and validated’ through the noisy mind. And that can never be true art. True art exists only when the artist (i.e. his noisy small mind) disappears.
How about dedicating a wall in the house for painting, drawing, doodling, writing? If you have a tiled terrace floor, it is an excellent canvass for chalk-piece drawing! If we don’t correct or comment on our children’s expression, it will come alive in its own unique form and style. Children will learn their grammar and rules at an appropriate time and pace on their own, with some facilitation. When they begin to express is not the time for correction. ‘Dor’ is a valid spelling for ‘door’, and ‘madar’ is a valid spelling for ‘mother’ in their world! Isha has just begun to speak English. When she says, "I no come play", we ask her "Oh, you don't want to come play now?" she says "Yes, I don't come now!" And I am learning to see this as 'perfectly fine'. :)
Children have a need for expressing themselves physically. They need physical space where they can run about freely and scream their lungs out, which is usually outdoors. Whenever Isha wants to run about and and scream out aloud, she gets to do it as long as it does not disturb anybody. And so, when we really request her to be quiet, she usually respects it and is cooperative.
7. Need for creating
Children have a basic need to create with their beings - their bodies, their voices and their minds. They’d rather make their own toys than have ready-made ones given to them. Give them clay or cardboard (and scissors) and watch their excitement when they make their own toys – which are actually objects that they relate to in a real sense. Participating in work that is creative – food preparation, gardening, etc. fulfills this real need too. There are lots of tutorials available at arvindguptatoys.com to make toys. The joy of creating also applies to 'stories' and 'songs'. Sometimes, Isha and I have conversations like songs, following popular tunes that she likes - 'Twinkle Twinkle Little Star' and 'Amma Inge Vaa Vaa'.
8. Need for communing with nature
Children have a basic need to stay connected to nature. Nature does not live in the forests alone. Nature lives in the rain, the garden soil, the roadside plants and seeds, avenue trees, birds that visit our window sills, lizards and ants roaming inside our homes, the sunlight that streams in through the window, the stars and the moon that fill the night sky on the terrace, stray butterflies, moths and dragonflies that land in our rooms. Even silver fish, termites, cockroaches and rats are fascinating, if you are willing to separate the issues at hand here! The list is endless, if only we are open to welcoming and receiving them into our lives. But very often we tell our children that soil is ‘dirty’, the lizard is ‘disgusting’, the rain can ‘make us sick’, the insects will ‘bite us’, being exposed to sunlight will ‘tan us’…. And do all that we can to develop animosity in them towards nature. It is worth asking ourselves if we are doing it because our need for communing with nature was unmet and trivialized when we were young!
Isha is most fascinated by lizards. When she finds one on the wall, she goes around the house looking for the kutti paappa palli (baby lizard). In her world, when there is an adult animal, it is invariably the mother and there has to be a baby somewhere nearby! If she happens to spot another adult, she’d consider calling it the father. Apart from all the small ways that we try and connect to nature from our urban home, we go on these long walks in the IIT-Madras and Theosophical Society campuses, which are the green lungs of Chennai. Isha leads the way taking us to all sorts of things from the spotted deer to the tiny mosses that usually go unnoticed. We make sure that we are well fed, energetic and don’t have anything else planned on these special days, so we don’t have to rush through anything and think of getting anywhere else. A three-kilometre walk could take us anywhere between three and five hours!
9. Need for love and touch
All children have a basic need to be touched and held. They feel safe, protected and loved when they are. Meeting this basic need is also very important. Going with this is a deep acceptance of their sadness, crying, anger, etc. whenever they get expressed. "Are you angry because you couldn't get that ball? I understand. I feel that way too when I don't get something I wanted. "Acknowledging, helping them verbalise and accepting their unpleasant emotions helps them learn to get in touch with them, and use these emotions in powerful, constructive and liberating ways.
10. Need for communing with people
We see that some children are extroverted and some are naturally introverted. It is easy to understand that extroverted children need the company of other kids and people in general. However, introverted children also need the company of people in a different way. Every being has a need to feel connected to life. They just aren’t ready to connect to people openly and verbally. But they too seek quiet companionship, when they are left alone (without being bothered too much) but held with understanding and love. They flower in their own unique way, like a bud that blooms very quietly.
But this is also a very tricky area. There are all kinds of people in our lives. Children have a need to be treated respectfully and lovingly, and so communities, families (basically people spaces) where this is lived is usually where children feel safe and nourished. In the cities, it is very hard to find meaningful people spaces, which Isha remembers fondly and asks to be taken to. Many homes are usually blaring with TV noises. Young children (her playmates) are many times aggressive. Many times, adults violate her space and talk down to her. Isha plays with many different children – our neighbours and friends’ kids. They do have sweet innocent play times with joy and laughter. Alongside, many times even 4 or 5 year old kids behave with her like how adults behave with them - provoking, manipulating, bribing, correcting and shaming her. Remember, children imbibe adults’ ways! So our options may be very limited. And that is why it is important to reach out and connect to people who look at their children and their role in their lives differently.
If you bring her up so protectively, how will she learn to deal with all kinds of people?
She is far too young, vulnerable and impressionable to be able to protect herself physically or emotionally. She is like a tiny sapling with great potential, just like a tiny seed the size of a mustard holding the potential to grow into a banyan tree! In these foundational years, it is important to stay protected from danger, just like we sow seeds in a nursey or plant a hedge / put a tree guard around a young plant. The belief is that as she grows older, she will learn to deal with the world from a safe, secure base more confidently, firmly and lovingly. Here is an example.