Creativity is allowing yourself to make mistakes. Art is knowing which ones to keep. Musings from someone who sees stories everywhere.

Wednesday, April 08, 2015

The price of genius

“Make your child a genius!” This hoarding on a Bengaluru bus grabbed my attention. The advertisers promised to make your kid, anybody’s kid, a master of general knowledge, elocution, creative writing, art, dramatics, fashion designing, film making and heaven knows what esoteric else. A universe of knowledge and talent, stuffed into your kid in just six weeks for a fancy price. The savvy promoters knew that busy people like us will refuse to waste our time to think. Can talent and genius be bought like potatoes or chappals? Who cares as long as we can keep up with boastful neighbours? Superficial glitz can readily be bought and cobbled together. No wonder they score over hard-earned substance. We ourselves are busy scrambling up the slippery ladder to ‘success.’ Who has time to nurture their own children these days? The problem is not with training courses and camps, which can indeed be useful. The problem is with our own attitude. By forcing our children into countless extra-curricular programmes, we expect them to become multi-faceted geniuses overnight. Buying talent, genius, all-round development and sundry mind-blowing intellectual accomplishments for our precious darlings, seems to be the latest craze in shortcut privileged parenting.
Heavy schoolbags and endless exams are no longer enough to satisfy ambitious educationists and parents. A lady proudly shared how her child, enrolled in an exclusive school, even had library exams! What on earth is that? The sixth standard student did not know or have the energy left after a deluge of edifying activities, to care. She simply ticked random choices and submitted her paper to the teacher. Children fare best in extra-curricular activities if they pursue them out of interest, and not external pressures. A rigid and compulsive approach kills any natural curiosity and joy of discovering fascinating and fun activities. A hollow sham of all-round development is the end result.
Many Indian children are denied even primary education due to poverty. A global report tracking nutritional status of children worldwide, states that half of Indian children below five years are stunted. One fifth of Indian children are wasted, and a large number of them don’t even get ORS when suffering from diarrhoea. On the other hand, privileged Indian children are denied childhood joys and holistic growth by having an avalanche of curricular and extracurricular activities shoved down their throats .While pouring money to buy such education and accomplishments for our children, we seem hell-bent upon turning them into mindless robots and dysfunctional, disgruntled future adults.
Educated urban Indians like us are a hard-nosed, materialistic lot. Our houses, cars, clothes and other possessions certify our ‘success’ in life, which in turn defines our sense of self-worth. We live vicariously through our children, projecting our own unfulfilled ambitions on them even before they have grown out of diapers. Modern Indian parents strive to buy education as a commodity for their children .The more privileged ones vie to also buy every sort of accomplishment for their precious darlings. This begins when children are starting to walk and speak a few words. We push them into play homes, prep schools and tutorials before they can remember their own names. In the good or bad old days, Indian kids bent under schoolbags heavier than themselves. Youngsters routinely took their own lives, unable to cope with the pressure of eternal exams, and the compulsion to get that vital half mark more than the next kid. That’s now become an accepted part of ordinary Indian life. Meanwhile, people like us strive to rise above the average herd by pushing our children into a bottomless quagmire of structured extra-curricular activities. We insist on regimenting every moment of their residual time after academics, and drag them into courses, camps and classes to hammer all-round intellectual development into them.
Vacations are when tiger dads and lion moms go on the rampage. We enrol children into swimming and horse-riding camps, followed by Bharatnatyam and sign language classes. We won’t allow them to waste a precious second, for there’s also coaching for singing and dance contests on TV.  To meet the skyrocketing demand, creative coaches will soon launch courses for mushroom cultivation, sand grain carving and grave digging.  We ensure that the miserable young ones are given no breathing space. God forbid they should have choices or a few moments to reflect and ask uncomfortable questions.
To meet the growing demand from well-heeled, busy parents, a new crop of fancy schools promise fast-track all-round development of the child.  I’ve written books for children, among other things. Times were when committed librarians and teachers invited me to interact with their students, taking care to familiarize themselves with my work. Together we encouraged students to read and enjoy books of their choice, and freely explore many ideas outside the academic curriculum while having fun. It was an exciting experience for youngsters to actually meet and talk to someone who had written a book they enjoyed. Such breaks from the routine helped recharge the children’s’ spirits and excite their curiosity.
Times are changing. During a recent visit to a posh school, the teachers’ demands dampened my excitement. I had to teach the kids to become authors in the space of a half hour session! I spent many years improving my writing and working on those books, and I still feel there is much more to learn. I began my journey as an avid reader. Even as a pre-school toddler, my parents left me free to choose my favourite picture books. But my experiences were irrelevant here. These children from privileged backgrounds had no time for books, the teachers explained. They only needed to learn to become authors themselves. They had far too many enlightening and personality building activities to keep them busy, and dazzle the world with their accomplishments. Meanwhile, their guardians and instructors saw no sense in allowing them time to understand, absorb or enjoy any of it. They were so busy manufacturing budding geniuses, neither the students nor most of the teachers even knew who I was! I realized how my presence was part of a marketing gimmick. The parents would be informed of the school’s efforts to expose children to experts in various fields. And this would justify a hike in school fees. Since many among us earn a living by providing various goods and services, we will appreciate this innovative concept of selling Mt Everest to busy parents with no time to bring up their children. Parents are squarely to blame. Genius shops are selling what they desperately want to buy. Something that cannot be bought. But we try to overcompensate for our own lack of involvement, by pushing our hapless children into an endless whirlpool of activities.
