parent trap

Indian children have become hamsters on treadmills – it’s time to take it one step at a time

Over-scheduled, under-slept children experience neural fatigue. Mono-tasking could be the solution.

Nikhil Iyer is a typical nine-year-old in Hyderabad. His iPad is his best friend and his younger sister, his best “frenemy”. What sets him apart from his peers is that Iyer is not being groomed for greatness. After school, while Iyer’s classmates attend classes in sports, music, art and chess, sometimes two back-to-back activities a day, his parents have decided it’s enough for him to enjoy a game of football when he feels like it. He doesn’t need to be a champion, he just needs to have fun.

“We didn’t want to push too many activities too early for him,” said Subbu Parameswaran, Iyer’s father, who heads an NGO called the Learning Curve Life Skills Foundation, which develops age-appropriate life skills for underprivileged children. “In ten months, if he says he is done with football, then that’s fine too.”

Bengaluru-based Swati Sharma, mother of seven-year-old Akrit, agrees. One year ago, Sharma ferried Akrit from one class to another, every day of the week until she noticed he would be slumped in his chair, asleep by dinner time. “He was just too tired,” she said. “Being generally compliant, he never protested.” Sharma decided to ease her son’s workload, and now Akrit attends a single after-school class in art. It’s a subject that comes with a flexible schedule.

The Iyers and Sharmas are part of a growing community of parents who are choosing to let their children mono-task, or do one thing at a time. If it seems too obvious to be a movement, one need only consider the lives of Nikhil and Akrit’s adult counterparts. A typical workday for almost any upper-middle class adult today consists of working on multiple projects, while checking emails, scheduling and attending meetings (all the while, listening to music and updating each other on social media). Children especially, but also adults, need to make a concerted effort to see one task through to its logical conclusion before attempting another.

Subbu Parameswaran's children hanging out.
Subbu Parameswaran's children hanging out.

Training for the rat race

In India, where a burgeoning middle class sets aspirations for its children very high, childhood can feel like being a hamster-on-a-wheel, where parents schedule various activities and classes to help kids stay ahead of their peers.

VV Kumaresan, who runs Artfullan, art academy, in Chennai, says that parents often ask him why he doesn’t organise or train kids for competitions.

“My classes are the opposite of that,” he said, with a laugh. “They are just a no-pressure place for kids to express themselves. Unfortunately, the pace seems too slow for some parents.”

Srividhya Prasanna, mother of six-year-old Sakthi, said she sometimes feels her friends who have enrolled their kids in multiple classes are trying to create “super kids”.

“The need to be the best at everything is what drives these activities,” she said. “So the child has to have a public performance if she is in a dance class, or a show if she is in an art class. Multiply that pressure with the number of activities, and you get the idea.”

All this rushing from one activity to another comes at a price, warn experts. A 2016 study of adults who work in front of a computer, showed that multitasking increases distraction. Multi-tasking or more accurately, task switching means that each switch between tasks – for instance, between music and art – depletes neural power and the brain’s ability to focus. By the end of the day, disproportionate mental and physical fatigue sets in.

Children try their hands at hitting the bull’s eye during an archery workshop at Arjuna Sports Academy in Dadar. Credit: Pratik Chorge/HT Photo
Children try their hands at hitting the bull’s eye during an archery workshop at Arjuna Sports Academy in Dadar. Credit: Pratik Chorge/HT Photo

“If the kids are constantly switching without break, it will deplete their energy,” said Abiramika Ravivarman, life and parenting coach, who runs Green Minds Center for sustainable life skills in Chennai. “And not in a good way. Their attention span decreases in tune with that switching.”

In their 2001 book titled The Over-Scheduled Child: Avoiding the Hyper-Parenting Trap, Dr Alvin Rosenfeld and Nicole Wise argue that enrolling children in many scheduled activities keeps them from turning into confident, self-reliant adults, and might also lead to ADD, ADHD and depression.

