Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Sticky toffee - Notes on Parenting

A long, long time ago, I entered the cool shade of the canteen at St.Joseph's School, Agripada. I waited in the lattice screened porch, for my turn at the counter. When it came, I asked the nun at the counter for a bar of my favourite sticky toffee. The toffee was made in the school kitchen by the nuns, and was nothing but a wedge of cooked jaggery, wrapped in cellophane. But it was delicious. Sometimes it would be soft and crumbly, sometimes brittle and burnt, and sometimes it was just right, sticky enough to stretch between your teeth throughout the recess.

This particular day, I hesitated for a moment and asked for two more toffees. Sister Martha gave them to me with a peculiar look, and then said, "The Principal wants to see you later."

I must have been 11 or 12, and the Principal had never wanted to see me before this. I'd been in that school since I was a baby, and through those years, our Principal was Sister Catherine. She was a skinny woman, the nun's veil looked too big for her tiny face. She had a sharp, nosy face, and big buck teeth, which kept her mouth a little open all the time, and made her dribble a little when she talked. She could have been the butt of jokes if she were not so precise in her running of the school, appearing around corners at the unlikeliest of times, doing the rounds of classrooms as and when she wanted, keeping us all under her clever eyes.

As I dragged my feet to her office, I almost popped a toffee into my mouth, mechanically, but remembered to stop in time. I would have had to throw it out before I went in, and that would have been a huge waste. I went and stood meekly at the door to her office which opened on to the playground. She beckoned me in, without even looking up. I stood at her desk. She said, "Sister Martha says you buy three four toffees everyday. Why?" I looked at her, for a moment, surprised by the unexpected question, relieved too, that I was not in some major trouble, though what that could have been, I did not know.

I said, "Yes, to share with my friends." She said, "You have to stop it. That's not sharing, that's buying for friends. It's not allowed." I was dismissed. There were no kind explanations, no discussion of right and wrong. Just "Not allowed". I came away, feeling outraged that the school could stop me from buying sweets for my friends, also feeling slightly ashamed without understanding why. Of course, those toffees never tasted the same again.

And because I had been only told that "buying for friends was not allowed", I continued as I grew up, to "buy for friends" by doing their homework, or "buying for boyfriends" by giving too much of myself, or "buying for a husband" by turning a blind eye to his infidelities. It took many, many years to understand what Sister Catherine had been telling me, which if she had been kind enough to explain, may have saved me much grief. But then these were the days before school counsellors or over protective parenting.

Yesterday, Dhanno looked at me with solemn eyes, which is her prelude to discussion. "There's a very rich boy in our class, who is always giving everyone treats." I said, "Hmm". Over the years, I've learnt to draw out Dhanno gently. Each move has to be precise, or she will flee into petulance or silence. I must show concern, involvement and yet, be casual enough to make the discussion palatable. Dhanno continued, "I've never taken any treats, but all my friends do." I asked, "Which ones?" She named her whole gang. "He wants to take us all to Cafe Coffee Day, for a treat after the exams. Should I go?"

I don't have an easy answer. All her friends are going, but should she go for such an expensive treat? I suggest going Dutch. It has occurred to her, she has spoken to her friends about it, but the rich boy insists it is his treat, and her friends don't understand what the fuss is about. Hmm. I suggest, "Why don't you go for the treat, but take some chocolates for him?" She looks at me with big, incredulous eyes. "Mom, all my friends will laugh at me." Yes, I can see that. So I suggest, "Well, why don't you take chocolates for everybody?" She's not so sure about it, neither am I. Both of us are wondering whether we are fussing too much about it. But so far, that seems the best solution, if she wants to go, and yet not take a too expensive treat without reason.

Dhanno continued, "Mom, this boy gives treats everyday." "To whom?" "Oh, anyone who's with him. He also gives money. Children just ask him for money, and he gives them 200-300. He doesn't even ask for it back." "So how much money does he carry around in school everyday?", I ask, really curious. "Two three thousand." I take that with a pinch of salt, because Dhanno is still very conservative about money and a few hundreds would seem like thousands to her.

