My Harry Potter obsession

harryp

Originally written for Gulf News “Off the Cuff” Published May1, 2016

http://gulfnews.com/opinion/thinkers/my-harry-potter-obsession-1.1816154

‘Sweetheart?” I prod her on the shoulder gently. She looks up distractedly from her book. “It’s time for lunch,” I tell her, gesturing towards the book in her hand, which she must now close and join the family. I see her slip the book discretely behind her back and throughout the meal, the book is open at a strange angle on her knee, held with her left hand as she surreptitiously reads while eating. She thinks I’m not aware but I watch her eyes moving swiftly across the concealed book and she knows I know but reads on the Famous Five novel anyway with a sheepish smile.

We have a “no screens on the table” policy but I wonder now if I will have to include books in the agreement too. My oldest one reminds me of myself a lot. I remember when Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, the fourth book in the seven-part series came out I was 14. I was the biggest Potter-fan I knew — the orphaned boy-wizard in his magical world had me hooked and I would have given anything to get into Hogwarts. I had read the first three books so many times I could probably recite them verbatim from memory. The new 640-page book was eagerly devoured in a matter of three days and two nights. By the end of it I was a mess (much to my mother’s dismay), but I felt great. The rest of the series was read with a similar frenzy, but by the time the last book, The Deathly Hallows, came out, I had a year-old baby, and reading without a break was far trickier, but of course, I managed somehow.

This same baby is now ten years old and she adores reading. She was recently gifted a white Kindle reader for her birthday by her paternal grandparents with the entire Harry Potter series preloaded. I was, understandably, very excited. She’s loved all the books I loved as a child — Heidi, The Secret Garden, A Little Princess, Pollyanna, Enid Blyton and Roald Dahl’s books to name a few, and I couldn’t wait to introduce her to J.K. Rowling’s masterpiece. I resigned myself to the fact that I wouldn’t see her for the next few days as she would want to read the Harry Potter series like I did — all at once.

harrypotter

It was lovely to read the opening pages of The Sorcerer’s Stonetogether until she took over and was enjoying the book. I would finally be able to discuss Hogwarts and Hogsmeade with her, and we could do a little quiz to see who remembered more spells!

She finished the first book in a day or so and began reading The Chamber of Secrets. Then after a couple of days, I expected her to begin The Prisoner of Azkaban, but things had taken a different course. The Kindle was lying on her bedside and she was back to her Malory Towers. I was positively despondent. “What, you’re not reading Harry Potter?” I said ashen-faced. She shrugged. “I think the second book is a bit boring, honestly.” The book hadn’t even been read halfway through.

I began reading the book (again) from where she had stopped. It didn’t have the charm that it did when I was younger but it was fun all the same. It came as a bit of a shock that my daughter wasn’t glued to Harry Potter like I had been. The Potter-fan inside me was indignant, but the mother shrugged as though to say, “Well, it’s her life after all. She certainly wouldn’t like everything you did as a child.”

From that point on, I gave up trying to make her like the Harry Potterbooks, but I did have another sneaky plan. The movies! Over the weekend, I played The Chamber of Secrets and began watching it myself — all the while looking at her from the corner of my eye to see if she was interested. The plan worked! She plopped down beside me on the couch and began to watch. When we reached the place where she had given up on the book, I told her we could go on only if she’d read the written work first. She finished the book by the next day and has now embarked upon The Prisoner of Azkaban.

Harry Potter made up a huge chunk of my teenage and young adulthood and I’d love to share the fun of the enchanting series with my daughter, and relive an interesting part of my childhood. While I certainly hope that she gets nowhere near as obsessed as I did, I do hope she discovers all of what goes on inside the mysterious magical world and appreciates the literary genius that is J.K. Rowling.

Advertisements

What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger

Originally written for Gulf News “Off the Cuff” published March 27, 2016

http://gulfnews.com/opinion/off-cuff/what-doesn-t-kill-you-makes-you-stronger-1.1698786

negativepeople

Bullying is real. Bullying in schools, in the workplace and even in homes, is a reality that many of us go through. My 10-year-old has recently become the target of it in school and as I heard her recount her experiences, I felt like a little schoolgirl myself, all over again. I had that uncomfortable, familiar feeling of being hot in the face, feeling the redness creep up my cheeks as it consumed my insides and made them writhe, as though I wouldn’t be able to face anyone ever again. What my girl went through at school is a form of psychological abuse.

