Imagine: Parenting and the art of selective watering

The art of selective watering is about accepting and celebrating the child as he is and not as you wished he was. It is not a technique but a deep faith that each child is worthy. Just the way he or she is.

It is not a technique but a deep faith that each child is worthy. Just the way he or she is.

Many years ago, I went for a five-day retreat with the Zen Buddhist master and peace activist, Thich Nhat Hanh, which was like a paradigm shift for me as a human being, a parent and a therapist. There is one simple and beautiful metaphor that I would like to share that can transform the way we live, teach and, definitely, parent our children. According to Thay (as he is called by his followers), each one of us has both negative seeds (for example, anger, rage, jealousy, hatred) and wholesome seeds (love, joy, gratitude, compassion, courage) and what will grow depends on the seeds we water. Similarly, in our relationship with our children, the seeds that will sprout and gain strength are the ones that we nurture. Simple.

At the core of this philosophy is the faith that there is immense inner wealth in each and every child. For many children, this inner wealth of greatness is very obvious as they shine in studies, sports, talent and social situations. Like magnets, these children immediately make us water their wholesome seeds with their charm, pleasant ways and attractive qualities. There are many other children whose wholesome seeds are not visible to us. They are sunk deep in the mud and need some intentional watering so that they can be nourished and continue to grow. Naturally, they are the ones who end up attracting a lot of our negative energy as we struggle to come to terms with their ‘messiness’. They seem to be grappling with their studies, are uncoordinated and have no obvious appeal, and we end up trying to fix them by cranking up our negative energy towards them – ‘you are wasting your life’, ‘why can’t you be more responsible’!

I find the Nurtured Heart Approach (NHA) by Howard Glasser, a psychologist and therapist, very much in alignment with the Buddhist art of selective watering. I have tweaked it a bit over the years to give it a different twist.

Active recognition

Do you remember the way Na’vis greeted each other in the film Avatar?  ‘I see you!’ Wow! So simple, but so difficult. In our frantic world of multitasking, who has the time for ‘I see you’? But can you imagine how our lives would be enriched if we did more of ‘I see you’.

Active recognition is the ‘I see you’ of the Na’vis. I like to believe that my grandfather was a Na’vi as he relished every moment of our being on this earth. No matter how busy he was, or how many times he had seen us in a day, he would always smile when we entered the room, his eyes lighting up and sparkling with pure love.

As he grew very old, at times, we could hear him softly chuckling and murmuring our names under his breath as if just saying them out gave him immense pleasure and peace. That is active recognition! When just the presence of the other person fills you with expansive gratitude and joy. This is a small gesture but it works like magic in building a sense of ‘I am valued’ for children and goes a long way in strengthening the connect which is at the core of every relationship.

Choose one day and make it a ‘Light Up’ day. Go about your daily activities but keep your eyes and ears open for your children. Look at them more often, make more eye contact, listen to them, touch them, smile at them, light up and notice the small activities they are involved in (tone it down for the teenagers otherwise you might spook them out.). At the end of the day, notice if you see any changes in them, or in yourself. For that little extra kick, try it with your spouse too!

Value recognition

In value recognition, we go one step further. We connect their behaviour, actions, choices to a strength, a quality or a value. ‘I appreciate your honesty in telling me that you did not prepare for your exams,’ ‘It takes a lot of courage to stand up to the bullies,’ ‘You showed a sense of responsibility in submitting this project on time.’

Children thrive when they feel they are being appreciated, recognised and valued as human beings. However, it is also very important to differentiate between recognition and praise. Praise like ‘you are so pretty’, ‘you are so intelligent’, ‘you are so smart’ is like junk food, which does not really nourish a child. Carol Dweck from Standford University, in her decades of research in this field, calls praise ‘fixed feedback’ (i.e., something that can’t be changed), which ends up breeding a generation of praise junkies who are resistant to growth. Fixed feedback does not help the child to grow and, on the other hand, can just make her complacent and reluctant to work on her skills. However, recognitions, which highlight effort, persistence, compassion, etc, are like process feedback (i.e., something that can be changed), which enhances the growth mindset in children.

Creative recognition

Going back to the core philosophy that I write about, ‘Each child is wired and inspired differently’, we have to accept that there are many children who are shy, scattered, disorganised, dreamers, clumsy and noisy. They might still have huge reservoirs of creativity, talent, ability, generosity, etc., but all that is lost behind cobwebs of mis-wiring that keep them from connecting and showing their sparkle.

Creative recognition is about creating spaces for all children to shine. It is about making time for each child to be celebrated. We could stretch ourselves a little and water the seeds of every child in the classroom too — Sahil’s poem to be read out to the class; Richa’s story to be sent to the school magazine; Ayesha’s artwork to be put up on the noticeboard; Zoha’s recipe to be put up on a school’s website. Let childhood and school not be congratulatory just for children who are visible to all, but also for those who can easily get lost in the crowd. Through recognition, we become active agents in helping children weave their stories and identities with vibrant and colourful threads that speak to them of their worthiness.

The art of selective watering is about accepting and celebrating the child as he is and not as you wished he was. It is not a technique but a deep faith that each child is worthy. Just the way he or she is.

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