From thin to fat

Both my brother and I were painfully thin while growing up, which in Chennai was a bad thing. My Mom gave us strange concoctions to fatten us up– raw eggs with milk was the worst– to no effect.

Now I am finally confronting my slowing metabolism with wonder (I’ve gained weight!) and shock. And finally, I am exercising.

I’m going to keep up my fitness regime, even if it kills me
Shoba Narayan

August 12, 2014 Updated: August 12, 2014 05:34 PM
&MaxW=640&imageVersion=default&AR-140819716

The women in my kick-boxing class generate a lot of oestrogen. Or is it testosterone that is created when women kick, punch and scream their way to fitness nirvana?
Keeping up with these women takes my breath away – literally. I wheeze and cough as I perform high kicks and low punches. The woman in front of me glances back, as if low fitness levels were contagious. She is wearing a pink leotard, and she goes through the class like a fireball, never letting up, never giving less than 100 per cent.
She is small, packed tightly, treads lithely and punches like Muhammad Ali. Just the fact that I belong to the same species as her makes me proud, even giddy. But maybe that’s just the exercise.
I wonder about her, this pink leotard lady. Perhaps she has a job in marketing and is forced to be nice to clients all day. Perhaps that’s why she punches so fiercely.
She smiles at me sometimes. I don’t smile back. If I do, she’ll become my friend. Then she’ll start giving me advice about how to become fit; and from there it is a short road to “stop eating potatoes”, which I absolutely refuse to do. In fact, I am eating a chip right now, just to prove my point.
For people who, like me, lack discipline, fitness classes are a great motivator. They turn fitness into a group activity rather than a Herculean lone task. Of late, I’ve signed up for them all: zumba, kick-boxing, pilates, circuit training, cross- fit, yoga, you name it. Whether I go to them all is another matter.
When I do go, which is infrequently, I get daunted by the level at which my cohorts are performing. Whoever thinks that India is a country full of unfit, diabetes-prone, cholesterol-laden citizens perpetually on the verge of cardiac arrests ought to go to cross-fit classes.
Fitness is a mild obsession of mine, not because I am fit or I am working towards getting fit in any serious manner but because I am trying to game the system and my body to see if I can optimise fitness and lose the greatest number of kilograms with the least possible effort.
Every device that maximises benefit without extra effort, I will buy. I suck my stomach in during a car ride until I almost asphyxiate. In yoga, it is called uddiyana bandha, and we are supposed to do it during ashtanga yoga exercise. I do it while standing in queues.
Kick-boxing is a recent addition to my fitness cocktail, mostly because it calms me down.
The five women who stand in the front row are the leaders of our kick-boxing class. They stare murderously at their reflections in the mirror as they kick, punch, snarl, side swipe, squat and punch again.
A few rounds of this and my eyes glaze. I wobble like a snake that has just been banged on the head by a snake charmer. They glance at me; their eyes even look concerned. But they don’t stop kicking.
This, then, is what it has come down to. A person could have a cardiac arrest and keel over, right there in the fitness studio, and all those extreme-fitness mavens would just keep on punching.

Short working hours

I honestly don’t think shorter working hours are going to work. People want to work more because they like it.