The bullying did not, (this time) come from her peers. It came from above — a teacher. The woman first developed a bond with my daughter, gave her extra responsibilities and then, gave her an unwarranted personality analysis (twice in two weeks), which explained exactly all that was supposedly wrong with my daughter’s mental make-up. That she was outspoken, over the top and didn’t feel “right”. That her bubbly nature was simply not what people were looking for and she would never be successful/appreciated in life because she was a little too “in your face”.

All this and more was said to her under the premise of “because I want to make your life better”. Understandably, she was shaken and began to cry and has not wanted to return to school since. My daughter is a sensitive, emotional girl and her self-esteem has taken a beating.

I could rage and storm and complain to the management and I feel like doing so, and may well complain at some stage. But on the other hand, I could give my daughter strategies to deal with this and prepare her for the big bad world. As our tete–a–tete went on, I noticed a hopeful and inquiring look in her eyes, as though she expected me to somehow make it all better. I’m just desperately trying to do this parenting thing right, and sometimes it’s more challenging than anything else in the world.

Finding internal strength

A response such as “that really hurt my feelings and I wish you wouldn’t speak to me like that” to a bullying superior at school or work may just backfire because research proves that responding to a bullying superior irks them, and they go about making your life more difficult than before.

Being extra nice to them does not work either and possibly the only thing that really helps is finding internal strength to still have confidence in yourself and to tell yourself that you are still good, and valuable and worthy, no matter what anyone else might think — and to distance yourself from the bully as much as possible.

There’s that nagging feeling at the back of your mind “what if everything she said was true? What if I really am a worthless person?” That’s when you realise that the negativity really did make an impression inside your head. I looked my little girl in the eyes and told her that she needed to understand and accept the fact that she had been emotionally abused, and that the abuser probably has too many skeletons in the closet herself.

We know nothing about the lives of people, about how much they may have on their plate at any given point of time, and what prompted them to commit actions that are cruel or passive-aggression. Unless we truly forgive them and detach ourselves mentally from the situation in a healthy way, we cannot move on. And moving on is essential for healing.

As is another thing — counting your blessings and remembering that there are so many precious things in life other than this one person and how he or she feels about you — and that they cannot get inside your head unless you allow them to. Connecting with yourself and God on a deeply spiritual level and finding that inner peace and satisfaction helps bring balance back to life.

I can’t help feeling like my daughter has had to grow up a little too soon over the past few weeks, but I’m sure there’s some good in it — however painful it may seem right now. I want my girls to grow up strong, independent women and I will leave the decision of responding to this teacher to my daughter.

All I want for her is to know that her parents and her family will stand by her no matter what and appreciate her for who she is, love her to bits and are very proud of her. I want her empowered with self-belief, backed by our love and appreciation. And to anyone out there who’s being bullied right now as we speak, let me tell you one thing. You’re wonderful.

Does my ten-year old need her own mobile phone?

Originally written for Gulf News Opinion, published March 9, 2016: http://gulfnews.com/opinion/thinkers/does-my-ten-year-old-need-her-own-mobile-phone-1.1687337

mobile-phone-for-kids

She looks at my old, battered iPhone 5 (now repaired exactly four times) as though it’s the most beautiful thing on earth and I swallow my chuckle. “Well, nine days. You can have the phone for nine days. Only until we’re out of Dubai,” I say firmly.

The next nine days, while we were on vacation, were all about “my phone” and selfies, videos and texts were the order of the day. At the end of the nine days, however, the device was taken away. My daughter insisted that many of her classmates had their own phones and that she too, deserved to own one, but we did not relent.

The average age at which children are given ownership of mobile devices is getting younger than ever before. In a 2014 survey involving 10,985 parents from the Middle East (conducted by the Mohammed Bin Rashid School of Government), it was determined that 20 per cent of parents felt that children between the ages of eight and 10 should be allowed to own their own smartphones. The largest majority of parents, 28 per cent however, felt that children only above the age of 16 should be given smartphones, while 6 per cent believed that children under the age of five can be given their own smartphones.

