Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Chalk and Cheese

Getting one to talk about his day at school feels about as painful as pulling teeth might be. The other one makes my ears fall off while recounting the most minute details of her doings.

One hates organised sports of any sort, though he will happily hike a 7-km trail. The other one practically begged me to sign her up for badminton and karate classes.

One practically inhales books and is to be found with his nose in one even when he should be concentrating on other vital activities, like walking... The other one loves screens and, since she is mostly deprived of them, is even happy to stare at Excel sheets that I might be working on.

One is a complete foodie who loves to eat, cook and read about food. The other eats to live and would be fussy if I let her. (On a solo visit to her grandmother's place, she had managed to convince her that she did not eat red food of any sort!)

Seriously, nothing kills your delusions of control over your children's personality more effectively than having two or more of them...

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Let's Talk About Milk

There's no skirting around the fact that I am somewhat obsessive about food and nutrition when it comes to my kids. Even back in the halcyon Bombay (Take that censor board, I said Bombay) days when I had quite the household staff and barely knew the location of the kitchen, I would make a detailed weekly menu for my (thankfully literate) nanny-cum-cook to ensure that Ayaan's diet was balanced and nutritious, even if I wasn't cooking it.

When I moved to Hyderabad, I had to get deeply acquainted with my kitchen and the intense business of turning out two meals and one set of lunch boxes every single day. Being a total newbie, I picked up much of what I knew from the internet, haunting my favourite food blogs. From there, it was just a small jump to reading articles and posts about the latest research and thinking (and re-thinking) about what constitutes a healthy diet. Over time, these have had a significant influence on the way I feed the kids, including getting rid of my non-stick cookware, doing away with fruit juices and packaged foods and sticking to a predominantly vegetarian diet for 5 days in a week.

However, there is one thing I have not been able to make up my mind about and that is whether milk has a place in a healthy diet for children. There is so much conflicting evidence and experience on this that I just cannot arrive at a conclusion that I feel entirely satisfied with.

On the one hand, there are a lot of positives associated with drinking of milk:
  • It is a cultural thing. Milk has been considered one of the cornerstones of nutrition, especially for children. We have probably been giving it to our children since pre-historical times. It's a habit as old as religion (possibly even older) and probably just as ingrained.
  • It is rich in calcium and potassium, which are essential building blocks for the human body in general and bone health in particular. 
  • It is a good source of protein, especially for people whose diets are not rich in meat.
  • It is an ideal early morning dose of nutrition for kids before they rush off to school. It is gulped down quickly and has the additional benefit of getting their bowels moving pretty past.
  • It is yummy, especially when converted in butter, cheese, custard, yoghurt... need I go on?
But then, milk has also been getting a lot of bad press lately. Many new studies seems to suggest that not only is milk a nutritional dud, it might be doing more harm than good. 
You'd think that was all there was to it. But recently I was educated about the difference between A1 and A2 milk. It appears that most of the milk that we get in India is from imported cows (high yield breeds like Jersey) and cross-breeds, while the indigenous (desi) cow populations are rapidly depleting. The milk from the former category of cows contains the A1 protein, which is supposedly much harder to digest and could be responsible for conditions like schizophrenia, heart disease and diabetes. The milk from desi cows has an A2 protein, which does not come with these adverse affects. But it is not easy to find reliable, regular suppliers of desi cow milk these days.  

Now if this isn't complicated enough, there are so many different options in the market. I have been through a fair number of them in the last 9 years since Ayaan was weaned. As a paranoid first-time mother, the sterilised UHT milk (the kind that comes in a tetrapak) seemed to be the safest, most germ-free option. But then I chanced upon some articles that said that the UHT process severely compromises the nutritional value of this milk, so I moved to the regular dairy milk for a few years. During this phase, I did worry about the adulterants that were rumoured to be present, but I didn't have any other options so I turned a blind eye. Thankfully, I don't have to do that anymore with organic milk slowly coming into its own. Thanks to Akshayakalpa, raw organic milk is now delivered to my doorstep every morning.

So yes, to say that I am confused would be understating things somewhat. On the one hand, there is comfort to be found in the longstanding tradition of daily milk habit. The kids are used to their daily dairy regimen (a cup of milk in the morning, a bowl of curd at dinnertime) and consume it with minimal fuss - I find it hard to imagine being able to adequately substitute this with other (plant-based) sources of calcium. It is also a quick way to get their day (and bowels) kickstarted on school days.

And yet, there appear to be so many reasons to eject milk from their diet. This is something I have been mulling over for the last year at least and I have been unable to arrive at a conclusion. In addition to the reasons mentioned above, I also remain unconvinced because experts seems to often backtrack on these things. Chocolate and butter have been vilified in the past but now the former is supposed to be loaded with antioxidants and the latter is considered a healthy fat. It is not inconceivable that the milk debate might go the same way...

Apologies for the somewhat pedantic post. I would love to hear from you guys on where you stand on this issue. 