&MaxW=640&imageVersion=default&AR-140809235

All work and no play is no way to spend the rest of your life

Shoba Narayan
August 9, 2014 Updated: August 9, 2014 05:59

How many hours a week do you work on average? For most of us, the problem is not the division between work and home, but the fact that work has now seeped into every part of our lives. We are constantly checking email without differentiating whether it’s work email or pleasure.
Employees and employers are able to stay in touch 24/7, thanks – or perhaps it is more appropriate to say no thanks – to text messages and apps such as Whatsapp and Snapchat. The combined effect of this constant infiltration of the work culture into our lives can be overwhelming.
For many of us, it is difficult to switch off, and indeed, we don’t even know how to do it. I certainly am a victim, if you want to call it that. I cannot go one hour without checking my email or my phone, whether it is Sunday or whether I’m on holiday. The whole notion of switching off or taking time off for leisure seems oddly outdated in our continuously connected lives. Along come a couple of billionaires who suggest the opposite. Recently, both Carlos Slim, the world’s richest man, and Larry page, the cofounder of Google, have suggested different versions of a shorter workweek. Slim suggests that people work for three days a week with longer daily hours. (In response, heraldscotland.com posted a story headlined: “Fat chance of Slim’s short week working.”) Page suggested shorter working hours as a way of combating unemployment.
Both billionaires linked shorter work-weeks with higher life satisfaction. Is that really true?
Of the two approaches, I think Slim’s is better. With a net worth of $79.1 billion, Slim doesn’t even need to work. His approach suggests that people work longer hours per day –11 hours to be exact – and work for a longer number of years. The current retirement age of 65 is outdated, according to him. I agree. The beauty of working three days a week is that you can actually plan to do different things that physically and geographically remove you from work. You can go for an all-day hike, for example. You can take a camping trip.
Page’s proposal for shorter working hours will not change our lifestyles very much, in my view. It is not that we don’t have leisure time these days. We do. It is just that it is hard to switch off, even late at night when we don’t need to work. Being on again, off again has the benefit of not letting work issues fall through the cracks, but has the huge disadvantage of clogging up our mental space with everything that is only work related. How many of us don’t check work email on the weekend? I would venture to suggest that it is a miniscule proportion. Getting four out of seven days free per week, on the other hand, offers plenty of possibilities. You could volunteer,, or you could sign up for a course.
The larger question has to do with the purpose of work. Do you work to make a living or to create a purposeful life? If you need to work to make a living, many of these philosophical questions aren’t really relevant. If you don’t need to work – at least to the level that you do and the hours that you do – to put bread on the table, the question of a shorter work-week becomes very relevant.
Why are you working? If you are over 50 and reasonably senior in your job, it would be a good time to figure out an anwwer this questions.
In coming decades, the more meaningful issues will not be about work, but will be about leisure and legacy. Building a family and raising good children and grandchildren are issue that have to do with legacy. Both require a time commitment that is linked with leisure. If you are stressed at work, it is unlikely that you will be open to the small signals that your children and family send.
Regardless of whether you choose the Page model or the Slim model, one thing is clear in my head: work less; if possible, find meaningful work; find an activity that will see you through years of leisure; cultivate a group of friends that you can stay in touch with over several decades; and last but not least, figure out your spiritual parameters that will help you stay content and resilient as you grow older.

College Bound

Thanks to all the advice-givers of this piece.

University is a time for discovery, exploration … and even purple hair
Shoba Narayan

August 4, 2014 Updated: August 4, 2014 04:20 PM
&MaxW=640&imageVersion=default&AR-140809711

‘Parting is such sweet sorrow,” said Shakespeare in Romeo and Juliet. In the next few weeks, hundreds of thousands of 18-year-olds from all over the world will make the long trek to join universities in America. They will be basketball players and artists; maths wizards and chess geeks; athletes and musicians. They will be both excited and terrified, for this is the beginning of a new phase of their lives; and one that, arguably, will effect them more than anything they have done before.
A group of us have been in the privileged position of giving advice to a bunch of 18-year-olds who are going off to college. Some of the advice has been interesting and funny: “Colour your hair purple – every-one should do that once in their lives.” Much of it is thoughtful and has to do with regrets: “I wish I had known when I was 18 how much time management and structuring my day would matter.”
Here, then, are a few themes for every college-going student to consider as they embark on their adventure.
Figure out if you want to sample or dig deep. This depends on if you have a passion already. Perhaps you are bent on being an engineer. It is something that you have always wanted to do. The question then is: do you just take courses that further your engineering goals (digging deep) or do you take courses in art history, music and other liberal arts?
We live in a world that rewards specialisation but college seems too early to specialise, particularly at the undergraduate stage.
This is the time of life when you can view the academic offerings as a buffet and sample everything. There is the famous story about Steve Jobs taking calligraphy courses, which seemed to have no earthly use, at least at that time in his life. He sampled.
Try to take courses or activities that make you uncomfortable. If you ask adults what they regret, many of them will say that they regret not taking enough risks when they were young.
In many ways, growth happens when you are uncomfortable. If you don’t think you’re artistically inclined, force yourself to take a course in drawing. Put yourself in the way of discomfort. If you don’t think you have a way with numbers, take a calculus course – the beginners’ one, of course. If you think you cannot dance, take a group dance course.
College is the time when you can make a fool of yourself without too much compunction; when the risk is low. Take advantage of these four years when you are allowed to – indeed, encouraged to – fail.
Prioritise what happens outside the class as much as you do the classroom. Of course you will be busy submitting tests, doing homework and poring over library books for a project. Realise, though, that some of the best friends you will make in your life are the people around you. Nurture these relationships, because they will be the friends you will fall back on in times of crisis.
Join every club that interests you. Increase the surface area of relationships that will enter your life. “Only after you kiss many frogs will you discover the prince,” as a friend said.
Team sports are an underappreciated way to grow. Research suggests that playing a team sport is a great way to cultivate confidence, competence and a number of physical skills. This is particularly true for girls.
Being part of a college team, regardless of whether it is rowing, basketball or lacrosse is a great way to learn those physical and social skills that will see you through for the rest of your life.
Finally, no matter what, have fun. And be safe.