Smartphones are used for everything — from talking, to texting, to playing games and of course for using the internet. In research conducted by the GSM Association (GSMA) involving children from Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Iraq and Algeria, it was determined that 38 per cent of those children who own a smartphone are “cell-mostly” internet users — they mostly go online using their phone and not on a desktop or laptop. The internet comes with its own risks — McAfee (intel security) reports that 87 per cent of children have been the target of cyber bullying, leading to anger and embarrassment.

McAfee further states that only 61 per cent of youth have enabled the privacy settings on their social networking profiles to protect their content, and 52 per cent do not turn off their location or GPS services across apps, leaving their locations visible to strangers. Additionally, 14 per cent have posted their home addresses online.

As parents, we trust our children to make smart decisions online, but monitoring them on the internet (and educating them about it) is essential. GSMA reports that 60 per cent of parents have concerns about their child being online and a whopping 88 per cent were worried about their children viewing inappropriate content. McAfee’s research further states that 74 per cent of parents (children’s ages 10-23) say they don’t have the time or the energy to keep up with everything their child is doing online. 46 per cent of children say they would change their online behaviour if they knew their parents were watching. Mobile phones offer far more freedom and personal space than, say, a family desktop or laptop and it becomes all the more tricky to keep a check.

When entrusting a child with a device such as a mobile phone, academics, in some cases, appear to suffer as well. Kent State University in Ohio carried out research that linked excessive mobile phone usage to poor grades and anxiety. Many children stay up at night just to be able to text their friends and many sleep with their devices under their pillows, exposing them to harmful radiation.

The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) identified smartphones as possibly carcinogenic to human beings. Radio waves received and sent by mobile phones transmit in all directions to find the nearest base station, even when the device is not being used and are absorbed by the body closest to where the device is held. A study by the Environmentalist Health Trust determined that the rate of radio wave absorption is higher in children than adults because their brain tissues are more absorbent, their skulls are thinner and their relative size is smaller. According to one study by De La Salle et al (2006), children absorb 60 per cent more radiation into the head than an adult.

Children’s immature nervous system makes them more susceptible to the long-term effects of mobile phone radiation, most of which remain to be documented. The heavy usage of mobile phones is only a few decades old and studies to find out just how damaging to health mobile devices are, are ongoing. It will take time before enough data is collected to prove anything certain, but many studies point towards brain tumours, reproductive problems, sleep disorders, headaches and anxiety.

For us, the risks of giving our ten-year-old a smartphone outweigh the benefits. Perhaps a simple device without internet would be useful in situations when she needs to contact us, but for the most part, I will be encouraging face-to-face contact with friends, sports, sunshine and as less screen time as possible.

My Dad, my hero

Originally written for Gulf News ‘Off the Cuff’ http://gulfnews.com/opinion/off-cuff/my-dad-my-hero-1.1598893

Published: 16:45 October 11, 2015

dad.jpg

“Papa?” I say gently, stroking his hair. His eyes are half open. He smiles and with a little bit of help from me, he sits up. “How are you?” I ask and envelop him in a big hug. He smiles serenely and asks how I am. When I ask him my name, he says, “I know who you are. Isn’t that enough?” When I insist that he say my name, he shakes his head sadly. “I’m sorry but I can’t quite remember.”

My eyes well up with tears. My Dad, who could recite sonnets of Shakespeare verbatim, the poetry of Ghalib and Allama Iqbal without pausing — today he struggles to remember the name of his daughter. I hold his hand and tell him my name. He nods and says “Yeah. I knew that.”

My recent trip back home was as heartbreaking as it was peaceful. For the first time in my life, my Dad appeared vulnerable, almost like a baby. I spent almost every waking moment by his side, talking to him, helping him remember things, and making the girls play with him.

My dad has always been my hero. He was the person who was there for me at every juncture, as a child and as an adult. He wrote my school speeches, drove me around just because I wanted an ice cream late at night, and had those heart to heart talks with me that were an essential part of growing up. In a household of 14 people, all of whom were his dependents, my Dad had time for me, for each one of us. Later into adulthood, he was there if I ever needed any help.