Research by scientists is confirming what wise parents have known all along. Babies and young children have immense potential for learning. Findings by Carolyn Rovee-Collier, a psychologist at Rutgers University, suggest that "even at two and a half months, an infant's memory is very developed, very specific and incredibly detailed." Language skills and emotional responses to the world around them, also begin developing early. Early and sustained nurturing is vital in shaping intelligent, balanced, and emotionally healthy adults of the future. Parental involvement is essential for a child’s ongoing development. Parents are the first and most important teachers long before a child begins school. The sincerest teachers in the best schools have to deal with many children. They cannot give each child individual attention like the parent. Yet a growing number of educated young Indian parents are too busy to spare enough quality time and attention for their children.
Helping children to develop their intelligence and skills does not mean tossing textbooks of Medieval History and Trigonometry into the cradle to produce precocious geniuses. Nor is enrolling kindergarteners into the friendly neighbourhood creative writing school likely to manufacture many bestselling Nobel laureates. We need to adopt the right attitude and not allow ourselves and our children to get trapped in rigid and unimaginative training programmes. As caring and concerned parents, we need to carve time out of our busy schedules to enjoy watching and participating in activities that interest and stimulate our children. Reading aloud, for example, is a joy shared by both parent and child. And you don’t need to pay hefty fees for it. Far from being a waste of time, reading encourages children to explore and learn. When parents read to their children during the first three years of life, the foundation is laid for a lifelong interest in learning. While vital for building brains, reading to young children while they cuddle up to a loving parent or elder also nurtures children emotionally, and lays the foundations for trusting and close emotional relationships as adults.
Reading books to children opens their mind to new things and places in the outside world. When children learn that books contain exciting stories and pictures, they want to read more. They do far better in school, as books are not something to be dreaded, but a thing of joy. They can understand their textbooks better, and organically improve their vocabulary and writing. As the child grows older, reading expands their horizons of knowledge. Children who are allowed to spontaneously enjoy and take interest in reading, painting, music and other activities, become independent learners and thinkers. They can attend their school work with minimum help, and entertain themselves when they are alone. Once a child enjoys such an activity of her choice, the habit will serve her well for the rest of her life. A child who can think independently will be more competent to deal with the challenges of adult life.
Studies and life haven't become harder these days. It's the attitudes that have changed. Kids habitually cram lessons, and go to private tutors for spoon-feeding of fixed notes. Then parents and schools herd children into activities such as film appreciation, chess or piano playing, without taking their choices into account. If we allow children to play, to think and decide for themselves, then they will derive maximum joy and benefits from extra-curricular activities. Extra professional coaching certainly is helpful, but parents and teachers need to motivate the children first.
Unstructured play time is also essential for children. As parents and educationists, it’s up to us to allow young people some time to breathe freely, and even play in the mud if they wish to. When children explore something that interests them, they learn more quickly and readily remember what they enjoyed learning. By allowing children choices, we can help nurture important skills such as making decisions, solving problems and forging healthy bonds with others. By encouraging children’s questions and curiosity, we can boost complex thinking.
Pushing children into strictly regimented activities is a reflection of our own fear of failure. We all need to overcome that fear of falling and getting dirty, of failing, if we are to ultimately succeed. Success cannot come quickly simply from unimaginatively planned, one-size-fits-all tutorials forced upon exhausted children. We cannot buy our way into genuine achievements, or expect our children to become perfect at one shot.  Let’s take a tip from American author Toni Morrison, whose impressive awards list include the Pulitzer Prize and the Nobel Prize in Literature. “As a writer, a failure is just information. It’s something that I’ve done wrong in writing, or is inaccurate or unclear. I recognize failure—which is important; some people don’t—and fix it, because it is data, it is information, knowledge of what does not work… then you have to pay very close attention to it, rather than get depressed or unnerved or feel ashamed. …What you do is you identify the procedure and what went wrong and then correct it.” Even for such a towering, world-renowned literary figure, success and confidence came with time, introspection and constant effort. Who are we, then, to bamboozle our children into camps and courses with the ambition of turning them into TV stars or authors overnight?
Are we turning our children into intellectual bonsais by dumping our unrealistic expectations upon their tender shoulders? Is it so difficult to appreciate our children for themselves? Do we have to push them into endless courses and camps in order to transform them into star performers overnight? It would be better if we try to bring light and joy into children's lives. If only we could allow them some space to play freely, let them figure things out for themselves and guide them to activities they find interesting and refreshing. 
This is published in Sunday Herald