Wednesday, February 21, 2024

The Promises we Keep

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– Mark Laitflang Stone

There are so many ways to break a child’s heart. The worst are the quiet secrets that force us to break our promises. Children’s Day is our annual reminder of the responsibility we shoulder to nurture hope, teach courage and to love unconditionally. Over the course of almost 21 years, I have had the privilege of being closely attached to the dreams of young people in our corner of the world. Our team would be best described as life coaches and our mission to build resilience, well-being and aspiration has taken us to campuses and communities across towns and villages in every district in Meghalaya and beyond. We’ve had an intimate relationship with the values, confidence and self-worth that emerges from promises made and promises broken.

“This is a safe Space”

A senior bureaucrat who has spent a considerable amount of time in Northeast India, put in a call to me a few years ago to ask me for an opinion on aspirations. He was writing a book and wanted to validate an idea. “What do you think is at the heart of unemployment?”. The conversation quickly pivoted to how most students, especially in our rural communities, seem content with life and are just not inspired to aspire for more. “In a way, this is actually a good thing isn’t it? Everybody’s quite happy being exactly where they are!”.

Honestly, I had to agree with his thesis.

When you’ve been told and taught early on that your talent and your dreams are not worthy of being pursued, and when you’ve been consistently fed with criticism and judgement, and when you have no role models in sight to blaze a trail, you lose a part of yourself forever. When we don’t have a “safe space” to be and explore all that we can be, we eventually live up to someone else’s narrative.

This is the first promise we do not keep. Most times, the Safe Spaces our children are supposed to have are the same institutions that teach us shame and judgement. These “safe spaces” have the ability to kill aspiration and imagination by teaching us how to model that magic word – conformity. They teach us shame when our expression of emotions is judged and our opinions are criticised.

Most of the children we work with grow up in homes and in schools that do not provide nurturing safe spaces that encourage them to responsibly own their emotions, confidently express their opinions and courageously explore their talents and potential. Eventually the story that is written is the same across generations- complacency, unemployment, and unhealthy relationships for most; government jobs, private employment and the “9 to 5” for the slightly driven; business and self-employment for the few resilient enough to brave the shame of failure.

Fancy words like “deadlines”, “careers”, “infrastructure”, “pedagogy”, “curriculum” and the pursuit of “learning outcomes” defend the lie we tell ourselves. So many of us are living in bubbles and echo-chambers that tell us we are doing enough. We are not.

Working at the grassroots in very rural settings over the years has been cathartic. What has emerged from our journey over the last decade is a unique model for personal change rooted in five core ideas: Mind-frames, Emotions, Communication, Collaboration and Action. At its heart, this model addresses personal excellence in very simple ways: how we think, why we feel, what we say, and how we choose to act; and all of it rooted in recognizing and celebrating aspirations, talent and ideas otherwise hidden from the world.

Through this simple framework, children are given the tools they need to overcome their fears and embrace their potential in very powerful ways. When this happens early on in life- habits, coping skills, attitudes, well-being and even aspiration improve in dramatic ways.

Choosing to create the environment our children need to “grow as they go” is a promise we must make and a promise we should keep in our homes, in our classrooms and in our conversations.

“Leading by example”

I was brought up by parents who believed in letting me be me. They instilled in me an unshakable confidence by doing two simple things; being present and being supportive no matter what my choices were. As a father now, my son and daughter are an extension of my journey in an uncertain world and the lessons I learnt from good parenting growing up, are my compass on days I genuinely feel I need to be a better Dad. Let’s just say it’s harder for entrepreneurs to set an example because we are present first for our teams, then for our clients and in whatever spaces we have left, for our families. No child should have to fight for those spaces.

When she was barely 6, my daughter and I stopped under falling autumn leaves on a Sunday drive and she asked me a question that changed a lot of things for me.

“Daddy, what’s a leader?”. These were early ears still and my son was barely a year old. With all the wisdom I could muster, I did my best to answer her with the words I knew she’d understand, “A leader is a person who needs to make good choices, for a lot of people, every day.”

Our choices determine the examples we set for the children who watch us, love us and look up to us. Our actions are their greatest teachers. Even as I write this, I know I can respond with better empathy to most arguments and build bridges to the future with consistent presence and encouragement. The next time you have a moment to reflect, ask yourself if you are as sincere and as committed as you know they need you to be. Would you want your daughter growing up with a man like you? Would you want your daughter to grow up being a woman like you? Would you want your son treating his family the way you do? I hope you say “Yes.”.

That’s the second promise we must keep. Single, married or in a partnership. We take on unspoken responsibilities to shape our children’s futures the day we choose to hold them as our own and see them as extensions of our minds and hearts in the world. Our children deserve the best of us so they can be the best of them. And if you’re a son or a daughter reading this, do not forget, your parents aren’t perfect. You can change their paths and remind them of their promises with trust and unconditional love. Help them keep their promises.

“You are capable of anything”

We can only do so much to keep you safe from the raging emotions and unconquerable self-doubt that social media, lyrics and everyday engagement prey on. This is for our younger readers. I hope this finds its way to you as you celebrate children’s day.

We’re starting to understand that the fights you fight are louder than we see. You may be feeling small and unworthy today. You may have just fought for attention and lost a friend. Maybe you were that friend. Maybe your mum and dad don’t see you for who you are. Your teachers don’t seem to sense what you sense. Through all the noise around you – fame, shame, bullying, romance, attention seeking, comparisons, studies, music, labels, clothes, war and death, love and life, remember that you have the power to say no and the courage to start again. Remember that there is no shame in waiting.

Sometimes, you must be everything you need to be for yourself. When you choose to be different and to make good choices, you are choosing courage. It is the bravest and most inspiring thing you can do. There’s a 6 year-old in each of us grown-ups that spoke to the stars and whispered her dreams in prayer. Some of us have forgotten the promises we made to ourselves when we were that young.

We hope you never forget yours. Find a clear night while you still can and look up. Find a star and sense your brilliant future and claim it. And when you can’t, make a promise today. Whenever you feel alone, close your eyes, hold your hands close to your heart and repeat after me,

“I am brave.”

“I am strong.”

“I am enough.”

This children’s day, when we enter our schools to teach, and switch on our lights at home or hold a friend in need, I hope we keep our promises. Teachers who listen, Parents who lead, and Children who believe in themselves.

The author is a serial entrepreneur, coach and founder of Meghalaya based social enterprise “Avenues”.

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