How much freedom does a child need?

This one is always a tough one to answer. Perhaps, Matt Munro says it all in the lyrics of the song, Born Free

Born free, as free as the wind blows

As free as the grass grows

Born free to follow your heart

While I love to see my children free of all shackles to grow and bloom as their dreams dictate, to fly free as the wind blows, we still need to understand the breeze is created by the laws of physics, by rules laid out by a greater power than us.

My sons always talk of freedom in the sense of space to do what they like, make robots, create animations, play the piano, read a Harry Potter for the one thousandth time without being reprimanded! They like to stay at home and do things. They say they need freedom of mind and thought. So, when I told them, turn by turn, they were too young to read an Asimov at thirteen, they both rebelled. They read the books by borrowing from the library. I have learnt to let them read and explore what they like as long as it is within the bounds of decency. Luckily, for me, my sons are like grand dads when it comes to rules and decency. They lay the laws for themselves and the rest of the world. They do not like to wander into the darker zones of internet or play gory games or go out late at night to party, drink and drug. Perhaps, I am plain lucky! Or, did they become my great grand dads because they grew up within certain frameworks of rules and ideals?

Most children, like grown ups, have different concepts of freedom. My elder son’s best friend in the eighth grade needed the freedom to drink as much coke as possible and eat as many chocolates as he could lay his hands on behind his mother’s back. Some need freedom of movement, some of thought and some for things that parents frown on or fear. So, how do parents define how much freedom and what kind of freedom?

I remember, when my son’s school started using internet extensively, caregivers were called in to be educated about parental controls, rules were suggested for internet surfing and how to monitor the child while he explored the internet. While we agreed on the need for filters, a friend of mine and I felt the school was creating an atmosphere of mistrust between the child and his parents. Whereas the school felt they were creating awareness among parents. The bottom-line was all of us wanted the best for the children.

Trust develops with the ability of the child to work within a framework. Children need structures and rules. It gives them a sense of security and helps them develop their capacity to think. The school was trying to create a framework. We as mothers felt the framework was taking on the dimensions of a jail where the parents were warders and the children the prisoners. On the other hand, there are children who wander into the negative side of freedom. They will not study, keep going out and wander into areas of Internet and social media that can get them into trouble. They might even try alcohol, drugs and violate their own or others’ bodies out of curiosity and boredom. So, how do we make sure our kids do not wander into these dark forbidden areas that can wreck their lives?

I had a neighbor whose son got involved with people who were into drug trafficking, though he himself was innocent. This happened in China. The parents had to leave the country with their son who was thrown out of school. Some other expat kids were deported along with parents for abusing the social media to spread false stories about a teacher in another country. They were doing it in fun but it was distressing for the staff. The children were not educated to be within limits. Again the families were deported after the school expelled the children. Why does this happen to only some kids and not to others?

Is it that the children were born evil or is it that the parents missed out on something? Perhaps, the children needed a little less freedom than what the parents gave them. Perhaps, they needed parents who prioritized their children’s needs over their desires. Perhaps the youngsters could have done with a little more guidance. Perhaps, they needed rules. Sometimes we think giving financial support is the most important thing for  kids. While money does pay the bills, keeps the child in school, well clothed, well fed, it does not teach the youngster manners or values. However, a clear set of dos and don’ts practiced by parents themselves can do the trick along with plenty of love.

A child has to learn to distinguish right from wrong.

Sometimes, one needs to be firm and stick to the rules. I often see parents buy their children toys or gifts to avoid conflict. One mother told me that every time she bought a birthday present for another child, she had to buy one for hers! It reminded me of an incident where my four year son howled for a toy in a mall and refused to move. People turned and looked. It was embarrassing but I was meaner than my friend. I ignored his demand and waited till he calmed down and walked home with me. I had been embarrassed but I won a battle. My child learnt that everything could not be had for asking.

An early access to excess wealth and over indulgence can be as bad for the development of a child as the inability of the parent to foot bills to meet basic needs of a child. However, there is an age for everything. If you force rules on a baby who does not understand, the disciplining will be pointless and abusive. Recently, I was visiting some relatives in India. They had a young toddler — all of two and a half or three years old. He had just started play school. Everyday when his mother dropped him to school, he cried. The staff asked her to wait for him whereas her friends told her to leave and let him be. She asked me what would be the right thing to do.