Starting young

Most parents start their children young so that the child reaches a certain level of proficiency in extra-curricular activities before high school, when academics take center stage. The logic is that eventually, a great or average academic track record, when combined with exceptional extra-curriculars can ensure admission to good colleges, lead to better jobs and bigger salaries

But starting younger is not always a good idea, according to Parimal Pandit, clinical psychologist and programme director for counselling and assessment at V-Excel Educational Trust, Chennai. “Children should be physically and mentally ready to start the activities they are doing,” she said, emphasising that the neural pathways and fine motor skills must be developed before certain activities can begin. “A child who is five may not be ready for chess classes. You must give time for the development of skills to happen naturally.”

Many parents agree with the concept of minimal scheduled classes for kids, but say it is logistically impossible.

Prasanna, a working mother, says she would rather not send her child to any class, but sees no option. “My intention is not to make her a superkid but [I do it] only because I am helpless to engage her in any other way,” she said.

A child makes her move while learning chess during a summer camp at Bal Bhavan, in Mumbai. Photo credit: Pratik Chorge/HT Photo
A child makes her move while learning chess during a summer camp at Bal Bhavan, in Mumbai. Photo credit: Pratik Chorge/HT Photo

Carefully selecting activities helps to some extent, as does simply letting children be, and integrating them into their parents’ lives.

“We’ve force-fitted children’s lives to our schedule, albeit one that we think is beneficial for them,” said Parameswaran. “How does a child even enjoy what she is doing when there are a dozen things to do?”

The most important lesson, it appears, is to allow children to be bored. Boredom allows free and creative thinking, self-reflection and observation.

“Very few children nowadays can be joyful – simply be in a park, watching a butterfly,” Pandit said. “They constantly want something, and quick. They don’t see a plant growing, life growing. There is no connection to nature.” To simply keep a child engaged, she said, activities such as helping out in the kitchen or garden are sufficient. A constant cycle of classrooms and competition produce undue stress.

Sharma agrees. The day she decided to cut all of Akrit’s classes, she said, was a weight off her shoulders. “I can only imagine how great it must have been for him.”

Monika Chaudhary's son plays cricket.
Monika Chaudhary's son plays cricket.
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Swara Bhasker: Sharp objects has to be on the radar of every woman who is tired of being “nice”

The actress weighs in on what she loves about the show.

This article has been written by award-winning actor Swara Bhasker.

All women growing up in India, South Asia, or anywhere in the world frankly; will remember in some form or the other that gentle girlhood admonishing, “Nice girls don’t do that.” I kept recalling that gently reasoned reproach as I watched Sharp Objects (you can catch it on Hotstar Premium). Adapted from the author of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects has been directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who has my heart since he gave us Big Little Lies. It stars the multiple-Oscar nominee Amy Adams, who delivers a searing performance as Camille Preaker; and Patricia Clarkson, who is magnetic as the dominating and dark Adora Crellin. As an actress myself, it felt great to watch a show driven by its female performers.

The series is woven around a troubled, alcohol-dependent, self-harming, female journalist Camille (single and in her thirties incidentally) who returns to the small town of her birth and childhood, Wind Gap, Missouri, to report on two similarly gruesome murders of teenage girls. While the series is a murder mystery, it equally delves into the psychology, not just of the principal characters, but also of the town, and thus a culture as a whole.

There is a lot that impresses in Sharp Objects — the manner in which the storytelling gently unwraps a plot that is dark, disturbing and shocking, the stellar and crafty control that Jean-Marc Vallée exercises on his narrative, the cinematography that is fluid and still manages to suggest that something sinister lurks within Wind Gap, the editing which keeps this narrative languid yet sharp and consistently evokes a haunting sensation.

Sharp Objects is also liberating (apart from its positive performance on Bechdel parameters) as content — for female actors and for audiences in giving us female centric and female driven shows that do not bear the burden of providing either role-models or even uplifting messages. 