But in the six years we've been living here, I have seen children her age going about with at least a hundred rupees in their pockets every day, even when they go down to play. Several kids have running accounts with the local grocer shop, which their mothers pay at the end of the month. Soft drinks, chips, chocolates, treats to friends, are every day expenditures on open accounts. Sometimes, we've wondered whether we are too strict with Dhanno about money, and other things. But I'd rather she has the ability to question, analyse and form her own opinions, even if it means she's sometimes, "funny" to her friends.

All those decades ago, I had only one rupee at my disposal everyday, which was not a big amount even then. But without loving monitoring, I was not able to deal with the freedom my parents gave me. I dread to think what lies in store for the rich boy with hundreds in his pocket, "buying for friends".

14 comments:

SmokeSerpent said...

In my daughter's class, there is a lot of this "buying for friends". She is six years old.

We often find that she has come home with some snack that we did not give her, or some small thing like a decorated pencil or an inexpensive used toy.

We also catch her putting things of a similar nature into her bag as she is preparing to go to school. We don't want her to see friendship as something that is bought and sold, but it is hard to argue with a child's innocent generosity as well.

All a parent can do it try their best and hope that even if our "wisdom" doesn't sink in right away, it will still be remembered at some important time.

Batul said...

My daughter is twelve. Inexpensive exchanges are good, because they teach the children to share their joys. It's the reckless spending of money that worries.

But as you say, all a parent can do is try their best.

John said...

Hi Batul,

This is a good one. I loved the feel of it, of how children need to be careful of boys and girls with too much pocket money.

I remember I too had not much pocket money when I was young. Brought back those halcyon days.

Keep writing!

J

Jyothi Kapur Das said...

Batul,
God! When I read ur posts, I really feel, 'I am NOT alone!'
Has that little baby we cuddled and played like a doll with in the Institute Mess, grown up so much...? And what about us...? Are we old enough to even BRING up these growing-up kids of ours..?!

All the best with the parenting, babes! We should maybe start a Parents' Anon...! :)

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Jugal said...

wah! this is beautiful. this really really is something that every child whose growing up or a parent who takes active interest in their children will connect to.

hope a few parents or children 'know' something out of this :)

(and yea, just noticed - i'm on your blogs-i-like list! it's a freaking honour! Thanks a lot!)

Jugal said...

Batul, I just re-read this piece. This is really freaking awesome. There are layers to this one at so many levels. The whole personal angle to it - I really really hope people read it - it sure will make a huge difference to their lives.

Nupur said...

I sometimes wonder how some kids grow up fine with warped parents and other kids grow up warped with fine parents. External influences really play a big role in children's development, don't they?
Very nice narrative, Batul. Thought-provoking. Makes me wonder, when (if) I have my own kid, what special way will I warp him/her.
Nupur

Mahfuuz said...

Batul...

This makes me think, fret a bit and also promise myself that I would be more tactful. My twins are 6 1/2. The tomorrows would tell me how tactful I have been, though I think planning is useless.

:-)

Batul said...

Thanks, Nupur and Mahfuz.

You are right, planning doesn't help. You've just got to play it by the ear. And you've got to keep doing it all your life, once you are a parent. There's no going back.

Cheers. Batul

Quicksilver! said...

Batul :)

I read Sticky Toffee on the day it was posted here and have been thinking about it ever since. Maybe because I had 2 things in common with it
1) Convent schooling
2) Confused upbringing

Since I am neither a parent nor a child(anymore) I don’t know how far what I say about this episode with Aiman (beautiful name) will make sense. My thoughts here are in no particular order :)

* Convent schooling is the worst thing that can happen to any child and I speak from experience. I can totally empathize with your buying toffee situation and the talk with Sister Cathrine.
In my school we were told, every single day, that “indoooooos” (Hindu’s) are bad/go to hell/cause all the problems that are happening in this world/are the cause of the increasing population yada-yada-yada.The only good thing that I learnt at school was all sorts of needlework :)

* What Sister Catherine felt and told you "You have to stop it. That's not sharing, that's buying for friends. It's not allowed." was rubbish!!! How can any person who hasn’t lived/interacted with people in the real world, and here I mean everyday life, know how to deal with situations they are faced with?