I told her two stories. The first one was about my younger one. When he started his playgroup in China, he would start crying minutes after I left him in class. I was told to hide in the school office for a month. To me the answer was obvious. The child’s sense of security was tied to my presence and he needed the reassurance that he would be safe in the school. Eventually, he adjusted and I could just drop him off. And he survived his days with happiness and friendships.

The second story was about my elder son. The first day I took him to the Tumble Tots play school when he was two years and four months, he reiterated, “Mama outside, I inside.” I was allowed to sit in for a week but my son did not need me to be with him. I had been waiting outside for a couple of hours, when an exhausted looking assistant opened the door to let the kids out. She called me aside to tell me my son had been to the toilet seven times… We were both concerned!

On the way back home, I asked my son why he went so frequently to the toilet.

He perked up, “Mamma, they have blue water coming out of the flush. At home why don’t we have blue water?” So, I bought toilet blues and we had blue water in the flush. I showed and explained the process to him and he stopped visiting the bathroom seven times in two and a half hours. I was happy that my son was confident and independent enough to be in school on his own. But he had known the trainers from eighteen months of age as he had been attending their playgroup from that age and really enjoyed it. So, play school became just an extension of the playgroup.

For my younger son, it was a brand new environment in China and a new school. Each child faced different circumstances and each child reacted differently. It does not do to compare their reactions and ignore their needs.

A child needs emotional grounding to be given freedom. And this emotional grounding is created by responsible parenting. If a child feels reassured that his parents care for him and will be there, he will himself start giving a framework to his sense of freedom. He will not react in rebellion by doing or exploring the negatives of social interactions, media, drugs or alcohol. If you can spare the time to be there for your child and listen to him, chances are he will listen to you and grow up to be a man devoid of chains and yet living within a framework.

After all the wind flows and the grass grows because of rules laid by the laws of nature… and even animals need frameworks laid by their kind to survive…


To tweet or not to tweet…

Earlier, when one spoke of tweets, one thought of colorful little birds frolicking on trees, gardens, flowers and nature. One visualized flowing rivers and meadows and picnics and walks…

Now when one talks of tweets, one thinks of Donald Trump, blue eye shadow and “ A Merry Christmas but a Happy New Year”. Social media has reduced the twittering of birds to twittering of words across electronic devices to connect or disconnect minds, great or small across the oceans and into the jungle of cities, wherever Internet has cast its intricate web.

I have never taken to tweeting because, one, I am not a bird and with my enormous weight cannot be mistaken for one. Also, I have a passion for words… many words not a few. I believe tweet was earlier limited to 140 characters. Last year, it was doubled to 280! Such succinct conversations leave the wordy speechless!

Talking of speechlessness, Instagram has altogether done away with words… unless it is the speech in videos. It was started to share photographs by what I have understood less than a decade ago. Last year, it stretched its limits to a ten-minute video. Again despite appreciating good photography, I have not had the pleasure of experimenting with this mode of social media. Many, I believe, cannot live without these… I still breath, eat and live happily.

And then there is of course the grandparent of all social media, Mark Zuckerburg’s baby, Facebook, which started in 2004 as a way to connect Harvard students. Fourteen years down the line, as of January 2018, it had 2.2 billion active users! The world population is 7.5 billion, of these some may not be able to read and some may have eluded the web woven by social media altogether as they might be living in areas beyond the reaches of internet transmission and hence have become non users of social media. Of course, there are certain adamant non-users who refuse to use social media despite having access to the internet. Some of my closest friends belong to this category, I discovered.

However, I joined the cadres of Facebook users to keep in touch with old schoolmates. That happened and more. Facebook keeps updating itself! There are some updates, which came as unwelcome surprises. One day, as one scrolled through the Facebook on ones mobiles, videos sprung to life. Imagine, how embarrassing it would have been if in the middle of a speech to keep oneself awake, one scrolled on the Facebook and it voiced out a puppy barking or a person singing or an advertisement for slimming pills or green coffee! People would turn around and stare. Of course one could have the alternative of turning your phone to silent and reducing the voice level to zero… but these are things that one thinks of in afterthought. Now, I know you can change settings so that the video does not start singing in the middle of a speech.