Instead, it presents a world where women are dangerous and dysfunctional but very real — a world where women are neither pure victims, nor pure aggressors. A world where they occupy the grey areas, complex and contradictory as agents in a power play, in which they control some reigns too.

But to me personally, and perhaps to many young women viewers across the world, what makes Sharp Objects particularly impactful, perhaps almost poignant, is the manner in which it unravels the whole idea, the culture, the entire psychology of that childhood admonishment “Nice girls don’t do that.” Sharp Objects explores the sinister and dark possibilities of what the corollary of that thinking could be.

“Nice girls don’t do that.”

“Who does?”

“Bad girls.”

“So I’m a bad girl.”

“You shouldn’t be a bad girl.”

“Why not?”

“Bad girls get in trouble.”

“What trouble? What happens to bad girls?”

“Bad things.”

“What bad things?”

“Very bad things.”

“How bad?”

“Terrible!!!”

“Like what?”

“Like….”

A point the show makes early on is that both the victims of the introductory brutal murders were not your typically nice girly-girls. Camille, the traumatised protagonist carrying a burden from her past was herself not a nice girl. Amma, her deceptive half-sister manipulates the nice girl act to defy her controlling mother. But perhaps the most incisive critique on the whole ‘Be a nice girl’ culture, in fact the whole ‘nice’ culture — nice folks, nice manners, nice homes, nice towns — comes in the form of Adora’s character and the manner in which beneath the whole veneer of nice, a whole town is complicit in damning secrets and not-so-nice acts. At one point early on in the show, Adora tells her firstborn Camille, with whom she has a strained relationship (to put it mildly), “I just want things to be nice with us but maybe I don’t know how..” Interestingly it is this very notion of ‘nice’ that becomes the most oppressive and deceptive experience of young Camille, and later Amma’s growing years.

This ‘Culture of Nice’ is in fact the pervasive ‘Culture of Silence’ that women all over the world, particularly in India, are all too familiar with. 

It takes different forms, but always towards the same goal — to silence the not-so-nice details of what the experiences; sometimes intimate experiences of women might be. This Culture of Silence is propagated from the child’s earliest experience of being parented by society in general. Amongst the values that girls receive in our early years — apart from those of being obedient, dutiful, respectful, homely — we also receive the twin headed Chimera in the form of shame and guilt.

“Have some shame!”

“Oh for shame!”

“Shameless!”

“Shameful!”

“Ashamed.”

“Do not bring shame upon…”

Different phrases in different languages, but always with the same implication. Shameful things happen to girls who are not nice and that brings ‘shame’ on the family or everyone associated with the girl. And nice folks do not talk about these things. Nice folks go on as if nothing has happened.

It is this culture of silence that women across the world today, are calling out in many different ways. Whether it is the #MeToo movement or a show like Sharp Objects; or on a lighter and happier note, even a film like Veere Di Wedding punctures this culture of silence, quite simply by refusing to be silenced and saying the not-nice things, or depicting the so called ‘unspeakable’ things that could happen to girls. By talking about the unspeakable, you rob it of the power to shame you; you disallow the ‘Culture of Nice’ to erase your experience. You stand up for yourself and you build your own identity.

And this to me is the most liberating aspect of being an actor, and even just a girl at a time when shows like Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies (another great show on Hotstar Premium), and films like Veere Di Wedding and Anaarkali Of Aarah are being made.

The next time I hear someone say, “Nice girls don’t do that!”, I know what I’m going to say — I don’t give a shit about nice. I’m just a girl! And that’s okay!

Swara is a an award winning actor of the Hindi film industry. Her last few films, including Veere Di Wedding, Anaarkali of Aaraah and Nil Battey Sannata have earned her both critical and commercial success. Swara is an occasional writer of articles and opinion pieces. The occasions are frequent :).

Watch the trailer of Sharp Objects here:

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This article was published by the Scroll marketing team with Swara Bhasker on behalf of Hotstar Premium and not by the Scroll editorial team.