Sunday, February 01, 2015

Books and Stuff

While applying to Bangalore schools last year, one of the questions I had to answer on an admission form was something along the lines of: "As a parent, what do you think is your role in your child's education?" I had a lot of fun answering this one and it helped crystallise my thoughts on the subject to a great extent.

The first part of my answer was some predictable spiel about supporting the school's efforts by ensuring that homework and projects were completed and to provide any additional academic support as required at home. When it comes to things school-related, that is really about it. I don't see myself taking anything more than a secondary role in their formal education. Of course, if the school is not doing its job properly, I will step up in the short term (as I did for two long, painful years in Hyderabad) but in the long term, it means that that school is not working for me and my kids. Also, I never really understood why people teach their kids to read ahead of them entering kindergarten. At the age of three (or four or even five), I have been happy to read to my kids - sometimes up to 6-7 books a day- but I do not have it in me to sit and teach them to read. That's what school is for. If I have to do it, why send them anyway?! 

Coming back to the question at hand, the larger part of my answer was about supplementing what they learn at school and broadening their horizons. There are, of course, many ways to do this but I have chosen to focus on two ways - books and travel.

As a family, we travel a lot more than most other people I know. Many people cut down their travel after having kids. For us, it has been the other way around. We hardly took any trips as a child-free couple with hectic jobs and clashing schedules. But out wanderlust really picked up after Tarana was born and we have been taking 4-6 trips a year since Tarana turned one (ranging from longer trips to foreign locales to mini-breaks over extended weekends). 

Especially with Ayaan, I can now really see the whole 'broadening of horizons' thing in action when we travel. He is deeply fascinated with subway trains thanks to our trips to London and seems to have begun a life-long affair with dams thanks to our trip to the River Tern Lodge on the Bhadra reservoir. And those examples are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the thoughts, ideas and conversations that have been sparked off by the some of the places we have visited. 

But given the time (and money) constraints, there is only so much travel that we can do. And that is where books come in. Books are the ultimate way to travel without leaving the comfort of your home - a beautifully convenient way to access other worlds and other times. 

I take my job of keeping the kids well-supplied with books very seriously. Thanks to some friends who are the bee's knees of children's literature, books like 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Grow Up and some great online resources like Saffron TreeCommon Sense Media, and lists like this one, I have been spoiled for choice when it comes to picking up some pretty awesome books for them. Unfortunately, we don't have a tradition of good public libraries here in India, so I end up spending a lot of our hard-earned money on buying books but second-hand book stores like Blossoms help soften the blow on my wallet.

This year, Ayaan has China as a key subject in Social Studies, and he has been quite fascinated with the country and its history. Travel to China not being feasible in the near future, I began to hunt for books that were set in the country. With advice from one of the friends mentioned above, I finally closed on two books - one fiction and the other non-fiction. Here's a little bit about them.

The Girl Mechanic of Wanzhou
Marjorie Sayer 

Set in 1902, The Girl Mechanic of Wanzhou is a work of historical fiction that follows the adventures of 12-year old Zun, who is on the run from the Magistrate after her father has been killed by his soldiers and her mother has been imprisoned as a rebel. 

To say that I have a thing for children's books that feature strong and independent female characters would be something of an understatement. Zun's character is powerfully etched - she is not bound by traditional gender roles (her feet are not bound, she can read and she often accompanies her father to work) and she is both fearless and analytical. 

While the writing and the plot could have been a little tighter, Sayer's rendition of early 20th century China rings pretty true and it gives one a good peek into what it must have been like to live in those times across socio-economic divides - as a middle class urban-dweller, an impoverished villager, an affluent and powerful Magistrate and even as a servant in the Magistrate's household. While the book deals with a pretty heavy topic (the loss of Zun's parents), there are enough lighter, even humorous, bits in the book to keep it on an even keel - a pig who can perform martial arts being the most notable.

Overall, both Ayaan and I enjoyed the book and I hope it gave him some insight into what growing up in early twentieth century China must have been like. I would think that the content (mostly the death part) and reading difficulty would make the book ideally suited to children over 10 years of age.

Not for Parents - China: Everything You Ever Wanted to Know
From the guys at Lonely Planet  

This book is part of a series by Lonely Planet books for kids, each of which focus on a country or a city. The 'Not-for-Parents' tag definitely tickled Ayaan's funny bone and I got a fake disapproving glare when he saw me flipping through it. 

It's a pretty neat book which covers a lot of subjects ranging across history, culture, technology and architecture, amongst other things. Each topic is covered briefly with lots of little interesting facts and some witty quips thrown in. It is a little sparse on details, but does provide links to relevant websites at the bottom of most pages for kids looking to dive in deeper into that particular aspect of the country.  While the book clearly pronounces that it is 'not a guidebook', it would be a fun companion to carry along if one were travelling to China. I shall be definitely looking out for their books on places that we will travel to in the future! I would think that any kid over the age of 7 would find this book an easy and fun read. 

But I am still on the look-out for a more in-depth yet age appropriate non-fiction tome on China. Do drop me a line in the comments if you know of any that you might recommend.