Category Archives: Parenting and other animals

Making the most of game shows on TV

Ok, I admit it. We are a family addicted to game shows.

In the TV pantheon, shows pitting contestants against each other in contests requiring obscure skills rank just above reality shows involving manufactured romances and dubious talents. They are cheap to produce, require very little intellectual input and if you hit the jackpot, draw viewers in the multiple millions.( “American Idol” is probably the best example.)

When the intellectual age aimed at by these shows it is pretty low, it is not surprising that kids are so strongly attracted to them. We started off becoming regular viewers of “Wheel of Fortune“, a game show somewhat patterned around the popular kids game of “hangman”where you have to guess a word by working out the letters. The rationalization was that anything to do with alphabets and the English language could not be all bad.

Now we have moved on to a couple of shows that are possibly the other end of the spectrum from WOF – “American Gladiators” and “Wipeout”, both shows requiring physical strength and agility on the part of the contestants. It happened when we left the TV on a few times after WOF, alas, the kids were quick to pounce on the opportunity afforded by prime-time television.

After much soul-searching, the mom in me has decided to make the most of my children’s affection for these shows. Having trouble getting my daughter upstairs to bed? Why, the stairs have become the “Travelator “( a steep slope that contestants in “American Gladiators” have to climb up just before the finish). My 5 year old is thrilled that she can beat her mom everyday! Dawdling at bedtime routines? Just put a time challenge. “I broke my 2 minute record today, mom” she crows delightedly. My frequent trips to the gym have convinced her that I am secretly training to be a “gladiator”.

I wish.

With my surly pre-teen, the rewards are more subtle. Having hit puberty a little early, the 12 -year old has decided that he, Garbo-style, “vants to be left alone”. Evenings are punctuated by the slamming of his bedroom door, behind which( I hope) he reads and listens to music. “Gladiators” draws him out of his cocoon, as he condescends to sit with his embarrassing parents and converse knowledgeably on the vital statistics of the steroidal super-humans on the screen. While watching “Wipeout”, he very astutely remarked that it was less a show about seeing contestants pit their skills against various obstacles and more a comedy about people making fools of themselves. baby is growing up!

So we come together as a family, starting 7:30 p.m. every weekday, and spend an hour or two putting aside our differences in age, temperament, inclinations and intellectual ability to revel in the spectacle of other people’s ambitions. Dinner gets consumed in record time and I am now given some serious respect as a word-guru( thank you Pat and Vanna) . My daughter gets plenty of cuddles from both parents and I have ventured to give my son a hug or two while he is still within reaching distance.

Maybe we’ll get tired of dumbing ourselves down one day. “Jeopardy”, here we come.

Children and lies

So ja beta, nahi to gabbar ayega

Chances are, if you’re an Indian condemn your soul to moral perdition at least half a dozen times a day. We don’t believe in burdening our kids with the truth when a well chosen whopper can make them eat their dinner, brush their teeth, study for their tests and stay chaste till their 40’s. We invoke the police and the bad guys with equal zest, often for the same purpose. We shield our kids from bad news by telling them “Grandpa has gone for a long trip” or “Tommy(the dog) has found a new home.” We deflect questions about the birds and the bees by making up elaborate concoctions sure to keep them in therapy or couples counselling for years to come. Stories using organized religion as a backdrop maybe the biggest corkers of them wonder they are called fables.

Our movies reflect our propensity to pretext. Movie moms deal with the loss of the movie dads by telling the child “He’ll be right back.” Exactly how dumb do they think the child is?

When I was growing up, my esteemed parent frustrated me on long road trips by answering the question “When will we get there?” with “In 5 minutes,” every single time I asked. It took me a while to figure it out, but eventually I realized that I would only get the answer she thought I wanted to hear. So when I had kids of my own, I figured I was going to be absolutely truthful to them. Both my kids have been exposed to the virtues of vitamins in their veggies and the perils of tartar in their teeth before they were two, leaving them with permanently bemused expressions.

Unfortunately, all my good intentions came to a hasty end at the hands of Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny and the Tooth Fairy, who conspired to make a liar out of me.  When it came to a choice between the magic of childhood and the clinical and unsatisfactory virtuousness of truth, it was no contest.

Still, I thought I was doing a fairly good job being straight with my kids on all the stuff that really mattered and instilling in them a love for truth that would help them grow up to be responsible, upstanding citizens when an incident happened that shook my belief in the virtue of verisimilitude.

