Concerted Cultivation

Source:kidskintha.com

“Tiger moms’, ‘helicopter parenting’; ‘authoritative parenting or authoritarian parenting’; ‘permissive parenting’ or ‘uninvolved parenting’… In the last decade or more there has been a lot of discussion and debate around ‘parenting styles’. In nuclear families with both working parents, and one or two children, there seems to be a situation where parents are overly conscious about “parenting” in order to give the “best of everything possible” to their children. Paradoxically, this is now beginning to show somewhat alarming outcomes. 

I recently read a thought-provoking book titled The Coddling of the American Mind: How good intentions and bad ideas are setting up a generation for failure. The book’s primary intent is to understand the phenomenon of rising intolerance on college campuses in America. In order to do this the authors attempt to go back to the contemporary practices of child-raising that impact psyche and behaviour of these children as they reach adulthood. Although these premises are based on a study of trends and theories in the Unites States, it was surprising and disturbing that a lot of this applies also to some sections of parents in India.

One of the chapters in the book looks at the changes in parenting styles in America over the last five decades or so. Parents of children born in the nineteen fifties were strongly influenced by Dr Benjamin Spock who taught that “children should be permitted to develop at their own pace, not pushed to meet the schedules and rules of adult life.” Spock encouraged parents to relax and let children be children. Children growing up in the fifties, and through the sixties and seventies roamed freely around their neighbourhood and played without adult supervision. Unsupervised time had many positives in terms of child development—joy, independence, problem solving, and resilience.

But starting from the 1980s, and gaining strength in the 1990s, there was shift in thinking about child upbringing, moving away from Spock’s “permissive parenting” to a new model of “intensive parenting.” Which is what sociologist Annette Lareau describes as “concerted cultivation”. Parents using this style see their task as cultivating their children’s talents while stimulating the development of their cognitive and social skills. They fill their children’s calendars with adult-guided activities, lessons and experiences, and they closely monitor what happens in school. They talk with their children a great deal using reasoning and persuasion, and they hardly ever use physical force or physical punishment.

The main converts to this were educated middle class parents who were reading about new theories of ‘early stimulation’ (such as babies who listened to Mozart would become smarter) and who felt that they needed to give their children every possible advantage in the increasingly competitive race to get into a good college.

Cultivation of such conditions for children requires that parents make a concerted effort to plan their children’s time.  Children have after school activities like music lessons, team sports, tutoring and other structured and supervised activities. Younger children have ‘playdates’. Children are overscheduled, over parented and over monitored.

The race for getting the child into a good college begins even before the child starts school. A telling example of the change in expectations are two checklists of reference indicators for parents to check whether their child is ready for first grade.

Checklist in 1979

–Will your child be six years six months or older when he begins first grade and starts receiving reading instruction?

–Does your child have two to five permanent or second teeth?

–Can your child tell, in such a way that his speech is understood by a school crossing guard or policeman where he lives?

–Can he draw and colour and stay within the lines of the design being covered?

–Can he stand on one foot with eyes closed for five or ten seconds?

–Can he tell his left hand from his right?

–Can he travel alone in the neighbourhood (four to eight blocks) to store, playground, or to a friend’s home?

–Can he be away from you all day without being upset?

–Can he repeat a simple eight or ten word sentence, if you say it once?

–Can he count eight to ten pennies correctly?

–Does your child try to write or copy letters or numbers?

A Checklist from a school, circa 2015, had about thirty items on it, mainly academic standards. This included the expectation that the six-year-old child should be able to:

–Identify and write numbers to100.

–Count by 10’s to 100, 2’s to 20 and 5’s to 100.

–Interpret and fill in data on a graph.

–Read all kindergarten-level sight words.

–be able to read books with five to ten words per page.

–Form complete sentences on paper using phonetic spelling (i.e. journal and story writing).

Kindergarten in the 1970s was devoted mostly to social interaction and self-directed play with some instruction in art, music, numbers and the alphabet. Kindergarten today is much more structured and sedentary with children receiving direct instruction to academic subjects—known as ‘drill and skill’ method of instruction.

In recent years, in addition to over parenting, protective parenting has grown into ‘paranoid’ parenting. Parents want to keep their children ‘safe’ from anything that they perceive might harm them—food, activities, people, words…This is creating a cult of safetyism, where children grow up believing that the world is full of danger.

The authors believe that such parenting, has adverse, rather than supportive effects on children. Overprotected children are also shielded from the small but necessary challenges and risks that they need to face on their own. The children grow up with a sense of fear, anxiety and distrust. They are denied the necessary opportunities to develop important ‘life skills’ such as self-directed learning, cooperation, negotiation, compromise, dispute resolution, decision making, and perspective taking.

 Free outdoor play, a critical component of growing up that develops these skills is increasingly missing from children’s lives today.  Studies in America have found that compared to previous generations, children growing up in the second decade of the 21st century are spending hardly any time in outdoor activities, especially free play; they spend less free time with friends and more time interacting with parents, and much more time interacting with screens.

This is perhaps almost as true now for most other parts of the world. Indeed, much more so in the last year and a half of the pandemic lockdowns. Even while the current conditions deny children many vital experiences and opportunities, it would be important to remember that even well-intentioned over parenting can harm rather than help our children. Children are naturally ‘antifragile’, their brains require a wide range of inputs from their environment in order to configure themselves for these environments. Like the immune system they must be exposed to challenges and stressors (within limits and appropriate to their age) to build resilience as they grow. Overprotection makes them weaker and less resilient later on. Given that risks and stresses are unavoidable parts of life, we may indeed be preparing our children better to cope with these, not by over-protecting them, but by helping them to develop their innate abilities to grow and learn from challenging experiences. As the authors write, you cannot teach your child antifragility directly but you can give your child the gift of multiple experiences they need to become resilient, autonomous adults.

Prepare your child for the road. Not the road for the child.

–Mamata

From Colour to Color

Last week I wrote about the Spelling Bee in America and how the Merriam-Webster Dictionary is the official reference for spellings for this prestigious competition. The challenge for participants in the competition is to know the spellings and meanings of the 7000+ words in the dictionary. But how many know the story about the man behind those words—Noah Webster?