Clubs and dress code

It is a tough call to balance the gentility of wearing appropriate attire and tradition with moving with the times. I have been thrown out of country clubs in the US and in India for wearing wrong clothes–or rather for going with a man who was wearing wrong clothes. In particular, shorts. It’s probably why I don’t have a country club membership.

India’s clubs should move with the times and embrace different traditions

Shoba Narayan

July 22, 2014 Updated: July 22, 2014 06:10 PM

When Narendra Modi became India’s prime minister a new sense of national pride swept over the country. But the colonial mindset of old still pervades certain dark corners, specifically private clubs in various cities. All these clubs have a dress code that harks back to when the British ruled the land. They don’t favour Indian attire, particularly for men. Instead, men are forced to wear long trousers and shirts. Those who don’t, aren’t allowed in.
Recently, the Tamil Nadu Cricket Association refused entry to a High Court judge because he was wearing a dhoti, a loose sarong-like garment that is perfect for tropical India.
Dhotis, also called veshtis, have largely slipped out of fashion as more and more men turn to Western outfits such as tailored trousers, which they consider more comfortable and professional. The same Indian men wear dhotis at home or for religious ceremonies.
The issue gained heat when Jayalalithaa Jayaram, the chief minister of Tamil Nadu, threatened to take away the licences of clubs that denied entry to men who wear Indian outfits. She called it “sartorial despotism” and an insult to local pride. Ms Jayalalithaa has vowed to introduce a new law that will prevent clubs from enforcing their existing dress codes.
The objects of the chief minister’s ire include the Madras Boat Club, Madras Gymkhana Club and the aforementioned Tamil Nadu Cricket Association, all of whom frown upon men entering their premises wearing Indian attire. Women aren’t accorded the same level of indignity. They can sail through wearing a sari or salwar kameez.
I think it is about time that all Indian clubs get out of this colonial mindset that views Western attire as somehow more superior and elegant than Indian clothes. To disbar members who wear Indian clothes from entering club premises reeks of an inferiority complex that should have disappeared when the British left India.
Officials at these clubs have generally clung to the belief that it wasn’t so easy to incorporate Indian attire into the rules that govern their institutions. They said that they would have to bring up the issue at the club’s annual meeting, so that members could vote on the topic. Nonsense, I say. A starched white dhoti that doesn’t hug the legs makes perfect sense for Chennai’s hot climate.
Clubs are private bodies with erratic, nonsensical rules. Augusta Golf Club, for example, did not allow women to enter its premises until two years ago, when the chief sponsor of their events, IBM, was headed by a woman. As a woman who doesn’t belong to any of these establishments, I think they need to be shamed into changing their policies.
But things are changing in India. Nowadays, male CEOs often confidently wear the kurta pyjama to their offices. These clothes are sleek, elegant – and appropriate for India.
There is no reason to wear a wool suit in steamy weather, simply because it is deemed to be more professional.
And what do clothes have to do with efficiency and effectiveness anyway?
Companies in Silicon Valley are renowned for allowing employees to work in shorts and a T-shirt. India’s private clubs don’t need to go quite that far, but at least they can take pride in their country’s national outfits.

