The Innerkern Dialogue with Rosama Francis
At Innerkern, our Applied Education Research Team regularly engages in deep and enriching conversations with school leaders, teachers, and parents as we explore and analyze their practices within their socio-cultural context. We call such learning conversations the Innerkern Dialogue.
At the time, Rosama Francis and Sojo Varughese didn't realise their interview on 19 October 2020 would be the first Innerkern Dialogue.
On 19 October 2020, Sojo Varughese interviewed Rosama Francis for Teachers Unmuted, a desi podcast on schooling and parenting across the subcontinent. Yet, the idea that inspired the two to found Innerkern, an applied education research and learning solutions company, would emerge seven months later, in May 2021. When Rosama and Sojo decided to bring their collective experience as teachers, school leaders, teacher educators, and school improvement consultants to the table and launch Innerkern on 8 November 2021, the Innerkern Dialogue was their first project. They designed the Innerkern Dialogue as an exploratory interview, like the one between Sojo and Rosama on 19 October 2020. As Innerkern celebrates 365 days in action, we thought you would like to look at the first-ever Innerkern Dialogue.
Sojo: I want to talk about parenting. The reason why I want to talk about parenting is that this whole pandemic-related lockdown was a sudden change. None of us expected this; our life turned around. So what was your experience? In your experience as a parent or based on what you've seen other parents struggle with, what have you encountered along the way?
Rosama: I know the pandemic has changed a lot of situations. But before we get into the pandemic aspect, I think it is good to just lay out my take on what parenting basically is. So I have always felt parenting is a very intuitive process. So we don't really come to this world with a lot of understanding or education about how to deal with things as a parent. It has always been a very intuitive thing. If you look at it in that way, the birds and animals etc bring up their young they come with an intuitive inbuilt mechanism for parenting. So that kind of intuition, I feel all of us have, and it is good to just fall back on that.
So basically, I feel parenting is about two major aspects, one is to ensure that the child or the young is protected and safe. That is one of the primary functions of a parent, to keep the child safe in terms of physical safety, also mental, psychological, all those aspects, so keeping track of what the child is being exposed to what are the kinds of notions the child is building, what are the kind of values the child is building etc. The second thing I feel, most importantly, is to be aware of how we are as parents, getting the child ready for their future. We always focus a lot on our future as parents, we think that ‘my’ child should become successful like a doctor or engineer etc. It is always about us. While I feel parenting is not about making the child ready for a future that ‘we feel is good for them’ but for a future that the child feels is good for them. This is one major point that I feel most parents miss.
There are no perfect parents, each parent and child is a unique combination for each parent and child. I would say that a lot of things I did were very intuitive and what felt like the right thing to do. I recently watched this series called “Speed Cubers” on Netflix. It is about children who are into the Rubik's Cube competition. This series was made on the life of an autistic boy whose name was Max, and how the parents struggled for the first few years of his life to just get accepted by him. They didn’t get flustered by any social expectations or age appropriate developmental milestones set by the world. To begin with Max could not relate to anyone, not even his own parents, he had a world of his own, he would get deeply immersed in whatever he was doing. The parent’s first challenge was to get into the child's life. So slowly, the mother got included into the child's life, and that was a win for the parent. I feel all parents have challenges like this and by approaching it with patience and compassion, one step at a time, we can take the child close to the societal situation that the child will eventually end up in. How we can go through those steps one step at a time is what parenting is all about.
There is no user manual for parenting but we all have an inbuilt intuitive process in place. In the programme “Speed Cubers”, this child goes on to win a few world championships in some categories. Even then we see that the parents are not focused on the child winning, the parents are focused on what the child is doing in that situation? (is he able to behave in a socially compatible way as he goes through the experience).
While Max is playing, he looks up to being like his hero, who was the champion before him. The parents are focused on how Max relates to his hero as he goes on to defeat him in some categories of the match. How was Max handling winning, when he is standing on the podium, he looks at the other children on the podium and imitates them and that was a very important milestone for the parents. That moment was an important social learning for the child, as to how he presented himself on a podium. The parents always kept their focus on Max, in a social situation when he wins and eventually when he goes on to lose competitions. Handling loss is another important skill that they focus on.
Covid lockdown was another such situation for parents to teach how to handle distressing situations like that. Alsoit was a situation to teach how they handle these transitions. I saw many many parents staking up small eats to sit and watch TV and make their life during lockdown comfortable. While others looked at that time to share responsibilities and teach kids to become part of the household activities and share spaces effectively for each to function well. While one set of parents were focussed on distraction the other set was building awareness and functionality in the face of a difficult scenario.