This story begins on a farm in West Hartford, Connecticut where Noah Webster was born on October 16 1758, a time when America still belonged to England. His father farmed the land, and from the time Noah was a young boy, he helped out with agricultural chores; but his mind was restless and he was eager to use it in different ways. Having taken in all that the local school had to offer, and encouraged by his teachers, Noah, aged 16, entered Yale, one of the best colleges in the country then. His father took a loan on the farm to support his education. But when he graduated, his father gave Noah eight dollars and told him that henceforth he was on his own.

The 19 year-old graduate, with a farm loan to pay back, needed to start earning immediately; so he started teaching in a school. The conditions were pathetic.  . Children of all ages were crammed into one-room schoolhouses with no desks or basic supplies, untrained teachers, and a few old school books from England which pledged allegiance to King George. This was also a time when the east coast of America was in the throes of the Revolutionary War against the British. Noah strongly felt that his students should be learning about their own country from American textbooks, in a vocabulary that they identified better with.

In October 1781 after King George’s soldiers were defeated, Americans effectively won their independence. And Noah Webster decided that “I will write the second Declaration of Independence. An American spelling book.”

Noah felt that there was no reason why the newly independent people should continue to spell the way they did in England, where words were often spelt very differently from the way they sounded phonetically. Also within America itself the same word was often spelt in different ways (mosquito, moskito, miscitoe, misqutor, muskeetor…). Noah felt that Americans should spell every word in the same way, every time, everywhere. He felt that this would lead to creating a true United States of America.   

For two years, Noah taught school all day and worked at night on this dream textbook. In 1783 he published this under the title A Grammatical Institute of the English Language. He wanted that his “speller” should look different from other books on the shelves and told his printers to put a blue cover on it. And that is what the book became popularly known as–The Blue-Back Speller. The book not only taught spelling, but also listed important American dates, towns and states. Noah Webster had created the first American textbook! For over 100 years, Webster’s book taught children in America to read, spell and pronounce words. It was the most popular American book of its time, selling nearly 100 million copies. But Noah did not mint money from its sales—while originally the book cost 14 cents, he received one penny for each copy sold, the rest went to the printer.

At the time Samuel Johnson’s 1775 Dictionary of the English Language, introduced by the British, was considered the authoritative English language resource by most Americans. But there was a section of the population that wanted its own national dictionary for the newly declared free states of America. In 1806 Noah Webster took the first step towards this when he published A Compendious Dictionary of the American Language which had 40,600 words.

But he was not satisfied; he continued to work on this project with the aim of creating a reference that would overthrow Samuel Johnson’s dictionary. To accomplish this, Webster learned to read and understand more than 20 languages including Arabic, Sanskrit, and Welsh; and he travelled to France and England to research early dictionaries and books on the origins of words and language.

Noah Webster embarked on this project in 1807, and was still working on it 17 years later. At that point he felt he needed to refer still more books and visit more libraries, so in 1824 he set sail for Europe. He completed his magnum opus by penning the last word Zygomatic, in a shaky hand, in 1825. He then meticulously proof read the two thousand pages that he had complied over 20 years.

Noah was 70 years old when the first edition was printed in 1828 under the title An American Dictionary of the English Language.  It included 70,000 words, definitions, and explanations of words’ origins. In doing so, Noah Webster also created a lexicon of “American” words and spellings.

The idea of reforming spelling had taken hold of him as early as 1789 when he had written in an essay: The omission of all superfluous or silent letters; as in bread. Thus bread, head, give, breast, built, meant, realm, friend, would be spelt, bred, hed, giv, brest, bilt, ment, relm, frend. Would this alteration produce any inconvenience, any embarrassment or expense? By no means. On the other hand, it would lessen the trouble of writing, and much more, of learning the language; it would reduce the true pronunciation to a certainty; and while it would assist foreigners and our own children in acquiring the language, it would render the pronunciation uniform, in different parts of the country, and almost prevent the possibility of changes.”

It took several decades for these early ideas to fructify. In his dictionary Noah Webster did simplify the original English spellings, he took out excess letters, like the ‘u’ in colour and honour, the extra ‘l’ in traveler, the ‘e’ on ax and the ‘ough’ in plow. He also reversed the ‘re’ in theater and center and the ‘k’ in musick. He introduced new words from different sources. From Native Americans came words like wampum, moccasin, canoe, moose, toboggan and maize; from Mexico came hoosegow, stampede and cafeteria; from the French came prairie and dime, while cookie and landscape came from the Dutch. Existing words were combined to make new ones, for example, rattlesnake, eggplant and bullfrog. He also added American words that weren’t in English dictionaries like skunk and squash. Only some of the changes that he wanted didn’t make it, like bred for bread, wimmen for women, dawter for daughter and tung for tongue!

Noah Webster accomplished much more than compiling and creating words. Not only did he fight for an American language, he also fought for copyright laws, a strong federal government, universal education, and the abolition of slavery. In the 1780s he pioneered one of the first workmen’s compensation insurance programmes and helped found the antislavery group the Connecticut Society for the Promotion of Freedom. In between fighting for these causes, he wrote textbooks, edited magazines and worked to advance copyright laws. He went on a national lecture tour and wrote numerous essays promoting education reform and other cultural concerns. He helped found Amherst college, and helped to establish the Federalist newspaper The American Minerva.

Webster had his idiosyncrasies. He counted houses and churches when he travelled through towns, recording his findings in his diary. While travelling across the American territories in 1785 and 1786, he tallied 20,380 houses in 22 cities.  He kept records of practically everything he did and made copious notes in the margins of anything he read. He assumed that every word he wrote would be interesting to someone in the future. He kept copies of letters he wrote to public figures and even kept their replies. By the time he was in his 70s, he had volumes of notes, letters, essays, and diaries that he stored and saved. These he willed to his son-in-law!

When Noah Webster died in 1843, he was an American hero.

In 1847 (four years after his death), George and Charles Merriam gained the rights to Webster’s work and published their first edition of the Merriam-Webster dictionary. Noah Webster’s was a pioneer in many fields, but his name will always be synonymous with the Webster’s Dictionary.

–Mamata

Buzz Words

It is Bee season in America and the media is abuzz with news, not about the winged insects but about words and their spellings. The Spelling Bee is quite an American institution that has grown, over the years, into a noteworthy national event with high stakes. This is a competition in which contestants are asked to orally spell a broad selection of words, with varying levels of difficulty, and the one who can spell the most words correctly wins. What is unique is that the contestants are school children below the age of 14 years.