I remember the day in third grade that I borrowed a Sweet Valley Kids book from a girl in school. I lost the book at home. When I went to school the next day, I told her that I couldn’t find the book. This happened at dropoff right outside school, with the girl’s mother and my father watching. The girl’s mother unfortunately lost her temper at my losing the book and told me that if I was so careless and irresponsible I need not borrow other people’s books. I began to cry. My Dad stepped out of the car, his eyes flashing. He gave that lady the look of death and told her that she would have the book tomorrow, no questions asked, and that she need not lose her temper at his daughter on a busy school morning. That evening after Dad came back from work, we visited every single bookshop in Karachi. The next morning I triumphantly handed over the book to its rightful owner. Dad had come to the rescue, like he always did. He was my knight in shining armour.

I cherish the memories of the endless talks we had over the dining table, long after the meal had been cleared up, and he would spontaneously produce these gems of poetry which he himself had composed, or from the great collection of poetry that he remembered, both in English and in Urdu. His memory had always been amazing. He would hear something just once and absorb it like a sponge and was able to reproduce it later on with perfection. How time has moved on.

His hands are frail, but it’s reassuring all the same when he pats my head. It’s time to leave. I must go back to Dubai. I can’t seem to say goodbye. Dad is more alert than I have seen him in all these days. “I hate it. I hate it when you go away,” he says, almost like a little child. I feel like my heart is going to break into a million little pieces.

Just when my father needs me, I’m going away. When I was small and needed him, he held my hand as I took my first steps, fed me, clothed me, nurtured me and most of all, loved me unconditionally. When the hands of time have turned and he needs help walking, I’m not even there to hold his hand. When he needs someone to give him a hug and tell him everything is going to be fine, I’m not available.

The beautiful verse from the Holy Quran comes to my mind, “And lower to them the wing of humility out of mercy and say, “My Lord, have mercy upon them as they brought me up [when I was] small.” (Surah Isra, verse 24).

“Papa, it’s okay. I’ll be back soon,” I tell him in a soothing voice. He looks down. I see his eyes are wet. I hug him once again, and I walk out the door quietly, unable to stop my own tears as I wonder when I will see him again. Suddenly I hear his voice calling out my name. I spin back on my heel, pleasantly surprised. “Yes, papa [jaan]?”

“[Khuda Hafiz], Mehmudah.” He remembers my name.

When homework is too much work

Originally written for Gulf News Opinion http://gulfnews.com/opinion/thinkers/when-homework-is-too-much-work-1.1501443

Published: 17:33 April 29, 2015

homweork-overload

 

My nephew — let’s call him Saad — is a cool sixth grader. He has gleaming bright eyes, a dashing smile and karate expertise that has fetched him medals and trophies.

He is quick-witted, intelligent and playful and is also an excellent artist who sketches, colours and paints with amazing skill. It is always a pleasure to sit down and talk to him or play with him. But when I visited Pakistan this time to see him, I found his inherent spark missing.

He was hunched over his study table, bored and uninterested. Lots of books were strewn around the table as he absentmindedly doodled on his maths homework book with a perfectly sharpened pencil. On closer inspection, I found him sketching a suit of armour. There wasn’t the usual excitement on seeing me, there wasn’t the expected discussion on the woes of the Pakistan cricket team — instead my nephew just gestured towards his books and said the one dreaded word: “Homework”.

As I went through Saad’s books, I was staggered by the amount of homework this 12-year-old is expected to complete. On a given day, Saad gets three-four books that require doing extensive, exhaustive homework and at least four more that require revision.

His final exams are due to start soon and that effectively means putting a sixth grader’s life to an end. Surely, homework will help him achieve better grades, right? Research, however, portrays contrary findings.

Denise Pope, a senior lecturer at the Stanford University School of Education and a co-author of a study published in the Journal of Experimental Education, has found that too much homework may have negative effects on the well-being and behaviour of students.

This study, quoted on CNN, Healthline.com and various other prestigious publications, claims that excessive homework is associated with high stress levels, physical health problems and lack of balance in children’s lives.

A total of 4,317 students from 10 high-performing high schools in upper-middle-class American communities were a part of this research and a whopping 56 per cent cited homework as a primary cause of stress.

Pope’s study concluded that excessive homework could be ineffective and counterproductive. When questioned on how much homework is optimum, she replied: “In high school, nothing over two hours. In middle school, no more than 90 minutes. As for elementary school, there is no correlation between homework and academic achievement.”