Shoba Narayan is the author of Return to India: a memoir

Focus

Today was the worst day. I walked around searching for my glasses with them on my head. That does it. I need to start a “meditation project.” Everyday. Ten minutes. At least.

&MaxW=640&imageVersion=default&AR-140719575

My inability to meditate properly is really stressing me out
Shoba Narayan
July 14, 2014 Updated: July 14, 2014 05:26 PM

In his book, Focus: The Hidden Ingredient of Excellence, author Daniel Goleman talks about the different kinds of attention. The most obvious kind of focus, he says, is concentration where the mind is rooted to a task until a solution is reached. This type of focus is best suited to analytical work.
Creative insights, on the other hand, occur when the mind is loose, open, and aware. There is a reason why psychologists like to put their subjects on the couch. When you are lying down and daydreaming, you reach into your psyche and touch upon aspects that are not normally on the surface. This is the site of insight and intuition.
There are a few ways to trigger the pathways that open intuition, insight and imagination.
The easiest way is to go to sleep. There is a reason why we wake up and discover that the knotty problem that we have been wrestling with has been solved overnight. Another way is to meditate. Meditating, or accepting thoughts as they come and sending them on their way, allows the mind to relax. It expands and opens the brain and primes its receptors to the sort of ideas and insights that leap across boundaries.
I am a failed meditator. I have tried sitting cross-legged and attempted to “watch my thoughts,” as it were. Sadly, they were all over the place. They did not make sense and worst of all they were mundane, tacking the kind of trivia that is traditionally the realm of children and old women: “Should I have acted differently at the party? Did I pay the right amount for those dozen apples or did I overpay?” my mind wandered. “Did I forget to turn the gas off before ducking out of the door?” The idle mind, they say, is a devil’s workshop. My idle mind was a fool’s paradise, focusing on personal issues and unresolved business of the most idiotic nature. Sometimes, I daydreamed of holidays. Mostly, I fell asleep sitting up. Meditation wasn’t helping me with focus. It was helping me combat insomnia.
Meditation is among the hardest things to do, particularly in this world that values action over stillness and doing over being.
I have tried meditating for years and I have failed. I find sitting still terrifying. I feel guilty for not doing anything. It seems like such a waste of time to just sit there.
The problem with such practices is that their benefits are not immediately obvious. You can read the literature. You can fully buy into the Dalai Lama’s assurance that meditation is the path to rewiring your brain. You can listen to Steve jobs talk about opening the channels of intuition and imagination. You can take online courses on mindfulness and focusing attention, all of which are essential for leaders. It still doesn’t make the actual task easy.
I have tried novel approaches. I have pretended to be a Tibetan monk while sitting cross legged and trying to control my thoughts. It made me feel good. It put me in a good mood and gave me a beatific smile. But as for controlling my impulses, the chocolate cravings only grew stronger.
Then I decided that sitting still was not for me. I would do walking meditation – like Steve Jobs who walked while holding meetings because nature triggers positive neural impulses.
The only problem was that nobody wanted to walk with me. I told my husband that I was going to be Joan of Arc and meditate on a horse. His gaze didn’t alter.
In desperation, I have come to you, dear reader.
Here is a challenge: both for you and for me. Let us meditate for 20 minutes every day. Announcing something like this helps sustain action, according to social psychology. So this in a sense, is my last ditch effort to get on the path to mental nirvana. I will keep you posted as to whether it works.

Shoba Narayan is the author of Return to India: a memoir

The Confidence Conundrum

still love the line: “confidence is turning thoughts into action.”