While it is in the United States that a game or competition involving words became popular, an early mention of this idea can be found in the early nineteenth century book about education of young boys in England titled The Madras School. One passage says of the pupils, “Some of the boys who are brothers, after they have left school in an evening, have spelling matches at home.”  Following this, different terms were used to describe this type of spelling competition, including Trials in Spelling; Spelling School; Spelling-Fight, Spelling Combat and Spelldown. All these terms clearly indicate the competitive nature of the activity.

The practice of spelling matches spread throughout the United States in the 19th century. One reason for this was attributed to the publication of Noah Webster’s Blue-backed Speller which was first published in 1783. Noah Webster, a young school teacher had embarked on an ambitious project to compile and coin words to make a uniquely American-English vocabulary and spelling. The result of two years of work was a book of spellings for school children, which because of its blue cover, became known as the Blue-backed Speller. For the, then, relatively new United States of America, it was felt that the best way to teach children the spellings in this book was through spelling games. 

By the early 20th century, spelling competitions were becoming popular across the country, being seen mainly as an educational tool. With this educational purpose in mind, the first national Spelling Bee as it began to be called, was held by the National Education Association in 1908. It was unusual for those days in that it had some racially integrated teams that competed, drawing the ire and protest from the conservative all-white teams. The competition was also won by a black eighth grader.

The next major national Spelling Bee was not held until 1925. This time it was sponsored by a local newspaper Louisville Courier-Journal which collaborated with eight other newspapers. After a series of state level competitions nine finalists travelled to Washington DC for the finals. The winner was an 11-year-old boy from Kentucky with the winning word gladiolus. Frank Neuhauser received a prize of $500 in gold pieces and was honoured with a parade on his return home.

Since then it was News Services that sponsored the event.  After 16 years of being one of the sponsors, in 1941, the Scripps Howard News Service acquired complete sponsorship and changed the name to Scripps Howard Nation Spelling Bee.

In America the National Spelling Bee has occurred every year since 1925, with the exception of three years due to World War ll. Over the years it has become more and more competitive, as well as commercial, with higher prize money, and other rewards becoming more substantial. The winner’s prize today is $50,000, many zeroes added from the original prize of $500! The scale has also changed, from the nine students who participated in 1925, to over 500 entrants in the last few years.

Starting at the local town and city level, in elementary or middle school, and progressing to the district, state, and then national level, with numerous rounds and eliminations, it is an event that garners a lot of interest, including media attention, even internationally.

Over the years, the words have increased in difficulty, and the competition has added new rules to further the complexity, and test a deeper understanding of spelling, vocabulary, learning concepts, and correct English usage. One thing has remained constant since its inception with Noah’s Blue-backed Speller— Webster’s New English Dictionary is the official dictionary of the Scripps National Spelling Bee, and considered the final authority for the spellings of words. It contains about 473,000 words, any of which, potentially, the participants could be asked to spell.

While the Spelling Bee is popularly considered to be originally and characteristically “as American as apple pie” it is ironic that for the last many years it is children of Indian origin that have won. While Indian-Americans make up about one percent of the total population of the United States, the majority of winners in the past 20 years belong to this group. The first champion was 11-year-old Balu Natarajan who won in 1985. Since 1999, 26 Spelling Bee champions have been Indian-American.

The finals of the 2021 Spelling Bee overturned this trend with 14 year-old Zaila Avant-Garde becoming the first African American to win the Scripps National Spelling Bee.

For an event that is all about words, the most enduring mystery about this is why it is called a Spelling BEE! Most people have for years thought that this must have some association with the industrious and social insect. But scholars feel that the word bee is in fact a derivative from the old English word bene or been, which means “a prayer” or a “favour” referring to “voluntary help given by neighbours towards the accomplishment of a particular task.”

This meaning of Bee describes its traditional reference to a community social gathering at which friends and neighbours joined together in a single activity (sewing, quilting, spinning, logging etc.) usually to help one person or family.

But over the years the event has spawned the kind of cut throat competition that marks all sporting events. Children who are deemed to have potential are “groomed” from the time they start school. They spend years in rigorous “training” under professional coaches. They are under great pressure to “perform” and win at any cost.

The spirit of community, voluntary participation and selfless cooperation that was the root of the Bee in the Spelling Bee seems today to be a far cry from the extremely competitive, and even combative, event that the Spelling Bee has become.

–Mamata

            

                                                                          

ANGRY WORDS

“I was so mad, I thought I would explode!”

“I really blew my top when I heard about that!”

“If this goes on any longer I will blow a fuse!”

“He was so aggravating, I could have bitten his head off!”

Isn’t it interesting how pent up anger is vented through explosive vocabulary. 

Anger is one of the spectrum of universal human emotions. Different cultures have different names and different symbolism attached to the emotions. 

Although conventions regarding the display of emotion differ from culture to culture, our ability to recognize and produce associated facial expressions appears to be universal. In the 1970s, Paul Ekman conducted one of the first scientific studies of facial expression of emotions. He and his colleague Wallace Friesen devised a system to measure people’s facial muscle activity, called the Facial Action Coding System. Based on this system they analysed people’s facial expressions, across a range of cultures, and identified specific facial muscle configurations associated with specific emotions. They concluded that the most common, and commonly recognised, seven emotions are happiness, surprise, sadness, fright, disgust, contempt, and anger. They also concluded that these emotions are “universal” meaning that they operate independently of culture and language

In Indian culture the nava rasas or the nine emotions are said to depict the emotional state of mind. These are Shringara (love/beauty), Hasya (laughter), Karuna(sorrow), Raudra (anger), Veera (heroism/courage), Bhayanaka (terror/fear), Bibhatsa (disgust), Adbutha (surprise/wonder), Shantha (peace or tranquility).Classical dance forms, especially Bharata Natyam, have a wide repertoire of facial expressions that depict not just these emotions, but also the various things that cause that emotion. Raudram or anger is probably the most violent of the nava rasas

From the Nava Rasas series by Suresh Muthukulam

Our faces and bodies undoubtedly have a role not only in communicating but also in creating and maintaining our feelings. The facial expression is an arrangement of the face, which like a word in a language takes its meaning when seen in the larger context, that is, when attached to a particular body, that of the person who is saying and doing particular things in a particular context. Hence we sometimes feel that even though a person was smiling, their body language (closed fists, tense stance etc.) revealed not quite the same emotion.  