* At that age, you were just buying toffees for friends little realizing the ‘sinister connotation” that would be planted in your head. And you actually justified what Sister Catherine said and saw the resemblance in all areas of you life, and lived guiltily ever after?
And because I had been only told that *"buying for friends was not allowed", I continued as I grew up, to "buy for friends" by doing their homework, or "buying for boyfriends" by giving too much of myself, or "buying for a husband" by turning a blind eye to his infidelities. It took many, many years to understand what Sister Catherine had been telling me, which if she had been kind enough to explain, may have saved me much grief. But then these were the days before school counsellors or over protective parenting.*

* Now, you are not only passing on the same guilt on to your daughter *"Why don't you go for the treat, but take some chocolates for him?" She looks at me with big, incredulous eyes. "Mom, all my friends will laugh at me." Yes, I can see that. So I suggest, "Well, why don't you take chocolates for everybody?"* but you are stopping her from living and enjoying her own life and making mistakes and learning from them. Aiman is going to be 12 just once, let her enjoy these years as much as she can.Because once we are adults life takes over anyways, whether we like it or not:)

* Just as many a times parents live their unfulfilled dreams through their children (“I couldn’t become a doctor so I’ll make my daughter a doctor”) they also wish to erase, or at least dull, the mistakes they made when they were children. And they do that through their children. And that, dear parents, is the worst thing that you can do to your child.

Things were different when you grew up and things are/will be different when your children grow up. So the rules have to change too. Don’t cloak your children with the cape of protection for the fear that they may hurt themselves.
Children are far more resilient, tough and understanding than we estimate them to be. And with their parents always there for them, no matter what, they will always come up tops :)

* Children grow up observing you more than they listen to you. So, your actions speak louder than your words. External influences do play a major part in the upbringing of your child but if you keep the ‘core’ of your upbringing strong, you can never go wrong.

Please Note: These are just my thoughts which formed after I read ‘Sticky Toffee’. My comments on parenting are not aimed at Batul :) but are a general and a personal observation.

And yes, I absolutely loved your writing Batul. I am so glad you wrote it and shared it with us :)
Thank you

Slainte!
M!;)

Batul said...

Thanks, M, for sharing your observations and reactions. I absolutely agree with you, that "telling" children is no use, they learn by what they see you or others actually doing.

And believe me, my endeavour as a parent always is to point gently, to come up with a solution with Aiman in tow, and not to come up with ready made equations for her. That said,

No, I did not live with guilt because of what Sister Catherine said. I did not even remember it, until now. When I linked it to my continued buying over the years, I just meant that a kinder teacher may perhaps have realized my behavior pattern at an early age, and made efforts to make me realize it, in a less arbitrary way, which may have saved me from other mistakes. But it's all, if, but and may.

I personally also don't know whether the lackadaisical approach of our parents towards parenting was better, or whether our over-concerned, over aware approach is better.

And definitely, the desire is not to quench Aiman's innocence in any way. But the kind of money I see a lot of kids throw around is worrying for me. Hence, my confusion about right and wrong. When you live in an environment where the values practiced by other children are different from the values you are passing on to your child, you have to find a way of doing things without passing blanket judgements or saying an arbitrary No to your kid.

david raphael israel said...

Batul,

what an interesting, probing account, and complicated problem. The "thinking together" about the issues, is particularly interesting. Oddly enough, Eric Rohmer's "morality tales" films come to mind, pondering this; though they involve interactions of adults, and seem largely studies in manners more than in ethics, perhaps there's a through-line of "moral attentiveness" which ultimately is simply human attentiveness; -- a thoughtful caring about dimensions and meanings of action and gesture.

cheers,
d.i.

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