My 5 year old had been  asked by her teacher to go to bed at 8 p.m. sharp prior to an important test day. As it happened she slept half an hour later. In the morning, she was in tears because she had disobeyed the teacher.( This is a rather sad commentary on the authority system at her private school, but that is a topic for later.) I tried explaining to her that-

-each child had her own sleep schedule and an arbitrary bedtime made no sense. ( more tears)

-she was to feel free to blame it all on me.( tearful objections -“but it was my responsibility”)

-the teacher was an idiot and she was not to listen to her( shocked tears)

I went around the block (literally and figuratively..the parking lot was full) with these arguments for a while before exasperation took over. “Just lie,” I said, ” and tell her you slept at 8 p.m., ok?”

The tears disappeared like magic.

“That’s what I wanted to do in the first place,” said the politician in training.

What is normal?

In the first 3 years of his life, we were so busy dealing with our son’s eczema and various severe allergies that we really didn’t pay any attention to his personality. Then he started school. School, which is unkind to boys to begin with, has a way of sharply underscoring the qualities that set a child apart from others. Our son was dreamy, distracted and had a tendency to keep to himself. He would look anywhere but at the teacher but be able to answer any questions on the subject being discussed – a parlor trick that caused no end of amazement to the adults interacting with him.

This was over half a dozen years ago, when behavioral disorders were not as much in the cultural mainstream as they are today. Still, we knew he was not like the other kids. I would like to say that we were enlightened enough to know he didn’t need to be tested, but it was most likely the social stigma which kept us from getting him a ‘label’.

Over the course of the years, the 3 guidelines I followed every time I wondered if he really needed external intervention were as follows –

Could he make eye contact and carry on a conversation?

Was he coping at school?

Did he have the ability to make friends and keep them?

So long as the answers to the three questions were in the affirmative, I decided he was ok – different but ok.

Now an excellent article in Newsweek discusses ‘quirky’ kids and how the definition of normal has changed over the years.


More and more, kids who once would have been considered slightly out of step with their peers are emerging with diagnoses of sensory-integration dysfunction, dyspraxia and pervasive developmental disorder, to name a few.

I know this is true from personal experience. If ‘normal’ is a band in the behavior spectrum, that band has been shrinking dramatically. I notice that my son feels less and less out of place as the years go by, not because he has changed in any noticeable way, but that many of the kids around him have behavioral ‘issues’ that once would have just been called personality traits.

The Newsweek article goes on to say –


If we examine ourselves and those around us….we have to admit that everyone is, to a certain extent, odd….So when we worry about our kids’ strange behavior, is it because they deviate from our own expectations of what life should be like for a ‘well adjusted’ 5-, 7-, or 12-year old, or is it because the person in front of us is struggling way more than she should?

I guess the middle road between a behavioral diagnosis from experts and ignoring a potentially serious condition is to make sure your child is capable of coping and navigating his or her world. After that, it is up to us to celebrate your child’s differences.

The postscript to our experiences with our son’s quirkiness is that 6 years after he was born, we had a baby daughter. She is the poster child for ‘normal’. No matter how thin that band of acceptable behavior gets she will always be plumb in the middle of it. She is an uncomplicated child, a joy to have around and a breeze to bring up. And yet, I sometimes catch myself wishing she was a little more imaginative, a little more generous, sensitive and thoughtful – a little more like my quirky, difficult son.

The attraction of religion

Possibly as a result of the evangelist bent of the current administration in the US, there has recently been a rash of atheist manifestos debunking the existence of God and the necessity for religion. There’s Christopher Hitchens’ vitriolic ‘God is not Great’, Richard Dawkins’ ‘The God Delusion’ and a host of other treatises from atheists like Sam Harris and Victor Mills, fed up with the crimes committed by man which appear to have some sort of religious sanction or religious provocation.

To a questioning mind, the existence of God has to be, at the very least, a matter of doubt. As a Hindu, I have been lucky to be part of a religion that is, to put it mildly, rather loosey-goosey. There is room for every intellect, from the slavish, ritualistic devotion to a particular deity to the spiritually evolved Bhagavad Gita and the Upanishads. The framework of Hinduism has perfectly suited my intrinsically skeptical mindset, so I was thrown into confusion when confronted with the need for belief in my 11 year old son.

Like Nachiketa in the Upanishads, my son has lately been obsessed with the after-life – specifically, what happens to us after we die. Being no Yama (except when it comes to homework and bedtime curfews!) I scrambled around for answers that would satisfy without scaring.