Other scientists who have studied how emotions are expressed in language have found that there is much greater variance in the linguistic use of words that express different emotions, and that there is a great deal of nuance in use of these words in different cultures. Some languages have a wide range of words that express not just the basic emotion but the finer sensitivities of that emotion. 

Take Anger. The English language itself has more than one word for anger-related emotions. In addition to ‘anger’, there are ‘ire’, ‘wrath’, ‘fury’, ‘vengeance’, ‘hatred’, ‘frustration’, ‘resentment’, ‘rage’, ‘bile’, ‘irritation’ and many more. Samuel Johnson’s 1755 dictionary provided an interconnected web of definitions. ‘Fury’ was, first, ‘madness’, and secondly ‘Rage; passion of anger; tumult of mind approaching to madness’. In its turn ‘rage’ meant ‘violent anger, vehement fury’, while ‘anger’ was defined with a quotation from John Locke, as ‘uneasiness or discomposure of the mind, upon the receipt of any injury, with a present purpose of revenge’. Some authors in the eighteenth century, including the Scottish philosopher Thomas Reid, used ‘resentment’ rather than ‘anger’ as their favoured term for a strong and vengeful frame of mind.

Anger seems to have become the predominant emotion of our times. The media leads us to believe that we live in ‘an age of anger’. The anger, in all the definitions, manifests at all levels, from national and international states of war, to civil and social unrest that flares up in violence, to anger at the way systems work (or don’t work), and anger within our closest circles of family and friends. We spend more of ourselves in this emotional state than any other. 

Interestingly, the English language also has a wide repertoire of idioms to help express the degree of anger that we feel. So much more fun that simply saying “I am so angry!”

Here is a sample to choose from:

Hot under the collar.

Up in arms.

Foaming at the mouth.

Steamed up.

Fit to be tied.

Bent out of shape.

Doing a slow burn.

Seeing red.

Ticked off.

Hit the roof.

Go up the wall.

Go off the deep end.

Fly off the handle.

He was angrier than a one armed paper hanger.

Blow one’s top.

Drive me up the wall.

That made my blood boil!

Blow a gasket.

Screaming bloody murder.

Go ballistic.

Would it not be even more interesting to compile anger words and idioms in all our Indian languages? 

“Anybody can become angry — that is easy, but to be angry with the right person and to the right degree and at the right time and for the right purpose, and in the right way — that is not within everybody’s power and is not easy.” Aristotle 

–Mamata

“Politically Correct” Childhood

So yet another well-loved children’s author is under the microscope for historical sins of omission and commission. This time it is Enid Blyton whose books at least two generations of children have grown up with. The charges against her are that her books are racist and xenophobic. While this has been raised in England in the context of the Blue Plaque outside the house that she lived in, it is curious how many articles this news has generated in India—perhaps many more than in England itself. And it is interesting to note that most of these pieces are by possibly members of the generation read her books in the 1960s and 1970s. I am one of those, and the flurry that the news has created led me to also think about how different our childhood was as compared with that of children today.

It was a time when we as children were pretty much left to our devices when it came to free-time activities. This was in the ancient pre-digital era; the only audio visual diversion was a couple of hours of family television watching. Our main pastime was reading and reading and reading. And at a time when there was relatively little exclusive publishing for children, our choices were the colourful and well-illustrated Russian books, and the limited “western” authors and titles. Access to these books was through libraries, and the once or twice a year parental gifts, and gifts from friends on birthdays, plus a lot of borrowing and exchanging between friends.

While our parents did not scrutinize nor control our choice of books, they provided a supportive environment for learning about the world, not just through books, but by nurturing values of openness, tolerance of differences, and celebration of diversity. 

I do not remember what brought Enid Blyton into our home, but it was certainly not our parents. It must have been through our friends and classmates that at some point we were introduced to the seemingly endless selection of characters and adventures that changed, and grew, as did we. Growing up in middle class Indian families, even as we lived our (not very adventurous) day-to-day lives–going to school, playing simple but happy indoor and outdoor games, we devoured the stories of children named Georgina, Darrel, Alicia, Gwendoline and Belinda. These children had picnics with hampers full of goodies; they had midnight feasts of scones with clotted cream, eclairs, scotch eggs, and ginger beer; and they roamed the English countryside, visiting castles, having adventures, and solving mysteries through deciphering clues. Somehow we did not find all this “alien” in any way, nor did we yearn for macaroons and meringues. These were stories that we spent all our free time reading, but they were simply that–stories. And they did what all good stories do–they led us to imagine what life was like in places other than ours—different landscapes and climate, different food and clothes, different lifestyles and occupations. In many ways they opened up the world for us; led us to understand that the world was made up of different cultures and customs. At the same time the stories also struck a chord of familiarity and empathy. The names were not like ours, but the characters were like people that we knew—the good friend, the bully, the snitch, the attention-hogger, the teacher’s pet; the teacher we all loved, and the one that we certainly did not! The emotions that they experienced were like ours—uncertainty, nervousness, excitement, jealousy, fights between friends, a sense of adventure and achievement, and pure naughty fun.

And those responses are not time bound. A sixth class child who read a few Enid Blyton books as recently as five years ago, commented about the characters: “They do things. They don’t sit at home watching television and playing on the i-pad like we do.” She added that because the children met freely in the holidays, they didn’t have to rely on parents to co-ordinate classes or times and places to meet (play-dates)”. Indeed every child can relate to the simple joys of doing having unsupervised fun with friends,

Did we consciously notice that there was a black character in one of the books, or that a girl who was a “tomboy” was named George, or that the French teacher in another set of books was subtly pictured as being “not quite British?” Did this leave such a lasting impression on our young minds that we grew up to become racist, sexist, or xenophobic? Did all the strange, but delicious, sounding foreign foods lead us to turn up our noses at the familiar fare that was on our plates? I think that these elements were just part of what we knew was a story. We did sometimes wish that we could go to a boarding school, or spend our summer holidays travelling in a caravan and exploring coves and caves. But those fantasies livened up our imagination and, indeed, increased our vocabulary.