I feel the blueprint to bring up our child is there deeply embedded in all of us but when we go on to benchmark our child’s progress against a socially predetermined milestone, we fail our children. Each child is uniquely brilliant and while some of the goals for our children can be similar, the way to achieve them and the time frame may be different for each child. And now as a coach, I do what I can for parents, who have issues with their own children.
Sojo: In your line of work with the parents, what have you noticed, during COVID, what are some of the concerns that cropped up about the notions of parenting?
Rosama: I feel currently everything related to COVID is very ad hoc, everyone is doing what they feel is right or wrong, and nothing is structured, everything is done spontaneously according to what they feel is probably going to be the new normal. I think that is how the world is going through dealing with COVID as well as in terms of their jobs, their children, children's education, children's behaviour etc. I personally feel that every opportunity that we encounter in life, is an opportunity for a parent. With COVID, there is a new situation in the house as the mother and the father are working from home in cases where both parents are working and the children are also taking their classes from home. So, this is a new situation. Now, how are they handling, sharing laptops, sharing mobile phones, how is that space being managed effectively and compassionately? This is the new situation in families. Some families have happily adapted to this, but there are other families which are highly stressed because in India, at least this concept of shared parenting is not common, most of the parenting is done by the mother. So the entire responsibility of child’s schooling, child's well being, child being fed, bathed etc., falls on the mother and the mother now has to deal with her own job situation, while the father focuses only on his job situation, in most cases.
Sojo: This is what I wanted to ask about, this whole idea of shared parenting, that is not very prevalent in India, one parent usually takes care of the child most of the time, usually the mother, and now you have a situation where you have the other parent also in the situation and the there is going to be conflict. Especially in our notions of parenting, there is bound to be conflicts. How do you see these conflicts and how do you think these can be addressed?
Rosama: Every society is at a different stage of development. So there is no one way in which we can deal with it. Ideally, it would be good if both parents come together in nurturing the children and both parents take their own share of mutually agreed on responsibilities to nurture the child. However this doesn’t happen within Indian families because of societal constructs. Even as a boy growing up in India, he is brought up watching examples of typical male behaviours and roles within the families. Breaking away from these notions as a grown up man can be difficult and confusing. So in the new normal with COVID restrictions, the mother who until now had some kind of help with the househelp is left overwhelmed with household chores. However there are a few families that have risen up to this situation. They have taken up responsibilities within their homes, democratically. I have noticed that the husbands, for the first time in their life have taken up some chores as their added responsibilities and do go through the family situation in a very shared manner. So this COVID scenario has prompted some families to transition in a positive way.
Sojo: I want to digress a bit and ask you a different question. So now we suddenly have families at home 24/7 with the children. I am talking about the parents of school going children. I am also talking about the middle class, upper middle class parents where both parents are usually working. Suddenly, you know, they used to have a space where they send their children to a certain kind of school. Now, suddenly, school seems to be becoming obsolete. What are your observations about this? I am asking this as an educator in the context of parenting.
Rosama: I don't think the schools are becoming obsolete, at least in the immediate future. The whole social system cannot get disrupted abruptly like that. This is a stop gap situation and as I see it, it will get back to the usual soon enough. I hope when we get back there will be some lessons learnt and at least some changes incorporated for good.
But for now, since the classes have shifted online, children are home all day. Even for schools, this was not a situation that they anticipated. So for schools as well, the changes they have made are ad hoc. They hope to get back to normal face to face teaching at the earliest. One good thing that I see with schools is that there was a lot of resistance to make any small change in terms of adapting technology to teach. This situation has pushed most teachers across the country and across the globe to take up online teaching using technology in a big way. That is one positive outcome that I see. However this transition has not been complete, as the teachers continue to use the traditional method of teaching even in the remote classroom. We all know, change doesn't happen very fast, it is a very slow process. But I am happy that there is a lot of exploring technology, in the past five, six months, and teachers have now become very adept at handling this newfound competency of handling technology. Now, when we go back to classrooms, when the school opens, and we let go of all these new technological competency that the teachers have learned, that would be a sad situation, it would have been really nice if educators can come together and harness this newfound competency and scale it in a very effective way for education to be imparted in a very meaningful and effective way for our children.
Sojo: Another question I have, which is about the upbringing of young children. Right, now we have a scenario where children are getting a lot of attention. Children are getting a lot of attention from parents, they are staying close to their family, spending all the time with their family. On the other hand, you have a situation where you are asked to keep away from strangers, you are asked to keep away from people around you, stay restrained and not really socialise much. So how do you see this whole thing of children getting attention all the time, in this context, affecting them, as a psychologist?