In the Upanishads, as in the Gita, the classic answer has been as follows –

The supreme Self is beyond name and form,
Beyond the senses, inexhaustible,
Without beginning, without end, beyond
Time, space, and causality, eternal,
Immutable. Those who realize the Self
Are forever free from the jaws of death.

Eknath Easwaran’s translation

Unfortunately, this is a philosophy out of the grasp of most adults, so it was no surprise that it did my son no good. After a few unsatisfactory discussions we moved on to Christianity, where the concepts of heaven and hell have structure and clarity. This was much more to the 11 year-old’s liking and I began to get a glimpse into why religion plays such an important role in people’s lives.

Christianity and Islam both have the advantage over Hinduism of having a set of scriptures that lay down the law in pretty simple lists of do’s and don’ts. My theory of religious evolution goes somewhat like this –

Out of the need for order in societal chaos is born a new religion. To the society at large, it probably takes the shape of a ‘cult’ till it gains enough adherents to become respectable. The three guiding principles of any new religion are –

Contrast – How your religion differs from the existing belief system
Convince – Why it is better, and
Convert – What will happen to you if you don’t join.

Eventually, as the religion ages, it begins to lose some of its dogma and become more inclusive. It also begins to allow conflicting schools of thought to co-exist in relative harmony. But as it loses its fundamentalism, it also loses its appeal to people who want the comfort of being told what to do.

Hinduism is in this mature stage, which explains the rise of gurus and godmen. When I talk to followers of gurus about their motivation, not surprisingly, it is the craving for direction that is the biggest driver. The appeal of the guru is that of a parent for a child – someone who takes on the burden of responsibility of thinking for you.

Newer religions like Islam still have the structure and discipline in place, which is why they are such an attraction to confused, angry child-men seeking a higher purpose in life. A New York Times article about the failed terrorist plot in Germany recently reports –

…radical Muslims began to exert a glamorous gravitational pull on some German youths, German authorities say. In 2003 a local convert calling himself “Hamza” Fischer was killed fighting against Russian troops in Chechnya.

“They like the clear rules,” Mr. Köpfer says of the young converts. “Many of them are attracted to Islam not as a religion but as an ideology.”

I fear the attraction these ideologies have for my pre-teen. I don’t underestimate his need for clear answers. Since I can’t tell him comforting lies, the best I can do is to point out that the inflexibility and exclusivity of existing religions condemn non-believers (that would be us, his parents) to a very descriptive hell, set a good example for moral and ethical behavior, and hope for the best.

The sense behind school uniforms


I happen to be in the somewhat unusual situation of having one child in public school and the other in a private establishment. The September sticker shock of the private school fees is expected, of course, but this year I had the painful experience of shelling out big bucks for the my daughter’s uniforms, a complicated array of inner and outerwear that will take a computer algorithm to figure out.


While standing at the checkout line at the uniform shop, the absurdity of the whole thing struck me. Not that I object to uniforms. As a former student from India, I am very comfortable with the idea. What strikes me as illogical is that, really, it is the child who is going to the public school who should be wearing a uniform.


After all, one of the primary objectives of having all the children dress alike is to eliminate the differences and imbue the kids with a school spirit. Even in an Indian ghetto like Ardenwood, where I live, there is a fair amount of racial, ethnic and economic diversity. And perhaps the most troubling to the mother of a daughter, there is also cultural diversity, with a pretty wide variety in necklines and hemlines.


On the other hand, in the private school, there is a staggering level of homogeneity in both the economic and cultural situation of the students. Left to themselves, peer pressure and strong parental involvement would probably drive them all to a fairly similar, well dressed look and the uniform seems like overkill. As I see it, in a private school, the purpose of the uniform is to make an elite system further a sense of distinction in an already privileged class.


Why public schools don’t mandate uniforms is beyond me. One of the most common reasons given is that of the potential cost, but as any parent can tell you, by the time you pick up the latest low-waist jeans and the high-top sneakers, you are as much out of pocket as the snob in the multi-million dollar home across the street. Keeping the uniforms simple would also keep the costs down.


Another criticism is that the uniforms impinge on the child’s individuality and infringe on his/her rights. This is a laugh, considering the whole purpose of school is to create a herd mentality. Just insisting that the children dress alike is hardly going to make a significant difference. In fact, it might be easier to impart the values of cooperation and team spirit, two values to which a lot of lip service is paid in the classrooms.


