I am the mother all right, but I worry when my child assumes that I am the parent!’ As parents and teachers we had come together at the annual theme meeting at The School (KFI) to discuss our role in a child’s life and a child’s role in ours. The topics for this series of theme meetings were the following:

  • Responsibility and ownership for our children
  • Our responses to children’s questions
  • Reward and punishment in learning
  • Observation

Despite the diversity in the topics and formats of the meetings, the variety in the case studies and a new group of participants each day, all conversations seemed to merge seamlessly into one another. The unmistakable point of convergence of all thoughts was the nucleus of the adult-child relationship. The tough moments were when we had to break out of our beliefs and critically examine our approach to the scenarios presented as case studies. At times, silence marked the metamorphosis of assumptions into realization, and realization into a new understanding. The conversations were an opportunity for us adults to unlearn and learn, while vicariously reliving our childhood.

The first meeting dealt with the common assumptions that adults make about children. What influences our perceptions of and behaviour towards children? One factor is the deep conditioning born out of societal influence and the context we live in, which places emphasis on results. The experience of childhood is eclipsed by the preparation for adulthood. In addition, our own childhood experiences and their residual memories get projected onto our child’s life. While tackling these challenges, we are responsible for the child’s future. But does responsibility unwittingly become ownership?

The assumptions that a child needs to be engaged ‘productively’, and that to manage a child’s time is the adult’s responsibility, emerged through the example given by a parent who chalks out a full week of post-activities for her child and frets over one free evening in the week that she has not managed to fill in.

We were divided in the justification of such an approach by a parent. One group recalled their orientation and induction into a Krishnamurti school, where they were introduced to boredom as being constructive. The other group’s emphasis was on the perception that children need to spend as much time in their peer group as possible, engaged in activities that complement what they do in school. This group, however, did question themselves about whether they planned the child’s time with a lot of activities as a means of dealing with their own lack of ideas, time or inclination to engage.

In the second meeting, we presented some interesting questions that students had raised in class: Why are some people rich, while others are poor? Why do I have to grow up to make decisions? We asked ourselves how adults are to respond to questions like these. We agreed that the context, time and place would determine the response to such questions. However, as we probed deeper within ourselves for the answers, more questions emerged. Do all questions from children have to be answered? Is it an answer or a response that a child really wants? Why should the adult always have answers to a child’s questions? Does an adult really have the answers? Can a question be a response to a question? Is the child’s question in fact a call to the adult to engage with him/her? There lies a very important communication behind a child’s question. How we decode that communication will determine how alive such questions will stay within the child. Any response to a child’s question is in engaging with it: to understand the question, to seek its origin or to journey towards finding the answers together.

The third meeting was on learning, and the use of rewards and punishments. Traditional approaches to learning rely heavily on the use of reward and punishment, yet this is in complete contrast to, for example, Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget’s theories. We can summarize key aspects of his thinking asfollows:

  • Children construct their own knowledge in response to their experiences
  • Children learn many things on their own without the intervention of older children or adults
  • Children are intrinsically motivated to learn and do not need rewards from adults to motivate learning.

We asked ourselves: Is the need for rewards and punishments triggered by the compulsion an adult feels to intervene in a child’s learning process? It was apparent that rewards have become a part of everyday life, be it in the form of celebration, parental approval or much-coveted gifts. Therefore, how do teachers and parents of a school that has renounced any system of rewards or punishment come to terms with this? A teacher’s exhilaration at a show of responsibility by a child changed to disappointment when she heard that her approval was the real motivation for the child to do what he did. A parent exercises approval as a motivational tool to get her child to do what she would want him to. The subtleties involved were evident in the various justifications and in the questions asked. How can a pat on the back be a reward? It is appreciation. A child feels cheated or may think that his work is not being taken seriously if he does not get appreciation. If the appreciation takes the form of a celebration or small gifts, will that really imply a reward-oriented approach to learning?

In my opinion, the experience and the process are the most significant and enduring reinforcements for a child. Rewards and punishment have a very short life. They point to the outcome, neither the path to get there nor the meaning behind it. That overt, tangible expressions alone gratify or motivate a child could well be in our minds and not in the child’s till we reinforce the idea.

So how do adults, without intervening in the process of learning, still facilitate and be responsible for it? We wondered whether true observation of the child would lend us more understanding of the child and our role in her life, and made this the theme of our next meeting.

Observation is watching with all the senses alive, both to the object of our attention and to our experience of watching it. It is to have a heightened awareness of what one is watching while suspending thinking. When we observe, we slow down, we listen more and we listen better. The most important truth that feeds into observation is that everything is constantly changing—perhaps at varying paces, but nothing is constant. So every time we observe, we observe something new. In an example we discussed, we explored what we really see when we see our child respond to an unhappy situation by withdrawing into herself. Do we see a pattern, a predictable reaction or an indication of the emotional make-up of our child? Often, in all these so-called observations, what we are really seeing is a reinforcement of our own beliefs or judgements. Instead, if we were to watch, as we would a new incident, a new behaviour in our child and be aware of the contexts, reasons and the impact of these on what we are watching, we will see the incident more clearly. We should observe to watch, to understand, not observe to know. When we believe we know, we stop watching and start projecting our knowledge onto what we see. As we all thus observed ourselves and analysed our thoughts, I recalled a suggestion that education should break down patterns. By the end of the four meetings, I was convinced that the adults in conversation had made a significant attempt at rearranging the patterns within themselves. As questions arise, we shall keep on questioning. Until we meet again.