Much has changed in the decades since my generation were nourished (or malnourished, as is now assumed) on such books. My own children, growing up in the early 1990s had a wider menu of choices than I had. And as a parent who was keenly interested in children’s literature, while I facilitated their introduction to more authors that were starting to be available, I did not restrain them from exploring and tasting new flavours on their own. By the time they reached Harry Potter, I did not have the energy nor inclination to be carried away on its blockbuster popularity. But I did strive to give them an upbringing that encouraged opportunities to learn from both fact and fiction, theory as well as practise.

Times have changed so much now. There is the access, literally at one’s fingertips, to literature from around the world, along with a great jump in publishing books with an Indian context, real issues and credible characters. And there is the quantum leap from the print medium to the entire new digital universe with e-books and audio-visual experiences. Children are living so deeply in a virtual world, they have serious problems relating to the real world. At one level parents have become overly conscious about the books their children read (they must be class, caste, gender, profession etc. etc. sensitive). On the other hand they cannot entirely control the insidious reach and power of the virtual world with just as many stereotypes, glorification of violence, latent marketing of products, and blatant push for consumerism.

Children are not so sheltered nowadays that they are not aware of issues, inequalities and unfairness of life, and their attitude to all these is not simply the reflection of something that they have read in a storybook. It is here that parents, and not books, need to be responsible. Responsible not for playing censor, nor for pushing their children into every possible opportunity and exposure to all that they deem “good”, but for giving their children the time and space to learn about the world that they live in, and set examples of how to negotiate it.

It is not “politically correct” books that will automatically create more sensitive readers, but sensible and sensitive parents and teachers who can support and nurture children to be good human beings.

–Mamata

To School or Not to School?

Last week Meena wrote about the conundrum of schooling in the age of Corona lockdowns. While school-going children and teachers of all ages have been thrown overnight into an entirely alien pattern of e-teaching and learning, parents have been facing some of the biggest challenges in terms of new role and responsibilities. This period has also triggered numerous dilemmas and debates about how to provide the best possible education for children while schooling at home. Several parents have seriously started considering the merits of ‘home-schooling’.

Since the early days of formal educational systems as defined by the institution of the School, there have always been a cohort of parents who have chosen to experiment with alternative methods of teaching and learning for their children. The jury is still out on the strengths and weaknesses of this practise, but there are certainly interesting examples and experiences to peruse and ponder over. Here is a particularly inspiring one.

The story goes back to 1847; when 7-year-old Al, who had been in school for just three months, came home with a note from his teacher which stated that the young boy was “addled”, was not capable of keeping up with studies, and that he was advised to leave the school. Al’s mother Nancy refused to accept this harsh judgement about her child; she took this as a challenge and decided to teach him at home. She knew that though he was shy and retiring, but this was probably because he had a hearing difficulty that constrained his active participation in the classroom. Having once been a teacher herself Nancy diagnosed that the imaginative and inquisitive child was a ‘misfit’ because he was bored by conventional rote learning. Nancy encouraged her child’s curiosity, and love for books, and gave him the time and space to use his head and hands by exploring, experimenting and discovering for himself.

The young boy was fascinated by mechanical things and experiments. An elementary science book that she gave him when he was nine, explained how to do chemistry experiments at home. Al was hooked! He spent his pocket money on buying chemicals from the local pharmacy and collected basic equipment for experiments; when he was 10, he set up a simple lab in the basement of his house where he spent hours. Encouraged by his parents, he read voraciously, including literature and history. Thus began a lifelong passion for learning for a boy who never had more than three months of formal schooling.

Al grew up to be known as Thomas Alva Edison, one of the most prolific inventors of all times whose inventions changed the world in many ways–from the incandescent light bulb, the phonograph, and the motion picture camera, as well as improving the telegraph and telephone. In his 84 years, he acquired an astounding 1,093 patents. He invented both product but also systems to support the process of invention, a forerunner of the concept of R&D labs. Edison went beyond being an inventor to also become a successful manufacturer and businessman, marketing his inventions to the public and setting up what was one of the early forms of a successful corporation.

Thomas Alva Edison’s mother Nancy died when he was 24 years old but she remained his source of inspiration through his life and career. In later years, a grown and very successful Thomas always acknowledged that his mother’s discipline for a focused life was responsible for his great success. As he said, “My mother was the making of me. She was so true, so sure of me, and I felt I had someone to live for, someone I must not disappoint.”

Not all of us can be a Nancy Edison, and certainly not every home-schooled child may grow up to be a Thomas Alva Edison. What interested me more about the story was not so much the great inventor Edison about whom much has been written, but Edison’s deep thinking on education that was well ahead of his times, and clearly reflected the deep impact of his personal experiences.  

Edison was critical of the education system of his day. He felt that “The present system does not give elasticity to the mind. It casts the brain into a mould. It insists that the child must accept. It does not encourage original thought or reasoning and lays more stress on memory than observation. The result of accepting unrelated facts is the fostering of conservatism [in thinking]. It breeds fear, and from fear comes ignorance.”

Edison’s entire life was an intense and passionate quest for knowledge and understanding which came not by blindly following books but by learning-by-doing. All his life he adhered to a meticulous recording of innumerable experiments, thoughts, and observations in thousands of detailed laboratory notebooks. Even when he became a successful businessman, his intense love for information, communications, and learning led him to set up his corporate office in his beautiful and well-stocked library. He even considered his childhood deafness, which increased as he got older, as an asset rather than a liability. For someone who was an inventor, he was asked why he did not invent a hearing aid. He said that not being assailed by outside noise made it easier for him to concentrate on his experiments and research.

Even when he had his own labs and research staff, Edison continued to endorse his style of hands-on learning-by-doing. One of his early experiments, in the early 1890s, was to produce bricks that were porous, but which would not absorb moisture when exposed to rain or snow as they were transported in open train cars. Edison and his colleagues spent almost a year experimenting with different materials and solutions to come up with a suitable binding solution or “muck” as they called it. Edison started referring to his researchers as “muckers”, and then on, the name stuck for all researchers who worked in his labs, who later formed an organisation called Muckers of the Edison Laboratory” or “Edison’s Muckers”.

This is the core of Edison’s strong views on education Edison believed that most schools taught children to memorize facts, when they ought to have students observe nature and to make things with their hands; in other words ”be muckers”.