The confidence conundrum and what we can do about it
Shoba Narayan

June 17, 2014 Updated: June 17, 2014 18:12:00

One of the things I announce in a public forum, often just for effect, is that my lifelong dream is to be a standup comic. It produces the desired effect. Everybody laughs. If you saw me, you would know why. I don’t look funny, I don’t talk funny. In fact, I am pretty much galactically unfunny. It feels pathetic to admit this, but announcing this desire to be a comic is my funniest line. I am no closer to achieving this dream than I was the first time I actually said those words. I keep telling the world that I want to be a standup comic but I don’t do anything about it.
This paradox has been addressed in a number of recent essays about female self-confidence. One essay in The Atlantic, titled, “The Confidence Gap,” describes research based on social psychology that shows how women consistently undervalue and underrate themselves. Men and boys, on the other hand, consistently think that they are better than they actually are. “Sometimes I feel like a fraud,” is a thought that has crossed the minds of the most powerful and seemingly confident women. What’s with this confidence conundrum, and what can women do about it?
Although, inevitably, studies deal in sweeping generalizations, they often show that many women are more perfectionist than men. They would rather do something perfectly or not do anything at all. Men on the other hand, are willing to blunder through tasks, blithely making mistakes and learning from it. They plunge into activities that are far above their abilities, get criticized for it, get used to the criticism and improve. The criticism makes them resilient: witness the sight of young boys in the playground, calling each other “morons” but improving their game in the process.
Playing sports, it turns out, is a great confidence-builder. Rough-housing and trading insults on the sports field is great preparation for the testosterone filled aggression of Silicon Valley. By dropping out of sports, girls are denying themselves the chance to grow in these areas.
Some psychologists say that focusing on competence rather than self-esteem is a good way to increase confidence. Self-esteem is a nebulous concept, they say. Simply telling a child that she is wonderful will not make her feel good about herself.
Instead, focusing on the tasks that she has accomplished; the effort that she has expended in achieving measurable results is often a better way to bolster teenager self-esteem. The next time you tell your child, “Honey, you are so smart,” stop yourself. Instead, put out a 10,000-piece puzzle, ask them to finish it and then say, “Wow! You worked hard at it and solved it.”
My favourite line comes from Prof Richard Petty, of Ohio State University, who has studied confidence building for decades. “Confidence,” he says, “is the stuff that turns thoughts into actions.”
I think it is a terrific line because it tells me what to do. There is no point in my labouring the point that I want to be a stand-up comic if I don’t do a thing about it.
The trick is to silence the voices in my head – the ones that say that I don’t have a funny bone in my body and will therefore fall flat at this exercise.
The trick is to actually get out and engage; to act; to rush “rashly” into the goal at hand instead of thinking once, then twice, and then succumbing to inertia.
Near my home is a club that offers stand up opportunities for amateurs every Thursday. I think that I need to get out there and attempt comedy. Next week, I aim to do just that. I’ll let you know how it goes.

Shoba Narayan is the author of Return to India: a memoir.

Chairs, Sugar, Phone

Thank you, Manish, for this idea.

Modern addictions are holding us all back, but can we live without them?
Shoba Narayan

June 11, 2014 Updated: June 11, 2014 18:40:00

Recently, a friend asked me an interesting question: “Which would be the hardest addiction for humankind to shrug off? Sugar, chairs or mobile devices?”

My instinctive answer was mobile devices, but that may just describe my addiction. As the recently released documentary Fed Up, points out, very few things can rival sugar as a “weapon of mass destruction”, as one review says. The documentary, which has garnered good press, takes a hard-hitting look at how sugar and processed foods have permeated diets globally.

As countries get richer, sugar intake doubles, People eat more processed food and the odds of getting type 2 diabetes increase. Even exercising is not enough to stave this off, according to the documentary. What really needs to happen is a return to the way of eating as practised by our parents and grandparents. To paraphrase author Michael Pollan, we should eat whole foods, mostly vegetables, in small quantities.

Perhaps you eat well already and therefore sugar is not so much part of your doomsday scenario.

But what about where you work? How do you work? If you are like many of the readers of this newspaper, you probably spend long hours in front of a computer. I do. It didn’t occur to me that the chair I was sitting on was the source of my back problems. It took several visits to an orthopaedic surgeon and an acupuncturist for me to realise that I had to change my work patterns; hence my proclamation that the second villain of the modern age is the simple chair.