Then, there are those who regard the Facebook as a substitute for newspapers of the juicier kind… sometimes a new thing called ‘ fake news’ (a triumphing Trumpian term popularized by the current media) finds it’s way to the heart of Zuckerberg’s baby. Sometimes, people post content that one would rather not see… political rallies, violence, pictures of diseases, partisan information, hate videos… one can report them but why would you want to see them in the first place? A disconnect from negativity does help one’s peace of mind. Why would people share pictures of a diseased body or a malnourished child or a dog crushed by a car or a prejudiced, partisan banner or poster or video?

To maintain my peace of mind, I prefer taking a walk, reading, talking, playing a game of Sudoku or Scrabble now to surfing the Facebook. I have become vary of posts that create a sense of disharmony.

Then there are posts by women whose posed pictures on Facebook could put Elizabeth Taylor or Meena Kumari, two most beautiful actresses, to shame. That makes me wonder… how beautiful are we on the outside and inside? Is it enough to look beautiful in a picture? Some Facebook users have taken to sharing their children’s outstanding results in exams… perhaps for blessings from their friends but what about those whose kids or who themselves have not aced in exams? Perhaps, the FB posts by now would have desensitized them and helped them reconcile to a more philosophical approach.

Of late, Facebook seems to be evolving a life of it’s own! Not only has it opted to choose to turn on videos if you do not change your settings or suggest posts and FB friendship birthday videos (a concept that did not exist back in the good old Facebookless days), it also has taken to deciding firmly what photographs it will publish with your post. A blog with pictures linked to FB does not have the option of choosing which visual can go with the post. Facebook with it’s own mind decides on the picture. Even if the blogger wants to highlight another visual, Facebook in it’s unique style, decides what is good for the blog! This does sometimes cause distress among bloggers… but they are fewer in number than the majority and therefore not important.

While social media has taken over socializing across a coffee table, people in a metro, a party or a bus no longer chat. They sit with eyes glued to their devices, chatting only on social media or scrolling the Facebook and distributing their emotions online with emojis( which some fear will affect the use of language), likes, loves and hates!

Are we moving towards an impending reality of isolated existence? Will Asimov’s Solaris become a reality where there is no human interaction but only interaction through screens under robotic supervision and tweeting in dictionaries will first highlight social media and somewhere down the line, an archaic usage for bird calls…?





Leaving China

Chapter 2

The worst part about being an expat was that our friends moved out of China every now and then. The saddest thing that happened to me was when two of my closest friends moved out of Suzhou within a week of each other. Donatella moved back to Italy. Anu moved back to Finland.

The two of them used to have these interminable arguments about the advantages and drawbacks of the European Union. It was like listening to delegates of two nations exchanging an interesting set of views. And we used to have these discussion over cups of coffee at my dining table with fantastic Italian cottage cheese cake and channa masala( spicy chick peas). Anu, whose name sounded very Indian but was actually Nordic, could finish half a kilo of channa masala on her own. In winters, we had these huge luscious strawberries which we could not stop munching.

And when it snowed in 2008 in Suzhou, it was another story. Suzhou had not seen the likes of such snow for more than fifty years, we were told. The highways were closed. There was not enough equipment to clear the snow. So, roads were closed. We frequented each other’s homes close by. Schools closed down. The children had snowy day holidays. They loved it. Donatella’s sons, Antonio and Leonardo, and Anu’s son, Kalegh, and daughter, Maya, and my kids made igloos and held snow wars with each other. They were joined by Bob. Bob’s American dad made a huge snowman. And his Chinese Mom, Heather, provided a huge orange carrot for a nose and charcoal for eyes. We contributed a streamer of tinsel for the scarf and Anu found an old cap. What a fancy snowman that was! My kids, who were seeing snow for the first time, learnt how to make the body and head of a snowman by rolling snow. The snow in Suzhou is very wet and slushy. We had to dry their boots and snow wear on the floor heating in our homes. The floors were heated by hot water pipes under the floor board.

If the floor heating used gas to warm the house and water, one could face issues in winter. China government rations gas in winters. So, if heating the house and hot water consumed the rationed gas, one fine day the family would wake up to a cold home with no hot water and no cooking gas. The government allowed extra gas only after a special application was made for it. But, the application had to be made especially and there would be a brief patch of discomfort.