Later, as a parent himself, he set up small problem solving searches for his children. One of these was “team-based research”; he would tell them what he was interested in reading about, and they would have to go through the books in his vast library and search out not only the books, but also mark the relevant pages or sections with slips of paper. The family also played indoor games where the traditional rules were often changed.

It was natural that Edison’s own upbringing and his discomfort with the education system would lead him, in later years, to appreciate and support Montessori’s positive alternative   philosophy of education. As he wrote, I like the Montessori method. It teaches through play. It makes learning a pleasure. It follows the natural instincts of the human being.”

In 1913 when Maria Montessori made her first visit to the United States for a lecture tour she stayed at Edison’s home.  Edison helped found one of the very first Montessori schools in the United States thus helping to spread the message and mission of an alternative educational system.

Edison’s inventions transformed the world in many ways, and many of these were the pioneers of the tech revolution that has changed the way we think and operate today. But Edison also concerned himself equally with the true meaning of education and the processes of learning. His work and life was guided by four simple principles, taught to him by his mother:

Never get discouraged if you fail. Learn from it. Keep trying.

Learn with both your head and hands.

Not everything of value in life comes from books-experience the world.

Never stop learning. Read the entire panorama of literature.

If only every parent could internalize, and instil, with conviction, these principles that lay down the foundation of life-long learning.

A century later, the world is grappling anew with the same question: What should be the future of education? While re-imagining the transformation of education in the age of technology it would still be worthwhile to leave space for our children to be “muckers”, and for the unfettered joy of learning.

–Mamata

Carle’s Creatures

A very hungry caterpillar, loads of food, lots of colour, very few words (224 to be precise) and little holes to poke tiny fingers through—that’s the formula that made one of the most popular children’s books of all times. The book simply called The Very Hungry Caterpillar has sold more than 55 million copies around the world since it was first published in 1969, and has been translated into more than 70 languages.

This was one of the many books that author and artist Eric Carle created to delight generations of children (and parents like me) across the world.

Eric Carle died last week at the age of 91 leaving behind a legacy of colour and care for the generations to come.

Eric Carle Jr. was born on June 25, 1929, in Syracuse, New York, to German immigrants. When Eric was six years old, his parents moved back to Germany. With the start of World War II his father was drafted into the German army and soon became a prisoner of war in Russia. Eric, who was then 15, managed to avoid the draft but was conscripted by the Nazi government to dig trenches on the Siegfried line, a 400-mile defensive line in western Germany. The war left its ravages all around; his father returned home a broken man.

At the end of the war, Eric joined the State Academy of Fine Arts in his hometown Stuttgart to study typography and graphic art, from where he graduated in 1950. Eric always dreamed of returning to America, the land of his happiest childhood memories. In 1952, with only 40 dollars to his name, he decided to move to New York City, where he got a job in advertising, working as a graphic designer for The New York Times where he worked for nearly a decade. By then, he had had enough of the advertising profession, and was thinking of changing direction.

Inspired by what his art teacher had once told him—“start anew, move on, keep surprising”, Eric Carle embarked on a career as a freelance designer when he was almost 40 years old. He knew he wanted to make pictures but the thought of doing children’s books never crossed his mind. But as serendipity would have it, one of the pictures that he had created for an advertisement caught the attention of Bill Martin Jr, a respected educator and author, who asked Eric to illustrate a book for him. That opened up the new direction that he had been seeking. Soon he began writing and illustrating his own picture books.

Many of Eric Carle’s picture books are about small creatures like caterpillars, ladybugs, spiders, crickets and fireflies. These are a tribute to some of his happiest childhood memories of walks with his father. As he recounted “When I was a small boy, my father would take me on walks across meadows and through woods. He would lift a stone or peel back the bark of a tree and show me the living things that scurried about. He’d tell me about the life cycles of this or that small creature, and then he would carefully put the little creature back into its home. I think in my books I honour my father by writing about small living things,” he continued. “And in a way I recapture those happy times.”

Eric celebrates these little creatures and the world they inhabit with vibrant art work in his signature style of creating images by layering tissue paper painted with acrylic colours, and rubbing with his fingers, brushes or other objects to create different textures. His love for bright and intense colours was perhaps a subconscious rebellion against the colourless and grim palette of the Nazi Germany that he grew up in. Under the Nazis modern, expressionistic art was banned and all exterior facades were painted a dull grey or brown. As an illustrator Eric Carle not only used brilliant colours but often portrayed his creatures in unconventional colours to show his young readers that in art, there is no wrong colour.  

What makes the Caterpillar book so unique is its interactive element which is created with using a hole in the pages. Suddenly the book becomes a toy which little fingers can explore, and enjoy, just as they want to. The idea for that ‘something extra’ came to Eric as he was idly playing with a paper punch and saw the holes that he had punched in some papers.

These were the design elements that defined Eric’s work. But the content was equally rich and meaningful. Eric had an instinctive sense of what made children and childhood so special. He drew upon the child in himself to reveal the cherished thoughts and emotions of children, and treated then with understanding and respect. The confusions and insecurities of the little creatures in his books reflect those of the little children who face their first transitions like leaving the familiar security of home to enter the strange new world of school. As Eric Carle explained, The unknown often brings fear with it. In my books I try to counteract this fear, to replace it with a positive message. I believe that children are naturally creative and eager to learn. I want to show them that learning is really both fascinating and fun.”

Above all he believed that children needed hope and excitement for what the future holds; and nothing expresses that better than the hungry caterpillar that transforms itself into a beautiful butterfly!

The magic of Eric Carle’s books lies not just in their visual appeal but in the opportunity that they offer children to freely express their curiosity and creativity as they learn about the exciting world around them.

Every little child is like a hungry caterpillar, hungry for taking in the colours, sounds, and tastes of the world around. And just as the ravenous caterpillar ate its way through apples and pears, plums and strawberries, oranges, and piles of other goodies, through every day of the week, children have a voracious appetite for learning and imbibing new knowledge and new experiences. And unlike the caterpillar, they don’t get a stomach ache from being overstuffed with these! Let us strive to satiate these hungers by opening up the world for our children, by joining them in the adventure of exploring and discovering the world around them.

A good day to start is World Environment Day that is celebrated on 5 June.