Anthropologists say that the human body is made for standing and walking, not sitting. We sit far too much and for far too long. So, how do we incorporate standing and walking into our lives?

Some Silicon Valley executives work using an “air desk,” which is a stand that allows you to type on your laptop while walking or running on a treadmill. Others use standing desks and still others walk while talking on the phone. The late Apple chief executive, Steve Jobs, was famous for his walking meetings, where he would discuss business issues with co­workers while taking a walk.

I have switched to sitting on a large pink ball, and this forces me to stand up every now and then. Your solution might be to get or borrow an uncomfortable chair at your workplace so that you are forced to get up.

The third enemy that I want to target is mobile devices. In this, too, some of us are better than others. I know someone who returns from work, puts his mobile phone in his office briefcase and doesn’t touch it until he gets to work the next morning.

I find that I cannot go 10 minutes without checking my smart phone. I have numerous apps on it, which make me all the more attached to it. Recently, I downloaded an app that tracks the number of steps I take. The problem is that I have to wear the phone on my body in order for it to do that. I’ve ended up wearing a messenger bag all day and placing my phone into that, so that it can track my steps. The target is 10,000 steps a day. I usually get to about 4,000.

While most people talk about being addicted to surfing the web or checking their Twitter feed, I find that I can get off social media networks with relative ease. I usually ask my daughter to change my Facebook password and not tell me the new one. This prevents me from entering the site without having to deactivate my account.

Surprisingly, I’ve found that I don’t miss Facebook – but my mobile phone is a different animal altogether. I check email, messages and news items, read downloaded books and listen to music on it. Cutting that umbilical cord is going to be much harder. Does anybody have any suggestions?

Shoba Narayan is the author of Return to India: A Memoir

Gratitude

An attempt at being funny. I had the hardest thing trying to come up with a quote. I know that someone made a quote, which went something like….”dah dah dah…about” Was it grateful about? Happy about? Complain about? Trying searching for that. I googled Bernard Shaw, always reliably curmudgeon. Unsuccessful. Anyway, here it is.

Opinion
CommentConnect: facebook twitter Google Plus Radio: Classic FM Feed: rss
I must try harder to be grateful for what I do not have
Shoba Narayan

May 6, 2014 Updated: May 6, 2014 17:57:00

You know what the problem with you is?” said my therapist in his all-knowing voice. “You are not grateful enough.”

Now, I’ve always thought of myself as a grateful sort of girl. The thing is that I don’t have very much to be grateful about.

Consider the main influences in my life: my family. I didn’t choose my parents or the location of my birth. I didn’t choose to be born in a hot, steamy city called Chennai where everyone knew each other’s business and if they didn’t, it was because the person was either dead, injured or worst of all, boring. I didn’t choose to be born with a sibling whose only answer when I discussed job issues, partner problems or even how my intestines seem to be expanding with every passing day was the single line reply: “Shoba, please. Meditate, I beg you.”

Now, my shrink was joining the party by suggesting that I wasn’t grateful enough.

It seemed like a vast conspiracy theory invented by those who are supposedly near and dear to me. It seemed like dodgy ideology, if you asked me – and nobody was. That was the galling part. Here I was, simmering with unspoken anxieties and frustrations and the best that my paid and unpaid loved ones could come up with was that I meditate and be grateful?

When I studied psychology in college, the focus of the field was on mental disease: schizophrenia and depression, mania and paranoia. These were massive, real psychological problems that required hours of therapy and going deep into the psyche. It required the study of Freud, dreams, infantile fantasies and compulsive dysfunctional behaviours. It was a proper science with no proper answers.

How the world has changed. Today, a burgeoning field called positive psychology has become the focus of the field, both among experts and laypeople.

Scholars are studying grit and character and how these will improve grades in school. They are writing books with punchy titles such as Will Power and Flourish. All of them focus on going from good to great. The demons of psychology past, which were held under the umbrella, “abnormal psychology”, are not for practitioners of this field. No, they want to analyse and discover ways of being happier.

