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.

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

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“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

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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

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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.

 

Of trust and truthfulness

Originally written for Gulf News http://gulfnews.com/opinions/offthecuff/of-trust-and-truthfulness-1.1327018

Published May 2014

“Mom, I promise,” she says solemnly, looking into my eyes. Our discussion is about who pulled out my precious new plant right out of the soil, and obviously the two only possible culprits (who by the way, have fingernails full of soil) refuse to own up. The expression that adorns the two faces is the classic ‘hurt bunny’ one and their eyes are so full of innocence that I feel like a mean adult in spite of myself.

I sigh in exasperation and try once more. “Alright, I’m asking one last time. Who pulled out the new plant and then tracked the dirt all the way inside the house?” I’m hoping against hope that someone will nod and own up but the ‘hurt bunny’ expressions are as resolute as ever. The older one carefully makes a fist with both her hands and discreetly puts them behind her back, and the younger one, unaware, leaves her hands (and dirty nails) by her side.

There is obviously something wrong. As far as children’s misdemeanours go, this isn’t a particularly horrible one. God knows, children today are capable of much more. Why do my children not say they are in fact guilty? What am I going to do if they tell me the truth? At the most, I will get a little angry and then get them to clean up everything and replant the poor plant as best as they can. But their attitude confounds me and I wonder where I might have erred as a parent.

Do we make our children pay too heavy a price for telling the truth? Have I (perhaps unconsciously) cornered them on a previous occasion where they did come clean and made them feel small? There is no question about it — we can’t treat our children the way our parents treated us. Times have changed and children are very sensitive to the amount of respect a parent gives them. Has there been an occasion on which I have spoken to them in a way which made telling the truth seem like the worst decision they ever made?

The introspection is embarrassing as it is painful. What worries me is that this isn’t a mere childish incident; it is probably a precedent for life, for later decisions. My children, the people I am responsible for, are far more malleable than I realise and a flippant temper tantrum I may have had — and that I attach little importance to — may have done lasting damage. The thought scares me.

I pull the girls closer to myself and take a deep breath. “Right,” I say gently. “So you girls didn’t do it.” They shake their heads mechanically. Then I do the unthinkable. “Fine. I trust you. And here’s 20 minutes on the iPad for telling the truth!” They pump their fists and cheer, but the celebration is a little muted. They exchange dubious looks, but the lure of the iPad is too great. For the next 20 minutes, Temple Run, Fruit Ninja and Co are the sole object of attention and you can hear little except “No, it was MY turn,” and the sound effects of the games. I take the tablet away promptly when the clock says I must and in a very deliberate fashion I begin cleaning up the soil that has spilled indoors.

Of course I add a bit of drama and complain about my aching back to no one in particular, and look at them from the corner of my eye. Strangely enough, they are watching me, and if I didn’t know better, I’d say the faces wear guilty expressions. “But I didn’t do it!” the older one suddenly blurts out. Aha! I smile to myself at the moral victory. “Of course sweetheart. It must have been the wind,” I say matter-of-factly and continue with my task.

“But SHE started it! It was her idea!” the confession finally comes tumbling forth, with the predictable dumping of blame on the other sibling. I breathe easier. The situation demands wisdom and diplomacy. I do my best not to erupt as I might have on another occasion and pretty soon there are two young ladies wearing rubber gloves trying to re-pot an almost wasted plant.

I don’t know if my children have learnt anything by this, but I most certainly have. There is obviously lots of work that I need to do to create a relationship of mutual trust and as they pot the plant, I too pot an indispensable thought inside my head: Appreciate the times they tell the truth and if I do punish them — as a mother must sometimes — I must ensure that I tread carefully.

What are my children reading?

Originally written for Gulf News http://gulfnews.com/opinions/offthecuff/what-are-my-children-reading-1.1318829

Published April 2014

As a child, the image of a fairy godmother, in all her Disney glory was etched firmly inside my head. When I looked at my metal mouth (and the food that got stuck in the braces) in the mirror, I wondered if a kindly fairy godmother could just come, wave a wand and poof! I’d have a set of perfect pearly whites. I wondered if the same one could please, please come to school to help with the Math (whisper the answers in my ear) and deal with all those who bullied me. She never came. Obviously.

The image eventually faded away, and I was jolted out of my world of fantasy tales and magical beings into harsh, practical reality. Why did a fairly logical young person ever even harbour such thoughts? If only books played a better role! Fairy tales were loaded with the ‘feel-good’ factor, and felt so complete that my vivid imagination ran away to the moon with them. As my girls grow and discover Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty, I want to have a close look at the pros and cons of fairy tales. Should I willingly let my girls accept fairy princesses, magic wands, fairy godmothers and witches as a fact of life? My little one has woken up in the night (terrified) a few times dreaming about the ugly and scary witch. The images get stuck in the mind, and I’m not sure I want the valuable real estate of her little developing brain to be occupied by some stupid horrifying sorceress that doesn’t even exist. Then there is the worrying matter of the ‘damsel in distress’. I am unconsciously providing a role model when I show them the beautiful princess with her blond hair, perfect skin, lovely gowns and her big blue eyes. She appears to be perfection personified. Yet she is seldom able to fend for herself, she rarely ever does something daring or intelligent, and is almost always rescued by this wonderful, amazing Prince Charming.

Extremely questionable

Isn’t there more to this seemingly innocent (and ever-repeated) plot that meets the eye? Am I unintentionally telling my girls that women are nothing if they are not gorgeous and that they invariably need a handsome man to rescue them? Is love really so simple, and is life all about ending up in the arms of Mr Right? One might argue that I am being obsessive about what is essentially harmless but I beg to differ. The entire plot upon which these fairy tales stand is extremely questionable. I can’t help feeling that I am either filling my children’s heads with a bunch of lies, or a lot of confusion. Imagine, telling a little girl to ‘enjoy the story’ but at the same time saying — no the witch isn’t real and neither is the fairy!

I do want them to devour modern day classics like Harry Potter after they have crossed a certain age and can distinguish between reality and fantasy and can appreciate someone like J.K Rowling for her simple yet eloquent style of writing, without worrying if wands are for real.

The power of stories is unique and unparalleled. There is a reason why all the religious scriptures in the world talk about past nations. Because stories affect the human psyche in a way that little else does. Imagine if we were to harness this power to build rather than confuse the thinking of our children, how much that would help in providing them with a sound upbringing! As for me, I fully intend to let my children discover fairy tales, but at the same time I want to make sure they know it’s fantasy, and that way better books that are just waiting to be discovered (including some selected ones by Enid Blyton and Roald Dahl) line their bookshelf. And I want to ensure that the bedtime stories I read to them are real, believable and leave them with some kind of lasting benefit.

 

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