Crucial social skills

Inundated with homework, a child such as Saad has precious little time left to polish skills such as karate, cricket and football and he hardly finds time to mingle with friends and build crucial social skills. One cannot help but feel for a child who has just spent five or six hours at school studying and is expected to still do more of the same at home.

Moreover, Huffington Post reports that Richard Walker, an educational psychologist at Sydney University carried out research that shows that in countries where more time is spent on homework, students score lower on a standardised test called the Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa).

Walker, author of the book Reforming Homework: Practices, Learning and Policies (Palgrave Macmillan, 2012) found that homework only boosts students’ academic performance during their last three years of grade school. The same basic finding holds true across the globe, according to Gerald LeTendre of Pennsylvania State University.

If the undesirable effects of homework are so conclusively proven, why do schools all over the world continue to mete out loads of homework to students everyday? As with everything, there are two sides to the story. Homework is actually meant to be helpful and is given so students can practice the concepts taught in class, build good study habits and reflect on their own learning. Indeed, it can even be fun if you like what you are doing.

But for my nephew Saad, homework seems like anything but fun. The pressure to get above average grades is weighing him down. As I leaf through his books, I cannot help but feel that we take away our children’s childhood way before they grow up. Studying becomes all stress — it is no longer about learning, quelling your curiosity and certainly not about having a good time.

As a child, I remember feeling the same pressure that Saad is going through now and I wonder: when will things change? As my girls grow older, and they start going to school in the next few years, I hope that school life for them will be rewarding and fun, full of great experiences, and that their focus will be on learning, not studying.

Perils of smartphones

Originally written for Gulf News ‘Off the Cuff’ http://gulfnews.com/opinion/off-cuff/perils-of-smartphones-1.1431938

Published: 16:14 December 25, 2014

perils

Hi. My name is Mehmudah and I’m an addict. I’m hopelessly and irrevocably addicted to my iPhone. When the first generation iPhone was released years ago, I didn’t think I would ever give up my trusty black Nokia. The excitement over the touch-screen seemed to be exaggerated, to be honest. With the passage of time, however, everyone around me acquired the device and slowly but surely, Apple products began appealing to me.

The iPhone and the iPad (or indeed my Mac on which I type this article) looked like a chiselled pieces of art, powerful and perfect in every way, with no clutter whatsoever, neither in the design, nor in the operating system. The iPhone felt right, minimalistic and just … cool. So like millions of people in the world, I switched to Apple. That’s how it all began.

From the obvious usage of phone calls and texting, I began relying on the phone for everything. If I ever went out without it, I felt incomplete, like I’d forgotten a part of me at home. I was glued to it for maps, songs, email, photos, notes, even my food diary and prayer timings! The phone became indispensable. And so it went on for many years until the realisation that over-reliance on anything is not good struck me and I landed from my Apple cloud back to earth with a hard, jolting thud.

I can almost hear you saying: “Right – you’re addicted to your phone, how is that an unusual thing? Why do you even sound embarrassed about it? How many people in the world do you know who are not addicted to their phones? What’s the problem with it anyway?”

Ever heard that quote — if it’s too good to be true, it probably is? Having everything on your fingertips in an eye-catching gadget comes with some serious costs, not the least of which is that the cell phone culture is affecting our children in a way much more serious than we think.

The International Agency for Research on Cancer identified the smartphone as possibly carcinogenic to human beings. According to the National Cancer Institute in the US, cell phones emit radiofrequency energy, a form of non-ionising electromagnetic radiation, which can be absorbed by tissues closest to where the phone is held. Even when we are not talking or texting, a cell phone is constantly connecting itself — to the phone carrier, to the internet, or to Bluetooth. Our iPads, computers and wireless routers all release these electromagnetic radiations too, making them all potentially dangerous, especially for our children.

WebMD.com reports: Mobile phones use electromagnetic radiation in the microwave range. The Environmentalist Health Trust reviewed cell phone exposure studies from 2009 to 2014 and concluded that the rate of MWR (microwave rays) absorption is higher in children than adults because their brain tissues are more absorbent, their skulls are thinner and their relative size is smaller. Foetuses are particularly vulnerable, because MWR exposure can lead to degeneration of the protective sheath that surrounds brain neurons. Belgium, France, India and other technologically sophisticated governments are passing laws and/or issuing warnings about children’s use of wireless devices.