At a time when the public school system in the US is going through such upheaval and introspection, I would really recommend a good hard look at introducing uniforms universally. I know it would take the guesswork out of the whole back-to-school shopping experience. If it has the added benefit of making all the boys look neat and the girls look like nuns I, for one, will be thrilled!

A tale of SonicRama

The following is a cautionary tale for those of you who take their scriptures and their religious tomes a little too literally.  Even for such a well known epic as the Ramayana, there is the Valmiki version, the Kamban version and of course the saccharine Tulsidas version. Behind all those stories is probably a kernel of truth – a story of a banished king who fought a villainous emperor somewhere in India. That kernel has been woven into legend by centuries of storytellers, each embellishing it in his own style and with his own little touches.

This is my 11 year-old’s Sonic the Hedgehog-laced version. I caught him telling his 5 year-old sister the story of Vali and Sugriva. Except, of course, the characters were Bokkun( a black character from Sonic-X) and Baby( a monkey character from  Super Monkey Ball). Our heroes were SonicRama and Foxmana, on their way to rescue Seetamy.

“After Seetamy was kidnapped by Dr. Bad Boon, SonicRama and Foxmana came upon a small group of robot monkeys and their king Baby. He was once the king of all the robot monkeys but he was overthrown by his brother Bokkun. Baby said that he would help SonicRama rescue Seetamy if SonicRama helped him take back his kingdom. . SonicRama asked Baby,”Why do you want to fight your own brother?” Baby replied,” Bokkun took away my kingdom and became king himself. He took away my wife and children as well.”

So Baby challenged Bokkun to a swordfight.  SonicRama was supposed to hide and shoot Bokkun with an arrow.But as Baby was walking to the place where the sword fight was supposed to be, he stumbled through some blackberry bushes and became as black as Bokkun. So SonicRama couldn’t figure out which one was Baby and which one was Bokkun. The fight was a draw.

The next time SonicRama told Baby to stumble through a bunch of raspberry bushes instead. So this time Baby became red. SonicRama fixed a special arrow in his bow. He shot Bokkun. Bokkun didn’t die, instead he started to tap dance.  He groaned, “How embarrassing” and tapdanced all the way to Mobotropolis where he was thrown in jail. He spent the rest of his life in jail – tapdancing.”

It is good to know that our tradition of oral storytelling still survives. The only way that tradition can continue is if we allow our stories to evolve with us. Instead of treating our epics as recorded history why not just take the lessons that they teach, lessons which have not lost their relevance with the years? In fact the versions  surviving today may well reflect the culture in which they survive and the morals of their times.

And who knows, maybe someday SonicRama will take his rightful place in the pantheon of gods.:)

Of public schools, intelligence and ambition

“The trouble with public schools,” groused a friend, “is that they just don’t foster ambition.” She had moved her son from a private school to the local high school a year or so ago.

Apparently her son was quite comfortable with the idea of going to a state college after graduation and even, horror of horrors, getting a few basic credits at the community college nearby.

To an Indian parent, a statement like that conjures up visions of desi gatherings where the names that are dropped are those of Ivy League schools, spit out between mouthfuls of tandoori paneer and chicken vol-au-vents. You might as well excommunicate yourself rather than admit that your smart, intelligent child hasn’t made it.

But let’s consider this before we import our educational biases into the US; my Caucasian neighbour’s talented daughters are now in a state college studying to be a teacher and a nurse respectively. We’ve known them since the girls were in elementary school and to all accounts they were excellent students, earning steady As. They went on through the public school system and chose careers that they felt they would enjoy the most.  Yes, they did not feel the drive to apply to Berkeley and Stanford nearby, not even to UCSF, but their lack of ‘ambition’ means that someday, the local infrastructure of education and medicine will be populated by very capable candidates. The same applies to students who go on to perhaps mundane but very worthwhile jobs as firefighters, city planners, transportation officers and park rangers. The result is that the people in service industries are there because they genuinely enjoy what they do and are there because they want to be, not as a compromise choice from frustrated desires. A clear example is the quality of teachers in my son’s school – the worst of them could give any Indian teacher I ever had growing up a complex. I have a lot more faith in the institutions that influence my daily life because I know the people that populate them are there by choice.

The flip side, of course, is that there is a crisis of lack of competitiveness. Hungrier and more ambitious students from other parts of the world are aiming for the best positions in American colleges, the PhDs  and the best paid jobs. As Tom Friedman wrote in his article “Laughing and Crying” the graduation list of Rensselaer Polytechnic sounded like the patrons at the Dim Sum place down the street. There is no doubt that there should be more emphasis on science and math at school. A little push to improve grades would also not be amiss.