They want to figure out how the mind connects to the body and how the two connect to the soul, if possible. They talk about prayer as a way to improve the self, something that was considered heretical by my psychology professors of yore. It is in this context that my therapist brought up gratitude: feeling thankful; counting your blessings. As it turned out, all those pithy proverbs that your grandmother said were true. Gratitude is a powerful tool for well-being, according to recent research on positive psychology.

My homework was simple. Every day, at the end of the day, before retiring to bed, I was to list three things that I was grateful for; three things that happened that day if possible. Then, I was to figure out why I was grateful for them.

“I am glad I didn’t eat potato chips today,” I began. As for why I was grateful, I said, “Because they weren’t in the pantry.”

This made me feel a little silly. I felt obliged to be grateful about more substantive things.

“I am grateful that I don’t have a life-threatening disease,” I said. As for why, I said: “At least I think I don’t have a dreaded disease. Who knows what my body is harbouring.”

My therapist shook his head. “Don’t mix up your latent pessimism with this exercise,” he said. “This is all about feeling good.”

But I didn’t feel good. I was – much like Jerome K Jerome who believed that he had every disease except housemaid’s knee – worried about what I had.

“Let’s try again tomorrow,” said my therapist. “And this time, try really hard to be grateful.”

I walked out of his office. Boy, was I grateful that my session was over.

Shoba Narayan is the author of Return to India: a memoir

Nagging

The best way to make advice stick? Nag incessantly
Shoba Narayan

April 22, 2014 Updated: April 22, 2014 18:18:00

One of the perks of being a parent is that you get to offer advice to your children. One of the problems of being a parent is that you forget how little advice you took from your own parents. This inherent paradox is being played out in countless living rooms and dens in this, one of the peak seasons for parenting advice.

In many parts of the world, students are applying to go to colleges abroad. The prospect of losing their children to the world produces a great deal of anxiety amongst parents. This is certainly true of me. To paraphrase Jack Nicholson, my children make me want to be a better human being. Even better, they lull me into thinking that I am one.

When I nag my children to study hard, stay focused and stop fooling around with the iPad, I can almost believe that I did not indulge in any distractions at their age. Children are great that way. Give them an old-fashioned scolding and you are guaranteed to feel good.

My time is running out though. In a few weeks, my kids will be in the full throes of summer holidays. They will be swimming, cycling and practically teleporting themselves to friends’ homes. I, meanwhile, will chase after them with important life lessons running on auto-loop. Seize the day, I scream. Opportunities are abundant, I extort. Don’t miss the wood for the trees. None of these pithy dictums are particularly relevant, but they make me feel useful.

The self-help section of any library is full of books by people who have figured things out. Why they call it self-help when it is usually other people trying to help you is beyond me. Shouldn’t self-help books be written by the self? A diary or a journal in other words? Instead, we have websites like Lifehacker and 99U devoted entirely to self-improvement. Recently, I read a book called, What I wish I knew when I was 20, written by Tina Seelig, a Stanford University professor. In it, the author lists out insights that would benefit any 20-year-old. Things like “don’t burn your bridges,” and “ask the right questions.” The only problem is that such insights have to be realised after painful failure in order for them to stick.

How do you give advice to your children, and how do you make it stick? It is a dilemma that has been faced by generations of parents, made somehow more poignant by memories of childhoods past; or rather the realisation that you don’t have memories of parental advice given in childhoods past. Except those all-inclusive ones like “Eat your vegetables,” and “Dot your i’s and cross your t’s.” Beyond that, it is probably one happy blur, both for you and for me.

My method of making advice stick is to nag – to keep repeating the same phrase over and over again. This has a rather unfortunate side effect. They stop hearing me after a while. However there is one method that works: self-flagellation. When they see me fail and fall down, my children learn the lessons inherent in that failure. It is like me getting the halo effect when I chastise them.

Last week, I discovered a tear in my coat just as I was rushing out to an important meeting. As I ran around the house, muttering and stitching the tear with a needle and thread, as best as I could, my two daughters who were silently witnessing the scene chorused the girl scout motto that I had been trying to drill into them all summer: “Ma, don’t you know: be prepared.”

Shoba Narayan is the author of Return to India: a memoir