Rosama: The primary aspect of parenting is to help children develop autonomy in the long run. Now autonomy is not something that a child learns overnight, it is a slow process. It starts by making friends. The kind of friends you are making, how are you relating to these friends, how are you relating to them when you are playing with them. Sometimes there are fights, sometimes you win, sometimes you lose. I mean, when a child is playing, they are unconsciously learning to handle all these complexities, which build social skills and other life skills for children. This later on goes on to build their own autonomy in life. Now, for a short period of time, we have had to stop that because of COVID and social distancing. So I would say, children who are now spending a lot of time at home where they feel very bored, because their minds need stimulation all the time, end up turning to TV or internet when restricted at home, which is not a very healthy way for children to grow up.
But on the other hand, I feel for once parents have stopped rushing through life. They were always in a hurry in the morning to get children ready for school and go to their own offices in the morning and when they come back it is a similar rush to get things done. It was a process which was on autopilot and they never had time to stop and reflect. However this situation has turned things around and the rush through life has stopped for a while. Now they have this new situation where they are forced to spend time with each other. So I feel it has been in many ways good for many families because they have come closer. However they sometimes seem to struggle because they don't get the privacy everyone needs as individuals. That aspect has caused stress but I think it has led to a lot of bonding within the family as well. So the lock down has had a mixed bag of new situations and it has been different depending on how people have approached it.
Sojo: So do you think this is a welcome change?
Rosama: I think it is a welcome change for husbands and wives and children where they have now learned to deal with the family situation where they are together, they are thinking of things together. And they are doing things together. And they are conducting the family situation inside the house as a family together.
Sojo: I am sort of pushing this question, in a slightly different direction, because of the socio-political context that we live in India. Currently, we have deep phobias, which are very prominently coming out in social situations, and now political discourse. Which means we are sort of in tune to keep away strangers, keep away from other communities. And now you see the family becoming a cocoon. If this COVID situation is going to stay for one or two years before we get a vaccine, what about these children who are sort of getting these ideas? Strangers are to be kept away and viewed with suspicion? How do you see this as an educator?
Rosama: In the current scenario, the only way we can stop this wave of COVID spreading is probably by social distancing. I know immediately, that is the need, but going forward, it is going to be a way in which children suspect every new person that they are meeting as someone who can harm them, which may not be a very good outcome. But yeah, when we get there, I guess we will have to deal with that. But I think for now, it is best that we maintain social distance and contain the situation.
Sojo: Another question I have is that now you find a situation where the situation is conducive to people who like staying home, not socialising much, etc and then, there are others who would have gone through a lot of anxiety, how do you see this as a mental health worker?
Rosama: It has been a big aspect of worry, as we see especially young extroverted people being distressed with not meeting others physically. I think one of the saving grace to this entire situation is that we have video calling facilities and other facilities online where they can see people and talk to people. So I think in a big way, the entire country and the world has used these facilities to interact. So I guess that interaction has not been affected much, but there is always that need for children to physically meet people. But even for children, I feel it was a good break, that they stopped and there were certain automatic ways in which they lived life. For them as well, this break has been good to think about what they are doing, Who they are interacting with, and how it is all playing out in their life.
Sojo: Based on a couple of things discussed as a wrapping up, what will be your wrapping up message to actually new parents? I'm asking this question of new parents because people predict that there is going to be a baby boom.
Rosama: I feel we can never ‘tell’ a child what they are supposed to do, we can only do things in such a way that they ‘model’ us. That has been the premise from which I operate as a parent. We can't tell children to not smoke or not to eat sugar etc, while we are doing it ourselves.
Second thing is we always find faults with children, you know, you didn't do this, you didn't do that and that probably is not the best way to bring up a child, I think the better way is to look for things that they are doing right and focus on that. Ideally we want the child to grow up into the best version that they can be. So that is one point that most parents miss, parents want children to grow towards their perceived model of success that they have in their mind, while children’s world is constantly evolving into a whole new inconceivable future. We can't even imagine how their world is going to be. So it's best to just build the child up for that eventuality in such a way that they are able to conduct themselves well in that new scenario that we can't even think about now.
The third thing I feel is that parents in our country are very judgmental when children come and say they did something. Children stop sharing and trusting parents and that can be the single most important factor for children to feel unsupported in life. So being loving parents, unconditionally, without expecting anything in return can be the best thing we do for our children.
Sojo: So the role and style of good parenting does not change regardless
of the situation.
Rosama: Every situation is an opportunity. Now the situation of COVID, when the families are shut within their homes, is a new situation, and how do we use this to be ideal parents? Every situation can be used as an opportunity to become good parents. So in this new scenario, when the house helps are not able to come for work, what are the parents doing? Are they taking up all the responsibility of running the homes? Are they being democratic in the way they share responsibilities between them and are they sharing it with children? Are they treating the children like grown up responsible individuals, who can think for themselves? Are they consulting with children when they are making a decision? So these are the opportunities that the new COVID scenario has presented, and how are we using it as parents is the question.