At the same time, I hope we never get to a situation like India, where the degrees of B.Sc., B.Com and B.A correspond to Smart, Not-so-Smart and Downright Dumb. The education system here accommodates for a spectrum of intelligence, financial capabilities and ambition. The most motivated will rise to the top, regardless of the lack of push from teachers or parents. The less ambitious will happily settle down to a life of small triumphs, participating in PTAs, volunteering at neighbourhood shelters and coaching their kids’ Little League games. They will be the pillars of the society.

In India, economic and social pressures dictated our narrow choices. Here, our children have the opportunity to discover what they are really good at and hopefully make a comfortable living from it and at finding a balance between work and family.

Let’s give our kids the chance to find out and be accepted for who they are and want to be. If that means we have to grit our teeth and smile bravely while informing our friends and family that the little Tam-Bram genius is pursuing a career in wedding be it.

Kumon – or how I outsourced parenting

If you are among the remaining 6 Indians who haven’t heard of Kumon, it is an after-school tutoring program in Math and English operated out of franchises. Developed about 50 years ago in Japan, the system emphasizes a graduated approach to mastering technique.

I succumbed to Kumon after my 11 year old had a particularly rough year in 5th grade. Surrounded by scions of engineering toppers, the poor child managed to feel dumb when he didn’t get all straight A’s at year-end and was receptive to the idea of supplemental help.

The nearest Kumon center was a short drive away, located in a strip mall surrounded by gas stations and fast food joints. As seedy as its neighborhood, the place was decidedly low-tech, with hand-written notices liberally papering the single room with its aluminium chairs and tables.

Naren was given an HB pencil and a test sheet and asked to solve the problems. It took him about 30 minutes and at the end the harried franchise owner, who was also dealing with half-a-dozen other Indian kids, categorized him in some way not obvious to the layperson(me) and handed him a box with practice sheets for the coming week. Naren’s job was to finish one sheet set every day.

My job was to correct said sheet. The Kumon system takes the concept of self in “self-motivated learning” to a new high. There is no instruction, none at all. The difficulty level is calibrated and graduated in such a way that the child is supposed to simply progress by himself(herself). The child learns on his own and the parent corrects his/her work.

After a few days of this, I had serious doubts. Why was I paying to be doing all the work? Creating the question set is dead simple, after all. I could come up with the 50 questions or so in about 15 minutes.

Turns out what you are paying a 100 bucks a month for is not the Kumon test sheets, but two completely different services that Kumon provides. The first is the answer booklet. Making up the questions may take a matter of minutes but solving the darned questions yourself is another thing altogether. Even if it is only compound fractions I have to deal with so far, the pain involved in getting down and dirty with 5th grade math is gladly to be avoided for 3 dollars a day. I freely admit, I am not smarter than a 5th grader.

The second, more important service, at least in my household, is that of outsourcing discipline. I can just imagine the pitched battles I would have every day with a recalcitrant tween over sitting down with pages of math in mother’s illegible hand. Somehow, when it’s all typed up and comes in a neatly packaged box, the bitter pill becomes a lot easier to swallow. The same child, who would look and behave as if he was being asked to stitch buttons in a dingy sweatshop if asked to do chores, meekly finishes his Kumon set first thing every morning and brings it over to be corrected. At least for a few minutes a day, I have the joyful illusion of being the parent of a well-brought up son. I don’t know if the Japanese work-ethic is being transmitted by some mysterious process of osmosis, but whatever it is, it seems to work.

So Mr. Franchisee, you can count on one more loyal Indian parent to enrich your coffers on a monthly installment plan. It is not because we think very highly of your methods. It is because we know the value of outsourcing and just can’t pass up such a good deal.

Out of the mouths of ungrateful children

My 11 year old brought home a pound of sand in his shoes, a fact I only discovered the next morning when said sand thinly covered the contents of his room. I was busy vacuuming the grit when he walked in after his morning ablutions.

“Go ahead, make your bed,” I advised.

He paused, watching me run the vacuum back and forth.

“You’re asking me to make the bed when you messed it up?”

I was dumbfounded.

“You’ve been sleeping there. How did I mess it up?”

He thought for a minute.

“You must have when you were cleaning all the sand off the sheets.”

Wah, kya logic hai!

My glare was enough to make him shut up and get to it but, by god, I miss corporal punishment.