Mind you, the majority of local population did not have access to air conditioning. My ayi (home help) told me that they would spend most of the time at home in winters under the quilt watching TV. I discovered Bollywood movies and Indian serials were very popular with the Chinese. They were all dubbed in mandarin. I, personally, do not much like Bollywood culture or the tedious family dramas, be they western or Indian.

Television programmes continued being an issue for foreigners in China. The legal TV only includes CTV (China Television) network. They have many channels with programs from all over the world, except it is all dubbed Chinese and edited by Chinese for the Chinese. So, most of us over the years didnot exactly take to it. There was only one bilingual channel. The rest of the programmes from foreign networks were relayed by very expensive dish antennas that intermittently worked and stopped working. One could do very less about it. This was a commodity that was not made for the common man.

The other issue was internet. International social media was not available easily throughout. Sometimes, even gmail or yahoo mail were difficult to access.We used VPN (Virtual Private Network) to access social media and, at times, gmail or yahoo mail. However, China did have Baidu (equivalent of Chinese Google/yahoo) and it’s own version of Facebook and Twitter… All in mandarin.

There was an intermittent market for illegal CDs churned out by the dozen. One CD could contain twenty movies. Occasionally, these shops cropped up. Eventually they were raided by the local authorities and were forced to close doors. In these stores, you could even pick up movies that were newly released in theatres! There was no concept of copyright among these traders.

I found it amazing how freely some of the locals could borrow and adapt from every culture. From scientific inventions to movies to handbags and Gucci suits … Everything could be had in China and made in China. A Prada handbag could cost anything from 50 to 5000 rmb. Vendors offered ‘Rolex’ watches from 10 to 10000 rmb openly at roadside cafes. They walked from table to table offering their wares. Copyright remains an official protocol enforced by government agencies.

Nationalism and copyright, two off shoots of the eighteen century Britain, have had two extreme opposite reactions among the locals.While nationalism was embraced and national pride is evident among many, communism had preached common property for the last fifty years. So, everything was treated as common.

Once the water hose from my garden ended up as common property and disappeared from my home. Another time, one of my garden chairs stepped out for a walk as in Edward Lear’s poem The Table and The Chair. It must have gone for a walk as my younger son, Surya, spotted the chair in the store room of the club house in our compound a few years after it absconded from our garage. It was in rather a derelict shape and we didnot think of reclaiming it. Lot of things, including skateboards, scooters and chairs that we expats had misplaced over the years and security guards had hunted in vain were in the store room of the club house, a common area. They had all come to life as the table and the chair did in Edward Lear’s poem and found their way at the end to the store room, where the life force had quit their inanimate forms. All these properties had been shared in common. However, my missing garden hose was not there.

I must say this that nothing big or expensive ever went missing from my household. Some of the workforce that came in to service the homes in the gated community just helped themselves to what they needed, like the hose or the chair that went missing from my garage. Now, with the exposure from a more consumerist world, sometimes there are reports of thefts of laptops and cash. One of my ayis once told me that no one locked doors in China even forty years ago as there was no concept of theft and, in my opinion, privacy.

Privacy is a concept that has been totally wiped out there. Sometimes, foreigners like us, suffer from lack of privacy in China, be it in changing rooms or in public toilets. I remember the concept of common property is so strong in China that I had people wandering into my garden through the hedges to admire my koi fishes or flowers. Occasionally, they would help themselves to flowers, plants, oranges and beans that grew in my garden. I tried to chase them out. I called in the security but that made me feel like the selfish giant from Oscar Wilde’s stories, the guy who chased children out of his beautiful garden. However, I was forced to act the selfish giant as I found that some of them threw cigarette stubs or spat into my garden!

Expats of the older school were more tolerant than newcomers who often felt offended at the attention meted out to them by the locals. And this seemed to increase with the passage of years. Some of the women were fairly vocal about it at expat gatherings.

People who came in just before we left had a different outlook. They had come to China, the affluent country, to make millions and create empires. People who went in earlier approached the country with a sense of adventure. We wanted to explore the world, not just make a living.

Travelling through China had been a dream I had since university. I was always intrigued by the walls that cut off the rest of the world from China till the opening up in the nineteen eighties. I loved Pearl S Buck’s novels and the shroud of secrecy that seemed to protect the country from any external intrusion. It was like a mystery waiting to unfold, like a good thriller…