–Mamata

Froglore

May 22 is marked as the International Day of Biological Diversity. Last year the theme was Nature is the Solution. And carrying forward the same, the theme this year is We are Part of the Solution—a reminder that humans are but one strand in the intricate web of life, and that our lives are intricately and inextricably bound with every other strand in this web. Nature sustains us not only in terms of resources, but also nurtures us culturally and spiritually.

A few weeks ago I wrote about an example of how plants are an integral part of the traditional knowledge, culture and customs of many indigenous peoples. (see https://millennialmatriarchs.com/2021/04/22/maria-and-her-magic-mushrooms/).The study of this close relationship is called ethnobotany. Scientists and anthropologists also study the past and present interrelationships between human cultures and the animals in their environment. This is called ethnozoology. One of these relationships that has long fascinated anthropologists is the one with snakes and amphibians. These are creatures that commonly evoke revulsion, fear, suspicion and awe, sometimes even hysteria. And yet these are richly represented in mythology, culture, art, and literature of indigenous cultures around the world.

Source: Frog artefact collection of Seema Bhatt

While researching for an exhibition on frogs, I discovered a wealth of fascinating facts and beliefs about creatures that we don’t often give a second look, let alone a second thought to—frogs and toads.

The human imagination, has over eons, cast and recast frogs and toads in legends, and beliefs. They appear in the stories and myths of almost every human culture, taking on almost every role conceivable, from the trickster, to the devil, to the mother of the universe.

In many traditions around the globe, frog is generally associated with the water element and it symbolises cleansing, renewal, rebirth, fertility, abundance, transformation, and metamorphosis in different cultures.

In ancient Egypt, the frog appears as a symbol of fertility, water, and renewal. The water goddess Heket often appeared as a woman with the head of a frog. Frogs were also the symbol of the midwife goddess Heqit, who ruled conception and birth, and Egyptian women often wore metal amulets in the form of frogs to enlist her good favour. Ancient tribes in Central America worshipped a goddess known as Ceneotl, the patron of childbirth and fertility, who took the form of a frog or a toad with many udders.

This association with fertility was also ecological. Every year the flooding of the Nile provided water and brought rich silt to grow crops; at that time frogs also proliferated in such huge numbers that the frog became a symbol for the number hefnu, which meant either 100,000 or simply “an immense number.” Thus the frog’s association with water and fertility, so important for life, made them positive symbols, 

Frogs and toads were also considered to be spirits of rain, and were used in many rituals intended to invoke the rains. The Aymara tribe of Peru and Bolivia made small frog images, which they placed on hilltops, to call down the rain. Indeed, if the rains failed, some tribes blamed the toads for withholding the rain, and would lash them in punishment.

In India it is believed that the ‘singing’ of frogs indicates that the rains have come and it is a time for celebration, while the silence of the frogs means that nature and the Gods have forsaken man. In some parts of India frog weddings are held with rites and rituals, and celebrated with feasts to invoke and appease the rain gods, especially in times of drought.

In Ancient China images of frogs were found on the drums used to summon thunder and much needed rain.

Frogs feature in the myths of many Native American tribes. In some they represent transformation and growth, while in others they are associated with springtime and renewal. They are believed to have healing powers and are considered medicine animals. In the shamanistic traditions of some of these cultures, hallucinogenic compounds derived from frogs and toads are used for religious rituals of communion with the spirit world and self-transcendence.

Thus most native cultures revered frogs and toads, as they did all forms of life, and recognised that these were all intrinsically linked with the elements of nature and each other. However in later periods and cultures, the “strange” appearance of frogs and toads with their awkward form, huge eyes and croaking calls evoked fear and a sense of eerie mystery. Folklore from medieval Europe depicted toads as evil creatures whose blood was a potent poison and whose body parts had unusual powers. Toads were commonly seen as evil spirits who accompanied witches, assisting them in their evil designs, and providing poisonous ingredients for potions. Many myths were perpetuated around toads. One widely held myth concerned the Toad-Stone, a jewel that was supposed to be found inside the toad’s head. According to myth this jewel, placed in a ring or a necklace, would heat up or change colour in the presence of poison, thereby protecting the wearer from foul play. Such references are even to be found in some of Shakespeare’s plays.

In many ancient Chinese tales and legends also, the toad is a trickster and a magician, a master of escapes and spells. Some Chinese tales refer to the toad whose face is believed to be visible at the full moon; and they believe that it is this moon-toad that occasionally swallows the moon, causing eclipses.

But the Chinese also believe that that toad is the keeper of the real, powerful secrets of the world, such as the secret of immortality. There are several legends that reinforce this belief. One is about a wandering wise man called Liu Hai and his three-legged toad companion Ch’an Chu who knows the secret of immortality, and who reveals this secret to the wise man who befriends him.

This awe of the benevolent magical powers of frogs and toads is seen in most oriental cultures. In China the frog is a symbol of good luck. The Frog spirit Ch’ing-Wa Sheng represents prosperity in business and healing. Frogs and toads also signify protection. The Chinese Danwu, or Dragon Boat Festival was traditionally celebrated to ward off diseases and plagues for the coming year. Several symbolic creatures are worshipped on this day for protection against evil spirits, and ill health, among which the three-legged toad Ch’an Chu is significant.

In Japan frogs are very auspicious. The Japanese word for frog is kaeru. Kaeru also means “return”. Travellers carried bring a frog amulet on their journey as this was believed to secure a safe return.

Thus have frogs and toads captured human imagination since time began. It is also these myths and beliefs that reminded humans of the vital role that even the seemingly insignificant creatures play. But with the march of “progress” and as humans have been relentlessly destroying the habitats of uncountable, and as yet unaccounted for, living things we are losing much more than species. We are losing the essence of what makes our lives rich and meaningful. Who will populate our mythologies when these creatures are gone? Perhaps we will be left with only one story: the story of loss.

–Mamata

Smiling is Infectious

Among the many “pick-me-up” messages that are circulating these days is a poem that exalts the magical power of a smile. The poem is attributed to Spike Milligan, a British comic poet, actor, playwright and author. The son of a British military officer, Spike Milligan was born in Ahmednagar and spent his growing up years in India, and this is reflected in several of his poems.

I have always enjoyed his tongue-in-cheek poems, but I had not seen this one before.

Smiling is infectious

You catch it like the flu

When someone smiled at me today

I started smiling too

I walked around the corner

and someone saw me grin

When he smiled I realised I

I’d passed it onto to him.