In addition to that, the Yale School of Medicine researchers have determined that exposure to radiation from cell phones during pregnancy affects the brain development of offspring, potentially leading to hyperactivity.

All this information is truly worrying because we can hardly control the amount of radiations our children are exposed to, day in and day out — at home, in school, even in the malls! Here we were, buying the most educational, guilt-free apps for our children on the phones and tablets, thinking they might play and learn, but the truth is every time they plop down in front of the device, they are exposed to harmful rays and are missing out on an opportunity to have a real conversation or play an actual game that utilises their physical and mental capabilities. Thanks to these (not-so-smart) devices, chances to benefit from sunlight and fresh air go a-begging.

So my resolution for 2015? Be the ‘smart’ mum. Detox my life from technology as much as possible and give the family a clean, pure environment, with the least electromagnetic radiation possible, and perhaps even give up the iPhone (gasp!) for a simpler device proven to release less toxic waves. Join me?

How well are you doing as a parent?

Originally written for Gulf News Opinion http://gulfnews.com/opinion/thinkers/how-well-are-you-doing-as-a-parent-1.1400528

Published: 20:00 October 18, 2014

parenting

If your child is not a black belt in judo, is not twirling on her tiptoes in ballet with perfect balance, does not excel in sports, will not become the next Picasso anytime soon, does not do particularly well in Maths and Science, is not standing for the student council, and does not speak at least four languages flawlessly, shame on you. But on the contrary, if your child is doing all of the above, well done! You and you alone fit the title of the ‘perfect parent’.

And if you don’t mind my saying so, stop right here. You want nothing to do with this article. You would be well advised to spend your time driving your child to the next extra-curricular activity, preferably in your gym gear (it’s the cool thing these days — to look like you just came from the gym or are heading there, in order make your already svelte figure even more breathtaking). This piece is for lesser individuals like myself, those parents that fall in the former category, and struggle in every walk of life.

They struggle to make ends meet because the bills never end, they sometimes lose their sanity and their temper and wish they could give their children more quality time. They don’t always feed their children organic GMO-free food and their kids are regular users of that nasty, addictive thing the iPad. Their little ones regularly fight amongst themselves, and their school grades depend largely on how much you, their parent helped them with their studies.

It all began with a text from a friend. It read: “OMG OMG OMG!! ‘So-and-so’s’ kids are such super achievers! They play soccer and basketball, they speak excellent Arabic and Spanish, and have such delightful manners! What’s more, they top in school and they never fight! Where did I go wrong?”

Feeling uncomfortable

This text was followed by a number of other texts lamenting this friend’s own ability to bring up her children and how so-and-so’s children were oh-so-wonderful. Naturally, my instinct was of course, to think about my own children. And the fact that they do not qualify on most of the counts mentioned in the beginning of this article, I began feeling distinctly uncomfortable.

Children that have straight A’s and excel at a number of other things are surely a source of pride for their parents and receive admiration from peers. But does that necessarily hint towards excellent upbringing? And those children that don’t achieve quite as much, and never look like they will later in life — did their parents make a mess of things?

Parenting is a labour of love. When we prepare a meal for our children and help them eat it, pick them up from school, play with them and take them out for the occasional treat, we are doing much more than just everyday activities. We are setting examples for them, teaching them how to form relationships and instilling a sense of security in their hearts.

When we talk to them, or simply listen to their long-winded stories about how they got hurt in the playground, and ask appropriate questions, we are probably fulfilling the most essential requirement of parenting — giving them attention. Those children who grow up happy and loved might never conquer the world but they would surely be a wonderful addition to it. I am not underestimating the significance of good grades and extra curricular activities, but I am merely stating that they are not all-important and not the only measure of success for a child and their parent.

To each his own — every mother and father loves their child and wants the best for them. As for me, I know one thing. If I manage to raise decent individuals who can make good decisions and know the difference between right and wrong I might not have done such a bad job after all. My girls might not be childhood (or adulthood) prodigies by any stretch of the imagination, but if they have that deep-rooted sense of self-esteem that nothing can shake and the strength to be positive, to smile and give thanks at every juncture of life, I will hold my head up high.