I thought about the smile

And then realised its worth

A single smile like mine

Can travel across the earth.

So if you feel a smile begin

Don’t leave it undetected

Let’s start an epidemic quick

And get the world infected.

When I read this I thought that it was a bit ironic, and somewhat contra indicatory in these times when all our smiles are tucked away behind our masks.

So here are some alternate lines for the times, that I have penned.

Thanks to Spike Milligan (an old favourite) for the inspiration!

.

Sneezing is Infectious

Sneezing is infectious and coughing is contagious too,

It can spread the virus that is way wickeder than the flu.

When someone simply smiled at me today, even behind their mask,

I drew back in terror and turned my face; “Such rudeness?” let them ask!

I walked around the corner, and there before my eyes

I came upon an unmasked group of goodly size.

I had to other way but to pass them by, but I was filled with tension

What was floating through the air, and spreading the infection?  

I thought about the virus and how deadly it can be

And realised how fast it spreads and offers itself for free.

A conversation, a slogan, or a song can spread it far and wide

Crossing every boundary, and respecting no identity nor side.

So if you feel a sneeze begin don’t leave it undetected

Isolate, test, and quarantine; always stay protected.

Wash your hands like Lady Macbeth, and mask up like the Lone Ranger

Let’s restrain and refrain, so that we can live to smile again without danger.

Who would ever have imagined that there would come a day when we would not encourage people to “Be Positive” and instead wish that they “Stay Negative”!

Stay safe. Keep smiling–behind that mask!

–Mamata

The Mother of the Rhymes

Meena’s piece last week on nursery rhymes set me thinking. How is it that one clearly remembers most of the rhymes that one had heard and learnt when one was between 2 and 5 years of age, while many poems ‘learnt by heart’ subsequently do not seem to pop up as effortlessly? Why is it that the minute I see a toddler, I can’t resist the playing the silly  little game of Johny Johny Yes Papa, or This Little Piggy Went to Market? This is not the case with just English nursery rhymes, but equally with the Gujarati rhymes that I heard as a child. We may not have understood the words, (and often the words themselves were nonsensical), but it was the repetitive rhythm and rhyme that frolicked and danced in the head till they were firmly entrenched for life.

Today many studies have shown that nursery rhymes are very powerful influencers in early childhood development and education. At an age when children have limited attention spans, the brevity and repetitiveness make them fun to recite again and again. In the process, children develop the practice of listening and speaking; their ears and tongues become sensitive to the rhythm and patterns of language, and their vocabulary is enriched. Experts in literacy and child development have discovered that if children know eight nursery rhymes by heart by the time they’re four years old, they’re usually among the best readers by the time they’re eight.

Thinking about nursery rhymes also led me to remember that as children our nursery rhyme books were titled Mother Goose’s Nursery Rhymes. While Meena discovered the  curious origins of some popular rhymes, for hundreds of years it was thought that all the popular nursery rhymes were written by an author called Mother Goose. Over the years scholars tried to find out who exactly was this Mother Goose?

Mother Goose is so old that no one knows for sure whether she was a real or a fictional character. There are several legends, dating back to the tenth century, related to this character. One theory is that she was based on an actual person—the second wife of King Robert II of France who was nicknamed Queen Goose-Foot because of her misshapen feet. Her real name was Bertha of Burgundy; she was also known as Berthe la fileuse (Bertha the Spinner) as she was believed to be a wonderful storyteller, spinning tales that enraptured children, though she did not have children of her own. But historians have said that this is but a legend and not a fact.

The character of Mother Goose seems to have made her first appearance when French author Charles Perrault published a collection of rhymes and tales inspired by the old oral traditions of French and European folklore. The collection, in French, included rhymes as well as the classic fairy tales like CinderellaSleeping Beauty, Puss in Boots, and Little Red Riding Hood. The book, published in 1697 under his son’s name, was titled Tales and Stories of the Past with Morals (Histoires ou Contes du Temps Passé). It was subtitled Tales of Mother Goose (Les Contes de ma Mère l’Oye). And it became known by this subtitle. Perrault’s publication is believed to be the first authenticated starting-point for Mother Goose stories.

The English-speaking audience was introduced to Mother Goose through the translation of Charles Perrault’s book by Robert Samber.  First published in 1729, the book was titled Histories of Tales of Past Times Told by Mother Goose. The illustration on the cover of the English edition of the book showed an old woman telling tales to a group of children under a sign that says “Mother Goose’s Tales.” Some say this art is what started the Mother Goose legend. In subsequent editions and publications she was also depicted as a sweet elderly woman who magically travelled on the back of a gander or male goose. Thus the only rhyme in which she appears as a character goes

Old Mother Goose
When she wanted to wander,
Would ride through the air
On a very fine gander.

Somehow, over time, the sweet old lady metamorphosed into the legendary human-sized goose with thick glasses and a bonnet. 

Mother Goose was not widely known in America until after 1786 when a publisher Maby Isaiah Thomas reprinted Samber’s book under the same title. But this gave rise to another theory that the original Mother Goose was an American lady from Boston whose name was Mary Goose, and who used to sing ditties to her grandchildren and other children. The legend spread and her grave became a tourist attraction, where visitors toss coins, even today, for good luck!

Whether fact or fiction, Mother Goose has been synonymous with childhood rhymes for generations, and remains popular even today. So much so that in America, 1 May is celebrated as Mother Goose Day. This started in 1987 when a book titled Mother Goose: From Nursery to Literature, tracing the history of the character’s evolution was published. This day reminds yet another generation of parents of the continuing magic of rhymes.

In naming a national day as Mother Goose Day, America has recognised the value of rhymes in child development, and uses this day to remind parents and educators of this. This is with specific reference to the well-known and popular English rhymes. Perhaps we should take a cue from this and also recall, as well as revive, the great wealth of traditional rhymes in our own regional languages. Sadly many of these have been part of the oral tradition, passed on from generation to generation; many have not been compiled and published. And with the craze for everything “English medium” our children are rote learning only English rhymes from Mother Goose. In the age of nuclear families and YouTube offerings, it is sad that young children today are missing out on rhymes in their own language. If only every child could have a Nani Goose or Dadi Goose to enrich and enliven their life and language. 

–Mamata